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James Solomon – Revisiting an Iconic New York Crime with The Witness

Updated: Mar 26, 2020

Kitty Genovese

Kitty Genovese

James Solomon

Revisiting an Iconic New York Crime with The Witness

by Jay S. Jacobs

It was arguably the one of the most storied murders in New York history, but the legend of the killing of Kitty Genovese is also one of the most misunderstood.  This tragic story is famous as much or more so for the misinformation that has long been spread about the situation than it is for the horrific murder itself.

Even if you do not recognize Genovese’s name, chances are you have heard the story.  It is a sad and horrific tale which has resonated for over half a century since it was reported in an extremely evocative, if rather factually inaccurate article in The New York Times, two weeks after the murder.

The accepted story pretty much goes like this: One night, a bartender named Kitty Genovese was walking from her car to her apartment when she was suddenly attacked on the street by a stranger brandishing a knife.  As Genovese struggled and screamed for her life outside her apartment building, 38 of her neighbors looked out the window and watched the crime.  One man yelled out the window, scaring the attacker off for a while, but no one went down to help Genovese, nor did anyone call the police.  Eventually, a half hour later, realizing that no one was helping the woman, who was badly injured and desperately trying to get back home, the killer returned and finished the job, raping and killing Genovese.

It was a terrible, tragic story.  In an America still reeling from the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Kitty Genovese became a symbol of “urban apathy” – proof that we are all alone out there.  Since then, the story has become a staple of pop culture, a sermon from the mount on the evil of city life, cynical proof that most people really only care about themselves in this world.

The problem is that the story was not exactly true.  No one knows exactly where the journalist came up with the figure of 38 people watching the murder.  Yes, 38 people did testify with the police about the fateful night, but most of them saw nothing.  Some heard a scream or fighting.  A few claimed they saw a tiny bit of the attack.  Some claim that they called the police and were told that the police were aware of the attack and on their way.  The story claimed that Genovese was attacked three times, but in reality it was twice, the second fatal time in a section of the building that was very remote.  Also, despite the fact that the story insisted no one went to her, Genovese’s next door neighbor and friend did indeed go down, at her own personal peril, and held and talked to Genovese as she died.

Some people may think that those are just little facts, they don’t mean anything.  However, they meant everything to the neighborhood, and more vitally to Genovese’s family.  Particularly her younger brother Bill.  Bill, who went on to be badly injured in Vietnam, has never given up on his strong need to figure out what really happened to his sister.  This led Bill Genovese to meet filmmaker and screenwriter James Solomon.  The pair decided to get together to find out the truth of not only Kitty Genovese’s death, but also her life.  This 11-year quest led to the stunning documentary The Witness, in which Solomon and a small film crew followed Bill Genovese as he got past the lies and tried to come to a better understanding of the sister he missed so badly, and of the night over 50 years ago in which she was ripped violently away from him.

Director James Solomon of "The Witness."

Director James Solomon of “The Witness.”

A few days before the New York premiere of The Witness, we sat down with director Solomon to learn about the long and winding road which led towards truth and healing and finally getting a better understanding of the life and death of Kitty Genovese.

How did you first learn about the Kitty Genovese story?

I’m a New Yorker.  I grew up in New York City.  For most New Yorkers, it is as seminal a crime as there is, in the last 100 years in New York City.  Everyone will know about it.  I became most interested [when] a literary agent named Andrew Browner had gotten The 38 Witnesses reprinted.  He had sent it to me when it was getting reprinted – this was in 1999 – and I thought it would be the basis for an interesting script.  I’m a screenwriter.  That’s my profession.  I’m typically drawn to iconic stories we think we know.

Right.  I don’t know if you’ll remember, but the first time I heard of the Genovese story was through a 1970s TV movie based on it called Death Scream.

Right.  I hadn’t seen that.  I remember that was one of those incredible… it had sort of an all-star cast.  Lots of great actors.  But I’m always drawn to these iconic stories.  And then the story behind the story.  The last movie I did was about the Lincoln assassination that Robert Redford directed called The Conspirator.  Before that I did a TV series called The Bronx is Burning about New York in the 1970s.  It starred John Turturro and Oliver Platt.  So, I’m drawn to these stories.  Kitty Genovese being such an iconic story felt particularly interesting.  There are so many mysteries of what happened that night in the apartments.  How that story came to be.  Who is Kitty Genovese?  Because she’s only known for the last 32 minutes of her life.  Who was this person Winston Moseley, who murdered her?  There are multiple mysteries and that was of great interest to me.  I thought it would make for an interesting screenplay.

How did you meet Bill Genovese?

