'Oh, God, I've been stabbed! Oh, God, he stabbed me! Help me!''
Those words — screams — begin a story that came to define New York City and, to some, postwar American life. The next set of words advancing this plot line appeared in newsprint:
"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. … Not one person telephoned the police during the assault.''
That's how the New York Times immortalized the brutal murder of 28-year-old Catherine "Kitty'' Genovese in 1964. The third and final piece in this verbal triptych — the quote that set and sealed the narrative 50 years ago this month — was spoken by one of Genovese's neighbors who did too little, too late to save her. He famously told police, "I didn't want to get involved.''
It was, everyone agreed, an outrage. The Kitty Genovese story revealed the depth of urban indifference, the rending of our social fabric and, especially, the utter callousness of New Yorkers toward violence and their own. The inaction of these Bad Samaritans launched a new field of study, urban psychology, and coined terms like "the bystander effect'' or "bystander apathy." The story still resonates across American culture: A vigilante hero of the popular Watchmen graphic novel and movies makes his mask from a (fictional) dress of Kitty Genovese's. Paul Wolfowitz, defense adviser to President G.W. Bush, reportedly thought of Kitty Genovese when weighing the costs of inaction in Iraq.
This dark tale with its bleak moral has all the power of myth; it's the opposite of a creation myth — a disintegration myth. However, as author Kevin Cook shows convincingly in Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America, this young woman "was not abandoned by her neighbors on the last night of her life. At least not by all of them.'' The story we know so well and feel so deeply has another attribute of myth: It's not really true.
More to the story
Kew Gardens was no urban jungle. Out-of-towners may have pictured the crime scene with the tenements and fire escapes of West Side Story, but Kew Gardens was a "leafy, middle-class retreat'' in the city's safest borough. Before Genovese's killing there had been no murders there for four years.
Genovese tended and managed Ev's 11th Hour, a bar in Hollis, Queens — and she was a lesbian, a fact that did not come out at the time. Her live-in girlfriend was sleeping when Genovese left her bar around 3 a.m. and drove home in her 15-horsepower Fiat. Though Vogue magazine had just done its first feature on "the new mini-skirt,'' Kitty was more modest in her "gray flannel skirt, turquoise blouse and black leather pumps.'' Cook's account is rich in these period and anecdotal details.
As she walked to her door, Winston Moseley, 28, set upon her in front of her Austin Avenue building, stabbing her twice. A neighbor in the Mowbray Apartments across the street heard her screams, opened his ninth-floor window and yelled, "Leave that girl alone!'' The attacker ran away. So, the first event in this sequence is someone intervening, not ignoring Genovese.
Moseley returned, though, and caught Genovese as she staggered to the entrance to her apartment, in the rear of the building. He then stabbed her at least 11 more times, including in the throat, which muted her cries. Out of sight in the vestibule he sexually assaulted her corpse or near-corpse and then escaped.
There were only two attacks, not three episodes, as the Times reported. At least two people called while Genovese was still alive, Cook found, which also contradicts the media reports. There were actually 49 witnesses — more than the infamous 38 — who saw or heard something, according to detectives' reports reviewed by Cook. Of those, 16 could feasibly be called eyewitnesses, but their vision was obscured by the 30-foot oaks and sycamores lining the street. Also, Genovese righted herself after the first attack and made her way toward her apartment; some who saw her walking felt she didn't need help. Cook cites Charles Skoller, the second-seat prosecutor at Moseley's murder trial, who estimated that "no more than five or six neighbors saw and heard enough to know that Kitty was in mortal danger.''
Two men clearly saw a brutal crime being committed and turned away. A superintendent at the Mowbray had a clear view from the lobby of the slender man in a stocking cap plunging his knife into Kitty's back. He went down to the basement to get his baseball bat, but instead went to sleep on his cot.
The second "sickening man,'' as the prosecutor's widow calls them, was Genovese's friend Karl Ross. While Kitty was being killed in his stairwell, he opened his door, saw, then closed it again. He was afraid and he was drunk, Cook writes. Yet Ross the coward still climbed out his window and clambered across the roof to another neighbor's where, after some witless delays, he eventually dialed the police.
One of the neighbors who got a call was Sophie Farrar. As soon as she heard, this 4-foot-11, unarmed woman — who knew a knife-wielding man was attacking Genovese — ran down her stairs to help, alone. When she found Kitty, the murderer was gone and Farrar could only comfort the woman in her arms as she expired. Farrar's bravery went mostly unnoticed.
Morphing into myth
How did the false story become the instilled one; why does the myth prevail? Cook blames the ambitious, newly installed Metro editor of the Times, Abe Rosenthal. Police commissioner Michael "Bull" Murphy told Rosenthal his version, including the erroneous 38-witness count, at lunch 10 days after the killing. Cook suspects he was trying to spin the editor away from a related, potentially embarrassing story: Moseley confessed to another murder for which the NYPD had already made an arrest, and gotten a confession. Two weeks after the murder, the Times gave the depraved-indifference story four columns on Page 1.
Other outlets took the paper of record's lead, and took it as gospel. Life magazine decried the neighbors "crouching in darkened windows like watchers of a Late Show,'' calling them "callous, chicken-hearted and immoral people.'' Mike Wallace broadened the lament in a CBS Radio segment on "the Apathetic American.'' The Soviet organ Izvestia was happy to jump in, declaring that the Genovese story revealed the capitalists' "jungle morals.''
Cook's writing doesn't call attention to itself; mainly, he tells a good story about this enduring tale, flashing back and forward in smart, suspenseful places and saving an important reveal for the last few pages. He only missteps when he digresses, doing what those Bad Neighbors were thought to have done: leave Kitty alone. Is there any good reason to tell us that, a decade before Genovese died, it took five jolts of the electric chair to execute Ethel Rosenberg?
His reporting, though, is rich and deep. He got Mary Ann Zielonko, Genovese's then-lover, to cooperate. After the murder, she says, it was New York's gay community that didn't want to get involved. Zielonko says gays were still persecuted by the police. ""My friends all stopped talking to me,'' she tells Cook. "They thought they were being watched (and) their phones were tapped.'' Since some police believed homosexuals were more jealous than "normal'' people, Mary Ann was an initial suspect.
The author also obtained "a wrinkly reel of brown magnetic tape" that holds Moseley's calm confession. His voice, writes Cook, "takes on the soft, lilting cadence of singer Nat King Cole.'' Cook's portrait of Moseley, a true psychopath, is chilling and compelling. He was a middle-class African-American husband and father who punched data cards on a first-generation Remington computer. Moseley explained to the cops that he went out looking for a white woman to rape and kill; he had already done that to black women and was curious to see if there would be any differences. (He's serving a life sentence in New York.)
Considering the era and the tabloid possibilities, it's surprising which plot lines did not gain any traction. Headlines that weren't include: "Deranged Black Man Ravages Innocent White Woman.'' And: "Degenerate Lifestyle Dooms Woman to Violent End.''
Those reliable tropes were all buried by the legend of public heartlessness and abandonment. Thirty years after the crime, then-President Bill Clinton came to Kew Gardens to revisit the murder and its meaning. He said Genovese's fate suggested "that we were each of us not simply in danger but fundamentally alone.'' He was right, though the facts of the enduring story are wrong. Kitty's myth contains those two most potent human fears: that we will die (and it's fairly certain that's how all our mortal narratives end) and that we are ultimately alone. In combination, they formed one of the scariest stories of all.
John Capouya teaches journalism and nonfiction writing at the University of Tampa.