‘An Entire Neighborhood Was Defamed’

Janine Jackson interviewed Marcia Gallo about Kitty Genovese for the May 13, 2016, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Marcia Gallo (image: Lied Library)

Marcia Gallo: (image: Lied Library)


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Janine Jackson: Few events have gone from fact to fable as quickly and decisively as that of the 1964 killing of Kitty Genovese. For decades we’ve heard references to the poor young woman stabbed again and again on a New York City street while some 38 people—Genovese’s neighbors—watched from their windows without making a move to help. In some tellings, some of them pulled up chairs for a better view. But in all tellings, the community’s apathy was the reason for Genovese’s death, almost as much as her killer, Winston Moseley, whose death in prison last month brought the story briefly back into the headlines.

You may have heard that the tale calls for some asterisks: maybe not quite 38 people, maybe they didn’t say precisely the infamous words, “I didn’t want to get involved.” But the work of our next guest shows that the Kitty Genovese story goes well beyond a case of reporters missing some details. Marcia Gallo is assistant professor of history at the University of Nevada/Las Vegas. She’s the author of “No One Helped”: Kitty Genovese, New York City and the Myth of Urban Apathy. She joins us now by phone from Wilmington, Delaware. Welcome to CounterSpin, Marcia Gallo.

Marcia Gallo: Thank you, Janine.

Kitty Genovese

Kitty Genovese: “From all accounts, she was somebody who was a lot of fun to know.”

JJ: So much is about her death, of course, and one of the key things about your book is how it illuminates her life. So let’s start there—before the New York Times story, before what happened to her that night. Tell us something about what Kitty Genovese was like.

MG: Oh, yes. From all accounts, she was somebody who was a lot of fun to know. Everyone, from her family members to her lover to her best friends to the people that worked with her, all of them talk about this vibrant, lively, intelligent, inquisitive woman who, at 28, was making a really great life for herself in Queens, New York.

She had grown up in Brooklyn, was the oldest of five children of an Italian-American family, and very, very close to the family. But one of the things that Kitty also was was incredibly independent. And when in the late ’50s, the family decided that crime was getting a little too much for them, they decided to move the family to Connecticut, to New Canaan, and Kitty decided that she would not follow. Even in the late ’50s and early ’60s, which is pretty significant, especially for a woman steeped in certain cultural traditions of family and home and domesticity, she recognized that she wanted something else.

So she moved to Queens and found work and found an apartment and found friends and lovers, but never let go of that family tie. And I think that’s one of the things that first attracted me to her. The other thing, of course, was that she drove a red Fiat in 1964 around New York City, which is quite remarkable for, again, a young woman of her time.

JJ: I do want to take you now to March 12, 1964, and we’ll begin talking about the story of it, but first let’s talk about the facts of it. What, as best we now know, can we say did happen on the night of March 12?

Winston Moseley (photo: UPI)

Winston Moseley: “the only person who was the actual witness to the crime from beginning to end.”

MG: It’s always important to remember that the facts come from the murderer. The only person who was the actual witness to the crime from beginning to end, of course, was Winston Moseley. And so his account, given to the police just a few days after the crime was committed, is that he went out that evening, as he had done at least a couple of times previously, as he put it, “looking for a woman to kill.”

Now this is a man, also 28, African-American; also lived in Queens, in nearby Hollis; he had a very good job, he had absolutely no police record, he was a family man with kids. But he obviously had this horrible proclivity which led him to misogynist assaults.

So he went out early in the morning of the 13th, Friday the 13th, actually, and drove around looking for a woman, spotted Kitty—might have been that red Fiat, unfortunately—and followed her. She was heading home, it was about 3 a.m. She had been at the bar that she managed in Hollis, called Ev’s Eleventh Hour. She had been there that evening, went out for dinner with a friend, came back to help close up.

So at 3 a.m., she’s doing what she did many, many, many times, and she’s driving home, probably a little too fast, and he spots her and follows her. He follows her all the way to Kew Gardens. She pulls into the Long Island Railroad station there and parks her car as she always did and, according to him, spots him over her shoulder. And he starts running toward her, she is running away from him up Austin Street, toward, I think, a neighborhood bar that was on the corner, but it was closed.

Moseley catches up to her, stabs her in the back a number of times, and Kitty is screaming for her life. A neighbor hears her and raises his window, yells down, “Leave that girl alone, hey you!” Moseley runs away. And Kitty is able to make it around the corner and into the first apartment door, right on the LIRR tracks, and collapses on the floor.