I sold a pitch to HBO in collaboration with two others, Joe Berlinger and Alfred Uhry.  It was at that time that I met Bill Genovese.  As research, I went up to meet with Bill where he lives.  The first thing that happens when you meet Bill Genovese is you’re immediately struck by how Kitty suddenly comes to life.  She’s only known for the way that she died, but Bill was so close to her and loved her so much that suddenly you begin to get a sense of Kitty.  You get a sense of a person that you really wish you’d known through Bill.  The other thing, Jay, that was really striking to me was just how deeply impacted Bill was, not just by the loss of his sister, but the way she reportedly died.  That story, Bill said to me at the time, “I felt like I needed to prove not only that I would have been someone who would have opened the window that night, but would have gone down into the street.”

Nothing came of that HBO project.  However in 2004 The New York Times actually revisited its own story and questioned whether it was accurate.  Having known how much Bill was deeply affected by the story of that happened to his sister and how it changed the course of his life, I reached out to him, to get a sense of his perception and his thoughts.  He expressed an interest and desire to find out for himself what actually had happened.  Also, in that article it referenced Kitty’s life and quoted her former roommate, who was actually her lover.  Bill didn’t know a lot about her life in New York.  The combination of him wanting to find out what happened that night and also what his sister’s life was like in New York propelled him to want to go off to investigate.  He allowed me to accompany him.  I realized – I actually realized this in 1999, but I’m a screenwriter, so I was writing a screenplay – but I realized that the best way of telling what happened that night and who Kitty Genovese was, was through the people who were closest with her.

Kitty Genovese

Kitty Genovese

Obviously Bill was Kitty’s brother so he was connected, and yet he seemed much more obsessive about Kitty’s death than any of the other siblings, who mostly were trying to move on with their lives.  Were you surprised about how much effort he put into understanding a crime that happened so long ago?  

I suppose the answer to that is yes, and no.  No from the standpoint of there were so many unanswered questions and Bill’s life had been so deeply affected by a story that had serious flaws.  It stands to reason to my mind that he’d want to find out himself what actually happened, if he could do so.  Keep in mind, Bill was a scout in Vietnam.  His job was a field intelligence scout.  His wife, early when I met her, possibly in 1999 he may have told me this, but certainly in 2004 his wife described him as “always the scout.”  That’s Bill.  In my mind, he’s the ultimate truth seeker.  He’s determined to find the truth wherever it leads him.

So if you have a sense of Bill, and that’s part of what he [does]. He explores.  You get a sense of Kitty through Bill.  When you understand Bill’s questioning, and his needing to find the truth, seeking answers, you get a glimpse at who Kitty must have been.  Somehow, she answered his questions, she fed his questions, she encouraged his questions.  He said to me early on he wanted to do in a way for others what Kitty had done for him: to give them voice.  What sets this film apart from any other – and for 50 years people have been portraying in various ways the murder of Kitty Genovese, most recently Girls and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit – but for 50 years no one has heard from the people who actually were most impacted by her life and death.  This is as inside a story of Kitty Genovese as there has ever been, or ever will be.  It’s all because of Bill.

The original New York Times story portrayed Kitty’s murder in a way that it has become almost shorthand for a certain idea – urban apathy; we are all alone out there.  Why do you feel that people became so entranced by the sad story of her killing?

The original story is “For more than a half-hour 38 watched…”  38 watched.  Let me look at the actual story.  “For more than a half-hour, 38 respectable law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens, and none called the police.”  Now, that story is so horrific it creates a feeling of theater.  A theatrical event.  A staged killing watched by an audience.  That’s what the story portrayed.  Again it’s only conjecture, but if you go back in time in March of 1964, four and a half months after Kennedy was assassinated, the country was exploring questions of “Who are we?”  This story spoke to that question.   It was a morality play.  The crime rates in the cities around the country were rising.  Kennedy had been assassinated.  There was a perception that there was some kind of moral decay in the country.  This story served as a parable that reinforced this notion.  It also spoke to a general question.  It spoke to everybody’s fear of how alone are we?  Are we really on our own?  What do we owe each other?  Ultimate questions.

The problem with it is that the story simply wasn’t true.  The narrative was flawed.  Why it resonates, it resonated then and it still resonates now, there is an expression that journalists have: “Some stories are too good to check.”  This was one of those.  Now, had the story been accurately reported, as [writer and historian] Jim Rasenberger says in the film, it would have been a three or four day story.  It was not going to be a big story.

Right, in a strange way the Times story, even though it was flawed, was the thing that made the Genovese story resonate for all these years later.  If the Times had not pushed the idea of urban apathy, do you think anyone would remember the death of Kitty Genovese other than her family and friends?

