Kitty Genovese: The Myth, the Truth ... And MeHistorians/History
tags: Kitty Genovese
Jim Rasenberger’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Smithsonian, and American Heritage, among other publications. He is the author of The Brilliant Disaster: JFK, Castro, and America’s Doomed Invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs (Scribner, 2011).
It’s not often I get to claim my work changed history. So forgive me if I take the recent death of Winston Moseley, the killer of Kitty Genovese, as an opportunity to remind everyone that I once did, kind of, sort of, change the history of a notorious episode in New York’s past. Even if Wikipedia doesn’t much care that it was me who changed it; even if my role required less gumshoe sleuthing than fortuitous stumbling; even if my main source was a guy in Queens with a website. But enough with the disclaimers: it’s an interesting story, one that teaches-- taught me, anyway-- a great deal about how history, not to mention journalism, gets written, and how this has evolved over the last decade or two.
It begins a dozen years ago, in the winter of 2004, with a phone call from an editor at the New York Times. The 40th anniversary of Kitty Genovese’s murder was approaching, the editor reminded me. Would I be interested in writing a retrospective of the murder for the paper’s (now sadly defunct) Sunday City section? The moment I said yes, I began to regret my answer. Funny to recall this now, but my concern was that I’d have nothing new to add to the story.
Like many people of my generation, I’d grown up knowing the horrible tale of the 38 witnesses who watched Ms. Genovese get stabbed to death on the streets of Queens, lifting not a finger to intervene. I’d studied so called “bystander apathy”— aka “Genovese Syndrome” — in an introductory psychology class in college, and had come upon references to Ms. Genovese’s murder countless times since in television shows, magazine articles, and books. I’d read Thirty-Eight Witnesses, the book by A.M. Rosenthal, the titanic Times editor who had assigned and overseen the article that made Kitty Genovese a household name. I’d probably glanced a few dozen times at the famous lede, one of the most startling in the history of American newspapers, that appeared on front pages of the Times on the morning of March 27, 1964:
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 the sound of their voices 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.
It was a lede that never failed to shock. But after 40 years of outrage and concern what more could there be to say?
I briefly considered the Winston Moseley angle. I knew he was still alive because every now and then his name would appear in newspapers as he came up for parole. Should I try to interview him, see what he had to say about the March night he slaughtered a woman in Queens? I nixed the idea almost immediately. Many people find psychopaths fascinating. I am not one of them.
As I thought more about it, I realized there was one aspect of the case, strangely, that I knew nothing about, and that was Kitty herself. Beyond a few sketchy details, I had never read anything about her. I’d seen one image of her, a pasty black and white photograph, probably reproduced in every psychology textbook in the world for a few decades. Kitty appeared drawn and lusterless, about as close to a portrait of a victim-in-waiting as you could imagine. It was as if her entire life had been reduced to its final half hour. As far I could tell, no one had bothered to find out what came earlier.
My first call was to William Genovese, Kitty’s younger brother. Bill was a fantastic interview. He brought Kitty to life with vivid anecdotes – how she loved to laugh and to drive fast in her red Fiat, how she loved to go to the racetrack and bet on horses and stay up late into the night talking about esoteric topics like Eisenstein’s twin paradox. Bill himself had a gripping personal story that was deeply entwined with what happened to his sister. (A documentary film about Bill’s quest to understand his sister’s death, The Witness, opens this spring.) I think it was Bill who first mentioned to me that the photograph I knew so well was in fact a mugshot that had been snapped when Kitty was arrested a few years before her death on a “bookmaking rap,” as the papers put it at the time. Far from the mousy- young woman I’d imagined, Kitty had been a spitfire, filled with mischief, intellectual curiosity, and passion.
From Bill I turned to Mary Ann Zielonko. I knew the name because it appeared in press coverage of the murder in 1964, in which Mary Ann was identified as Kitty’s roommate. With assistance from Google – or was it Yahoo back then? – and a few old fashioned telephone operators, I managed to track down a listing for a Mary Ann Zielonko in New Hampshire. That number was disconnected. I found another listing in Vermont. After a few tries, a woman picked up the phone. It was still deep winter in Vermont, a dark February afternoon, and her voice sounded cold and weary. I told her who I was and what I was up to, then asked her if she was the same Mary Ann Zielonko who had lived with Kitty Genovese forty years earlier. “Yes, we were roommates,” she told me. Then, before I had a chance to ask her any more questions, she added, her voice breaking a little, “She was actually my partner. We were lovers together.”
