The 1964 rape and murder of Catherine "Kitty" Genovese in Kew Gardens, Queens first made the news as a lurid tabloid crime story. Kew Gardens was quiet and middle class; Genovese was a pretty, 28-year-old, white bar manager; and her attacker, Winston Moseley, arrested several days later when caught stealing a TV from a home, was African American. It wasn't until New York Times metro editor A.M. Rosenthal met then-police chief Michael Murphy for lunch 10 days after the crime that the story was set on its course to becoming an allegory for a society gone rotten at its core.
Murphy had been complaining to Rosenthal about New Yorkers' growing unwillingness to help the police, and he described the attack on Genovese as particularly disturbing in this regard. The Times story that resulted 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." Calling this false would be generous. It was an assault on the concept of truth.
The attacks, reporters would document in subsequent decades, did play out over an excruciating time period, but there were only two. This is attributable to confusion in the initial police investigation. The heart of the compelling lie crafted by the Times is the number of eyewitnesses, the claim they all saw the entire duration of the crime, and the claim that they did nothing to help.
The short version of what seems to have actually happened is that dozens of people probably heard screams; an initial stabbing on an Austin Street sidewalk was followed by a period of relative silence; the second attack occurred in a stairwell, out of the view of most neighbors; and some people woken by the cries say they called the police (if they did, police didn't log it). Only a handful of people actually saw some piece of the attacks. Of those witnesses, one called police after witnessing Moseley stabbing Genovese in a stairwell, but not before making a series of calls to friends and neighbors and drunkenly climbing across the roof to a neighbor's apartment, a process that took up 10-15 precious minutes. Alerted by one of the calls, a neighbor and friend of Genovese's rushed to her aid, not knowing whether or not the murderer was still there, and held Genovese in her arms as she died. This detail did not make the Times story.
What happened is still horrible, and there is blame to be cast at those who woke to screams and "didn't want to get involved," as the infamous phrase goes, but in Rosenthal and reporter Martin Gansberg's account, the reader can practically hear popcorn being popped up and down Austin Street. This narrative was so compelling that it prompted psychological studies of what is now called the bystander effect, helped in the push to create a 911 emergency dispatch system, and came to be invoked as justification for many interventions, including the invasion of Iraq.
One of Kitty's younger brothers, Bill, was so moved by the horror of the story that he enlisted in the Marines during the Vietnam War. He lost his legs in combat there. Today he says that, had she been alive, Kitty would have talked him out of signing up to fight.
It wasn't until 1984 that reporters began to question the Times narrative, by then an internationally known parable. Bill Genovese didn't become aware that there were questions about the 37 eyewitnesses until a 2004 Times report acknowledging the errors of the initial story (the paper has not issued a correction). The article rekindled Bill's obsession with understanding his sister's life and tragic death, and he reached out to filmmaker James Solomon for help with the process.
The result, after 11 years of filming, is the documentary The Witness, which opens at IFC Center today. The film follows Bill Genovese as he reconstructs the night of the crime; questions reporters who failed to follow up on suspicions that the Times got it wrong; learns about Kitty's life as an independent, gay woman in the city; and reflects on how the facts and fables of the crime have shaped his family and impacted society. We spoke to Bill on the phone about the process.
Congratulations on the movie. I was very moved by it. I’m glad you got to see it.
What do you hope people watching will take away from seeing the film? Well there’s so many levels of that. I think the ultimate level is, what do we owe each other? It's pretty simple. What do we owe each other?
The other thing, and your name is Nathan, so if you see someone screaming down on the street, or if you see somebody that's hit by a car, or if you see someone being accosted in the streets of New York, my philosophy, and I don't pretend to proselytize it to everybody, is that when you look at that person don't think it's them, think it's Nathan. That's, to me, what it all comes down to.
Now there's many levels of the story, the 38 eyewitness story, and what do you think about that on and on and on. But when you ask me a broad question like that and sort of distill it right away, that's what it is. It’s that simple. That simple and that complicated. How many people are going to totally give up their ego to realize that there's one consciousness, only one flesh to wound?
Do you remember the particular circumstances of meeting James Solomon? Yeah. Alfred Uhry and Jim came over to my house, because Alfred Uhry has a weekend place in the town close by where to I live. They were discussing what their project was going to be with HBO. I think they were just seeing what I thought about and maybe what input I would have.
