Half a century ago this month — two weeks after the incident took place — the New York Times published on its front page, in a prominent position and under what was for the Times an unusually large four-column headline, a story that began: “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; one witness called after the woman was dead.”
The story was gritty and local, in both respects uncharacteristic of the Times in those days, and it made a huge splash, not merely among the newspaper’s readers but across the nation as other news organizations picked up on it. To this day I remember it vividly. I was working for the Times, though not as a local reporter, and living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, only a few miles from where Kitty Genovese was sexually assaulted and murdered. New Yorkers were not nearly as edgy about crime in 1964 as they were a decade later during the city’s steep if temporary decline, and the Genovese story made readers suddenly aware of the quotidian dangers people face in an urban environment.
The murder victim was an attractive, vivacious 28-year-old who was working at Ev’s 11th Hour, a bar in Queens that Kevin Cook — in much the better of these two books on the case — calls “a shot-and-a-beer kind of bar with knotty pine-paneled walls, the kind of bar stools that need a matchbox under one leg to stay level, and a few booths along the back wall by the jukebox.” Genovese tended bar and did other tasks as well, including bookkeeping, paying suppliers and repairmen, “apparently without dipping into the till as so many bartenders and managers did,” according to Cook. Regulars “liked her smile and friendly, topical patter.”
Early on the morning of March 12, she left work and drove to the apartment she shared with her lover, Mary Ann Zielonko. She never made it. A man came out of the darkness, grabbed her, stabbed her repeatedly, left the scene, then returned and stabbed her more, attempted to have intercourse with her and left her for dead. One man called out, “Leave that girl alone!” but then went back to bed. Various other neighbors heard scuffling and Genovese’s cries — “Please help me God. I have been stabbed” — but no one did anything. One man later told police, “I didn’t want to get involved,” words quoted in the Times story that eventually became what Cook calls “the unofficial motto of urban apathy” — the words, according to Catherine Pelonero, “that would stick to the community like tar for decades afterward.”
After interviewing various suspects, the police settled on Winston Moseley, a 28-year-old African American with an IQ of 135 who “worked at Raygram, a business-machine company in Mount Vernon, the town north of the Bronx, punching data cards for the company’s first-generation Remington Rand computers,” according to Cook. He was married with two sons, “by all appearances a settled, successful young man, a good citizen,” but he quickly confessed to the crime — “Okay, I killed her” — and by the time he came to trial he had admitted to crimes of violence against other women.
At his trial his court-appointed attorney, Sidney Sparrow, acknowledged his client’s guilt but attempted to spare him the electric chair on grounds of insanity. The jury of 11 men and one woman, eight whites and four blacks, needed little time to judge otherwise, finding him guilty as charged and prescribing the death penalty, a verdict that was loudly applauded in the courtroom. But the presiding judge had refused to allow psychiatric testimony, and three years later the New York Court of Appeals “commuted his sentence to life in prison.” He has been there to this day, making one brief escape when he was being transferred under light guard and losing each of his appeals for release on grounds of good behavior. “Today,” Cook writes, “he is prisoner number 64A0102 at Clinton Correctional Facility, a 169-year-old super-maximum penitentiary in the state’s snow-swept northeast corner. As of late 2013 no living inmate had served more time in New York’s prison system.”
His crime lives on, as what Harold Takooshian, a professor of psychology at Fordham University, calls “the most-cited incident in social psychology literature until the September 11 attacks of 2001.” “Good Samaritan” laws were enacted in all 50 states: “New York’s was typical: no one was expected to endanger himself, but if a doctor stopped to help an accident victim, for example, he couldn’t be sued as long as he acted reasonably.” Cook writes:
“Each year new victims fall afoul of what criminologists refer to as an open secret of city life: the fact that criminals often commit crimes in public because they know witnesses won’t challenge them. Still Takooshian sees signs of progress. Every crime that reminds people of the Genovese case, whether it occurs in a Connecticut tavern, on a Chinese street, or a London sidewalk, renews discussion of her case, her name, and the fraught dynamic of victim and witness. Kitty’s suffering led to ‘national soul-searching and more,’ says Takooshian.”
True enough, so there is at least a shred of truth to the claim made by Cook’s publisher that this was “The Crime That Changed America.” Presumably Cook himself is not responsible for this piece of boilerplate marketing and should not be held guilty of it, but he’s right to claim that what happened to Kitty Genovese in March 1964 affected the way many people think about crime and their responsibility to take action against it. The irony, though, is that the essential element in this notion of collective guilt — the charge that 38 witnesses failed to come to Genovese’s aid — is almost certainly untrue. The figure was tossed out by Michael Murphy, the New York City police commissioner, at lunch with A.M. Rosenthal, who in 1964 was city editor of the Times. “Brother, that Queens story is one for the books. Thirty-eight witnesses,” Murphy told Rosenthal, and added: “Thirty eight. I’ve been in this business a long time, but this beats everything.”
Rosenthal, a driven and ferociously ambitious journalist who eventually became executive editor of the Times, went back to the office and assigned the story to a reporter named Martin Gansberg. Apparently neither Rosenthal nor Gansberg ever tried to verify Murphy’s firm figure of 38 witnesses: “It came from the police; that was enough. Nobody ever identified the thirty-eight witnesses or counted the witnesses in the detectives’ reports.” The figure was accepted by other newspapers and magazines and cited as gospel by Malcolm Gladwell in his pop-sociological bestseller “The Tipping Point,” proof positive that journalists are as susceptible to the herd instinct as everyone else.
By 2004, when a conference on the crime was held, 40 years after it took place, Cook writes, “anyone willing to do a little Googling might have suspected that ‘thirty-eight witnesses’ carried a whiff of urban legend,” yet “of the ten most popular social-psychology textbooks of 2005, all carried accounts of the Genovese case, with all ten accounts maintaining that thirty-eight witnesses watched Kitty die without lifting a finger to help.”
So social psychologists as well as journalists are served a helping of humble pie in Cook’s book, though it’s unlikely that any of them will be eating it. “Kitty Genovese,” with its interminable subtitle, is a useful corrective, written in standard journalese but researched with considerable care and on the whole first-rate. It is vastly superior to Pelonero’s book, in which the author, a playwright, has used dramatic license to embroider the tale; she has done her fair share of research, but at times it is difficult to tell where fact ends and fiction begins, and the overwrought tone that her prose occasionally strikes is entirely unnecessary to a story that has enough built-in melodrama. The conclusions Pelonero reaches about the case are pretty much the same as Cook’s, but if you really want to immerse yourself in this bloody affair, his is the book to read.
The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime
That Changed America
By Kevin Cook
Norton. 242 pp. $25.95
A True Account of a Public Murder
and Its Private Consequences
By Catherine Pelonero
Skyhorse. 352 pp. $24.95