I later learned that police and some in the press knew about Kitty and Mary Ann’s relationship at the time but this was not made public in 1964 because homosexuality was considered too taboo to mention in family newspapers. The relationship could no longer be considered scandalous in 2004, but it was certainly news to me, and I thought it significant. Not that Kitty had been gay, but that she had been in love, and that there was a woman up in Vermont whose heart had been broken by her death and who still came close to tears when she talked of her. By the time I hung up with Ms. Zielonko, I was confident that I was going to have material for a really interesting and moving portrait of Kitty Genovese as a warm and loving human, not just a mute poster child for everything awful in humanity.
And then I met Joe DeMay, and my story got suddenly more complicated.
Actually, I came upon Joe’s website before I met him. The site was called oldkewgardens.com. It was where Joe collected bits of Kew Gardens nostalgia, photos of old high school graduations and curios of neighborhood history. There was also a fairly large section devoted to the Kitty Genovese murder because, as Joe later explained, there was no way to write about Kew Gardens without writing about Kitty Genovese. Along with their initials, they shared a past neither could escape. (The domain oldkewgardens.com still exists but Mr. DeMay no longer operates it and Ms. Genovese’s murder is no long featured.)I’d first glanced at the website when I began working on the story but I’d filed it away in my mind as something to revisit later or, better yet, forget about. Already by 2004 the internet was overrun by conspiracy theories and overheated manifestos and I had no interest in getting time-sucked down one of those rabbit holes. But something about that first visit drew me back to oldkewgardens.com, and when I started perusing the section on Kitty, it quickly became apparent that it required serious attention. Yes, it gave off a whiff of obsessiveness, but that’s only because it was so damn thorough and precise. Composed in a just-the-facts style appropriate for a man who made his living (as I’d later learn) as a maritime lawyer, Joe DeMay methodically laid out the case and followed it right to its irrefutable conclusion: “Here's something that everyone thinks happened,'' as he told me later, ''that isn't so.''
Joe was not the first person to raise questions about the 1964 article. The reporter John Melia did so in the New York Daily News in 1984, as did Joe Sexton in a 1995 article in the Times. But these were murmurs, and the standard version of the story had continued to be repeated. It remained, in 2004, the only version you were likely to hear-- unless you found yourself on oldkewgardens.com.
More later on why I think the standard version of the story persisted for decades. For now, I’ll just suggest that part of the explanation was the very reaction I had when I first contemplated Joe’s website, which was that my life would be so much easier if I just ignored it. I knew that if what Joe said had any validity, I’d have to write an entirely different article than the one I wanted to write. And then I would have to go to the New York Times, as a lowly freelancer writing for a Sunday insert, with the news that one of the most significant articles in the paper’s history was deeply flawed.
Unfortunately for my sake, Joe made his argument impossible to ignore. He had done an almost a line-by-line parsing of the 1964 original article, starting with that striking lede: “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.” Within those 28 words, Joe had identified no fewer than three critical errors. For one thing, as a simple matter of record, there were not three attacks, but two. (The Times later corrected the number, but after forty years three was still the number of attacks usually cited.) More importantly, as a matter of logic and geography, it was simply impossible that 38 people watched Kitty’s murder; both the number and verb were misleading.
As Joe suggested, you really only needed to know one thing to appreciate how misleading that lede was: Most of the attack on Kitty Genovese did not occur outdoors, in the open, in view of surrounding buildings. It occurred inside a tiny vestibule at the back of a building, alongside the tracks of the Long Island Rail Road, where only one person-- the man who lived at the top of the stairs-- could see any part of it. This is not to deny that some people, or even perhaps many, heard screams in Kew Gardens that night. And a few people definitely saw enough to know a brutal attack was going on yet did nothing to stop it. But 38 people did not watch all or any part of her murder. As Charles Skoller, the former assistant district attorney who helped try Moseley in 1964, told me in 2004, ''I don't know where that came from, the 38. I didn't count 38. We only found half a dozen that saw what was going on, that we could use.'' That indelible image conjured by the Times lede – the people of Kew Gardens lining up at their windows “like watchers of a Late Show” (as Life magazine later put it in one of the many articles inspired by the Times’s reporting) – was far from an accurate representation of what happened.
I won’t rehearse the entire argument again. (Anyone interested can go to the original 1964 Times article here and my 2004 Times article here.) Suffice it to say that once I verified and corroborated Joe’s analysis of the 1964 article, it became the unavoidable focus of my article. I still managed to include a short biographical sketch of Kitty, but this was tucked into a larger discussion about the events and press coverage surrounding her murder.