When they presented their ideas to HBO, HBO didn't want to run with them and that was kind of that. That was around ‘98, ‘99. So Jim and I knew each other through that and we sent an email back and forth every once in awhile.
Then after Jim Rasenberger's article came out sort of debunking the original 38 eyewitness story, then we got in touch with each other and thought, "Man, in 1964 we had this story of 38 eyewitnesses and then we have the debunking of that story in 2004. Well this kind of is where we're headed with this. Let's do it. Let's investigate on our own. Let's dig."
Kitty Genovese's mugshot from her one arrest, for placing a bet with a bookie. (Courtesty of The Witness Film LLC)
Well certainly after we started doing the investigation after 2004. I have ring binders that are literally two feet tall. If you stacked them up, two-and-a-half, three feet tall with material that we brought over.
I was doing research before Jim even came along. That involved asking the Queens district attorney for information. He basically said, “Well what do you want?” I said, “Anything you've got. Give me whatever you can give me.” So they gave me a fairly lengthy stack of reports and information and stuff. I went through it to a certain degree and then friends, family, close acquaintances decided that what I should do is figuratively and literally bury it and let it go. It's probably around '96, '97.
At that time, it was probably the right thing for me to do, psychologically to bury it and let it go. When Jim came along, I realized I really wasn't done with it. I had progressed to the point where whatever post-traumatic stress for me and the war and/or Kitty was [no longer] with me. I was certainly in a lot better position where I could move forward and confront what I was going to find without having little meltdowns here and there.
How did you settle on the idea of doing a documentary? What made you want to have this process be public? That's a good point. I wonder myself at times in the past why I did that. I think it was important for me, with my disability, to get somebody to hook onto my train to help me do some of these things.
I had ideas of what I wanted to do as we were uncovering stuff. It's like the old metaphor, the onion, you peel off layers and then you get more and that gives you ideas for doing research in other directions. It was good to have a staff of people who would help me go get this stuff. I mean if you've never been in a wheelchair before, you think the whole world has been made accessible. It has not.
So it was very helpful. So I traded off the openness of being in front of the camera for the facility of having a bigger staff to help research. Actually, to be honest with you, I was very good at forgetting the cameras were there. Whenever I interviewed somebody I told them just ignore those people. I’ve always been good at putting people at ease.
Was there any part of you that felt like whatever you were going to learn should be shared? Well, yeah, because if it was as glaringly flawed as the 2004 Jim Rasenberger article seemed to point to, then I think the public needed to know in some way, shape, or form, either through a book or a fairly lengthy essay or documentary, just how that was. Because, needless to say, the murder became iconic for a certain call to the public to be more proactive in helping to intervene when their fellow beings are in trouble or need help. Even in much less dramatic situations than my sister went through.
When I say the original article was flawed, I'm underlining eyewitnesses. It's clear to me at this stage that there were eyewitnesses and more than just the two that come out in the documentary. There are two others.
But it's debatable whether there were 40 or 50 ear-witnesses. It's debatable as to what they heard. Some claim they just thought it was a lovers' quarrel. Nowadays it would be considered that if a woman is screaming and screaming “Help and I've been stabbed,” a lovers' quarrel or not, you know that doesn't get it. Call the police.
It's all so different now. It's much easier to call the police through 911. Back then if you did not know, or did not have written down on your phone, the precinct number then you'd have to call the operator. The operator put you through to, I believe, a region, who then puts you through to the precinct, who then would put you through to the sergeant on the desk, who would assign a car or foot patrol depending on where it was and what time it was to go out and assist whoever was calling in.
As far as those eyewitnesses, obviously the 37 or 38 is— Yeah they say 37 in the original article because they were the ones who did nothing. Karl Ross was the 38th witness and he was the only one that the police log showed. But Karl Ross also was probably the one who was in the best position to stop her death.
There were other people who would have stopped it earlier, but after the 32 minutes were coming to an end and she was going to die at the second attack, Karl Ross could have stopped it. He dilly-dallied in terms of calling the police and talking to other people about what was going on, to the point where she was probably dead by the time he called the police.
As far as him and a few others, Robert Mozer and Joseph Fink, do you harbor any sort of anger still about those particular people's failure to act? No. I don't. People are people. And like I said, it's you down on the street, so it's also you up in the windows.