Moseley, after he runs away, waits. He gets in his car, he waits, he changes his hat, and then he returns, spots her in this vestibule, goes inside, and then proceeds to stab her again in the lungs, and then attempt to rape her, as she is again screaming for help, but much more feebly. She’s extremely wounded and bleeding heavily by this point. And she’s off the street, and no one really could see her.

Someone opens the door at the top of the stairs. Moseley realized he’s been spotted, and he takes her wallet and runs away. The person at the top of the stairs, who’s a friend of Kitty’s, is in complete shock, but he does get it together enough to call a friend and then call the police. And the ambulance arrives within minutes, and unfortunately Kitty dies on the way to the hospital.

But not by herself. A neighbor came to her as soon as the man at the top of the stairs alerted her, and cradled Kitty in her arms as they waited for the ambulance. I think that detail is significant, because it shows that this is not what was then made out to be true. This was a neighborhood of people who, once they knew that their Kitty was in trouble, acted.

JJ: The meaning, so-called, from the Kitty Genovese story that we hear today is very, very different in elements and in its overarching feeling. But let’s trace now, then, the story. What does the very first reporting look like?

MG: The best reporting immediately is from a local paper. The Long Island Press in particular really did an excellent job of telling the story, without malice or without exaggeration, but they’re a local paper. It’s the New York Times that initially buries the story on page 28. “Queens Woman Stabbed to Death in Front of Home,” I mean, that’s the headline.

A.M. Rosenthal, in an AP photo from 1965

A.M. Rosenthal, in an AP photo from 1965: “He discounts the social activism that’s taking place in New York at that time.”

But the newly named Metropolitan editor of the Times is A.M. Rosenthal, who has been back in New York less than a year after ten years abroad, and part of what he does is make sure that he is in touch with all the opinion-makers in town, including the police commissioner.

So about a week after the crime—which he doesn’t even notice in the back pages of the paper—he has lunch with Police Commissioner [Michael J.] Murphy, and Murphy, who’s also from Queens, says to him, you know, this crime in Queens the other day is one for the books, you gotta check it out. Basically feeds him the story of the frustration of the Queens detectives and police officers when they could not get the neighbors to even open their doors to talk to them. They were very frustrated, because they just weren’t getting the kind of help from the community that they expected. So that’s the story the commissioner feeds Rosenthal.

Rosenthal then assigns a veteran copy editor, Martin Gansberg, who is eager to do more reporting, to go to Queens, investigate, talk to the cops, et cetera. Gansberg meets with a very similar kind of refusal on the part of the neighbors. They don’t want to talk to him, they don’t want to see their name in print, they just want to forget this horrible thing ever happened in their neighborhood. They’re still grieving.

So that became the story of the 38 people who didn’t want to help. It’s very much filtered through the lens of police frustration with the neighbors’ lack of assistance in their investigation.

JJ: It’s a news story, but then it’s a theme, you know, and the New York Times really kind of goes all in for six weeks with other stories. And one of the things you learn is that even Kitty’s girlfriend, Mary Ann Zielonko, believed the reporting that she was reading that no one had gone to Kitty’s aid, isn’t that true? So the reporting kind of takes on a life of its own. And then we get up to the big piece, the May 3 piece from Rosenthal. Tell us about that.

MG: Right. Within two weeks of the crime, we’re learning next to nothing about the victim except for her name, her age and the fact that she was a bar manager. We know almost nothing about the perpetrator, who—and this is almost never mentioned—is caught six days later because of neighbors in Corona, who take action because they see him burglarizing a house. Now, that could have been the lead, right?

JJ: Right.

MG: “Murderer Caught Because Neighbors Get Involved.” But no. The apathy trope was so potent that that’s what the story became about.

And then May 3 is the Sunday Magazine piece that Rosenthal pens about the sickness of apathy. And that becomes the template for the book, his only book, that’s published about a month later, called 38 Witnesses.

This apathy theme not only resonates with New Yorkers, it goes viral and everyone around the world is starting to comment on, oh my goodness, what’s happening to us as a people? Psychologists weigh in, ministers weigh in, even Surgeon General Everett Koop weighs in. I mean, so many people are commenting on the story that, as you say, it takes on a life of its own, fueled by A.M. Rosenthal.

JJ: As you say, we get bystander syndrome, a whole kind of psychological thing, we get Good Samaritan laws. Many people may not know that 911 did not exist in 1964, and that’s one of the things that comes out of it.

I can tell you from personal experience, it still affects CPR training. I was told, don’t just say, someone call 911, you have to pick an individual and tell them to call, otherwise no one will call.

