Gray Gardens

The 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in Kew Gardens, Queens, changed the way we think about community. Fifty years later, an attorney who worked on the case looks back.

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Driving west on Union Turnpike, in the Hollis Hills section of Queens, Robert Sparrow ’61LAW points to where he once stopped to rescue a couple from their overturned car. It was January of 1964, on the day his son was born. From the hospital in Brooklyn, where the doctor had reluctantly let him into the delivery room, Sparrow drove home to Queens and stopped in at his parents’ house to celebrate. When the party was over, he headed down Union Turnpike, to the quiet street where he and his wife, Marcia, had just bought a house. They still live there today.

“It had snowed very heavily the day before,” he remembers, “and there were big mounds of snow where the snowplows had pushed it along the road. I saw this car coming in the opposite direction, and it was late at night. He drove right up a snow pile and flipped over. The place was deserted, so I pulled over and I climbed up onto the car, and inside were this man and woman, screaming at each other, drunk as skunks.” Sparrow pulled them out, because at that point there seemed to be no one else around to help them.

“I can’t forget it,” he says. “It was a Sunday, the night my son was born. But fifty years is a lot of water under the bridge.”

Coming into Kew Gardens on Queens Boulevard, Sparrow also points out the building where he and his father shared a law office for almost half a century. It’s a tall one, with an attached parking garage, right across from the concrete steps and steel and glass entrance of Queens Criminal Court. Though Sparrow has recently retired, his name is still pasted to an office window. He steers the car down a shady street lined with big, old colonials and gardens, leaving behind the boulevard’s high-rises, defense-attorney slogans, and low awnings. He makes a left on Austin and parks in front of a Tudor Revival building with half-timbering.

 

In the American parable of the Good Samaritan, the road to Jericho is a small section of Austin Street, in Kew Gardens, Queens. The poor traveler, stripped, robbed and in this story killed, is Kitty Genovese. During the first cold hours of Friday, March 13, 1964, Genovese was stabbed and sexually assaulted on a very short walk between her parked red Fiat and her apartment. A man named Winston Moseley, also a resident of Queens, picked her out at random, stalked her as she drove home from work, and knifed her outside the closed storefronts of her mock-Tudor building. She survived his first attack and staggered around the building into a back entrance while Moseley ran to his Chevy and waited. Ten minutes later he came and found her, and stabbed her again at the bottom of her neighbor’s stairwell. Plenty of people were home, sleeping behind the dark windows of Genovese’s building and the two much larger ones next door and across the street. With little traffic besides a lonely late bus, her first screams must have echoed. Two weeks later, the New York Times ran a front-page article by Martin Gansberg titled “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.”

In a country that loses more than fifteen thousand of its citizens to murder annually, we have told and retold the story of Catherine Susan Genovese for fifty years. Why? Robert Sparrow remembers the murderer as particularly cruel, his victim so undeserving. He met them both. The late New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal saw the story as proof of what he already knew, that urban society was in great moral trouble, and in turn Columbia journalism professor Nicholas Lemann, who has written about the case, understands it as an important example of “the perils of inductive journalism”— the “dangerous” practice of claiming one powerful anecdote as an indicator of “vast social change.” 

In journalistic time, fifty years makes the account feel nearly as ancient, and instructive, as its biblical analog. The terrible difference between them is that no Good Samaritan came down Austin to help. Kew Gardens, the story goes, was only home to Levites and priests, and no one loved his neighbor. 

 

In 1964, Austin Street between Lefferts Boulevard and the Long Island Rail Road station was arguably the worst block of a very good neighborhood. This only meant it had a bar on it called the Old Bailey, where noisy patrons occasionally spilled out onto the oak-lined sidewalk. Kitty Genovese lived with her partner, whom she referred to as her roommate, in the long two-story Tudor adjacent to the LIRR parking lot. A dry cleaner, a bookstore, and a furniture store were among the first-floor shops, anchored by the corner bar, a drugstore, and a “beatnik” coffee shop on the parking-lot side. Genovese’s apartment faced the railroad tracks, and she parked in the LIRR lot because she knew no one would ticket her. When a slim man in a stocking cap followed her through that otherwise abandoned parking lot, and she rushed not toward her own back entrance but to the locked store entrances on the street side, she may have been hurrying to the seldom-used police call box on the Lefferts Boulevard corner. Or she may just as well have been seeking the safety of Old Bailey’s. The manager of a bar herself, she may have hoped that someone, anyone, was still in there drinking. But on March 13, the place closed early, and Kitty was stabbed in the back outside Austin Book Shop.  She screamed for help, and at least one person on the block heard or saw enough to shout, “Leave that girl alone!” 

