It was arguably the one of the most storied murders
in New York history, but the legend of the killing of Kitty Genovese is
also one of the most misunderstood. This tragic story is famous as much
or more so for the misinformation that has long been spread about the
situation than it is for the horrific murder itself.
Even if you do not recognize Genovese's name,
chances are you have heard the story. It is a sad and horrific tale
which has resonated for over half a century since it was reported in an
extremely evocative, if rather factually inaccurate article in The
New York Times, two weeks after the murder.
The accepted story pretty much goes like this: One
night, a bartender named Kitty Genovese was walking from her car to her
apartment when she was suddenly attacked on the street by a stranger
brandishing a knife. As Genovese struggled and screamed for her life
outside her apartment building, 38 of her neighbors looked out the
window and watched the crime. One man yelled out the window, scaring
the attacker off for a while, but no one went down to help Genovese, nor
did anyone call the police. Eventually, a half hour later, realizing
that no one was helping the woman, who was badly injured and desperately
trying to get back home, the killer returned and finished the job,
raping and killing Genovese.
It was a terrible, tragic story. In an America
still reeling from the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Kitty Genovese
became a symbol of "urban apathy" – proof that we are all alone out
there. Since then, the story has become a staple of pop culture, a
sermon from the mount on the evil of city life, cynical proof that most
people really only care about themselves in this world.
The problem is that the story was not exactly true.
No one knows exactly where the journalist came up with the figure of 38
people watching the murder. Yes, 38 people did testify with the police
about the fateful night, but most of them saw nothing. Some heard a
scream or fighting. A few claimed they saw a tiny bit of the attack.
Some claim that they called the police and were told that the police
were aware of the attack and on their way. The story claimed that
Genovese was attacked three times, but in reality it was twice, the
second fatal time in a section of the building that was very remote.
Also, despite the fact that the story insisted no one went to her,
Genovese's next door neighbor and friend did indeed go down, at her own
personal peril, and held and talked to Genovese as she died.
Some people may think that those are just little
facts, they don't mean anything. However, they meant everything to the
neighborhood, and more vitally to Genovese's family. Particularly her
younger brother Bill. Bill, who went on to be badly injured in Vietnam,
has never given up on his strong need to figure out what really happened
to his sister. This led Bill Genovese to meet filmmaker and
screenwriter James Solomon. The pair decided to get together to find
out the truth of not only Kitty Genovese's death, but also her life.
This 11-year quest led to the stunning documentary The Witness,
in which Solomon and a small film crew followed Bill Genovese as he got
past the lies and tried to come to a better understanding of the sister
he missed so badly, and of the night over 50 years ago in which she was
ripped violently away from him.
A few days before the New York premiere of The
Witness, we sat down with director Solomon to learn about the long
and winding road which led towards truth and healing and finally getting
a better understanding of the life and death of Kitty Genovese.
did you first learn about the Kitty Genovese story?
I'm a New Yorker. I grew up in New York City. For
most New Yorkers, it is as seminal a crime as there is, in the last 100
years in New York City. Everyone will know about it. I became most
interested [when] a literary agent named Andrew Browner had gotten
The 38 Witnesses reprinted. He had sent it to me when it was
getting reprinted – this was in 1999 – and I thought it would be the
basis for an interesting script. I'm a screenwriter. That's my
profession. I'm typically drawn to iconic stories we think we know.
Right. I don't know
if you'll remember, but the first time I heard of the Genovese story was
through a 1970s TV movie based on it called
Right. I hadn't seen that. I remember that was one
of those incredible... it had sort of an all-star cast. Lots of great
actors. But I'm always drawn to these iconic stories. And then the
story behind the story. The last movie I did was about the Lincoln
assassination that Robert Redford directed called The Conspirator.
Before that I did a TV series called The Bronx is Burning about
New York in the 1970s. It starred John Turturro and Oliver
Platt. So, I'm drawn to these stories. Kitty Genovese being such an
iconic story felt particularly interesting. There are so many mysteries
of what happened that night in the apartments. How that story came to
be. Who is Kitty Genovese? Because she's only known for the last 32
minutes of her life. Who was this person Winston Moseley, who murdered
her? There are multiple mysteries and that was of great interest to
me. I thought it would make for an interesting screenplay.