People are fearful. As you remember from the documentary, Andree Picq, the plane stewardess who said she was watching and she heard the last screams and saw the guy come back. She said when she was interviewed that she was frozen. She couldn't do anything.
So do I harbor? No. She was so fearful she couldn't do anything. But usually when a few people are aware of a situation like that, somebody will step up. People as you also saw from the documentary, [Hattie Grund] isn't the only one who claims she called the police, and then she said the police told her that, "Oh they've already gotten the call."
Then we got the police logs and the only person they have logged in that called was Karl Ross. Did other people call them and they just didn't log it in? Did they, I mean as a reporter you can go back, you can make up all sorts of questions, but how would you find the answers to them? Did the police not log in certain calls that they wish they had and done something about in hindsight because two weeks later this became such a national story?
Winston Moseley, who raped and murdered Kitty Genovese as well as a woman named Annie Mae Johnson, died last month at Clinton Correctional Facility. (Department of Corrections and Community Supervision)
I wrote a letter to the Times and basically, I said that maybe this will be the final chapter in the tragic story.
But who can predict the future? I don't know. Maybe it will get debated more. Who knows? But it seemed like it would. The major point and what I felt was, my mother after a bit would say to me often because of her belief system that Moseley was a child of God. Although he was a monster that night, she would add, I don't ever want him to be let go from jail but, he's also a child of God. So she forgave him in that way.
The letter I wrote to the Times in relation to Moseley's death was basically I was giving my condolences to Moseley's family. Because I'd met [Winston's son] Steven, as you saw in the documentary, and I wanted them to have the condolences because there was a part of Winston that was not such an awful guy and was a monster.
He was definitely an emerging serial killer, that I believe wanted to get caught, but that's just my belief. I did no research into that. I can give you reasons, but it's personal and anecdotal on my part.
Where he is, in my belief system, is some sort of universal consciousness.
How did meeting Steven inform or change your view of Winston or make you think about him in a new way? I'm not sure I thought about Winston in a new way. What I thought about in a new way, and it was, I don't know if I'd bring it to the point of saying it was the shocker, but it was certainly an eye opener, was that the Moseley family, they were totally convinced all these years that we were part of the Genovese crime family. I think Winston helped let them think that, whether he thought it or not. And they were actually afraid and didn't know if something was going to come out of the woodwork and affect them somehow.
The other was that when the story became so famous, that somehow, even though Winston's wife and Steven's mom moved them from New York to Pittsburgh, the story followed them, and people found out and people would, as Steven would say, picket them for them being sons of the murderer. So the murders that Winston committed not only affected the Genovese family, and the Annie Mae Johnson family, but also the Winston Moseley family in pretty profound ways.
Kitty Genovese in 1956 (Courtesty of The Witness Film LLC)
The basic thing that I got from what Mike Wallace and the other reporters you talked to said, is that they saw the people who repeated it, either saw it as too good of a story to let facts get in the way or accepted it because it was the Times. I’m wondering what you see in terms of the character of the news industry based on that behavior. That is not good obviously. I think A.M. Rosenthal's heart got in the way of his professionalism. My point is in the documentary to debunk the story that gives one the impression that there's 38 witnesses who are eye-witnessing it and all have watched it from the beginning to the end, 32 minutes of it, and did nothing. That is not what happened.
Was there apathy in those buildings and some people should have done more than they did with what they had in front of them? Sure. Were there people who really had no clue of what was going on? Sure. Oh, the story was dead wrong.
When we interviewed A.M. Rosenthal, he said, "Well God knows, I don't know if it was 38 eyewitnesses or maybe it was 40 eyewitnesses, all I know it was a good story that got out there and it did a lot of good." He's right about that. But from a journalist point of view it was inaccurate.
Probably the most visceral part of the movie is towards the end when you bring in an actress to reenact Kitty's final moments. Whose idea was that? How did that come about? That was my idea. I have a sneaking suspicion Jim was thinking that you know this movie has to end with something like that, but he didn't say anything to me. I hesitated to say anything to him because I thought it was too self-indulgent on my part.
Those buildings are exactly the way they were so the acoustics within that street, especially when we did it cause the leaves were off the trees were the same. I was denying my own visceral response or my own potential visceral response thinking that we were doing it in an empirical way. I'll let that out.
