NEW YORK – It was a year the New York Police Department would rather forget. In 1964, no fewer than 636 murders were committed in the city, some of them particularly notable for their savagery. So commonplace were homicides that most cases were given only a paragraph or two of coverage in the daily papers. The murder of 28-year-old “Kitty” Genovese, who was raped and stabbed to death at the entrance to her home in Queens on March 13, 1964, was no exception. The New York Times ran a brief, terse report of a few paragraphs, and it looked as though Genovese’s name and the appalling circumstances of her murder would be erased swiftly from the public consciousness.
But two weeks later, on March 27, The Times published a front-page report by Martin Gansberg under the headline, “Thirty-eight who saw the murder didn’t call the police.” The article, which has since been cited innumerable times in other media outlets, social-psychology textbooks and academic studies, opened as follows: “For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens. Twice their chatter and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out, and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.”
As a result of the Times report, the name Kitty Genovese became a byword in social psychology, a metaphor for urban alienation and a journalistic cliché that for decades has cropped up regularly in media reports about people who are infuriatingly silent in the face of moral outrages. An abundance of studies appeared on the “bystander effect” – known, unofficially, as the “Kitty Genovese syndrome.” They asked why bystanders would ignore tragedies that were unfolding before their eyes and why, the more witnesses there were, the less likely it was that one of them would intervene. A few years after the murder, the emergency number 911 came into use, creating one, universal phone number for calling the police that eventually was adopted in every state. Some states also passed “Good Samaritan” laws that guaranteed legal protection to bystanders who came to the aid of someone in distress.
It emerged about a decade ago, however, that the public’s perception of the Kitty Genovese case had been based on distorted reports about what really happened on that fateful night, and its history has since been rewritten, with the Times acknowledging its role in perpetrating that distortion and the fact that many of the details in Gansberg’s report were inaccurate.
Then, last year, a series of new developments catapulted the case back into the headlines. Her killer, an African-American named Winston Moseley, serving a life sentence, died in prison at the age of 81, after all his many requests for parole were rejected. The popular television series “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” and Lena Dunham’s “Girls” devoted episodes to the story and introduced it to a new audience of viewers who were born many decades after the event. And the victim’s brother, Bill Genovese, who was 16 at the time of his sister’s brutal murder, is the protagonist of a new documentary film titled “The Witness,” which, it was announced last month, is on the short list of 15 candidates for the Oscar nomination in the documentary category.
“The reason it took so long to make this film is that for many decades no one in my family was able to talk about Kitty’s murder,” Genovese told me in an interview last month in Manhattan. “For many years after the murder, my siblings and I felt that our job was to protect Mom, who suffered from a life-threatening stroke a year after Kitty’s death. [Their father, Vincent Genovese, died of a heart attack three years after the murder, at age 59.] Because of the notoriety of the murder, there were so many articles and television shows and we wanted to protect my mother from all this information. Kitty was her first child, and during the funeral she threw herself on the coffin.”
‘Parable of inaction’
Bill Genovese says he started asking questions when his mother, Rachel Genovese, died in 1992, and after Winston Moseley filed yet another request for parole.
“I was interested in researching what went on during Kitty’s final hours,” he continued, “and started collecting police records and talking to her neighbors. In 2004, The New York Times ran an article that recounted the whole story 40 years after the original report written by Gansberg.”
That same year, James Solomon approached Genovese with an idea for an HBO feature film about Kitty, but they came to the conclusion that a documentary about Bill Genovese’s efforts to track down the 38 purportedly silent witnesses would be more effective. It would be Solomon’s first foray as a documentary filmmaker.
New York in the 70s was described as dangerous and cruel. I didn’t realize at the time how much this narrative was based on the murder of Kitty Genovese.James Solomon
They say that time is the best medicine, but in your case it seems that the pain is still surprisingly fresh. Why did it take you so many decades to go back to this traumatic event?