The cultural impact is manifest, and yet the cultural impact in some ways results from a fable. Part of the reason it’s discomfiting is the way that it fits within the social climate of the time. Rosenthal is complaining about apathy at a time that really was a time of serious social activism, and that disconnect is problematic. Can you talk a little about that?

MG: Yes. I originally thought that he would be just the straight-up villain in the story. And there are certainly things to criticize him for, there’s no question about it, including not insisting that the reporting be much more in depth.

However, remember that Rosenthal had just come back from postings around the world, but his especial, kind of, where he won his only Pulitzer Prize as a newsman, is in Eastern Europe. And he wrote this very powerful piece about Auschwitz, where he talks about Auschwitz being turned into, as he put it, “the most grisly tourist site on Earth.” And it leads him into this conversation about the Good German, and about people turning their backs, turning away from evil in their midst, and not taking action, not taking personal responsibility. And that becomes the linchpin for him. Right?

So he discounts, oddly enough, he discounts the social activism that’s taking place in New York at that time, on so many levels, and instead aims at what he sees as a failure of personal responsibility. That’s what he’s preaching, and he’s using the Times as his bully pulpit. We need to care about one another one-on-one, forget this social activism. Forget the committees and the fundraisers and the marches and the protests. That’s not going to do anything to change things, it has to start one-on-one.

JJ: I think it’s possible to appreciate Rosenthal’s call for person-to-person responsibility and still question his putdown of social activism. He really does—if folks go back and read that essay, there’s a lot of twisting and turning going on that makes apathy a very useful device to mean many things that Rosenthal himself does not like.

MG: Yes.

JJ: Black people are apathetic towards other black people because sometimes they call them Uncle Toms…. I mean, it’s a useful thing for him, which is not to say that there is not a core idea in it that has resonance.

MG: No, the thing that was the most stunning to me after him blaming sort of everybody who had ever joined an organization for avoiding personal responsibility by joining collective action, which makes no sense, was that he specifically went after white women, who he called out, especially in his book but also, I think, in that article, for their hypocrisy, as if somehow their political actions didn’t match their personal lives.

And I think I know exactly who he was talking about: an amazing integration activist named Ellen Lowry, who had her entire life been involved in the struggle for equitable schools in New York City, was in the pages of the Times over and over and over again for her fearless activism around race and segregation. So that was the thing that just stunned me the most, in addition to him taking on people who had gotten involved, was his sort of very specific denigration of this particular woman and her activism.

Kew Gardens depicted in New York Times, 1965: (photo: Edward Hausner/NYT)

Kew Gardens, Queens, depicted in New York Times, 1965: “Many people go, oh yeah, that’s where that girl was killed and nobody helped.” (photo: Edward Hausner/NYT)

But the other thing that still really one can’t escape is the way in which an entire neighborhood was defamed, really. I mean, they were made out to be these horrible people. And it is still; when you mention Kew Gardens, many, many people go, oh yeah, that’s where that girl was killed and nobody helped.

JJ: And, you know, we were just talking last week about gang raids in public housing, and it’s the same kind of thing that can happen, where protecting community becomes accusing even the victims of crime as being somehow culpable, you know, communities in which crime occurs become “criminal communities.”

MG: Yes. Yes.

JJ: Well, almost every story of imperfect journalism, or troubling journalism, is also a story of good journalism, and that’s true here. You mentioned earlier Long Island Press, which from the beginning talked about Kitty as a whole person, you know, right from the start. But the New York Times, we should be clear, has revisited the original kind of fabulization.

MG: Jim Rasenberger, in 2004, as a freelancer, does some amazing investigative work and finds Mary Ann Zielonko. So for 40 years, not only was Kitty sort of erased as a crime victim, and we knew almost next to nothing about her, but her lover was also erased, even though the police had brought her in for questioning, brought in all their friends. Everyone knew, including Rosenthal, that there was a woman that Kitty not only shared her apartment with, but her life. Rasenberger finds Zielonko and convinces her to speak with him, and for the first time we get the voice of someone who knew a whole ’nother side of Kitty and Kitty’s life.

The other newsperson that did amazing work, in 1984, was a man named John Melia, who has been writing for Queens newspapers for years. And when I talked to him a couple years ago, he said to me, “You know, the story never smelled right, it just didn’t fit what we knew about that neighborhood, and we kept saying we shouldn’t run with this,” but they were overruled because it was the New York Times.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Marcia Gallo, assistant professor of history at the University of Nevada/Las Vegas. The book is “No One Helped”: Kitty Genovese, New York City and the Myth of Urban Apathy. It’s out now from Cornell University Press. Marcia Gallo, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

MG: Thank you so much, Janine. I really appreciate it.



This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.