How did you meet Bill
I sold a pitch to HBO in collaboration with two
others, Joe Berlinger and Alfred Uhry. It was at that time that I met
Bill Genovese. As research, I went up to meet with Bill where he
lives. The first thing that happens when you meet Bill Genovese is
you're immediately struck by how Kitty suddenly comes to life. She's
only known for the way that she died, but Bill was so close to her and
loved her so much that suddenly you begin to get a sense of Kitty. You
get a sense of a person that you really wish you'd known through Bill.
The other thing, Jay, that was really striking to me was just how deeply
impacted Bill was, not just by the loss of his sister, but the way she
reportedly died. That story, Bill said to me at the time, "I felt like
I needed to prove not only that I would have been someone who would have
opened the window that night, but would have gone down into the
Nothing came of that HBO project. However in 2004
The New York Times actually revisited its own story and
questioned whether it was accurate. Having known how much Bill was
deeply affected by the story of that happened to his sister and how it
changed the course of his life, I reached out to him, to get a sense of
his perception and his thoughts. He expressed an interest and desire to
find out for himself what actually had happened. Also, in that article
it referenced Kitty's life and quoted her former roommate, who was
actually her lover. Bill didn't know a lot about her life in New York.
The combination of him wanting to find out what happened that night and
also what his sister's life was like in New York propelled him to want
to go off to investigate. He allowed me to accompany him. I realized –
I actually realized this in 1999, but I'm a screenwriter, so I was
writing a screenplay – but I realized that the best way of telling what
happened that night and who Kitty Genovese was, was through the people
who were closest with her.
Bill was Kitty’s brother so he was connected, and yet he seemed much
more obsessive about Kitty’s death than any of the other siblings, who
mostly were trying to move on with their lives. Were you surprised
about how much effort he put into understanding a crime that happened so
I suppose the answer to that is yes, and no. No
from the standpoint of there were so many unanswered questions and
Bill's life had been so deeply affected by a story that had serious
flaws. It stands to reason to my mind that he'd want to find out
himself what actually happened, if he could do so. Keep in mind, Bill
was a scout in Vietnam. His job was a field intelligence scout. His
wife, early when I met her, possibly in 1999 he may have told me this,
but certainly in 2004 his wife described him as "always the scout."
That's Bill. In my mind, he's the ultimate truth seeker. He's
determined to find the truth wherever it leads him.
So if you have a sense of Bill, and that's part of
what he [does]. He explores. You get a sense of Kitty through Bill.
When you understand Bill's questioning, and his needing to find the
truth, seeking answers, you get a glimpse at who Kitty must have been.
Somehow, she answered his questions, she fed his questions, she
encouraged his questions. He said to me early on he wanted to do in a
way for others what Kitty had done for him: to give them voice. What
sets this film apart from any other – and for 50 years people have been
portraying in various ways the murder of Kitty Genovese, most recently
Girls and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit – but for 50
years no one has heard from the people who actually were most impacted
by her life and death. This is as inside a story of Kitty Genovese as
there has ever been, or ever will be. It's all because of Bill.
New York Times
story portrayed Kitty’s murder in a way that it has become almost
shorthand for a certain idea – urban apathy; we are all alone out
there. Why do you feel that people became so entranced by the sad story
of her killing?
The original story is "For more than a half-hour 38
watched..." 38 watched. Let me look at the actual story. "For more
than a half-hour, 38 respectable law-abiding citizens in Queens watched
a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew
Gardens, and none called the police." Now, that story is so horrific it
creates a feeling of theater. A theatrical event. A staged killing
watched by an audience. That's what the story portrayed. Again it's
only conjecture, but if you go back in time in March of 1964, four and a
half months after Kennedy was assassinated, the country was exploring
questions of "Who are we?" This story spoke to that question. It was
a morality play. The crime rates in the cities around the country were
rising. Kennedy had been assassinated. There was a perception that
there was some kind of moral decay in the country. This story served as
a parable that reinforced this notion. It also spoke to a general
question. It spoke to everybody's fear of how alone are we? Are we
really on our own? What do we owe each other? Ultimate questions.
The problem with it is that the story simply wasn't
true. The narrative was flawed. Why it resonates, it resonated then
and it still resonates now, there is an expression that journalists
have: "Some stories are too good to check." This was one of those.
Now, had the story been accurately reported, as [writer and historian]
Jim Rasenberger says in the film, it would have been a three or four day
story. It was not going to be a big story.
