October 23rd, 2018


A brother's search for the real Kitty Genovese

Michael Smerconish

By Michael Smerconish

Published June 21, 2016

A brother's search for the real Kitty Genovese

"My sister was so much more than her final 30 minutes," Bill Genovese laments in a new documentary film, "The Witness," about the woman who is arguably the best-known murder victim in New York City history.

Kitty Genovese was 28 years old when she was attacked and murdered near her apartment in Kew Gardens, Queens, on March 13, 1964. Ever since, her story has been the stuff of first-year psychology courses and constant study. With her in mind, in 1968, psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latane coined the term "bystander effect" to refer to situations in which onlookers tend not to help a victim if other witnesses are present.

The accepted version of what happened to Kitty Genovese was etched in history by a front-page New York Times article by Martin Gansberg two weeks after the murder. The headline said: "37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police." The lead of the story stated: "For more than half an hour, 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens." (The difference between the 37 and 38 was the one witness who did call police.)

Bill Genovese says the infamous story of Kitty's murder is not correct.

"Thirty-eight people did not watch — the attack took place in two different phases — one was on Austin Street, and the other was in the back of apartments. . . . Thirty-eight people certainly did not watch," he told me.

He says he wishes the original Times story had noted that Kitty actually died in the presence of a friend and neighbor, Sophia Farrar, whom he meets and interviews for the documentary.

"Why was Sophia left out of the original story? It would have made such a difference to my family, knowing that Kitty died in the arms of a friend," he said.

His efforts to reconstruct the murder were made easier because little has changed on the block in the intervening 52 years. The Mowbray apartment house still stands and, although the neighboring storefronts have changed hands, these structures remain as they existed in the early 1960s.

Bill, one of five Genovese siblings, was 16 at the time of the murder. When he was 6, his parents decided that the city was becoming too dangerous and moved the family to New Canaan, Conn. Kitty decided to stay behind.

"For the next 10 years, I only saw her on weekends when she would come to visit," he said. "We'd have a lot of fun driving around in her red Fiat. But the best part was talking late into the night. Kitty seemed to know about everything. . . . I was a curious kid and asked a lot of questions. Kitty always took the time to answer them. . . . Then, in an instant, she was gone. No one understood me like Kitty."

Two years after the devastating loss, he graduated from high school while the Vietnam War was in full swing. Bill was a student of international relations and had often talked to Kitty about history. And, he says, not wanting to be like the "38" eyewitnesses who had been trumpeted in the Times, he enlisted in the Marines.

Years later, a 2004 story in the Times by Jim Rasenberger raised questions about claims in the original article. Until now, the Genovese family had never doubted the original narrative. It was then that, along with filmmaker James Solomon, Bill decided to investigate his sister's death.

The resulting film is a combination of a search for truth and a tale of brotherly love.

"Partly this film is a 'Serial'-like or 'Jinx'-like investigative piece, but, actually, really, at its core it's a love story — a sibling love story — about a brother reclaiming his sister's life from her very infamous death," Solomon said to me.

Solomon portrays Kitty in "The Witness" as the kind of person we'd all have loved to know, a millennial trapped in 1964: selected "class cutup" by her high school classmates, driver of a red Fiat convertible, manager of a bar where she made more than most men, once married, and yet at the time of her tragic death, living with her lover, Mary Ann, whom she had met at a club in Greenwich Village. As Mary Ann described in the movie, Kitty had pursued her by leaving a note on her apartment door telling her to be at a pay phone at an appointed hour so she could call and make a date.

"As independent as she clearly was, she remained close to her family, including younger brother Bill, with whom she had a special bond," Solomon said.

But "The Witness" tells yet another story — of one man's dogged determination. Bill Genovese came home from Vietnam without his legs. While on patrol as a scout, he lost both legs above the knee to a remotely detonated land mine. He required many operations and spent nearly a year convalescing in hospitals. But his handicap hasn't slowed him down or deterred him one bit in life or in his quest to learn the truth about his older sister. He credits Kitty with that determination.

"We can blame it on Kitty, and we can also blame it on the fact that I'd never wanted to play for the JV, so it's like you've got to be in the game or sit on the sidelines, so my sister instilled in me a desire to find things out. . . . She would answer my questions — that's a big mistake with a kid because then it's more and more questions, and if she couldn't answer it it's like, 'Go to the library.'"


("The Witness" will be showing in select theaters this summer, as detailed at: www.kittygenovesefilm.com

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Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and is host of "Smerconish" on CNN.