Kitty Genovese’s name became iconic and notorious after she was murdered in New York in 1964, the supposed callousness of the neighbors who ignored her cries for help becoming a symbol of the fracturing of the American social compact that has persisted for decades.
The problem, as we know now, is that the story of those bystanders is not entirely true. “The Witness,” a documentary that follows Kitty’s brother Bill as he investigates the story of her death, explores not only how the wrong story got out, but also why the errors matter so much.
Kitty Genovese’s case did occasion moral failings, just not from the people who became international symbols of callousness. In fact, one of the worst failings came from far more powerful quarters: the New York Times, which published an account of the piece blaming 38 eyewitnesses for doing nothing to help Genovese as she was attacked.
“I can’t swear to God there were 38 people. Some people say there were more, some people say there were less, but what was true is people all over the world were affected by it,” A.M. Rosenthal, the editor who oversaw the story and later wrote a book about the case, tells Bill Genovese petulantly when Genovese visits him before Rosenthal’s death in 2006. “You bet your eye it did something, and I’m glad it did.”
For Rosenthal, the impact of the story around the world appears to matter more than the fact that the story couldn’t have been true merely because the lines of sight might have allowed neighbors to hear the attack but not to see it. And its influence certainly seems to weigh more heavily with him than the fact the story and his book reinforced a narrative that left the Genovese family convinced that Kitty died alone and completely uncared for.
The media figures interviewed in “The Witness” are unanimous in their conviction that the Times set the Genovese story going forward. “It would not have been a 50-year story” if Genovese’s death had been reported accurately, insists Jim Rasenberger, who wrote a long piece for the Times on the 40th anniversary of the murder.
And Mike Wallace from “60 Minutes” acknowledges that he didn’t interrogate the story “because it was taken seriously by the New York Times. … Abe Rosenthal is a man I respect, a good reporter, in a position of authority with the New York Times.” That the Times didn’t report the presence of Sophia Farrar, a friend of Genovese’s who found her after the attack, at the time of Genovese’s death is “inexcusable,” former New York Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld says.
The consequences of the Times’ choice to put the story ahead of the facts were far-reaching for her survivors. Kitty’s father died early. Marianne, Kitty’s girlfriend, lost contact with the Genovese family, who took the dog that she shared with Kitty over her objections.
Bill decided to enlist in the Marines because “I wasn’t going to be like the 38 witnesses,” and lost his legs fighting in the Vietnam War. And because what the family believed to be the circumstances of Genovese’s murder were so traumatic, “I think her death overshadowed her life for anyone involved with it,” says Josh Genovese, Bill’s son.
It’s obvious that the reporting process captured in “The Witness” has very different implications for Kitty’s siblings. One of Bill’s siblings begs him over a family dinner to stop talking about the case, or at least to tell them what it would take for Bill to feel satisfied that he knows the truth. But for Bill, it’s clear that talking to people like Ilse Hersch Metchek, a friend of Kitty’s from high school, Marianne, or Kitty’s customers and coworkers at the bar where she worked and collected bets for a bookie, is giving him an opportunity to think of his sister as something more than merely a famous murder victim.
“If Kitty Genovese is a name that immediately summons something to people’s minds, then the thing that gets summoned should be the truth,” the Daily Beast’s Michael Daly says in “The Witness.”
That’s true for our ideas about what New York was like in 1964. Watching Sophia Farrar tear up as she recalls holding Kitty as she died, saying “I only hope that she knew it was me, that she wasn’t alone,” it’s clear that the idea of the passive bystanders wasn’t just wrong, it was cruel.
And it’s true for Bill Genovese. He can’t change that his sister is gone, but he can at least find a way for her life to emerge from her death.