'The Darn Story Just Didn't Go Away’: An Interview with Bill Genovese and James Solomon

In a new documentary about the 1964 killing of Kitty Genovese, her brother confronts the myth that 38 people turned a blind eye to her murder. 

Naben Ruthnum’s book Curry: Eating, Reading and Race was published by Coach House. As Nathan Ripley, he has written the thrillers Your Life is Mine...

Photograph courtesy Kinosmith Inc.

The murder of Kitty Genovese is a case you’ve heard of even if you haven’t heard of it. In March 1964, Genovese was stabbed to death on her way home from her bar manager gig in Queens. There were over 600 homicides in New York City that year, but what made Kitty’s resonate for decades were the particular circumstances of her killing: Winston Moseley, who’d killed another woman just two weeks before, stabbed her in front of her apartment building in Kew Gardens. People—her neighbours—heard her screams. Moseley, spooked, ran off then returned minutes later to finish the murder, in a stairwell of Kitty’s building.

The New York Times, then not only the “paper of record” but a monolithic cultural force of truth in America, ran the headline that made Kitty’s murder, if not Kitty herself, immortal: “37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police.” A chilling story of urban indifference and passive cruelty. The case went on to be discussed in countless psychology and sociology classes, books, and loose adaptations, with this one element in common: a woman was murdered and no one did anything to help her.

But the Times got it wrong. Kitty was murdered, and Winston Moseley was her killer, but the story of the disinterested witnesses? Not a complete invention, but a simplification that borders on a lie. A.M. Rosenthal, author of that iconic cover story on Kitty’s murder, turned the story into what Kitty’s younger brother Bill calls a “morality play,” a chance to discuss what was wrong with America, with city living. In 2004, the Times itself ran an article on the inadequacies of the reporting in Rosenthal’s original account, which had by then become an embedded part of urban culture. Bill Genovese, Kitty’s closest sibling, who was 16 when she was murdered, partnered with director James Solomon to investigate what really happened the night Kitty died. In the process, they made a film that explores Kitty’s life, and the haunted relationship Bill has to his vanished sister.

Naben Ruthnum: Witness, this documentary, took eleven years to research, shoot, and assemble. Why this story? Why did it take this long, and why, James, were you attracted to telling this story and reaching out to Kitty’s brother to aid you in the telling?

James Solomon: I’m a screenwriter by profession. I’m drawn to iconic stories we think we know.

In the late 1990s I got interested in doing a scripted film on the story that we all know of Kitty Genovese: 38 watched, no one helped. I sold a pitch to HBO and was doing it in combination with two others: Joe Berlinger, wonderful filmmaker, and Alfred Uhry, wonderful playwright.

That’s when I met Bill for the first time. When you meet Bill, it takes three minutes to realize how remarkable he is: what he has overcome in his life, personally and physically, and what a full life he’s had.

The other thing that had a deep impact on me when I first met him, was that Bill said to me: “I’ve needed to not only prove that I would have been someone who opened the window that night, but would have gone down into the street.” That has shaped many of the decisions that Bill has made during the course of his life.

There were 80 people interviewed for this film. I wanted to cast as wide a net as possible and that meant anyone who knew his sister in life or through her death was someone Bill wanted to speak with. Bill approaches people as an ethologist. He doesn’t come with an a priori agenda, he just tries to find the truth wherever it will lead. Keep in mind Bill was a Field Intelligence Captain in Vietnam. He is always the scout. He is always ahead of his platoon, trying to find the truth. What’s remarkable about Bill is that he’s always open to it.

Many of us for decades have chewed on this story. Screenwriters, songwriters, graphic novelists, sociologists, academics, have written, opined, offered their interpretations about this story. But those most deeply and profoundly impacted by what took place the night of March 13th, 1964, for the most part, have not been heard from. Most prominently, Kitty’s own family. I think what you find—I think the only reason the people who were in the film were willing to open up (not all but many), to share their private stories, was because of Bill. In my estimation, many felt, and many said this to us, they felt they owed it to Kitty, and Bill is Kitty’s surrogate.

Bill really draws stories out of people: the potential witnesses of Kitty’s murder, the journalists who covered the story—he has a talent for getting people to talk.

