Author reconstructs Kitty Genovese’s murder, sets record straight on myths surrounding it

Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America. Kevin Cook. Norton. 256 pages. $25.95.
Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America. Kevin Cook. Norton. 256 pages. $25.95.

The crime happened 50 years ago this month, on a Friday the 13th. A young woman met a vile end at the hands of a knife-wielding maniac in the courtyard of her Queens apartment building. In a city as big and fast-paced as New York, she could have easily become a statistic, another urban casualty tossed into the maw of forgetfulness. But Kitty Genovese’s name endures. And in his new book, Kevin Cook takes a revisionist look at this infamous crime, the facts of which are not as settled as the public has been led to believe.

After the news media reported that 37 of Genovese’s neighbors had witnessed her murder, standing by without lifting a finger to help, pundits across the nation decried social apathy. The loss of community spirit, of a shared sense of responsibility, augured badly for the future. Students at high schools and colleges started learning about the bystander effect, a catchphrase coined by psychologists to explain the appalling behavior of Genovese’s neighbors.

But Cook corrects misinformation. Only two people — not 37 — actually witnessed Genovese’s attack (a handful of others were woken by her screams). This cowardly pair turned their backs on her as she was repeatedly stabbed; the rest were unsure what was happening. Also contrary to myth, the police were called. And even though the killer could have still been lurking, a brave woman rushed to the fatally wounded victim’s side and tried to comfort her. Could more have been done? Absolutely. But for all their faults, Genovese’s neighbors were not the “residential barbarians” depicted by the media.

The man chiefly responsible for this was A.M. Rosenthal, the metropolitan editor of The New York Times. Rosenthal had lunch with the police commissioner shortly after the culprit, a 29-year-old keypunch operator named Winston Moseley, was apprehended. The commissioner had a problem. In addition to Genovese, Moseley had falsely confessed to another murder. To keep the Times from muddying the prosecutorial waters, the commissioner brought up the neighbors’ supposed inaction. Rosenthal took the bait. After it was featured on the front page, the story went viral, circa 1964.

Cook writes tautly, with skillful pacing and absorbing characterization. Occasionally, however, his attention to historical detail can be disconcerting. There is nothing wrong with providing context, but the author pads his narrative with lengthy discussions of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the World’s Fair and other subjects that while interesting have little do with the murder.

But he generally stays focused on the essentials. This is about two lost souls: one full of life, the other barely human. On the surface, Genovese’s killer had it made as a black man in the pre-Civil Rights Act era. A middle-class homeowner with a wife, two kids and five German shepherds, he had a well-paying job and an above-average IQ. But he was a sociopath who had prowled the streets for weeks before spotting Genovese, during which he raped several women, one of whom he set on fire.

Genovese was a 28-year-old Italian-American bar manager who lived with her girlfriend, Mary Ann Zielonko. Cook’s interview with Zielonko is heartbreaking; she clearly loved Genovese. Neither side raised Genovese’s sexuality at Moseley’s trial; it was considered irrelevant. Nevertheless Cook goes into detail about the threats and obstacles gay couples faced in the early 1960s, when laws against same-sex behavior were enthusiastically enforced. (Fair-minded readers will be outraged at Zielonko’s treatment by homophobic police after the murder.) Genovese didn’t let this, or anything else, get her down. Everybody seemed to like her.

You will feel queasy when you learn what Moseley did to this nice lady after he stabbed her. Unfortunately, she was alive throughout the disgusting ordeal. Moseley knew no limits. A few years later, a prison doctor found a can of Spam shoved up his rectum, a ploy to be sent to the hospital, from which he escaped. He raped two women before he was recaptured.

But let us leave the damned in the pit and return to Genovese, whose name still resonates in our discourse. It was even used to justify the Iraq war. Perhaps the most haunting image in Cook’s book is at the end, when we find out the last words she heard, spoken in vain by Sophia Farrar, the neighbor who came to her aid: “Help is coming.”

Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.


Read more Books stories from the Miami Herald

 <span class="cutline_leadin">STONE MATTRESS: </span>Nine Tales. Margaret Atwood. Nan A. Talese. Doubleday. 288 pages. $25.95.


    Past looms large in new stories from Margaret Atwood

    In Margaret Atwood’s new collection, the past looms large for aging protagonists, but sympathy and regret abound, too.

  • What are you reading now?

    “I just finished Claire DeWitt and The City of the Dead by Sara Gran, which I love, love, loved. It’s a mystery set in New Orleans shortly after the storm and solved by girl detective, Claire DeWitt, who applies her special method of detection which is pretty much based on yoga and Buddhism combined with the altered mind states of drugs, drink, dreams and growing up in Brooklyn.”

 <span class="cutline_leadin">WHAT STAYS IN VEGAS:</span> The World of Personal Data — Lifeblood of Big Business C — and the End of Privacy as We Know It. Adam Tanner. PublicAffairs. 316 pages. $27.99.


    ‘What Stays in Vegas’ examines data packaging and the end of privacy

    Journalist explains how data packaging makes American companies the biggest threat to privacy.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category