​Witnessing "The Witness"

By Marcia M. Gallo

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The awful story of Kitty Genovese –- fatally attacked near her home in Kew Gardens while 38 of her neighbors watched but “no one helped” -- has commanded our attention for more than a half century despite the fact that it was not true. The unbelievable tale of uncaring witnesses was challenged immediately and repeatedly, but the power of the media – in particular, the New York Times and its legendary editor, A. M. Rosenthal – cemented the story in the public mind while simultaneously erasing the victim. Despite this, some of us have worked to restore Kitty Genovese to the center of the story. Bill Genovese, her beloved younger brother, spent more than ten years creating the documentary film The Witness with James Solomon (Five More Minutes Productions, 2015; Melissa Jacobson, co-producer; Trish Govoni, director of photography), which is now showing throughout the nation to rave reviews. The filmmakers took the risk of complicating a well-known and oft-repeated narrative, one that warned of a problem that didn’t exist: urban apathy. What is missing is a gendered analysis of the social power of the Kitty Genovese story.

The reports of the rape and murder of the 28-year-old bar manager near her home on a cold Friday the 13th of March, 1964 had an outsized impact on women. Since first publicized, it has operated powerfully as a cautionary tale, one that warned of the extreme costs of female independence at the very moment when feminism was being asserted. As I learned in researching my book “No One Helped”: Kitty Genovese, the New York Times, and the Myth of Urban Apathy, the blockbuster front-page Times article that blamed dozens of her neighbors for Kitty’s death was at best exaggerated and at worst invented. In the interest of creating a parable of apathy at a time when urban America in general, and New York in particular, was undergoing huge social and cultural changes as well as generating mass movements for justice, Rosenthal set in motion a simplistic story that made headlines. It focused on and vilified a neighborhood yet said little about the murderer, Winston Moseley -- an African American man with no criminal record, also twenty-eight years old -- and almost nothing about the victim. Given the powerful effect the parable had on women, Kitty’s erasure is especially problematic. Whenever I mentioned the story to women, across generations they all emphasized its significance as an example of the dangers that, then and now, plague a woman alone, even in a “good” neighborhood. The crime spurred activism among feminists, another aspect of its cultural and political resonance that rarely is commented upon. Since the 1970s it has been used to agitate for increased awareness of the prevalence of rape and intimate partner violence. Today its lessons echo in college and university campus training programs that urge young people to become effective advocates in situations where sexual assault may occur. Unfortunately, The Witness is silent on this important aspect of the story.

However, the film does explore another part of the narrative that was suppressed by the Times at the time of the crime: Kitty Genovese’s relationship with Mary Ann Zielonko, whom Bill knew as Kitty’s “good friend” and roommate. Their love for one another was revealed in 2004, when freelance reporter Jim Rasenberger found Zielonko in Vermont, convinced her to go public, and published the first in-depth account of their relationship, ironically in a New York Times update on the story that he had been contracted to write. This correction was crucial; it not only restored the truths of Kitty’s life but also helped complicate our still-limited understanding of the ways in which women who loved women navigated family, home, and work in New York City in the early to mid-1960s. The Witness features Zielonko (off camera) talking with Bill. We listen as he interviews her and see him talking with Kitty’s good friend Angelo Lanzone and a couple of “the guys” from the neighborhood bar she managed; they briefly disagree about who knew what about her sexuality. Bill Genovese concludes that the adored Kitty he knew from weekend visits to his family’s home in Connecticut was much more complex. She was an iconoclast with a loving, generous spirit.

The Witness is an intense, surprising, and at times disturbing account of Bill's search to learn the truth about his sister and the horrible crime that ended her life. It also is a poignant portrait of a man on a mission to make peace with a family trauma that became an international symbol of apathy. A thoughtful, soft-spoken man in his late 60s, Bill conducts his search from his wheelchair, an indirect result of his response to a cultural call to action that his sister’s death immediately generated. After joining the Marines a few years later, he lost his legs in an explosion while leading his troops on a dangerous mission in Vietnam. “But I had people who helped me,” he says in the film. “I survived.” We briefly meet the members of his family —- his siblings Vincent, Susan, and Frank —- as well as his wife Dale and their children, who do not completely understand but still support his quest to learn the truth about what happened to “Aunt Kitty.” His quiet persistence and strong determination command our attention throughout the film, whether he is navigating the small, ordinary details of daily life, pulling himself up a mountain of narrow stairs to enter her neighbors’ apartments, or asking the big questions about who saw what the night Kitty was killed. We see him meticulously detailing the available facts, people, places —- in at least one scene he admits to being “obsessive” —- as he tracks down and interviews participants in the construction and deconstruction of the story of his sister’s death. He gently but firmly questions disparate commentators, like the murderer’s son, as well as the few Kew Gardens neighbors still alive and able to talk with him. Kitty’s aged neighbors and their now adult children, such as Michael Farrar, challenge the “official version” of the story.

Bill also interviews local and famous journalists such as Mike Wallace. In one of the best scenes of the film, he quietly confronts legendary New York Times editor A. M. Rosenthal, the man responsible for the story’s creation. Rosenthal does not defend his version nor pretend that “the 38 witnesses” really existed, but shrugs off any controversy by insisting that the story had a significant impact on people worldwide. In other words, in Rosenthal’s view, the end justified the means.

The filmmakers focus on Bill’s journey, blending poignant personal remembrances of Kitty with a powerful recreation of the night of her death. They interweave family photos and old footage of home movies with contemporary images of Bill in sunshine and shadow, at home and on the road. Creative illustrations also add powerful images, as does the music that underscores the film. The Witness effectively challenges the inaccurate account of Kitty Genovese’s death promoted by the New York Times and repeated endlessly by other media since 1964. As viewers, we become witnesses to Bill’s efforts not only to learn the truth about the final moments of Kitty’s life but also to reconstruct the person Kitty was. Beyond correcting the falsehoods, Bill Genovese has given all of us –- cultural historians like myself as well as the general public and Bill’s own family -- the gift of seeing his sister as a multifaceted young woman rather than allowing her death to overwhelm her life in perpetuity.

Marcia M. Gallo is the author of "No One Helped”: Kitty Genovese, New York City, and the Myth of Urban Apathy (Cornell University Press, 2015), winner of the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Nonfiction, the 2015 Publishing Triangle Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Nonfiction, and finalist for the 2015 USA Book News Awards.

The Witness premiered at New York Film Festival October 6 and 7, 2015, and is a New York Times and Los Angeles Times Critics Pick for 2016.

Director and Producer: James Solomon
Executive Producer: William Genovese
Co-Producer: Melissa Jacobson
Director of Photography: Trish Govoni
Editors: Gabriel Rhodes and Russell Greene
Composer: Nathan Halpern
Animators: Moth Collective