The day came to hand over my findings to the Times. I breathed a sigh of relief when my assigning editors told me they were happy with the article, and that, other than a few minor adjustments, it was ready for publication. But a few days later I came home to an ominous message on my answering machine (yes, I still had one of those in 2004). It was from one of the editors at City. “I’m sorry to tell you this,” he said when I called back. “The piece it not going to run. It’s been killed.”
“I’m afraid so.”
This was not the first time I’d heard that an article of my mine was being killed – it had happened once before, years earlier. The difference was that that article had been crap and this one was not crap. And perhaps because I’d spent the last month immersed in Kitty’s slaying, the word had a particularly queasy-making ring to it.
“What?” I sputtered. “Why?”
The editor told me that some higher-ups at the Times believed the article relied too much on the words and theories of one man – a hobbyist – who had no real credentials or authority and was, after all, just a guy in Queens with a website. “But that is exactly the point,” I now imagine myself intoning with Ted Cruzian grandiloquence. “How remarkable that it took this fine gentleman to figure out something so obvious. And how interesting that now, given the advances of the World Wide Web, settled history can be challenged by an outsider.”
Actually, I forget what I said, but my point was that hundreds of reporters had walked the streets of Kew Gardens and, with a few exceptions, never questioned any of it; and then along comes Joe DeMay, a somebody in the world of maritime law and Kew Gardens nostalgia but a nobody in the world of journalism, to say, hey, wait a minute, this doesn’t make sense. His standing did not disqualify his findings; it made them all the more newsworthy.
The story, in the end, was not killed. Perhaps there never was a real threat that it was going to be killed; perhaps, as has been suggested to me, there was some miscommunication along the chain of command. The folks at the Times were no doubt doing exactly what good newspaper editors are supposed to do, which is practice due diligence and deliberation. The more nefarious explanation, that the Times was quashing an awkward revelation, did cross my mind for a few hot seconds, but in the coolness of reason it seemed unlikely. The article was forty years old, an eternity in the world of daily journalism. Abe Rosenthal had long ago left the paper to become resident curmudgeon at the New York Daily News, and the fear he once cast over the Times was long gone. And as far as journalistic sins go – Jayson Blair comes to mind – the one that my article (and Joe DeMay) charged was relatively venial, a case of exaggeration, not fabrication.
In any event, instead of killing the piece, the Times asked me to revise it overnight. Basically, what I did, I realized as I was doing it, was bury the lede. Abe Rosenthal would have been horrified.
My article landed with a lot less impact than the original when it was published on a Sunday in late February, a few weeks before the anniversary of Kitty’s murder. It got some immediate attention, but most of this had to do with Kitty’s love life. A radio producer called and asked for Ms. Zielonko’s number. So far as I could tell, the interview with Ms. Zielonko, which aired on NPR, caused more of a stir than my article. (A new interview with Ms. Zielonko has recently been posted on the Times website.)
Interestingly, among those who reacted strongly to the revelation about Kitty’s love life was Abe Rosenthal. A couple weeks after the article came out I was invited to join a panel at Fordham University to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Kitty’s murder. Who should show up in the audience but Rosenthal himself. I’d interviewed Rosenthal on the phone for my article and he’d dismissed any concern that the story had been exaggerated. “There may have been 38, there may have been 39, but the whole picture, as I saw it, was very affecting.” Now, as Rosenthal looked on, I nervously gave a short speech in which I suggested that the number, along with other details, mattered quite a lot.
Afterwards, Rosenthal stood and started for the front of the room, towards me. He was elderly and approached with cane, and I would not have been at all surprised if he swatted me with it. Instead, he gave me a civil greeting, followed by a very different dressing down than the one I’d been expecting. It went something like this: “I am very disappointed you outed Kitty as gay. That is something we never would have done. Shame on you.” I tried to explain that mentioning that Kitty was in a romantic relationship at the time of her death was very relevant to her life, and to hide the fact that it happened to be a relationship with a woman would have been, in 2004, silly. Rosenthal didn’t buy it. He shook his head and turned away.
As for Rosenthal’s view that I somehow missed the point by dwelling on the exact number of witnesses and on whether these witnesses watched, rather than heard, the attack on Kitty, I get why he held onto this. An awful murder happened in Kew Gardens and people who were in a position to help did not help. Even if most of the witness were earwitnesses, not eyewitnesses, and even if there were fewer than 38 of them, their apathy was remarkably callous and disturbing. To worry over the details, Rosenthal seemed to suggest, was to quibble about the number of trees in the forest.
