New York City was the place to be in late winter of 1964. The World’s Fair was about to open and this new band from Liverpool England had appeared on the Ed Sullivan show February 9th making our city the birthplace of Beatlemania. All five boroughs were coming alive with renewed hope and fun, leaving the dark months of depression following the Kennedy Assassination just a bit behind. I was looking forward to my seventh birthday coming up in April, sharing a railroad style apartment on 149th Street in the Bronx with two sisters, parents and a set of quibbling grandmothers. The neighborhood was getting worse, and the view out the window was of locked down burglar gates. However, I felt secure, as most young kids do, that my family would always be there.
A little over a month after The Beatles took New York, a new story rocked the headlines and another six years old’s life was horribly, suddenly impacted forever. The child was William Genovese, kid brother of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese, whom, as the story went, was brutally murdered in the early hours of March 13 while thirty eight witnesses stood by and did nothing. Along with the news story, went a photo of a doe-eyed Italian American beauty wearing a winsome expression. Kitty Genovese was what we called a “cute girl,” her hair in a trendy short cut. To this day, I think of Annette Funicello when I look at that photo. That picture would go on to grace psychology and sociology articles and textbooks for decades, Kitty Genovese became the poster girl for the “bystander effect” A New York Times article with the headline: 37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call Police. Eventually that number would round up to thirty eight as people all over the city, the country and then the world shook their heads about those cold New Yorkers who stood around watching that girl being massacred and couldn’t be bothered to interfere. In our Bronx neighborhood, the men stood around exhaling cigarette smoke with a “Jeez, whatsamatta with dem” or “that’s Queens for ya” The grizzly details were mostly captured by print journalism and in the deep recesses of DD-5 NYPD reports. The bottom line of the story was that if you’re getting murdered in New York, you’re on your own.
It wasn’t until the late 70s while working in Manhattan that I thought again about Kitty. Making my way down toward Grand Central Station to catch the 11:15 train after a waitress shift at the Lexington Hotel, there were usually plenty of people still parading up and down the street, hustling from here to there. One thought however, pinged my nerves. If someone were to just go crazy and start stabbing me, would anyone, any of these people, respond to my screams?. Would they avert their tired eyes while I bled out like Kitty Genovese? What would I do if I saw someone being attacked? Would I risk my safety to intervene? Decades ago, strangers were, as a rule, reluctant to get involved in disputes, as couples fought violently or even as kids were smacked upside the head anywhere and everywhere if they didn’t behave. We were as a nation desensitized to violence. Keep your head down, tuck in your purse and keep moving was my mantra.
Later in college, I became a bit of a student expert on the case, writing what I thought at least dazzling papers for my psych professors about the bystander effect. After all, I knew all there was to know about the murder from newspapers and my overpriced university textbook, right? I was later to learn how wrong I, the journalists, the publishers, my professors, and practically everyone else had been about the event.
In recent years, I now see it through the eyes of a contemporary of my time, In 1964, At the time of his sister’s famous murder, Bill lived with the rest of Kitty’s family in New Canaan, Connecticut. The Genoveses’ moved. to get out of the Brooklyn crime zone; however, being in her late 20s and quite independent, their oldest child Catherine.chose to stay in the city. Even then, living in New York wasn’t cheap so that meant she worked two jobs, office worker by day and bar manager by night, to support herself and live life on her terms. Kitty worked hard but she was living the career girl’s dream. At the time of her murder and for years hence, much has been made of the “relationship” between Kitty and her roommate Mary Ann Zielonko. Back then, the rumors were whispered, now the affection between the women has been openly blogged about and debated. Like much of Kitty’s life, questions remain, and fifty years later her brother Bill, having grown up, served his country, and lost his legs in the Vietnam War, went looking for some clear answers about what really happened in Kew Gardens starting at approximately 3:20 am and lasting for over half an hour on March 13, 1964. His journey was made into a brilliant 2015 documentary called “The Witness”.
One of the most poignant and perhaps reassuring takeaways of Bill’s painstaking research is that some people did respond. The attack happened in motion, with the murderer leaving the scene and then returning to finish the job as Kitty stumbled from the LIRR parking toward her apartment. Some people, hearing snatches of the attack yelled out the window, some did nothing, many weren’t sure what was happening. Among the residents of the neighborhood were immigrants and concentration camp survivors who feared to notify authorities. The police meant trouble to many.
Despite the mysteries that still remain, Bill Genovese found most importantly a treasure among the ruins in that his big sister did not die alone. A neighbor, Mrs. Sophia Farrar had literally pushed into a blood-covered doorway to hold Kitty in her arms as she took her last breath. Revisiting her life, including a reenactment of the fateful night, created a portrait of a fun loving woman who was loved by so many. And that iconic photo, well, it was later disclosed that was a mugshot of Kitty during an arrest for bookmaking in 1961. Kitty was a real young woman with joys and passions and frailties–she’s was and still is much more than a symbol of tragedy or a case history for social scientists.
Some will argue that the New York Times rushed to judgement in order to get a headline. However, the counter argument is that the story fueled a movement to inspire people to not just stand by like innocent bystanders when they can do something to help someone who is being attacked. Questioning the motive of the New York Times story can only be answered by those responsible for publishing it. In the end, the tragedy of Kitty Genovese has probably haunted anyone who has ever stood by or walked away from someone in desperate need of help. The loss of a life so young and innocent though, is the most tragic part.