‘Kitty Genovese’: the untold story of a shocking 1964 murder
In his new book “Kitty Genovese,” Kevin Cook revisits the 1964 murder of a woman killed on the streets of Queens. He unearths fact errors and misinterpretations in the story that spoke to America of urban apathy and moral decline.
Special to The Seattle Times
‘Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America’
by Kevin Cook
WW. Norton, 288 pp., $25.95
It’s possible that without what happened to Kitty Genovese in New York City 50 years ago, we would not have Phoenix Jones and Purple Reign in Seattle today, patrolling Pioneer Square with other costumed civilians in the Rain City Superhero Movement.
That might seem a stretch. But when Kevin Cook writes, “This is the story of a crime that lasted forever,” he makes a compelling case, tracing Genovese’s death to the Guardian Angels and other citizen crime-stoppers, along with reforms now part of the national landscape, from the 911 emergency-call system to the widespread embrace of good Samaritan laws.
As the story was told in The New York Times — and repeated often, in speeches, textbooks and elsewhere — Genovese was stabbed to death in Queens in the early- morning hours of March 13, 1964, as 38 neighbors watched, doing nothing to alert police. The story came to speak for urban apathy and moral decline. It came to speak for our unwillingness to get involved.
But half a century later the story stands for something else. Kitty Genovese’s death speaks to the power of myth — how easy to create, how hard to dispel.
Over the years the occasional professor, reporter and neighborhood sleuth have chipped away at the myth. Cook takes their work and pushes it further, establishing that the number of eyewitnesses was nowhere near 38; that what witnesses there were, were not universally apathetic; and that the police were not blameless for what happened that night.
The distortions derive from a lunch shared by the city’s police commissioner and the city editor of The New York Times. The commissioner told a story sure to shock and the editor, Abe Rosenthal, assigned a reporter to it, culminating in an account that has endured despite a host of errors. By one investigator’s count, six errors populate the story’s first four sentences.
In his book, published on the 50th anniversary of Genovese’s death, Cook reconstructs the crime and analyzes the wealth of social-science research that has come from it.
At times, his reconstruction feels cartoonish: One police detective gets likened to a bulldog not once but twice. (The next time a detective gets likened to a dog, please let the dog be a whippet or a Maltese or a Bichon Frise — anything but a bulldog.) Cook also seems incapable of naming a restaurant, hotel or bar without reciting all the famous people who once ate, slept or drank there. This gets tiresome.
Where the book succeeds is in its sensitive treatment of Genovese, allowing the reader to see her as more than a symbol. Genovese, who was gay, was killed on the anniversary of meeting her partner, who was interviewed by Cook and whose sense of loss remains acute, 50 years later. (Her killer, Winston Moseley, remains in prison).
Cook, author of “Titanic Thompson: the Man Who Bet on Everything,” also does an admirable job of placing the case in historical context. The case’s exaggerations aside, Genovese’s death did spotlight the need for an engaged citizenry. Whether that should include citizens in superhero costumes can be debated, but when you see this plea on Purple Reign’s blog — “Remember Kitty by responding to and reporting crime. You may save someone’s life” — it’s hard to argue the point.
Ken Armstrong: firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Seattle Times reporter, he is the co-author of “Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity,” winner of the Edgar Award for best fact crime book.