by Don Stradley
The 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese may not have changed America as much as author Kevin Cook wants us to believe, but it certainly left a huge, spreading stain on the country's psyche. The murder took place in Queens' Kew Gardens neighborhood in front of an alleged 38 witnesses. They stayed in their apartments, unmoved to help, even as they heard Kitty Genovese cry out that she was being stabbed. The event became legendary as a symbol of urban America's apathy. The Kennedy assassination was more earth shattering; the Manson murders were more headline-grabbing; but the killing of this young woman on a New York sidewalk in view of her neighbors may have been the saddest and most sickening. Kevin Cook's Kitty Genovese: The Murder, The Bystanders, The Crime that Changed America revisits the incident, and it's no easier to read about it five decades later.
Cook digs deep into the story, coming up with rich details and plot twists worthy of a good crime novel, but seems torn between diving into the muck and staying above it. Horrible things happened to Kitty Genovese, but Cook treats the particulars gingerly, perhaps out of respect for the dead, or to keep his intelligent reportage from descending into luridness. The jury is out as to whether an author can write about horrific incidents without sticking our faces into it, even a little bit.
Kitty Genovese was a charismatic young Italian-American woman. She managed a bar and was apt to stay out late and travel home alone. Though she didn't loudly advertise her lesbian lifestyle in the conservative early 1960s, she was living with her beloved in a small Kew Gardens apartment. Kitty was feisty and fun-loving; she'd grab your hand and spontaneously start dancing with you, even on a crowded sidewalk. The Kitty described in Cook's book was a petite little smart-ass, and absolutely lovable.
Meanwhile, Winston Moseley was a troubled African-American man. He worked a steady job out in Mount Vernon to support his family. He liked baseball, and dogs, and seemed like a regular, though aloof guy. But he was prone to dark moods. He had some strange ideas about sex, and would occasionally disappear from his home in the middle of the night. His wife knew Moseley was troubled by recurring impotence, but she'd never dreamed that her husband was a budding serial killer. He claimed three victims, including Kitty Genovese. He set fire to one of the women, making sure that her genitalia would go up in flames. When Moseley was caught, his confession was so nauseating that a member of his defense team left the room to vomit.
Kitty crossed Moseley's path one night in a parking lot near her own building. He did unspeakable things. She screamed for help. Lights flickered on up and down the block, people peeked from barely opened doors, yet no one came to help. A man yelled from his window. Moseley ran away. Kitty dragged herself away from the scene, her lungs filling up with blood. Moseley reappeared and finished what he'd started. His predator's instinct told him that no one was coming to help this woman, so he stuck his knife into her over and over again. Later, when he was confessing, he claimed to feel nothing about Kitty, just that he had killed a couple of black women and wanted to see how it felt to kill a white woman. Moseley added that he felt bad about his family finding out, for it was "a shameful thing."
Cook, who has written for The New York Times and Vogue, spends a lot of time setting the table before he gets to the real story. He describes a bustling New York, the kids still zonked by the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Cook goes on about Lenny Bruce, the 1964 World's Fair, and the blossoming folk music scene in the Village. He even comes up with a coy way of telling us that Rodney Dangerfield grew up in Kew Gardens. But he tells us so many fun facts about Queens that it begins to feel like an affectation, as if he didn't have enough information to fill the book and padded it out with nostalgia. He has better luck when he's describing the underground lesbian scene of the time, for that was the world Kitty knew, a world of makeshift dildos, campy novels, and dark lesbian bars where the weary dancers "looked younger before the lights came up."
Cook also creates a few 'you are there' scenes. He provides quotes for Kitty as she goes about her day, or imagining what she made for dinner. One can see why an author might try such a technique, but even a talented writer like Cook can’t keep it from feeling like a cheap crime show reenactment. Cook does the same for Moseley, imagining Moseley feeding his dogs; during a description of the trial, Cook writes that Moseley "returned his daddy's gaze with a look that may have been love." It's hard to figure how Cook knew what was going on in the courtroom.
Yet, these bits of contrived color are part of Cook's ultimate goal, which is to pull the crime out of the legal or psychological text books and remind us that all involved, from Kitty to Moseley to the reluctant neighbors, were human beings. He succeeds at this, but not by recreating "what might have been," but in the concrete details he turns up, such as Moseley's owning an ant farm, or Kitty's yearning to visit Italy. He's also helped by actual interviews with people, such as Kitty's girlfriend, Mary Ann Zeilonko, who endured endless heartbreak after Kitty's death.
Cook is especially good when he dispels some of the old myths about the case, namely, that there were 38 people who saw the murder and did nothing. He grinds the idea down until we're sure there that the number 38 was a major exaggeration. Even though Cook calls out former Times editor Abraham Rosenthal for reporting that number until it took on a life of its own, Cook is respectful of Rosenthal for keeping the story alive. Rosenthal comes off as a grandstander and a blowhard, as do many of the judges and journalists working on the case, but had Rosenthal not sensationalized the story, Kitty Genovese’s name would be relegated to a dusty old police file, just like Moseley’s other victims.
Kitty Genovese may be the subject of the book, but Moseley is the crazy engine that drives the thing. Cook seems too enamored of Kitty, as if he’s one of the 12-year-olds in the neighborhood who harbored a secret crush on her. Hence, his writing about Genovese is too precious. When writing about Moseley, however, Cook finds a hopped up rhythm and the chapters start to rip and snort. Of course, it helps to have a sleazy psychopath as your antagonist. A few years into his life sentence, Moseley escaped from prison. Within a couple of days he'd taken two women hostage and raped them at gun point. Later, when he’s before a parole board, Moseley said the rapes proved he had changed as a person. "I could have killed them," he said, adding that he deserved credit for "demonstrating restraint.”
Even so, it’s still Kitty who stays in our memory. She remains mysterious, tragic. Cook’s final chapter, which I won’t spoil for you, is about as elegant as anything I’ve read lately, and dispels another myth about her murder. She didn’t, as we’ve heard for 50 years, die alone.
I remember when I was a new arrival in Boston, hearing the scream of a woman outside my apartment. It was one of my neighbors, a middle aged woman whose name I’ve long since forgotten, standing in the alley. Her face was bloody, and she was clutching her right arm to her chest. She was crying for help. I rushed to the lobby and buzzed her in. It turned out she’d been walking her Great Dane and the brute bit her. In her panic, she’d smeared her bleeding hand across her face, making her look like Carrie at the prom. “Puppy got mad,” she said, and then swayed drunkenly to her unit. It was an unsettling experience. Blood and screams will unnerve the best of us. But I helped my neighbor. Cook’s book suggests that people are more likely to help if they’re alone; had there been a crowd, I might have waited for someone else to act. Maybe there’s something about being in a crowd that makes you feel like part of an audience. Audiences aren’t supposed to interfere.
I think I would have helped Kitty Genovese. But I just don’t know.