JS: I think that’s in part driven by the fact that he’s been in the chair, with this disability, since he was 19, and he’s used to people feeling uncomfortable with his disability. [Bill Genovese is a double amputee, due to injuries sustained in the Vietnam War.] He puts them at ease, and after a short while, you just forget and move on. That’s part of it, but also—and I think this is really important—I think that Bill has an innate and very singular understanding of physical and emotional trauma. By virtue of his life experiences, people who have had traumatic experiences and who are talking about it see in Bill that he gets it, and they’re willing to open up to him. That’s why so many people who had either experienced loss or are feeling guilt were willing to share it to Bill because they understood that he would get it. I think that goes to your question about why so long—people held on to these stories for decades. Families held on.

Except for the one striking reenactment that ends the film, where Bill positions himself to witness a simulation of Kitty’s last moments, you use animation to give visual representation to the stories and information that Bill gathers.

JS: Well, there was a lot of text: a lot of information that Bill was gathering. The filmmaker’s challenge was how I could make what Bill was gathering internally accessible? The idea behind the wonderful animations done by the Moth Collective was—I was looking for a way of externalizing Bill’s developing understanding of what took place. I didn’t want a full-form animation: to me, truth is sketched. It’s pieces, it’s lines, it’s not full formed ideas.

The motif that I wanted to use was the whiteboard that Bill uses to gather information. So that’s why the animations feel very consonant with the whiteboard that he uses.

And the layering of information is really the way that truth, that information is gathered: that was the design behind the animation that was so beautifully executed by the Moth Collective. I was trying to externalize what was happening within Bill: pieces of information, putting together a puzzle. Nothing literal: gathered information.

The recreation [the final minutes of the film] was totally different. That was something that Bill wanted to do: to experience something that had been in his mind for decades. He did it in a very particular way. It was not meant as a stunt, or to test the neighbourhood: The City of New York had been contacted, it was permitted. We’d leafleted in the neighbourhood, and keep in mind we’d been filming there for years. That neighbourhood knew us. We shot in the early evening: April 1st, the same time of year that Kitty was murdered. It gets dark very early.

It was Bill’s attempt to figure out—as a scientist, sort of empirically—to figure out what it looked like, or what it sounded like. I think he was surprised to find out that what took over for him was the emotional aspect of the experience.

Bill, this film, so much of the substance of it, comes from your ability to get people to talk, to open up. How did you come by this skill?

Bill Genovese: I would say that it probably comes from the fact that in my career, working as a financial analyst for Uniroyal and then as an administrator for a small psychiatric residence that we built into a bigger facility, there were a number of times that I’d have to address an audience. I just have an empathetic way of being, and—because of my disability, I think people open up to me, because they figure they’re not going to shock me with anything they’re going to say. Some people would think the opposite. But I’ve always had a way of making people feel comfortable with my situation, because I can see in peoples’s eyes: early on, when I first came out of the service, the discomfort.

I’ll give you an example. I get onto an elevator. There’d be a mother with a six or seven year old kid, and you can see the mother inching the kid into the corner so he’s not gonna ask some embarrassing question like, “Where are your legs?” I could see that happening, so I’d tell the mom, “You know, the smartest kids ask the most questions.” Then I’d look at the kid and say “Hi there, my name’s Bill,” and they’d ask their questions and everything would be fine. So I think a combination of the jobs that I did and this phenomenon that I lived through, and basically being empathetic about our fellow beings.

I got the impression that Kitty’s death has impacted many of your choices: particularly your decision to go to Vietnam.

BG: Kitty was a tremendous influence in my life, but really it was our conversations that set me up [for that decision]. I was born in 1948, I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s: it was the Cold War, we were all Cold Warriors. I remember distinctly the many times having to practice going under the desk after the flash of a nuclear bomb. Then Kennedy gets inaugurated and says “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” That was there, and Kitty and I would talk current events a lot, talk history, and it seemed to fit in. The “monolithic Communist threat.” When she was murdered, and the Times said it was fact [the collective indifference]: still, I can’t say that [her murder] was the only motivation.

I think anybody who simplifies things like that… at least that wasn’t my experience. The apathy that I experienced directly was in high school: some of the people I was acquainted with (I grew up in a fairly wealthy town, New Canaan Connecticut—we were middle class people who thought we were poor, living in that town): they would say things like “I was going to travel to Europe this summer, but I can’t, because if I don’t go to college I’ll get drafted.” To me that smacked of apathy. And then I was thinking that I was going to be like one of the people in the windows who didn’t do anything.