This small action was enough to scare off her attacker, and Kitty stumbled back past the drugstore and around the coffee shop to the back of the building. But this did not prevent the man from coming back for her and finishing what he’d started.

Fifty years later, the street looks nearly the same. The coffee shop is still a coffee shop and the bar is still a bar. The drugstore is a day spa. Fairchild Fine Furniture still stands; proprietor Tony Corrado, who passed away in 2006, once reupholstered a sofa bed for Genovese, and, as a testament to her charm, helped her move it up the stairs. Revisionists have questioned many facts surrounding her death, but it is agreed that during her life she was great company and universally well-liked.

She was also pretty, white, and young. Soon her face, in a simple black-and-white photograph reprinted again and again, would stand for all innocents let down by society. Her hair is thick and short, just a little messy, her gaze direct and the corner of her mouth slightly turned up. Two weeks after her death, Gansberg, under the direction of Times metropolitan editor A. M. Rosenthal, told the public that thirty-eight people in her immediate community could have answered her pleas for help and not one did.  Though it contradicted his own headline, that number stuck. Rosenthal followed up the front-page story with responses from social scientists and experts. As Lemann puts it to his graduate students, in a class called Evidence and Inference, the editor “told readers what had happened, then told them what it meant.” Genovese’s murder confirmed Rosenthal’s suspicions that the fabric of society was unraveling. “He stumbled upon an example, and it fit the way he thought about the world,” Lemann says. Thus a two-week old murder in Queens became a warning cry against urban apathy, then a parable about it.

Whether or not Rosenthal and his reporter got it right about “thirty eight” silent witnesses, Lemann challenges their great, unscientific “leap” from powerful example to sweeping conclusion — “the tendency to say, ‘This must exemplify the city, even the state of humanity.’”  Lemann warns his students against this journalistic pitfall.

Others are still interested in revision. This year, two books were published almost simultaneously to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Genovese’s murder: one, by Catherine Pelonero, uses NYPD reports to back up the claim that “at least” thirty-seven people were aware of the attack as it was happening, and the other, by Kevin Cook, convincingly narrows down this number to two, one of whom was drunk and had reason to fear the police.  

The flood of new information brings significant details about the victim. She was generous to a fault, and like all great bartenders, a listener. She was Catholic and the beloved eldest of five in a tight Italian-American family; brave and independent enough to stay in New York when her parents left for the suburbs, to annul a young marriage and make a living on her own. She was also gay, and happily in love with her roommate, Mary Ann Zielonko. They met in 1963 at the Swing Rendezvous, a lesbian bar in Greenwich Village. As Cook describes it, Kitty somehow found Mary Ann’s apartment and taped a note on her door, telling her to wait by a certain pay phone. They moved in together almost immediately. Their love story was entirely erased from the larger narrative, and certainly, outing a victim in 1964 would have been scandalous. It has also been pointed out that the Times ran another front-page article, “Growth of Overt Homosexuality in City Provokes Wide Concern,” a few months before “37 Who Saw Murder.” The same police department that should have been called on March 13 had fined, harassed, and arrested dancers, plus much worse, in the Village clubs where Kitty found love.

The best-known photograph we have of Kitty Genovese is actually a cropped version of her mug shot. In 1961, Genovese did a favor for a friend and was arrested for a minor gambling charge. This is how Sparrow came to meet her.

“I am undoubtedly the only person in the world,” he says, “who had one-on-one meetings with both Kitty Genovese and Winston Moseley.” 

As a young defense attorney, Robert Sparrow worked in his father Sidney’s office on Queens Boulevard in Kew Gardens, across from the borough’s courthouse. Genovese came down to the office, in trouble for a horse bet. Sidney Sparrow was called upon to interview and help defend her as part of the routine, “bread-and-butter” defense work of the Sparrow practice. 

Sidney was a prominent criminal-defense attorney who was both widely respected in his borough and genuinely liked. Judge Irwin J. Shapiro, who presided over Moseley’s high-profile trial, appointed the elder Sparrow to defend the accused. Three years after meeting Genovese, the Sparrows defended her murderer. 

Now, the younger Sparrow says, “I find myself the only survivor of those that participated in that courtroom drama fifty years ago. Judge Shapiro is gone. So is my dad, and district attorney Frank O’Connor, and his trial team of Frank Cacciatore — that bulldog of an adversary — and Charlie Skoller, who wrote the excellent book Twisted Confessions shortly before his recent death.