Bill Genovese: “I don’t buy the cliche of time as a cure for pain and suffering. Post-trauma is a complicated and ongoing condition. I can go down a street and catch a specific smell or aroma, or see a red sports car [like the one his sister drove] racing down the road – and my heart just stops. There are always paralyzing moments of pain. When working on the film, Jim and I were focused on technical details – we’re going to put the microphone there, or place the camera in this corner – but every now and then I had a flashback that took me back to Kitty’s last moments and her agonizing and fear. She was bleeding and having trouble breathing because Moseley’s knife penetrated her ribs and lungs, and that must have been so painful for her.”
Genovese and Solomon’s search for the truth went on for 11 years. The final result of their efforts is “The Witness,” an 88-minute documentary that is currently playing in limited release in the United States (it is available on Netflix). The film, which does not make for easy viewing, tells the odyssey of Bill, a retiree, now in his sixties, whose world fell apart when he was a teenager and his beloved sister died in the wake of a fateful chance encounter with a rapist and serial killer.
In an attempt to refute the highly influential narrative that “38 people watched and did nothing,” Genovese became a self-styled private detective and collected every scrap of evidence and every finding that could shed new light on the events of that fateful night in March 1964. What he discovered casts doubt on the original legendary story that developed. Contrary to what Gansberg originally wrote in the Times, “The Witness” reveals that Mosley attacked Kitty Genovese twice – not three times – and that most of the neighbors had no idea what was happening, owing to the architecture of the housing project, which hid the deserted parking lot and the back entrance from the view of most of the tenants. In addition, Genovese tracked down his sister’s neighbor and good friend Sophia Farrar, who told him that a neighbor called her at about 3 A.M. after hearing Kitty’s screams, whereupon Farrar quickly got dressed and went outside to the stairwell minutes after Moseley had left.
“I was born a year after Kitty’s murder,” James Solomon – whose screenwriting credits include a 2010 feature, “The Conspirator,” which was directed by Robert Redford) – told me. “I grew up in New York in the 1970s, when the city was described as dangerous and cruel, in a way. If something were to happen, you were on your own. I didn’t realize at the time how much this narrative of New York was based in part on the murder of Kitty Genovese. For a half-century, this story served as a parable of inaction, and I was drawn to writing a scripted film based on that narrative for HBO.
“As I started to do research for that film, I met people who were most directly impacted by that night and realized that few of them have been heard from. I also realized how much that story had been fictionalized. There was too much fiction and not enough facts. Bill Genovese was one of the first people I met who’ve been shaped by the false narrative of the 38 witnesses – it propelled the course of his life. He was a natural protagonist for a nonfiction film documenting his investigation.”
What he and Genovese discovered during their years of work “is that there is no definitive narrative as to what happened,” he explains. “But we do known that the reality of that night was different from the New York Times report. The story was that ‘38 watched for over half an hour and did nothing,’ as if there were people sitting in an amphitheater and watching a show – and that’s a myth. More people acted, starting with Sophia Farrar, Kitty’s neighbor and friend who came down in her nightgown to help her and cradle her in her arms during Kitty’s final moments. There was no way that 38 witnesses could have watched for so long, since the attack took place in two separate areas of Kew Gardens. Many heard, but very few were able to watch what was going on. There was no collective understanding of what was going on.”
As a result of your investigation, and of others that were published in the media, we know today that the original Gansberg report in the Times was riddled with errors and inaccuracies. Why do you think he chose to emphasize the number of witnesses who supposedly watched the murder and depict them as indifferent? And how did such a mistaken report get onto the front page of one of the world’s most respected newspapers?
Solomon: “I do think that part of the reason this false narrative came to be was very well impacted by the Holocaust. In 1964, several months after [President John F.] Kennedy’s assassination, the country was asking ‘Who are we?’ and I believe that that question extended back to the Holocaust. [A.M.] Abe Rosenthal, the Times editor who assigned the story to Gansberg and later wrote a book titled “Thirty-Eight Witnesses” about Kitty’s murder, had been a correspondent in Eastern Europe in the late 1950s. He was deeply affected by the Holocaust, and in his book he ruminates on silence and the nature of being an observer and not acting. How much of that thinking informed and influenced the Kitty Genovese narrative is an interesting question.”