Nine cameras and microphones in different apartments where people had witnessed it and made comments. Then also on the street. That's the way I was thinking it was happening. As we were doing different takes of it, I was going to the different apartments. It needs to be understood that back in 1964, and still now, there were single-pane windows. There weren't the double pane and triple panes you have now. So the odds of sound getting through is better. The other thing is each apartment didn't have control over its own heat and in the winter, the odds are they had cracked the windows open. They would be able to hear things fairly well.
When we did it, we left the windows down. For me, the big "ah ha" moment, was the surprise that, holy shit, I got a flashback when I was on the street for like maybe the fifth or sixth take: "Oh my God, this is what it was like." Then I really felt like, "Oh my God, my poor sister." 30 minutes, knowing that people saw, because of people saying things, lights going on, and during that whole time figuring that somebody was going to come to help her or had called the police.
Then she goes into the vestibule, she didn't make it back. She gets into that vestibule. She's laying down, meanwhile blood is filling up the cavity between her ribs and her lungs so she's having a harder and harder time breathing. The door opens and who is it? It's Moseley. It's not the police.
Can you imagine the horror? Put yourself in that position. For me there were two instances of me getting that face-to-face. One was when I was blown up [in Vietnam] and I thought I was alone. I couldn't hear. I was losing blood. I was going into shock. There was a firefight going on. I didn't think anybody was going to get to me. I would maybe just bleed out, even though I was in no pain because I was in such shock.
Well that's what it was for me. It was the need for me to do that ostensibly on the empirical level, but in truth of fact, when I lived through the reenactment, it was just me going back to that and realizing this is the culmination. What else is there to do here? What else do I need to do to get to the bottom of this story?
And one persistent theme in the documentary is that your family is fairly uncomfortable with you pursuing all of this research. Have they changed their opinion on that at all now that the movie is out? Well, my family mostly was not, they didn't participate in it very much at all. Their participation was minimal but you got to see the essence of their participation. They were concerned about me and they couldn't understand what I was going to find that wasn't already known.
So I think in terms of support of me, they never came up to me and said "What the hell are you doing? Somebody's a drug addict." Although one could make a point that maybe I was like a drug addict. They were supportive but they couldn't totally understand why I kept at it. As my older brother said, “Who wants to know about this stuff?”
Well I want to know about it. As a matter of fact, I need to know about it. See, my sister and I were very close and we were close even though we were 12 years apart. I was 16 when she was murdered and as I was getting older we were getting closer and closer and closer. We always had these pretty deep conversations about philosophy. But mostly about history and science and how science and philosophy and history and science and religion sort of meld together into, "What is it all about Alfie? What the hell is life and consciousness about?"
My other brothers weren't into that stuff. It was sort of natural for me to not let it go.
No. I think the movie, the way it ended, which was really about a year and a half ago, was that I think my sister was saying to me finally, "It is over with now." There's no point in going on with that. I think there's other things I'd like to research that have nothing to do with this murder.
One of my regrets is that I didn't somehow in some way, start it 45 years ago, but I was in the service. Also, one of the major chores in our family, was to protect my mother from all this information because my mother, a year after my sister's murder, at age 53 had a stroke. Five years after my sister's murder, my father contracted stomach cancer. Then he died a few days later. My mother lived to be 80.
Up until 1992, our job was to protect her from mail that friends of hers would send her, because there were articles all of the time, they'd send her and they'd thought she'd be interested in it. So that was the major thing. So I really wasn't going to get involved with it then but it's too bad I wasn't able to. Because it would have been interesting to know that. But life comes down the way it comes down.
What are you doing with your newfound free time? With my newfound free time? Well for 40 years now, we have 14 acres out in the woods in Connecticut here. Me and my wife are ecological freaks, so we harvest only dead oak trees or reasonable facsimiles so that we produce no CO2. Because you have to realize that when a tree dies and it finally falls over and rots in the woods, it produces the same CO2 as if you burned it.
So if you bring it into the house before it rots and it's no good, you cut it up, split it, bring it to the house, then you burn, and then you save the oil you would have burned. So your net effect on CO2 is zero. So that's a hobby I've had even while I've been working all these years.
I'll get more into gardening, writing memoirs. See if that turns into something or not. Even if it turns into something my kids, my grandkids, my great grandkids, my great great grandkids, just pull out of a shelf every once in awhile and read over, that's fine with me.
The Witness is now playing at IFC Center. Bill Genovese and director James Solomon will be doing a Q&A at the 7:05 p.m. screening tonight. For showtimes, click here.