It was a convergence of all those things.

Close to the story that you uncover in this documentary, the real circumstances of the reaction to Kitty’s death, the holes and omissions in the NYT story that made your sister’s death famous, is the idea that this paper and its core journalists failed your sister, that they failed ethically. That’s how I saw it.

BG: First of all, I wasn’t out to do a hatchet job on Rosenthal or anyone else. I wanted people to open up and tell me what they thought, what they remembered they thought. Being strident with someone doesn’t help them let down their guard and say what they’re actually thinking.

The institutional New York Times? I don’t think failed. I think A.M. Rosenthal failed, because he put a morality play out there. I wouldn’t counter what he was thinking: that we really need to get the message out to people to help the police. Call in. Do this, do that. But as a journalist, he should have delved futher. Like, with Sophia Farrar [one of Kitty’s neighbours], where she did come down, she did run out and put herself in danger, this small little woman who was a friend of Kitty’s. There were other papers that two days after did mention Sophia. But once the New York Times article came out on the front page two weeks later? Sophia Farrar disappeared. Everybody sort of genuflected to the Times and let it go at that.

That year there were 630 some-odd murders in New York. Even Annie-May Johnson, who Winston Mosley murdered two weeks before my sister, no one has heard of her, because there was no spectacular, riveting story about 38 eye-witnesses.

Stepping into being an on-camera subject and driving force in a documentary after a full career in a different field, and with such a personal subject, must have caused you some anxieties. I got the sense from the film that Kitty wasn’t discussed in your family, and by the witnesses, for long periods of time after her death.

BG: Right after the murder, my mother within a year, at age 53, had a major stroke. So for thirty-odd years our chore as a family was to protect my mother from everything that would be sent to her by friends: little newspaper clippings. The darn story just didn’t go away. So that was part of it.

After Mosely went to federal court to get his district court verdict overturned, which failed, my mom had passed away by then. So I was ready to come out and do my own research. We got in touch with the Queens DA, I asked for every bit of information about the case that I was allowed to get. I started doing research on my own.

When Jim and I got together, he was working on a project for HBO that didn’t pan out. He got in touch with me at that point because he had seen me in some interviews in Federal Court. We knew about each other by then. Then the 2004 article in the NYT, written by a freelance writer name Jim Rasenberger, came out, and it was like a lighting bolt for both of us.

And yes, when I first started doing the documentary it was very anxiety-provoking. But there was something strange that happened soon after—which was that I had a peacefulness that came over me. And this is what I felt, I don’t know if it’s some sort of dated psychological construct that was going on in my head. What I felt was “This is what I should be doing, and I must do it.”

Cameras never bothered me. I did my best to ignore them, and Jim did his best to get the hell out of the way. We filmed for 250, 300 hours, and that had to be edited to 90 minutes.

Did you discuss the living Kitty much with your own family—your kids, your wife—before you started making Witness?

BG: In the beginning, when my kids were younger, my mom was still around, so we sort of avoided the whole concept of Kitty. It would just upset my mother so much that she would go into a tailspin. My mother was a very meek—an intelligent woman, but not sophisticated. She had been raised to be an Italian housewife. She only got as far as the 8th grade, then went to work.

All three of my children, in college, either in a sociology or psychology course, had courses about Kitty. When my mom passed away, we explained to them that I had a sister who was murdered, and that was about all they knew. And whenever they would ask questions, we would answer the questions. I was, at about the time they were starting to go off to college, doing my own research. Then I started talking more and more about it. Early on, probably about 2004 or 5, my daughter came along to a couple shoots in Kew Gardens. The thing about that neighbourhood: it is exactly the same as it was 52 years ago.

And your family, including your siblings, reacted well to the finished film?

BG: No matter how guarded they were about what I was doing, they were thrilled when they saw the final product, because it brought Kitty to life.

Naben Ruthnum’s book Curry: Eating, Reading and Race was published by Coach House. As Nathan Ripley, he has written the thrillers Your Life is Mine and Find You in the Dark, published by Atria/Simon & Schuster.