For Bill Genovese, it was important to focus not only on the neighbors and their response to the assault, but also on the historical injustice that was done to his sister because of how she was described in the tabloids. Accordingly, much of the documentary is devoted to Kitty’s life, and not only to her death.
Genovese says that “the witness” of the film’s title referred to himself: “As we came to the final stages of putting this film together, I was thinking, ‘What is the message of all of this’? It seemed to me that we are all witnesses, and we need to take more responsibility for our everyday choices. What do we owe each other? I saw a video documenting the final moments of the Russian diplomat who was assassinated in an art gallery in Turkey [last December 19] – a human being who dies in front of our eyes. It’s human life, not just pixels on a screen. Of course, the difference between seeing images of someone shot and being there when someone is shot is substantial. Death is not as sterile as seen on television. But it all boils down to the fact that we are all witnesses to each other’s lives when we cross each other’s paths. What do people who witnessed and did nothing during the Holocaust owe the victims? What do we owe the people dying in Syria?”
The greatest challenge to the investigation was the absence of documentation or of objective findings from the scene of the crime, because in the 1960s there were no security cameras everywhere, or mobile phones. After 11 years of digging, are there still open questions?
Genovese: “For me, the primal question is: Could there really have been 38 eyewitnesses [who stood by passively]? I always wondered about that, and I think we now know for certain that this description was inaccurate. Most people were ear-witnesses rather than eyewitnesses: They didn’t see what was going on in the dark parking lot, and they didn’t realize a murder was taking place. A neighbor named Karl Ross called Kitty’s friend, Sophia Farrar, who ran down as fast as she could to help my sister. So the reality of Kitty’s death was substantially different than the description in Gansberg’s report. We now know that Ross also called the police shortly after Moseley left, but it was too late.”
One of the people interviewed in the film says that she called the police the moment she heard Kitty’s screams, but you say in the narration that the police have no record of this. Can testimonies be trusted after 40 years? Do you think human memory is selective?
“Well, some things are burned in our memory – that’s a neurological phenomenon. The police log only showed Karl Ross’ phone call, but maybe other neighbors called. A woman named Patti said to me that she called the police that night and was told that they’d already received a call about this case. Another neighbor wrote an affidavit later on, claiming that his father called the police around 3:30 A.M., but this didn’t appear in the official police records. So who do you believe? Did the police operator forget to log some phone calls or simply ignore them, thinking it was just a ‘lovers’ quarrel’? Eventually, the New York Times’ inaccurate report shaped the collective memory of this event as ‘38 saw murder and did nothing.’”
Single and attractive, Catherine Susan “Kitty” Genovese, who worked as a shift manager in a Queens bar, was dubbed by the New York tabloids at the time a “barmaid” who “was separated from her husband” and “ran with the fast crowd,” while living in the “bohemian section” of Queens. In conversations with his sister’s friends and those who loved her, Bill Genovese paints a far richer and more complex picture of a smart, independent woman who was born in New Canaan, Connecticut and raised in New York. She was a popular student and an amateur dancer. Beginning in her twenties, she supported herself by working in bars and plied the city’s streets in a red sports car. Following a failed marriage to a man named Rocko that was annulled within months, she moved into a small but pleasant apartment in Kew Gardens, Queens, with a friend, Mary Ann Zielonko. The apartment was a short distance from the bar where she worked nights.
