Who the F Is … Kitty Genovese?

This week we look at a young woman who lived a largely out lesbian life in an era when to do so was uncommon and even dangerous, and whose death became a symbol of urban coldheartedness.
By: Trudy Ring
February 27 2014 3:02 PM

Who she was: A young New Yorker whose murder in 1964 made her a symbol of urban coldness and apathy — except the legends that have attached themselves to the case are largely untrue, and there was far more to her than simple victimhood.

What she accomplished: Kitty Genovese would likely never have become well-known had she not died violently, but her life made her one many everyday heroes and heroines of the pre-Stonewall era: She lived happily —and to a degree, openly — with a female partner. Her partner and friends recall her as lively, attractive, and ambitious. Genovese worked at Ev’s, a tavern in Queens, N.Y., tending bar and helping to manage the establishment. She often put in double shifts, hoping to save enough money to open an Italian restaurant. She shared her life with Mary Ann Zielonko, whom she’d met in a Greenwich Village lesbian bar called the Swing Rendezvous. “Sometimes you meet a person and you just know,” Zielonko told Kevin Cook, author of the new book Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America. She continued, “Kitty was Italian American. I’m Polish American. She was Catholic. I was agnostic. She was so … charismatic, and I’m a quiet person. Opposites attract, you know?”

Knowing almost immediately that they wanted to spend their lives together, the women moved into a comfortable apartment in Kew Gardens, a largely peaceful section of Queens. They often ventured into Manhattan to enjoy the Greenwich Village bar scene, while always being on the lookout for vice cops, or hear the many folk singers who appeared at the Village’s coffeehouses. “It was such a time,” Mary Ann recalled to Cook. “Such a time to be alive.” Some of the women’s neighbors knew of their relationship, and Kitty’s family grudgingly acknowledged it. Kitty had a brief marriage, which was annulled, before she met Mary Ann, and her father occasionally bothered her about getting married again. She would reply, “I’m independent. No man could support me because I make more than a man.”

Kitty left one of her double-shift days at Ev’s early in the morning of March 13, 1964. She drove home in her red Fiat, one of her most prized possessions. She found a parking place at a commuter train station near her apartment building. As she walked away from the car, she must have known she was being followed, Cook writes, as she ended up going not toward the entrance to her apartment, which was in the back of the building, but toward a more well-lighted area. Nevertheless, a man named William Moseley, whom Cook describes as a “psychopath,” caught up with her, then sexually assaulted and stabbed her, inflicting mortal wounds.

Her murder became famous, and infamous, soon afterward, when The New York Times, going off erroneous information provided by police, reported that 38 neighbors had witnessed the crime and heard Kitty’s calls for help, yet had not intervened. This made the case a symbol of all that was going wrong in American cities in the 1960s: rampant crime, anonymity, indifferent neighbors refusing to help one another. Cook writes in his book only a handful of the purported witnesses would have been able to see or comprehend what was happening, and one did try to help Kitty. Yet the Times version of events attached itself to the public consciousness, and it has been repeated in other media accounts, sociology texts, and elsewhere ever since.

Cook relates what he says is the accurate story in his book, and he also tells of the homophobia that surfaced in the investigation of Kitty’s death. Police asked Mary Ann about the couple’s sex life and even wondered if Mary Ann might be implicated in the crime, based on a stereotype of same-sex lovers, especially lesbians, being more jealous and possessive than their straight counterparts. Then at Moseley’s trial, to assure Kitty’s portrayal as a sympathetic victim, Mary Ann had to pretend to be a platonic friend and roommate.

Mary Ann gave extensive interviews to Cook for his book, and she is the first person thanked in his acknowledgments. Noting that she still mourns Kitty and “prizes her privacy,” he says she still spent hours talking with him on the phone and in person. “I owe Mary Ann my heartfelt thanks as well as a lifetime subscription to the Village Voice,” he writes.

For more information: Cook’s book Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America has just been published by W.W. Norton.
 

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