Right, in a strange
Times story, even though it was flawed, was the thing that made the
Genovese story resonate for all these years later. If the Times
had not pushed the idea of urban apathy, do you think anyone would
remember the death of Kitty Genovese other than her family and friends?
Correct, but also keep in mind one of the effects
was Kitty's life got erased as a result of that story. Of course she
would only be known to the public through her death, because she was not
a famous figure, so we would not know her name 50 years later if the
Times hadn't reported it as such. But, within the family, the
horror and tragedy was so profound and so great that even within Bill's
own family, within Kitty's own family, Kitty's life was erased. It was
easier for the family to cope with the loss by not talking. Cope with
the tragedy of her death by not speaking of her life. A woman who was
28 years old. She was almost... Kitty was like a millennial living in
1964. Drove a red Fiat convertible. Day manager at a bar. Picked up
her girlfriend in a bar in Greenwich Village. Fun dancer. Funny.
Really smart. There were lots of stories that a family presumably would
share, but they shared none, because [the pall of] her death was so
great. So, yes, you're right, in some respects, her name is famous and
stayed for 50 years, [but] within Kitty's own family her life actually
was erased as result of the tragedy.
difficult was it to track down living witnesses after 50 years? How
involved were you with tracking down some of the witnesses, or did you
allow Bill to do all the detective work?
The way it worked was, we identified in conversation
what it was that Bill was seeking. There were four mysteries,
essentially. Four or five mysteries that were of interest to Bill. He
wanted to find out what happened that night. He wanted to find out how
the story of his sister's murder came to be. He wanted to find out what
his sister's life was like in New York. He wished to find out who the
person was [who killed] his sister. Just to be clear, the guy was in
jail, but he wanted to find out what kind of person was Winston Moseley,
who murdered his sister. He cast an extremely wide net. He and I
talked about all the various people. He wrote down as many names as he
could gather. Then the process of trying to find if they were still
alive or not. We helped, so far as we could be helpful, to him, in
trying to locate the people that he wanted to speak to. If I wrote to
someone and invoked Bill, I sent him the letter before I sent it. If he
had questions, he was meeting somebody, he would write his questions.
He might send me the questions. I would send him some questions. Then
he would ask the questions he wanted to ask.
Over 11 years, a very intimate and close
collaboration develops between a filmmaker and a subject of a film. But
it was driven by Bill's need and objectives from beginning to end. We
get a sense that Bill is a very strong figure and has a clear sense of
what it is that he wants. But he's also, as you can see in every
interview and conversation he has, he's very open. So it becomes a
dialogue. I also should mention that in the course of making a film
about a brother who lost a sister, my own brother, John, got sick and
I'm very sorry to
So what started as an abstract understanding of
sibling loss for me became far less so. I had a much deeper
understanding of what Bill's loss must have been like. So on that
level, it was a real profound connection between the subject and the
Bill's loss was also
probably compounded by his terrible wounding in Vietnam. He suggested
that he went into the war almost as a specific reaction to the apathy he
read about in the story of people not helping his sister. I know it's a
real leap, but do you think that the tone of the story is in some way
almost responsible for contributing to his becoming disabled?
That's a really perfect question that I have thought
often about. As you know, in life it's impossible to remove a moment
and imagine [what life would be without it]. I mean, you can imagine
it. In my personal opinion, yes. I believe, from the moment that I've
met Bill and the conversations that I've had with Bill, that not just
the loss of his sister, but also the story of how his sister died,
propelled Bill to enlist in the Marines. In a sense to prove that he
wasn't like one of the 38 witnesses. To prove, as he said to me, "Not
only would I have opened the window, but I would have gone down in the
street." Yes, in my opinion, had that story not come out as it came
out, as 38 watched, I don't believe Bill would have been motivated to
enlist in the Marines to go to Vietnam less that two years after his
sister's murder. But I have no idea, and that's critical. Who knows?
Jay, hypothetically, if his sister had just died
tragically and there wasn't the accompanying story, would someone's
grief and anger propel them to do something? Would wanting to get out
of the house? To get away? If nothing happened to his sister, would
John Kennedy's call to action – "Ask not what your country can do for
you..." – would that have propelled him? We don't know. We never
know. But I do think there was a direct correlation between the
reporting of his sister's murder and his decision to go to Vietnam.
