The story about the events surrounding Kitty Genovese’s death, as most people know it, is a myth. It’s been over 50 years since her March 13, 1964, slaying, and so much has been written (often in attempt of correction) in the time since. Yet in many people’s heads, the story remains as it did in the opening paragraphs of Martin Gansberg’s March 27, 1964, New York Times story, “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police”:
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.
What haunted people more than the senseless death of a 28-year-old woman was the idea that a group of neighbors just watched a woman die for 30 minutes, unable to tear themselves from their windows. One witness’s explanation—“I didn’t want to get involved”—has reverberated since it was printed.
The supposed bystander apathy that accompanied the death of Genovese is attributed to inspiring the launch of the 911 emergency response system and good samaritan laws. It’s maybe why people in New York today tend to congregate around the slightest signs of distress—whenever I see someone passed out on the sidewalk, there are inevitably 15 people surrounding (many on their phones). New Yorkers may be in a perpetual self-involved hurry, but they’ll slow down if it seems worth their time. Helping others often falls into that category.
All of these effects are good things. The rub is that they’re based on a willful distortion of the truth. In a New Yorker story that ran last year to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Genovese’s death, Nicholas Lemann summarized the factual inaccuracies of the original Times piece:
The Times story was inaccurate in a number of significant ways. There were two attacks, not three. Only a handful of people saw the first clearly and only one saw the second, because it took place indoors, within the vestibule. The reason there were two attacks was that Robert Mozer, far from being a “silent witness,” yelled at Moseley when he heard Genovese’s screams and drove him away. Two people called the police. When the ambulance arrived at the scene—precisely because neighbors had called for help—Genovese, still alive, lay in the arms of a neighbor named Sophia Farrar, who had courageously left her apartment to go to the crime scene, even though she had no way of knowing that the murderer had fled.
Farrar appears in James Solomon’s The Witness, which will have its world premiere next week at the New York Film Festival. She also, according to the film, appeared in the original police report, though including her presence in the original Times story would have reduced its impact. The calls to the police Lemann mentions were not logged according to The Witness, though another witness who appears in the film, Haddie Grund, claims that she not only called the police when she heard the screams of Genovese, but she was told by the police, “We already got the call.”
The Witness points the blame at Gansberg’s editor A.M. Rosenthal for manipulating the story to sell papers. Rosenthal appears in The Witness and is as glib as he was in Jim Rasenberger’s update for the Times, “Kitty, 40 Years Later,” which ran February 8, 2004:
“In a story that gets a lot of attention, there’s always somebody who’s saying, ‘Well, that’s not really what it’s supposed to be,’” said Mr. Rosenthal, who is retired from The Times and now writes a column for The Daily News. There may have been minor inaccuracies, he allows, but none that alter the story’s essential meaning. “There may have been 38, there may have been 39,” he said, “but the whole picture, as I saw it, was very affecting.”
Thirty-eight, thirty-nine. No calls to the police, a few calls to the police. A woman who died alone, a woman who died in the arms of her friend. Who’s counting?
The Witness’s primary objective is not to chronicle the effect of Genovese’s murder on culture, but on one man: her brother, Bill Genovese. Bill was 16 when Kitty died and clearly hasn’t gotten over it. “It’s easily described as an obsession on my part,” he says. The film’s revelations are his revelations, as he tracks down reports, reporters, Kitty’s former lover (Mary Anne Zielonko), and the few witnesses who are still alive. The impact of Kitty’s death is written on Bill’s body—he lost both of his legs in Vietnam after enlisting in the Marines in 1966 so that he wouldn’t be an apathetic bystander, like the ones who he thought could have saved his sister.
“The choices he made were related to the fact that no one helped his sister,” says Bill’s wife Dale, and the most horrifying thing about The Witness is its portrait of mourning as a perpetual process. At least (and at last) Bill Genovese is using it for something constructive. The film documents dozens of meetings he has regarding his sister’s death. Sometimes the dead ends are as telling as the interviews: Kitty’s ex-husband declines to appear in the film, saying by email, “My relationship with Kitty shall remain a mystery.”
Even more bizarre is the correspondence Bill receives from Winston Moseley, the man convicted of killing Kitty. He’s serving a life sentence and repeatedly has admitted to the murder, but in his letter to Bill, he blames it on an “Italian mobster named Dominic.” Moseley claims he was merely the driver of the getaway car.
Before he receives Moseley’s letter, Bill sits down with Moseley’s reverend son, Steven, who says his family feared for his safety when he told them he’d be meeting Bill because of their incorrect assumption that he’s part of the Genovese crime family. Between that admission and Winston’s letter, you see that mafia fear being whispered down the lane within the Moseley family. The truth bends as soon as it hits the air.
“It’s hard to let go when you’ll never know the whole truth,” says Bill late into his narrative, and while he’s talking about his specific relationship to the death of his beloved sister, he’s also defining a human condition. Over 50 years later, Kitty Genovese’s story is more revelatory than ever.