The most famous picture of her—dark tousled hair cropped short and the whisper of a cheeky grin about her lips—is actually a mugshot, taken in 1961 for bookmaking. She ran a small betting system out of her place at Ev’s Eleventh Hour Sports Bar, taking patrons’ money for horseracing. Known for her skill and good humor, she had been brought into the police station and promptly let go. It was a minor charge, one that she conveniently never told her family back in Connecticut about. In most iterations, the placard with her charge and booking ID is cropped out of the image, leaving only the hint of the string blending into the plaid of her shirt. This is the picture that accompanied the 1964 New York Times headline:
37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call Police
At the time the headline hit circulation, the murder was weeks old. Kitty Genovese, a twenty-eight-year-old bartender in New York City, had been stabbed to death outside of her Queens apartment. Her murder is featured in multiple Law and Order storylines, hundreds of sociology and psychology textbooks, and an episode of HBO’s “Girls.” The murder itself, although gruesome, was not what had landed the front page of the paper or what has incited a nationwide obsession—Kitty Genovese was lost in the uproar over the perceived ambivalence of her neighbors. The killer, a twenty-nine-year-old man named Winston Moseley, confessed to the murder while in custody for a burglary charge five days after the attack. He also admitted to the murders of two other women killed in a similar vein, although he was never convicted for these. He described his motive as a simple desire to kill a woman—any woman. Genovese was chosen because of practicality; he happened to see her get into her car at the tavern where she worked and decided to follow. He was originally sentenced to capital punishment but was able to get it lightened to life in prison. In March of 2016, he finished his sentence by dying of natural causes.
As a symbol of urban apathy, the reality of that night falls apart. The majority of the witnesses were ear witnesses, who only heard a scream and saw nothing outside of their windows. Many of them reported assuming it was a lovers’ quarrel exiting Bailey’s Pub–a common enough incident–and nothing worth the hassle of getting the police involved. Before the era of 9-1-1, calls to the police involved calling a local office or operator who would connect you to a local precinct, who would take your statement before considering whether to drive over. There were at least two phone calls to the police on record, and a few more alleged calls that were not logged.
Kitty was born as Catherine Susan Genovese to Rachel and Vincent Genovese, the eldest of five children in a Catholic Italian-American family. Living an upper-middle-class lifestyle, she spent her afternoons roaming the city with neighborhood friends. She grew up in New York City, attending the all-girl Prospect Heights High School. Popular, witty, and never without a scathing impression of a teacher, she was well-liked. The yearbook from her senior year featured a picture of her with a jokey caption:
“The class cut up, that’s Kitty,
She’s quite a gal you know.
Always doing things for a laugh
Like going swimming in the snow!”
After her graduation, her parents decided to move to a suburb in Connecticut, but she was so enamored with the city that she refused to move. Kitty lived with her grandparents for a while until her marriage to a military cadet in 1954, which was annulled before the year had even ended. The split shocked her family, but a finally independent Kitty took full advantage of her newfound freedom. Eventually, she found her calling as a barmaid, where her social disposition and flirtatious personality made her a hit among her patrons.
The neighborhood was not a dangerous one–people left their doors unlocked, spoke to each other in the local bookstore, and complained about the noise emanating from Bailey’s Pub on the corner. The pub was one of the only sources of drama in the area; drunken fights occasionally broke out, and lovers' quarrels would often get loud. Many of the residents were Holocaust survivors, trying to build a new life out of tragedy and still wary of authority figures. The Mowbray Apartments, standing across the street from Kitty’s Tudor-style building, tower nine stories into the air to this day. The people living on the street knew Kitty; they saw her come and go from work and invited her over for dinner. They knew her roommate, Mary Ann Zielonko, as another bartender who painted on the weekends.
The pair had met at the Swing Rendezvous, a lesbian bar manned at the time by a burly woman named Mitch. Kitty was cheeky and cavalier, running her hands through cropped, dark hair, and Zielonko was immediately smitten. It reads like something out of a pulp novel; a bad pickup line that might have led to a missed connection had Kitty not taped a note to her apartment door: “WILL CALL YOU AT THE STREET CORNER PHONE BOOTH AT 7. –KITTY G.” They moved quickly, renting the single-bedroom apartment and setting up shop within a few months, filling their bookshelves with crime stories and lesbian pulp novels.
“I like what’s real,” Kitty had told Zielonko once, meaning the rows of nonfiction she lined up on the shelf. She had a copy of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, somewhat sardonically, and had only shrugged when Zielonko brought up Friedan’s distaste for the “lavender menace” of lesbianism. A few weeks after they met, Mitch, the bartender who manned the club where they met, was found beaten to death outside the establishment. Her death was never investigated by the police.
Mary Ann was called to identify Kitty’s body after her murder, and given little comfort by the officers who accompanied her. “They took me down to the police station in Queens,” she told The New York Times in 2016, “and for six hours they questioned me.”
At the time, same-sex partners were often immediately suspected in violent crimes, on an assumed motive of jealousy. They were questioned for longer and on less evidence than heterosexual partners, and police were as likely to arrest them as to help them. In 1964, homosexuality was still a crime under New York law. While Mary Ann was eventually left alone by the police, she found herself isolated in her own community. She had been suddenly and violently outed, and people no longer wanted to associate with her for fear of being outed themselves. Kitty’s life–and death–reflect the context of the world she lived in. Mary Ann took the stand as a legal witness under the guise of a friend and roommate, though the prosecutors knew the truth. They were afraid that bringing Genovese’s sexuality into the trial might skew the jury’s opinion of her, perhaps even to the point of giving her killer a lighter sentence.
Their story ends tragically but also gives us a glimpse into a history often ignored by the larger narrative. Zielonko has been interviewed about the event numerous times, and each time, the murder is eclipsed by a depiction of gay life in Civil Rights Era New York. Mary Ann ran away from home at fifteen, after getting her hands on a copy of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt and coming out to her parents. The world she describes to reporters is one of bars in the Village and stolen moments of intimacy; they scraped by in a bigoted society and forged their own happiness. Kitty’s life meant more than her murder, and it’s interesting that in a story used to highlight the ways people ignore each other, her sexuality and personality so often go unnoted.
[Disclaimer: Some of the sources may contain triggering material.]
Cook, Kevin. Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America. New York, W. W. Norton and Co, 2014.
Cook. “What Really Happened the Night Kitty Genovese was Murdered?” Interview by Audie Cornish. NPR.
Gansberg, Martin. “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.” 27 Mar. 1964. The New York Times.
Lemann, Nicholas. “A Call for Help.” The New Yorker [New York], 10 Mar. 2014.
Pelonero, Catherine. Kitty Genovese: A True Account of a Public Murder. New York, Skyhorse Publishing, 2014.
Zielonko, Mary Ann. “Remembering Kitty Genovese.” Remembering Kitty Genovese, Retro Report, 2016. The New York Times. Interview.