It's the way he's lived his life. It didn't just stop with going to
Vietnam. He's always needed to prove that he wasn't like one of the
witnesses. He's always been a stand-upper, not a bystander. That's an
expression he uses.
of things we'll never quite know, some of the witnesses that you were
able to find alive deny the allegations of the original story – one
woman insisted she called the police and was told they were already
aware of the attack and had been called several times; another woman
says she was with Kitty as she died.
Yes, that was Sophia Farrar. She had two children
and she and her husband lived next door. They just happened to live
next door to each other, but because she was a few years older than
Kitty and a mother, she had a particular affinity for Kitty. She was a
homemaker, so she was home a lot and she would talk to Kitty. They
became very close.
Obviously it has been
decades and no one will ever be able to prove anything, but did you tend
to believe these stories, or think that they were ways of dealing with
guilt, perhaps even false memories, after all this time?
Well, let's start with Sophia Farrar. There was a
newspaper at that time called The Long Island Press. Sophia
Farrar's name appears in those accounts in the first days as having been
there, at the scene. And having been there when Kitty died. She
testified in trial as having been there when Kitty died. So her story
is corroborated, either by her own statements [at the time] or
testimony. It's just somehow, somehow, over the course of a matter of
weeks, she gets dropped from the narrative. And the narrative becomes
no one helped. It strains credulity to understand how did her part of
the narrative get dropped? And this is the saddest, most tragic part of
it – for a half century Bill's family, particularly his parents, did not
know that Kitty died in the arms of a friend. That's astounding. And
so tragic. But she didn't make that up.
Now as to your point about... the film is very much
about false narratives. The stories we tell ourselves, either in the
middle of the night or across 50 years. Those stories that we tell
ourselves, whether they are real or they are imagined, are just as
important in shaping our lives. Steven Moseley [the son of the killer,
who is now a reverend] has told himself a story for many years about who
the Genovese family is. [In the interview, it comes out that he thought
they were related to the famous Genovese crime family.] That has helped
him, to some extent. And also what motivated his father. Those
narratives have helped him to live with the pain of a father who was a
budding serial murderer.
Were you surprised
when Winston Moseley wrote Bill and to this day was still proclaiming
His story changed. I don't know what Winston
Moseley actually believes. Winston Moseley, by the way, you should
know, died. He died at the end of March. The obituary was in The
New York Times. You can look at it. It was on April 4th. After
serving nearly 52 years in prison. Bill Genovese has a beautiful letter
that appears that he wrote to the Times, so if you wrote "William
Genovese, letter to the editor" you'll see a letter that he wrote that
was published in the Times after he died. Moseley's story
changed. I do not know. None of us knows what he really believed. But
it was a six page, single spaced letter, in detail. One can only assume
that he actually believed the narrative. What his psychosis and how
delusional this tale [is] refers to him.
But that's different. In my mind, that borders on
psychopathology. That's different than a story of somebody who thinks
they called the police and may not have. Or somebody who thinks that
the victim's family is the crime family. There are all sorts of stories
woven through the film. The other thing is, despite this flawed
narrative... you write about pop culture, right?... this flawed
narrative gives it staying power. Four weeks ago, Girls did an
episode largely based on the iconic story of Kitty Genovese. The famous
story. A month before that, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
did its Kitty Genovese story. That's a show that's ripped from the
headlines. That headline is 52 years old. But somehow this story comes
back over and over and over again. It just holds the public's
One of the most
interesting parts of the movie to me was in the middle when Bill
determined to learn more about his sister. They were close, but he was
16 when she died, and only six when they stopped living together. There
were a lot of things in her life that he just had no clue about. As you
were experiencing learning about her with him, what seemed to be most
fascinating to him about his sister that he learned through the
Yeah. That's a good question. (Long pause.)
I'm just thinking about it. I think there are moments. Sometimes it's
pieces that come together. I think the moment where he and Mary Ann [Zielonko,
Kitty's former roommate and lover] are speaking of Andrew. I think
that's a very poignant moment. Finding out that the portrait of his
picture (most widely used in news stories) was actually a mug shot.
Putting that together. It's not as if the whole film hangs on it, and
not to talk about it too much, but I think that's a realization, in a
way. You look at a picture in one way for a long, long time, and then
you see it anew.
