Everyone has heard her story, even if they can’t recall her name. Over 33 minutes in the early hours of March 13, 1964 in the middle-class enclave of New York City’s Kew Gardens, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was repeatedly stabbed and sexually brutalized while more than three dozen witnesses did nothing. When asked why they didn’t call the police, most of the “witnesses” uttered variations on “I didn’t want to get involved.”
Over the subsequent five decades, the murder has become a gruesome parable of urban life. Kids moving to cities receive stern warnings about the heartless apathy of urbanites. “Law & Order’’ repeatedly found inspiration in her horrible death. The “bystander effect” haunts cities, the product of a Kitty Genovese-inspired precinct of social psychology, fed by a flood of books and articles. Genovese, to paraphrase an attorney who teaches the case, is one of the few Americans made famous solely by the last half hour of her life.
In conjunction with the 50th anniversary of her death, two books titled “Kitty Genovese” have been published. Both cover the grisly assault and its aftermath, but the books’ subtitles reveal their individual focuses.
Playwright Catherine Pelonero’s “Kitty Genovese: A True Account of a Public Murder and its Private Consequences” places its emphasis on the personal repercussions, primarily of her friends. Journalist Kevin Cook’s “Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, The Crime that Changed America” casts a critical eye on the urban-legend aspects of the popularly accepted version of Kitty’s death and strives to contextualize the slaying amid the turmoil and promise of the early 1960s.
Kitty dies horribly in both, of course, but both writers take pains to present a fully-realized portrait of Kitty so that readers won’t forget that she was a person, not a player in an anecdote.
It should come as no surprise, but the infamous narrative of the uncaring metropolis isn’t entirely accurate, according to Cook. In its initial story that brought national attention to the killing, The New York Times reported that there were 38 witnesses, but Cook says that number is inaccurate and likely the product of a police clerical error. Further most of those interviewed by the authorities did not witness the crime but merely heard noises or saw ambiguous activity. And a neighbor did call the cops.
Even in the immediate aftermath of the crime, Kew Gardens residents, journalists, and others questioned the media account. For every article decrying callous citizenry there came a piece rebuffing the specifics. The initial story nonetheless largely stuck, remaining a brutal indictment of American cities as urban jungles.
As both Cook and Pelonero argue, the Genovese murder still informs daily life. Public outrage at the murder accelerated implementation of a centralized emergency services number — 911.
And it is a wretched story, not just the death but the prolonged intimacy with dying and fear Kitty endured. At least two people other than Kitty and killer Winston Moseley knew what was going on, and did nothing.
Karl Ross, Kitty’s neighbor and whose name she cried out, opened his apartment door and saw Moseley on top of Kitty. Ross called a friend to ask what he should do. He then traversed his roof — avoiding the hallway — for a second opinion. The other eyewitness saw Moseley chase and stab Kitty, but this hero, a late night building superintendent named Joseph Fink, took a nap.
Where Cook contextualizes Kitty amid “the year atomic isotopes from H-bomb tests began showing up in the enamel of schoolchildren’s teeth,” Pelonero keeps tight focus on her life in Queens. But by far the largest material difference between the books relates to Moseley’s trial. Where Cook summarizes, Pelonero details what feels like every witness’s testimony. At times, Pelonero’s chronicle feels like too much, but in the end one comes away with a deeper appreciation of the personal turmoil suffered by Kitty’s friends and family as well as the depth of Moseley’s depravity.
In terms of style, Cook is the more self-conscious writer. Unlike Pelonero’s book, the detailed description of the murder occurs late in Cook’s telling, and as he narrates his way to the brink of a scene of tremendous sexual violence, he writes, “But Kitty was a lively young woman full of hopes for her future, deserving dignity and more life. With that person in mind, this is the time to avert one’s eyes.”
Pelonero’s book hews more closely to the conventions of “true crime.” Her prose is spare, but there are a few too many clichés (Kitty, she says, preferred to “march to the beat of her own drum”). The unadorned style, however, makes the book more of a fist to the face when dealing with Mosley’s brutality.
By all accounts, Moseley fit the mold of remorseless psychopath. Before killing Kitty, he had murdered at least one other women and raped several others. During a three-day escape from police custody in 1968, Mosely held captive and sexually assaulted two women.
As both Cook and Pelonero argue, the Genovese murder still informs daily life. Because there was no single phone number for assistance, response times for New York emergency personnel in the 1960s varied wildly. Public outrage at the murder accelerated implementation of a centralized emergency services number — 911.
But really not much else has changed. The world has not become a place where you can rely on your neighbors for help just because some people were fitted for the black hat of indifference and the cops got a pithy number.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion once wrote, “We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five.” So what’s the lesson here?
The sensationalized Genovese story persists because we’d rather expect an uncaring society than be surprised by a neighbor’s refusal to help. We’ve accommodated ourselves to the idea of a society where human imperfection and apathy share the stage with the monstrous. This is cold comfort, but it is more than Kitty Genovese had.
KITTY GENOVESE: A True Account of A Public Murder and Its Private Consequences
By Catherine Pelonero
Skyhorse, 376 pp., $24.95Michael Washburn is the interim director of public programs at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter as @whalelines.