“Parenthetically,” says Sparrow,  “that book dealt with the 1963 murder of 15-year-old Barbara Kralik in her own bed. Moseley had confessed to that killing as well, a confession that conflicted with another confession by his eighteen-year-old friend Alvin Mitchell.” Sparrow, like his father and Skoller, believes that Mitchell was innocent, likely had the confession beaten out of him by police, and served time unjustly.   

“I have stared evil incarnate in the face,” Sparrow continues.  “I have seen how the ‘I don't want to get involved’ syndrome has become a part of our folklore. We have all witnessed acts of courage and self-denial, and conversely we must recognize that cowardice and selfishness are still as prevalent in society as they were on March 13, 1964.”

Ironically, Sparrow points out, Genovese’s murderer was caught because a man saw him steal a television from his neighbor. He acted the Good Samaritan, ripped the distributor cap off the thief’s car, and Winston Moseley was arrested for burglary. Police questioned the suspect, who confessed to that break-in and many similar ones with a calm that interested the detectives. Their questions, and Moseley’s answers, led them to Genovese.  

“I call it great police work,” says Sparrow, “the way they linked one crime to another.”

Sparrow was the first in his father’s office to interview the defendant, lugging his reel-to-reel tape recorder to the Kings County Hospital psychiatric ward. “Winston Moseley was twenty-nine, as was I, as Kitty would have been in a few months,” he says. “I could never forget looking at this plain, slightly built contemporary of mine, who spoke very intelligently but with absolutely no expression. Just in a monotone. He talked about committing many horrific acts in a totally emotionless way, without a hint of remorse.”

Moseley never hesitated to confess in detail; during one interview, a second-chair attorney got up and vomited outside. The defense team’s only hope of saving Moseley from the electric chair at Sing Sing was to plead that he was insane. They lost the case; a psychiatrist who testified for the prosecution proclaimed Moseley sane without ever meeting him or treating him. Moseley was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death, but the ruling was later overturned on appeal. Sparrow says that Judge Shapiro, who was vocally opposed to capital punishment on moral grounds, intentionally committed an error in the sentencing portion of the trial. That way, Sparrow says, he could “satisfy the public lust for Moseley’s blood” while preserving his own beliefs. Today, Moseley is alive in the Clinton Correctional Facility. At seventy-nine, he is one of the longest serving prisoners in the New York State system.  He has escaped once, and been denied parole almost twenty times.

 

There are many reasons why we still talk about Kitty Genovese, and why the parable of the Bad Samaritans caught on. One contributing factor is the whim of journalists; police commissioner Michael Murphy steered Abe Rosenthal to the apathy of the neighbors, and Rosenthal responded emotionally. Sparrow mentions that he, along with everyone else, was still reeling from President Kennedy’s assassination several months earlier when the Kitty Genovese story made headlines. Her plight was further proof that the whole society was guilty of something, and possibly broken. Both Cook and Kew Gardens historian Joseph De May have ventured a connection between Kennedy’s death and Kitty’s. “It was a tremendous blow to the American psyche to think that such a thing could happen here,” De May has said of the Genovese murder, though he could have been referring to either incident.

In 1968, the social psychologists Bibb Latané at Columbia and John M. Darley at NYU published a paper called “Group inhibition of bystander intervention in emergencies,” based on research conducted with Columbia University students. Inspired by the Kitty Genovese story and the public outcry it caused, Latané and Darley studied group dynamics in simulated emergencies. What they found was startling: the more witnesses there are to a crisis, the less likely it is that any one person will step in and help.  If you really needed help, it would be much harder to get it in a crowd. 

Latané and Darley named this phenomenon the “bystander effect,” and established that when a group of people witnesses the same crisis, “diffusion of responsibility” occurs. No one helps, because everyone assumes that someone else will.

“What happened that night, the events of the incident,” says George Nitzburg TKGSAS, an adjunct professor of education and psychology at Teachers College, “are less important to researchers than what the people who were there said afterward.” Kitty’s neighbors, when interviewed by police and reporters, “justified why they did not act. And psychologists and researchers thought, what do you mean the situation wasn’t that serious?  What do you mean you thought someone else had already helped? This was research that got to the heart of something. Once the cognitive bias was identified, it was found all over the place.” Nitzburg, who studies the intersection between technology and psychology, relates the Genovese case in his work on bullying, and its tech-age extension, cyber-bullying. “The responses of bystanders change the outcomes of bullying,” he says. The bystander effect is “applicable in any situation in which a person is hurting or threatening to hurt another in view of witnesses.” 