Clearly, he knew before he began, because it had
been reported in the paper, about Kitty's sexuality, but to the extent
to which he learned about her life apart [from him...] He knew Mary
Ann. Mary Ann would come to visit. But he didn't really know the
extent of their relationship, or just how deeply Mary Ann still felt the
loss. There's a very poignant moment. It's on audio, so it may not
resonate quite as much as it would if you were seeing two people
talking, but she says, "I only wish I'd known. I could have done
something." He says, "Yeah, I totally understand." That's a very
There's that one reveal... it's interesting. It's a
good question, and I'm trying to think. One particular reveal about
her.... He spoke to people who weren't necessarily in the film, who
also filled in pieces of her life. One of them was a friend named June
Murley, an old friend. Having a sense of June's own awareness of
Kitty's sexuality, when Bill had so little. Particularly when you're a
young boy, growing up, and you look up to someone so much, you see them
a particular way.
I think it was very painful for him not to be able
to speak to Rocco, his sister's former husband. [Bill] had a real
memory of him and really liked him, was really fond of him. I think he
would have felt that Rocco would have filled in some gaps. Also, it
would have just been nice [to see him again]. I will say in general,
the part that he enjoyed the most was talking to people who knew Kitty.
You could tell, like
with the guys at the bar. He seemed to really enjoy hearing about that
aspect of her life.
Yeah, one of them, Victor Horan, told Bill that
Kitty was actually supposed to stay in the bar. She was supposed to
sleep on a sofa above the bar that night. It was kind of an arrangement
where she was going to be opening the bar the next morning at 8 a.m.
She'd gone out to a customer's house and had dinner with the customer –
two people. Afterwards, she'd gone back to the bar to pick up her car
at 2 o'clock in the morning. The invitation was there for her to stay
the night. She didn't take it. Like what we were talking about a
little while ago; choices, the things that happen that could have
changed the trajectory, really.
Do you feel that the
recreation of Kitty’s final night that was filmed helped Bill come to
terms with what happened?
I think that Bill had done everything you could
possibly do to learn as much about who his sister was and what happened
that night. But there was a gap, and that gap, I think, was an
experiential gap. It's one thing to gather information, which he did
relentlessly over ten years. To go to the apartments and to check out
sight lines. To review every piece of information, document, that he
could possibly get his hands on. But, always lingering in his mind, as
it would be in anyone's mind, [there was] a question of what it was
like. This is important, Austin Street, where Kitty was murdered, is
exactly as it was 52 years ago, except for the signage. It's as if a
standing set. He, I believe, thought he was going to do more of an
empirical check out of sightlines here. I don't think he understood. I
did. I had a sense this would be the case for him, but I don't think he
quite understood how immersive and how emotional it would be. I don't
know if you have talked to Bill, but...
No, I haven't...
... we had very strict guidelines as to how we were
doing this. We were not testing the neighborhood. We were not trying
to trying to do a stunt. We cleared this with the mayor's office weeks
and weeks in advance. We went to the local police precinct. We had a
police car on location. We alerted the neighborhood. We were a
physical presence in the neighborhood. Jay, we'd been filming there for
ten years. Kew Gardens was stigmatized. A lot of the residents of that
neighborhood were angry at the way that the press had portrayed their
neighborhood. But, because it was Bill, Kitty's brother, there was a
different relationship to him. From the very beginning, from the get
go. Bill had been in so many of these resident's apartments, so when
he's recreating his sister's final moments, he's a presence in that
neighborhood already. And we were a presence, as a crew. It wasn't
like we just showed up one night on the first day of shooting and did
it. It was the end of a ten-year journey.
There are two things I just want to make sure that
is clear. One is the reason this film is as inside this story as has
ever been, or will ever be is because of Bill. People felt they owed it
to Kitty. Many felt they owed it to Kitty to talk and because Bill is
as close to Kitty's surrogate as there is, they were willing to open up
to him. But he also has unique qualities. He has been a double amputee
since he was 19. He is, by virtue of that, accustomed to people feeling
uncomfortable when they meet him, and he puts them at ease. Secondly,
he embodies trauma. He understands it. People know that. They sense
that in Bill. So they open up to him.
Keep in mind this is not the selfie generation.
These people did not grow up on camera. They are talking about things
they have held inside for 50 years. In public, let alone on camera. It
is only because of Bill. They do that because he made them feel
comfortable. And our little intimate crew of few people who have been
working with him for ten years, we became sort of a family. That's the
dynamic that had to happen. That's why it took so long. We were very
low [profile]. We didn't advertise the fact that we were making film.
We were not trying to get press. We just let Bill do it at his own pace
and time. That's how we approached the film. I think the result is a
function of that approach.
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