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'The Witness' Tells A Different Story About The Kitty Genovese Murder


Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old woman who managed a bar, was stabbed to death on March 13, 1964, outside of her apartment building in Queens. That terrible crime, shocking in itself, became notorious when the vaunted New York Times reported that 38 people saw Kitty Genovese being murdered and did nothing.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Tomorrow marks what many people regard as one of the most shameful anniversaries in New York City history.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Police discovered that more than 30 people had witnessed her attack. And no one had picked up the phone to call the police.

SIMON: It was a story of cruel indifference that became a signature of an uncaring New York in the 1960s. A new documentary re-examines the case and questions if that's what really happened. The film is by James Solomon and it features Bill Genovese, who is Kitty Genovese's younger brother. They both join us now from our studios in New York. Gentlemen, thanks so much for being with us.

BILL GENOVESE: You're welcome. Thank you.

JAMES SOLOMON: Thanks so much for having us on, Scott.

SIMON: Mr. Genovese, let me turn to you first. Not to give away too much of the film, what did you discover, Mr. Genovese?

GENOVESE: There were a lot of things we discovered. During the course of 11 years, there was a lot of stones we overturned. But basically the most fundamental thing was that the 38 eyewitness story and three attacks was not true.

SOLOMON: What's been incredibly striking is for 50 - now 52 - years, everybody has been telling a story of Kitty Genovese, but the voices that have not been heard are those who are actually the most impacted, most specifically Kitty's family. It turns out that the horror of her death and the public nature of her death, as Bill's older brother says in the film, it was so horrible, so terrible, that we basically erased her from our lives so that the next generation of Kitty's family can only tell you the story of her death. They don't have a story of her life. And what Bill has done in the film - and in my opinion, makes this the ultimate sibling love story - is reclaimed Kitty's life from her death, not just for the public but most importantly for his own family.

SIMON: There are so many emotional points in the film, certainly when you find the woman who held your sister when she died. I mean, you find people who did call the police. You did find the people - you find people who did shout at the murderer. You find a woman who was with your sister when she died.

GENOVESE: That was enormous. It was such a relief. My only regret is that my parents were not able to understand that that was the case. I think probably the worst thing about the whole story was that in the original story, 38 people witnessed that she was attacked three separate times over 32 minutes or some odd. Well, that's horrible. My parents would have been, I'm sure, somewhat relieved to have known that somebody was there and not only somebody, it was a friend of hers.

SOLOMON: Scott, the story of Kitty Genovese is known to all of us. We know the name Kitty Genovese 50 years later because it's the story of no one coming to the aid of someone. And yet, there was, as you point out, a woman who ran down in the middle of the night outside into a rear alley and forced her way inside a vestibule and cradled Kitty. How that part of the story has not been told for 50 years is stunning.

SIMON: We need to mention her name.

SOLOMON: Sophia Farrar.

SIMON: Yeah. I have to be blunt. What you found in this film impeaches the editorial integrity of The New York Times. And the man who - A.M. Rosenthal, who eventually became the paper's executive editor, this story did a lot of good for his career. And it suggests that no less than one of the sleazy tabloids that The Times often mocks, they sensationalized a story and then put a sociological bent on it so that the readers would accept it.

GENOVESE: Yeah. I think it was a case of where Mr. Rosenthal thought through and composed in his head a scenario that seemed to fit with the facts that he knew at the time that he was able to speak out to the public that was coming from his heart rather than as a professional, I'm - even though I'm an editor, I'm a reporter, basically. And so I think he spoke from his heart and not from his professional point of view.

SIMON: You meet the son of Winston Moseley, your sister's convicted murderer. We should explain Moseley spent the rest of his life in prison, never paroled and died about a month ago


SIMON: He's a reverend. He seems a very good man, but he apparently grew up with some myths about your family.

GENOVESE: Yeah, he did. Stephen (ph) believed that the Genovese family was related to the Genovese crime family. And so the mythology that went around within his family was like, oh boy, you know, what's going to happen to us?

SOLOMON: The film is, in many respects, about false narratives and the impact of false narratives on our lives, how we hold stories, real or imagined, and they shape our lives. The Times story is a - the original Times story is a deeply flawed narrative that did some real good things. It was an inspiration or helped lead to 911 emergency system and Good Samaritan laws and neighborhood watch groups. But the truth is very important, and that's what Bill does within the film is to sort of unravel the truth so that we move forward knowing that there was on that night a hero and that some may have called on that night.

SIMON: There's a startling scene toward the end of the film when you get an actress to essentially re-enact Kitty Genovese's death, including that bone chilling scream.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Kitty Genovese, screaming) Help me.

SIMON: You alerted the neighborhood in advance so that they knew what was happening.

GENOVESE: Well, for me, going in, it was an effort to try to live through what she lived through in the very street with the buildings virtually the same as they were 50 years before. What it turned into for me was a morph to kind of my philosophical/spiritual bent, which is it's not just Kitty on the street. It's all of us on the street.

SOLOMON: Bill needed to feel what it was like that night and there was not a test of the neighborhood or testing of reaction of neighbors. And I think that's actually an incredibly important point. We've been filming in that neighborhood for 11 years and countless residents allowed us - welcomed Bill into their homes so he could see, feel and the way this neighborhood - because this neighborhood was branded, stigmatized, by this narrative of 38 eyewitnesses not doing anything.

And yet the moment they met Bill and knew it was Bill, Kitty's brother, it changed everything. And that's why we are hearing from, for the first time in a half-century, the people most deeply affected because of Bill.

SIMON: Bill Genovese and James Solomon - their documentary is "The Witness." Gentlemen, thanks so much for being with us.

GENOVESE: Thank you.

SOLOMON: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 31, 2016 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous introduction to this story misspelled James Solomon's name as Soloman.

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