In the years since Latané and Farley conducted their Columbia study, researchers have refined the theory of the bystander effect to include up to four possible responses: you can join in and become an aggressor, you can encourage the aggressor, you can get involved and defend the victim, or you can withdrawal from the situation altogether.  Withdrawal, of course, is the most common response. 

“It makes a sad sort of sense,” says Nitzburg.  “Evolution does not reward animals that put themselves in dangerous situations or put themselves out to be excluded from the social group.” As a protective measure, “people will convince themselves that the situation is not really that serious. That’s number one. They will also tell themselves that the situation is the victim’s fault, or that someone else will help so that they do not have to. That is diffusion of responsibility: everyone is having the same thought, which is, ‘Someone else will do it.’”

Reading witness reports from the Genovese case puts these theories in relief; Kitty’s neighbors went on record saying that they thought she was drunk, that she should not have been out so late alone, that she was just arguing with a lover, and someone else must have called the police and that they would look foolish for doing so again.

Today, chances are high that a bystander will at least place a smartphone camera between himself and a victim in crisis. Recording distress, says Nitzburg, falls in a gray area between pro-social and antisocial behavior, between helping and not.  

“You could put down the iPhone,” he says. “There are definitely more pro-social actions to be taken.” On the other hand, “the person who filmed the Rodney King incident, for example, should not be considered a bystander who did nothing.”  

Another Teachers College professor, Barbara Tversky, has found in her studies on memory that “one salient fact of memory is its fallibility. Another is that it is biased toward coherent stories. The mind looks for stories and explanations that tie things together coherently, often distorting the ‘truth’ in those efforts.” This helps to explain why witnesses to Kitty Genovese’s attack remembered things that did not happen, or revised their reasons for acting the way they did.

 

Sparrow sits in his comfortable, carpeted living room with Marcia, surrounded by photos of grandchildren. He had one meeting with Kitty Genovese, and it stayed with him.

“The time I met her,” he says, “she was upset, because she was being charged with a crime.” But she was “a vivacious, outgoing young woman. She looked exactly like the photographs you have seen. A sweet girl, very well brought up. Her family wanted to get out of Brooklyn — they moved to Connecticut just a couple of years before the murder — and she opted to stay in New York. She wanted to spread her wings. She found New York exciting and vibrant.” 

Sparrow eventually learned a little more about Genovese from her younger brother Bill, whom he met when they were both in a documentary about the case. Bill Genovese was sixteen when his sister died. At eighteen, he enlisted and served in Vietnam, taking on risky missions. He lost both his legs in service.

It’s worth noting that Bill Genovese has publicly refused to blame his sister’s neighbors for her death. Sparrow, too, is moderate in his judgment of the people in Kew Gardens.

“You have to cut them a little slack,” Sparrow says. “It was 3:30 in the morning. It was on a street where there was a bar, where at that hour disputes between girlfriend and boyfriend were not totally uncommon. But the fact of the matter is that Moseley did not know Kitty Genovese, and when she screamed, ‘Help me, I'm dying, he stabbed me,’ windows lighted up on both sides of her street. Just one call very well might have saved that girl’s life. People did turn on their lights, raise their shades and their blinds, and they saw something.”

“That’s what the world thinks of New Yorkers,” adds Marcia. “Kew Gardens acquired a terrible reputation, which it’s taken a long time to live down, if it ever has.” But, she adds, “It isn’t true that New Yorkers don’t care.”

“It was partly, I don’t want to get involved,” says Sparrow. “And partly, let someone else do it. Some of them were elderly. Some of them were afraid. But it’s interesting how fifty years later, this thing has burgeoned.”

“You’re still alive,” Marcia says to him.  “And he’s still alive.”

Sparrow nods. “Moseley’s alive, I’m alive. And in a sense, so is Kitty.  She’s been kept alive.”

 

We seem to have learned from Kitty Genovese’s death. Her murder started a nationwide conversation that never really ended.  It inspired breakthroughs in social thought and research, and lead to the widespread adoption of Good Samaritan Laws. These mostly protect citizens who choose to act or intervene, when another person is in peril, from being sued; more rarely, they make helping your neighbor a legal obligation. 

According to Luke 10:25–37, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan to a lawyer.  Jesus said to him,

"What is written in the law? How do you read?" 

And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 

And He said to him, “You have answered right; do this, and you will live.”

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" 

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