For years, Bill Genovese and his family believed that Rocko had been Kitty’s only love, but his work on the film revealed, to his astonishment, that Zielonko, with whom his sister lived in the year before the murder, was actually her romantic partner. On that fateful night of March 13, police came to the apartment the two shared and took Mary Ann to the hospital to identify the body, even before the Genovese family arrived. According to Mary Ann, Kitty was ambivalent about her sexual inclination and therefore kept the story of their relationship a secret from family and friends. Out of respect for Kitty’s memory and wishes, Mary Ann did not tell the Genovese family about the true nature of her relationship with Kitty.
Two years after the event, Bill Genovese decided to enlist in the Marines, which sent him to Vietnam. After months of jungle combat, he stepped on a land mine and lost both legs; he has been in a wheelchair ever since.
In the film you explain that Kitty’s murder made you join the Marines. Why did such a violent death make you want to put yourself on a risky battlefield, where one might be killed or be forced to kill others?
“I didn’t think about it that way. Post-Vietnam, everyone suddenly had insights and knew it was a horrible war, but the truth was that leading up to it, not everybody was as knowledgeable. I grew up in the 1950s, and as children we were getting under our school desks to save us from the initial burn of a nuclear bomb. We grew up learning about Stalin’s monolithic communism that was trying to overthrow the West. We were ‘cold warriors,’ and then, in 1961, Kennedy came and said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’ and all that. I was 13 years old, and home because of a snow day. I listened to his speech, and it really played on me. And in 1964 my sister was murdered in this arbitrary and brutal way. I didn’t want to be one of these people who didn’t bother to pick up the phone that night.
“Back then I felt Vietnam was a just war to stop monolithic communism and save millions of innocent people from falling into the hands of Stalin and Mao. I didn’t know then what I know now. I was only in Vietnam for two months before I was injured and lost my legs. Eventually, I was lucky enough to come back home without killing anyone. And I knew I served my country and I was nothing like one of the 38 bystanders.”
While Bill Genovese and his siblings married and started their own families, American collective memory was shaped by the myth of the “Kitty Genovese syndrome” and the alienation of contemporary urbanites. In 2002, the Times profiled Paul Wolfowitz, the U.S. deputy secretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration, who was then plotting the invasion of Iraq. Wolfowitz, the paper’s readers were informed, had “a horror of standing by and watching bad things happen.” The proof? “He often talks about Kitty Genovese.”
The American pilot Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who landed a passenger plane on the Hudson River in 2009 (and whose story is told in the recent Clint Eastwood movie “Sully: Miracle on the Hudson”), noted in interviews afterward that as a teenager he followed the coverage of the Genovese case in the Texas press and it had a tremendous impact on his life.
The Genovese murder was recently referred to in a different context as well. Last August, Yale University President Peter Salovey cited the murder and its aftermath prominently in his freshman address to the incoming class of 2020, under the title, “Countering False Narratives.” Noting that he had for many years taught introductory psychology to freshmen, he explained that he had asked students to look at the question of people getting involved in offering help to others in emergency situations: “I would begin with the tragic and well-known case of Kitty Genovese ... Over the years, I have described this shocking incident many times. So have other social psychologists teaching similar courses, and so did the social scientists who sought to explain how witnesses could exhibit such callous indifference to a horrific crime taking place before their eyes. Here’s the trouble: The standard account of the Kitty Genovese case is wrong in some of its crucial details.”
Referring to the film “The Witness,” Solovey suggested to the new students that although the case had become a metaphor for urban alienation, today it should be treated as an example of the long-term influence of narratives that capture the imagination even though they are based on distortions and unsubstantiated facts. In the “post-truth” era, Solovey urged the freshman class at the iconic educational institution to investigate the hidden ways in which mistaken may narratives shape our lives.
I asked Bill Genovese why he thinks that, among the hundreds of homicides perpetrated in New York in 1964, his sister’s murder became burned into the public consciousness and inspired so many social-psychology studies about the “bystander effect.” “We tend to remember stories better than facts,” he replied, “and ’38 witnesses’ was an excellent story.” He added that in the wake of the Times report, studies were conducted that found that the more witnesses there are, the less likely it is that one of them will intervene – because each of them is certain that someone else will step in or call the police. “Does that explain what happened on the night my sister was murdered? I doubt it.”
