Missing the Story
Two new books, released to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the Genovese murder, propose two very different ways of looking at the events of that night. In Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America, journalist Kevin Cook argues that the most familiar version of the story doesn’t conform to what actually happened. This critique has been advanced before, most prominently in that 2007 American Psychologist paper, and also in the pop behavioral-economics bestseller Superfreakonomics, published in 2009. Like its predecessors, Cook’s attempt at revisionism draws heavily on the work of Joseph De May, an attorney who became obsessed with the legendary murder after moving to Kew Gardens, and who soon became convinced that the traditional account was wildly exaggerated. Cook summarizes De May’s case by showing us how he would annotate the opening of the front-page Times story. In the following paragraph, annotations are in brackets:
For more than half an hour [no witnesses saw the crime nearly that long], 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens [but no more than two who clearly knew what was happening] watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three [two] separate attacks in Kew Gardens. Twice [Once] the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault [probably false]; one witness called after the woman was dead [Kitty was still alive].
In Kitty Genovese: A True Account of a Public Murder and Its Private Consequences, Catherine Pelonero insists that this brand of revisionism is ludicrous. (Intriguingly, the book is dedicated to “my friend, Joe De May,” the resident revisionist of Kew Gardens.) Pelonero, who works primarily as a playwright, recognizes that the standard account isn’t the whole story, but she denies that this makes it flat-out false. On her reading of the evidence, there is no reason to seriously doubt the number of witnesses. To assert otherwise, she writes, is to suggest the existence of a “massive conspiracy carried out by the cooperative efforts of The New York Times, the NYPD, the District Attorney’s office,” and media outlets across the country.
This may sound like as big a dispute as there could possibly be between two books, but they are much more similar than they are different. Both books relate, in slightly different sequence, the same far-flung details of Genovese’s biography. Both books alternate between her life and that of her killer, Winston Moseley, a Queens man who programmed punch cards for first-generation computers at the Raygram Corporation. Both books devote a lot of time to the night of the murder, attempting to pinpoint once and for all who saw what, who called (or might have called) whom and when, who went back to sleep and so on. Like all true-crime exposés, both take for granted that there is something about the crime that makes its every detail worth excavating.
The only real difference is one of interpretation, but the disagreement manifests itself in no more than twenty pages per book; most passages from one could easily be pasted into the other without much editing. And it’s hard to tell what, exactly, is at stake in the argument. Cook is obviously right that the image implied by the Times story—thirty-eight people standing still at their windows for half an hour, watching a murder unfold like a movie—is an exaggeration. And it is certainly striking to learn that Genovese died not alone, but in an ambulance—and that when the police and paramedics arrived, she was being cradled in the arms of a friend who had run outside to help. Pelonero, on the other hand, has an easy enough time establishing that, even if a few people tried to help, a great many more did nothing (and not because they thought others were taking action). But her extreme irritation with the revisionists makes her a weak historian. Defending the Times’s coverage of the murder, for example, she huffs that the paper “had not become widely esteemed as the Paper of Record by engaging in yellow journalism.” Well, maybe not. But the suggestion that the Gray Lady has never in its history helped sell an exaggeration is almost as silly as is the idea that several institutions simultaneously selling the same overcooked story automatically signals a conspiracy.
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Both Cook and Pelonero are at their strongest not when ruling piece by piece on the truth or falsity of the Genovese myth, but rather when helping us remember that myth can contain only so much unruly life. What doesn’t fit gets flattened, usually in a way that tells us something about the myth’s parent culture.
The first aspect of Genovese’s life to be written out of existence was her homosexuality. She shared her Kew Gardens apartment with Mary Ann Zielonko, an aspiring painter. A few of their neighbors and co-workers knew, or half-knew, that they were lovers. So did Kitty’s family, though it seems they tried their best not to think about it, treating Mary Ann as just a very good friend of their daughter. It didn’t take the cops long to figure out the truth—which, according to Cook, landed Zielonko right at the top of their suspect list. After all, the pop psychology of the day held that homosexuals were more prone than heterosexuals to romantic jealousy.