But I think the specific language mattered a great deal. Maybe it would not have mattered much if it were 38 or 39 or 35, but it mattered that the Times reported it to be dozens. And the verb in the lede mattered, too. Watched means saw, and saw is a different than heard, especially when we are talking about an event that occurred at 3:15 A.M. on a cold night in March when many people had their windows closed. (Ms. Zielonko, for example, heard nothing, although the apartment she shared with Kitty was near the scene of the attack.)The reason readers got an impression of dozens of people looking out the window for half an hour to watch Kitty die is because that is what was written in the Times. And it was that impression that made it so galvanizing. If the story had been reported more accurately – For a few fleeting minutes, five or six people saw some part of a murder and others heard screams over the next half hour – it would still have been a horrible story, but it would have been a three or four day story, not a forty or, now, fifty-two year story.
There is no doubt the article struck a vein because it captured the free floating anxiety many Americans were feeling in 1964 – just after the Kennedy assassination, on the cusp of huge socio-economic changes in America and a major spike in crime. It brought into focus concerns about alienation and social disintegration that were surfacing at the time. I’d add, though, that it may have contributed to some of those concerns; and that along with the good it did – the advent of the 911 phone system is frequently mentioned – it may also have done damage. Consider the people of Kew Gardens, so vilified that many fled New York and never came back. And what of other New Yorkers, other Americans? One of the finding of social psychology, a field jump-started by Kitty’s murder, is that people tend to gauge their reactions to environments and events according to the reactions of others. In Good Samaritan, “prosocial” environments—New York City after the September 2001 attacks is a good example of this—people are more likely to behave altruistically. By the same token, Bad Samaritan environments breed Bad Samaritans. Is it possible that the Times article contributed to a Bad Samaritan environment by overstating the callousness of the neighbors?
Fifty-two years after the fact, the murder of Kitty Genovese continues to pose questions about human behavior. One that particularly intrigues me is what that night in March 1964 tells us about how we recall the past-- and how this has changed over the last decade or two.
There is an adage that truth comes to light in the course of time. In fact, very often, when old stories are dusted off they are just repeated as first told, despite the best efforts of scholars and others to correct them. (I certainly found this to be so when researching my book about the Bay of Pigs invasion, an episode still largely defined in the public imagination by accounts that were written a few years afterwards and tended to favor a beloved assassinated president over the facts.) There are reasons for this, the simplest being the one I alluded to earlier – that writers, journalists, talking heads, and just plain folk find it convenient and safe to go with the tried and true, even if it’s not exactly true. That temptation is particularly strong if the original version is more dramatic, more shocking, and more scandalous than those that follow. Flawed or not, the first draft of history is frequently the draft that sticks.
Or at least that is the way it used to work. It is a different world now. The internet makes conventional history easier to challenge, not just by accredited authorities, but by anyone (a guy with a website in Queens, for example). It also offers an extraordinary vehicle to aggregate and disseminate revisions, namely through Wikipedia, the first stop for anyone researching anything these days. New information can find its way quickly to Wikipedia, and from there it filters out into the world at— in historical terms – warp speed.
So it has been with the story of Kitty Genovese. Questions about the original Times article are duly noted in Wikipedia. Joe DeMay is relegated to a footnote but the revelations first introduced on his website are given a full airing. Meanwhile, several books have been published in the last several years that reflect the new and more accurate story of Ms. Genovese’s murder, and The Witness (in which I make a brief appearance) goes much deeper into the truth than I ever went. When my son took a Psych 101 course this past fall at college, his textbook included a note about the change in the story. And when Moseley died, the Times ran an obituary that set the new version in stone – at least for now:
“While there was no question that the attack occurred, and that some neighbors ignored cries for help, the portrayal of 38 witnesses as fully aware and unresponsive was erroneous. The article grossly exaggerated the number of witnesses and what they had perceived.”
The role of the Times in the revisionis not unimportant. The internet disrupts old media like the Times, but it also still relies on old media to be the keeper of credibility, hence all those footnotes citing old fashioned books and newspapers at the bottom of Wikipedia articles. It took the Times to make Kitty Genovese a household name in 1964, and it took the Times to correct the story.
As for my role, it was modest, more messenger than discoverer. But it’s been interesting. It made me a first-hand witness to history – to how history is changing under our feet. The past is more provisional now. It’s easy to see the risks in this. Conspiracy theorists, Holocaust deniers, and just plain idiots thrive in a world of provisional history, and the opportunity it creates for the kind of inaccuracies that linger on Wikipedia – until someone who knows better comes along and corrects them – is real. But it also creates the possibility that, in some cases, the truth really will out.
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