Although “The Witness” provides answers to many of the questions concerning the murder and its documentation, it declines to address one disturbing issue: What made Winston Moseley, a 29-year-old family man who operated business machines and lived relatively well in a home of his own in Queens where he and his wife raised their two young children, become a rapist and serial killer? (Moseley later confessed to the murders of three women, and the rape of eight, as well as dozens of burglaries – including the rape and killing of another woman just a few weeks before his encounter with Kitty Genovese.)
Despite the filmmaker’s choice to focus on Kitty and the Genovese family, and not on the murderer and his story, the film offers a partial glimpse into the roller-coaster life of one of America’s most notorious killers. Moseley was arrested about a week after the Genovese murder in the wake of a failed burglary attempt. He was sentenced to death in the electric chair, but in 1967, two years after New York State abolished capital punishment and Moseley appealed his sentence, he was given life imprisonment.
But that was not the end of the mayhem Moseley wreaked. In 1968, while being taken to a Buffalo hospital for treatment of a self-inflicted wound, Moseley overpowered a guard and escaped. Over the course of four days, during which he broke into homes in the Buffalo area, he succeeded in eluding a massive manhunt conducted by the police and the FBI. He then entered an empty house, and when the owners returned he tied up the husband and raped his wife at gunpoint. He was finally recaptured after taking additional hostages and agreeing to turn himself after negotiating with the FBI. Following his escape attempt, he served 52 years in a maximum security facility in Dannemora, New York, near the Canadian border. He died there last April, aged 81.
In 1977, he obtained a B.A. in sociology by correspondence. He gave a few media interviews and in April 1977 published an op-ed in The New York Times about the importance of prisoner rehabilitation. He claimed that he too had been rehabilitated and wanted to open a new chapter in his life. (“The man who killed Kitty Genovese in 1964 is no more,” he wrote, and concluded, “Today I’m a man who wants to be an asset to society, not a liability to it.”) He requested parole regularly, but was just as regularly turned down.
Genovese admits that he has never managed to solve the mystery of Winston Moseley. “If I had access to the psychiatric evaluations of Winston Moseley, I might have an idea of why he was a serial killer, but these records are confidential,” he said in our interview. “What I do know is that his mother cheated on his father, and his first wife cheated on him. But can these facts explain what pushed him to become a monster? I doubt it. He abused women for years, and with each rape he became more and more violent, to the point when he shot, raped and murdered a 24-year-old woman named Annie Mae Johnson two weeks before he murdered my sister. Once he realized he was able to get away with these atrocities, he became more and more brutal.”
Moseley’s death and the release of “The Witness” have made it possible for Genovese to talk about his sister’s killing with a feeling of acceptance and conciliation. Next week, he and James Solomon will find out whether their life’s project is one of the five documentaries nominated for an Academy Award.
Genovese responds with an embarrassed smile to the question of whether he’s bought a new suit and prepared an acceptance speech should the need arise. He doesn’t think that will happen, but he does know what he would want to say: “The witness to me is me and you and everybody else. It’s Israelis who don’t care about Palestinians who get killed in retaliatory strikes; it’s Palestinians who don’t care about Israelis who get killed by suicide bombers or rockets. We live in a very small world, and nation-state boundaries are very precarious. Somehow we had better transcend this so we can keep what’s good about each country. Because if aren’t able to do that, the other option is reactionary in the extreme, like Trumpism in the U.S.
“All the great religions ask what we owe our fellow men. I don’t want to sound like a New Age guru, but I do believe that until we can break through these boundaries of animosity, we’re doomed – because dictators will keep trying to mobilize people against each other. We need to focus on education for sensitivity and empathy, and learn how to be better witnesses to each other’s lives. We can no longer afford to be passive bystanders.”