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The 50-year murder of Kitty Genovese is revisited...a murder that changed us

At the bar she worked
At the bar she worked
Author's collection

I was a child living in Westchester, yet I can still recall the New York Daily News' coverage of the March 13, 1964 brutal murder of Catherine Susan Genovese---Kitty Genovese---by a psychopath named Winston Moseley. I can still remember how the phrase "Kew Gardens" was equated with injustice and horror. Her murder took 33 minutes but the effects have endured for decades. Newspapers said as many as 38 witnesses in her serene Kew Gardens neighborhood had seen the crime and done nothing. Scholars, scientists and journalists have tried to understand how so many neighbors could watch a young woman being sexually assaulted and stabbed and not help her or call the police. The case became a scandal, stirring up fierce emotions about violence, crime in the city, and the decline of neighborhoods during a period of great upheaval and urban decay. It even sparked a new sociological theory, the “bystander effect”, now a mainstay of psychology textbooks.
But the real story of Kitty Genovese is far more complicated and compelling.Now, on the 50th anniversary of the killing, Kevin Cook tackles one of the 20th century’s most sensational true crime stories in Kitty Genovese: The Murder, The Bystanders, The Crime That Changed America (W. W. Norton, $25.95). An award-winning author and journalist, Cook takes readers back, not only to the night in question, but to the cultural landscape and historic aftermath of this notorious murder. Using newly discovered documents and original interviews, Cook uncovers the truth of what happened that night. Through his gripping retelling of a crime that changed history, the book gives readers new perspective on the life of the victim, the background of her killer, and the riveting hunt for justice.
Cook introduces Kitty herself with great empathy and compassion. Few know the truth of Kitty’s fascinating life as a young woman, a bit wild, enamored of the colorful scene in Greenwich Village. Through her story the reader experiences the cultural and political transitions of '60s New York. As Publishers Weekly remarked, “Cook never loses sight of the victim, tracing the arc of Genovese’s 27 years of life, and presenting the memories of her partner, Mary Ann Zielonko… In an especially moving section, Cook notes the chance elements that put Genovese in harm’s way.”
A close examination of Kitty’s life and murder of this woman reveals a complicated tableau of the individuals involved. Among them is Winston Moseley, a modern-day psychopath. Moseley’s gripping trial, informed in Cook’s account by transcripts and interviews, reveals disturbing details about the killer’s psychological makeup. Cook also presents a riveting narrative of the manhunt that followed his later escape and rampage.
Most of all, Cook questions the prevailing narrative that bystanders did not help the beguiling young victim. His research reveals that the Times got it wrong: most of the so-called witnesses would not have been able to see or understand the crime. And, most shocking of all, one of the witnesses did, in fact, help Kitty. Cook’s critical exploration of what was characterized as a failure of human feeling reveals a more complicated truth.
As the tale unfolds, Cook guides the reader with unflinching honesty. His observations look beyond the headlines to ask: “Maybe that view of the crimes endures because it isn’t true, because it boils a complex, troubling story down to a single, simple question: How could those people watch what happened to her, and do nothing?”
Pursuing this question with great feeling and compassion, Cook explores the legacy of the case, which extends deeply into society and science. Public outrage inspired criminal justice reforms and the 9-1-1 emergency response system. After decades of scholarship and speculation, Kitty Genovese presents the most accurate and compelling account of the Genovese murder to date.

Other writers and publishers are presenting other books on Kitty's murder. Here's one: Kitty Genovese: A True Account of a Public Murder and Its Private Consequences (Skyhorse Publishing, $24.95)

Catherine Pelonero, a playwright, writes about the murder and the widespread inaction of her neighbors, crystallized a host of new understandings, most famously “the bystander effect.” With Good Samaritan laws constantly under discussion, her case is no less relevant—or less shocking—than it was 50 years ago.
While volumes have been written about the apathy of these witnesses, there has never been more than a paragraph here and there about Genovese’s life. Pelonero’s book is the first to paint a comprehensive, haunting portrait of the titular young woman struck down in the prime of life, as well as her attacker, Winston Moseley. Pelonero is the only author Moseley has ever spoken with (he wrote her letters while in jail), and her portrait of him tracks the evolution of one of history’s most terrifying and complex serial killers.
Pelonero’s substantial new research is also based on firsthand interviews with witnesses, former Kew Gardens residents and people who knew both Genovese and Moseley.Unlike other books on the subject, Pelonero’s omits nothing, including Moseley’s little-known ’68 escape from custody and his subsequent three-day crime spree through Buffalo. The press release fails to mention Kitty's partner, Mary Ann Zielonko. Let's pray "omitting nothing is accurate.

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