It began with a lunch at a place called Emil's, not far from police headquarters in New York, and the trigger was a six-word sentence. "That Queens story," the police commissioner said to A.M. Rosenthal, then the metropolitan editor of The New York Times, "is something else."
It was something else, though in the Times it was something very small -- a four-paragraph story about the death 55 years ago this month of a woman identified as Miss Catherine Genovese of 82-70 Austin Street in Kew Gardens. Stories like that appeared in the newspaper every day, terrible murders that did not rate terribly much space, or terribly much attention. New York was a big, crowded city, and people got murdered there with sad and senseless regularity. Four paragraphs. Just one murder in a city in which 636 were committed that very year.
But there was something different about this murder -- not about the way that Kitty Genovese was killed: a hunting knife, following an attempted rape and a robbery -- but about the circumstances of the crime. It occurred with witnesses, more than three dozen of them, according to the legend, passive men and women who watched this drama unfold as if they were watching it through a pane of glass or, more likely, through a television screen.
They watched it begin, they watched it continue, they watched it end, goes the narrative that has entered history. And by the very passive act of watching -- watching, and not acting -- they became bit players in one of the signature crimes of the era. Bit players who soon would be swept to the center of the stage: witnesses so numbed by violence, or so disinterested in their neighbor, or so dismissive of their moral responsibilities, that they did nothing, and by doing nothing became the most important part of the drama.
That transformation occurred because Mr. Rosenthal, a hard-bitten onetime foreign correspondent with a sharp intellect that oftentimes was overcome by an almost febrile emotion -- this man who inspired terror in colleagues and news sources and yet was a serial hugger and often was reduced to tears -- saw a big story inside the small death of Kitty Genovese. Over the newsroom loudspeaker he summoned Marty Gansberg and asked him to look into a story that his own staff had determined rated so little attention. The result shook New York and startled the world.
It also helped lead to the establishment of 911 emergency telephone numbers. It transformed the name Kitty Genovese from a noun into an adjective. It produced an image of New York -- so sprawling that an individual human is subsumed, so dense that human instincts are suppressed, so violent that human life is devalued -- that endured for years. It stained an entire neighborhood, then an entire city, then an entire generation. And it made the phrase "I didn't want to get involved," attributed to a neighbor in the Gansberg piece, a symbol of cold-hearted complacency that prevailed far beyond Kew Gardens.
The debate over Kitty Genovese has many dimensions, but one of them is the debate over what really happened. How many witnesses were there, really? (The narrative says 38, but there are many who say there were far fewer, and some who believe that some of the witnesses saw only a part of the encounter, not an actual murder in the making.) Is it true that no witnesses reacted? (Kitty's brother argued that one woman tried to scare the attacker by bellowing from her window, and he suggested that calls were made to police.)
Then there were questions about what kinds of people intervene and what kinds of people simply watch. About whether the Genovese murder spawned an "era of apathy." About whether the murder and the Great Society Lyndon Johnson proposed two months later were twin products of the contemporary view that government, and not mere citizens, was responsible for civic functions that earlier were assumed by individuals. About whether the American instinct for risk-taking in commerce did not convey to risk-taking in the community.
Kitty Genovese was the oldest of five, the daughter of a man who operated a coat and apron supply company, a graduate of Prospect Heights High. She was a bartender at EV's 11th Hour tavern, kept the books there, oversaw the inventory. She listened to the Beatles, liked to dance, loved to laugh.
The killer was Winston Moseley, a father of two with a quiet, dark, desperate, craving side, which apparently was what took him, in his sporty Corvair, to the rendezvous that would change his life, end her life, and give life to one of the most powerful urban myths in American life. He was given to stealing televisions and later admitted to eight rapes, more than three dozen burglaries and two other murders -- and, once imprisoned at the Attica Correctional Facility, would escape on a hospital visit, rape another victim and hold hostages at gunpoint. He would also be involved in the 1971 Attica uprising.
Moseley's trial, ending with a death sentence, was part inquiry, part spectacle. He said that he didn't feel sorry for the crime, that he knew what he was doing, that after sexually assaulting her he took $49 from her wallet -- and, pointedly, that he heard someone yelling from an open window, so clear that it frightened him. Later he returned to the scene to stab her in the throat to halt her cries.
But those cries were heard, contrary to legend and lesson. A man who lived seven floors above the crime scene testified that he heard a young woman say, "Help me, help me" and then yelled, "Leave that girl alone!" (That interchange obliterates the say-nothing, do-nothing narrative.) Others testified they saw the incident, or heard it and went back to bed.
In a sense, what really happened is far less important than the reaction to flawed news stories. Because several important questions linger:
What is personal responsibility? What makes for community? Where do moral imperatives begin? Is personal responsibility inversely related to the number of people in a group? Does a broad sense that injustice is pervasive in society lead people to ignore their better instincts, even in the last 35 minutes of a young woman's life? And -- this one cannot be ignored -- can great truths be revealed in a story that itself is not entirely true?
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.