Correct, but also keep in mind one of the effects was Kitty’s life got erased as a result of that story.  Of course she would only be known to the public through her death, because she was not a famous figure, so we would not know her name 50 years later if the Times hadn’t reported it as such.  But, within the family, the horror and tragedy was so profound and so great that even within Bill’s own family, within Kitty’s own family, Kitty’s life was erased.  It was easier for the family to cope with the loss by not talking.  Cope with the tragedy of her death by not speaking of her life.  A woman who was 28 years old.  She was almost… Kitty was like a millennial living in 1964.  Drove a red Fiat convertible.  Day manager at a bar.  Picked up her girlfriend in a bar in Greenwich Village.  Fun dancer.  Funny.  Really smart.  There were lots of stories that a family presumably would share, but they shared none, because [the pall of] her death was so great.  So, yes, you’re right, in some respects, her name is famous and stayed for 50 years, [but] within Kitty’s own family her life actually was erased as result of the tragedy.

Bill Genovese in "The Witness."

Bill Genovese in “The Witness.”

How difficult was it to track down living witnesses after 50 years?  How involved were you with tracking down some of the witnesses, or did you allow Bill to do all the detective work?

The way it worked was, we identified in conversation what it was that Bill was seeking.  There were four mysteries, essentially.  Four or five mysteries that were of interest to Bill.  He wanted to find out what happened that night.  He wanted to find out how the story of his sister’s murder came to be.  He wanted to find out what his sister’s life was like in New York.  He wished to find out who the person was [who killed] his sister.  Just to be clear, the guy was in jail, but he wanted to find out what kind of person was Winston Moseley, who murdered his sister.  He cast an extremely wide net.  He and I talked about all the various people.  He wrote down as many names as he could gather.  Then the process of trying to find if they were still alive or not.  We helped, so far as we could be helpful, to him, in trying to locate the people that he wanted to speak to.  If I wrote to someone and invoked Bill, I sent him the letter before I sent it.  If he had questions, he was meeting somebody, he would write his questions.  He might send me the questions.  I would send him some questions.  Then he would ask the questions he wanted to ask.

Over 11 years, a very intimate and close collaboration develops between a filmmaker and a subject of a film.  But it was driven by Bill’s need and objectives from beginning to end.  We get a sense that Bill is a very strong figure and has a clear sense of what it is that he wants.  But he’s also, as you can see in every interview and conversation he has, he’s very open.  So it becomes a dialogue.  I also should mention that in the course of making a film about a brother who lost a sister, my own brother, John, got sick and died.

I’m very sorry to hear that…

So what started as an abstract understanding of sibling loss for me became far less so.  I had a much deeper understanding of what Bill’s loss must have been like.  So on that level, it was a real profound connection between the subject and the filmmaker.

Bill’s loss was also probably compounded by his terrible wounding in Vietnam.  He suggested that he went into the war almost as a specific reaction to the apathy he read about in the story of people not helping his sister.  I know it’s a real leap, but do you think that the tone of the story is in some way almost responsible for contributing to his becoming disabled?

That’s a really perfect question that I have thought often about.  As you know, in life it’s impossible to remove a moment and imagine [what life would be without it].  I mean, you can imagine it.  In my personal opinion, yes.  I believe, from the moment that I’ve met Bill and the conversations that I’ve had with Bill, that not just the loss of his sister, but also the story of how his sister died, propelled Bill to enlist in the Marines.  In a sense to prove that he wasn’t like one of the 38 witnesses.  To prove, as he said to me, “Not only would I have opened the window, but I would have gone down in the street.”  Yes, in my opinion, had that story not come out as it came out, as 38 watched, I don’t believe Bill would have been motivated to enlist in the Marines to go to Vietnam less that two years after his sister’s murder.  But I have no idea, and that’s critical.  Who knows?

Jay, hypothetically, if his sister had just died tragically and there wasn’t the accompanying story, would someone’s grief and anger propel them to do something?  Would wanting to get out of the house?  To get away?  If nothing happened to his sister, would John Kennedy’s call to action – “Ask not what your country can do for you…” – would that have propelled him?  We don’t know.  We never know.  But I do think there was a direct correlation between the reporting of his sister’s murder and his decision to go to Vietnam.  It’s the way he’s lived his life.  It didn’t just stop with going to Vietnam.  He’s always needed to prove that he wasn’t like one of the witnesses.  He’s always been a stand-upper, not a bystander.  That’s an expression he uses.

Speaking of things we’ll never quite know, some of the witnesses that you were able to find alive deny the allegations of the original story – one woman insisted she called the police and was told they were already aware of the attack and had been called several times; another woman says she was with Kitty as she died. 

Yes, that was Sophia Farrar.  She had two children and she and her husband lived next door.  They just happened to live next door to each other, but because she was a few years older than Kitty and a mother, she had a particular affinity for Kitty.  She was a homemaker, so she was home a lot and she would talk to Kitty.  They became very close.

Kitty Genovese

Kitty Genovese