Kitty Genovese’s secret lesbian history

 
 

Kitty Genovese is famous for dying. Her murder made her name synonymous with American selfishness (sometimes called “The Bystander Effect,”) as she was stabbed to death steps from her door while neighbors looked on from the safety of their homes, doing nothing to help.

Studio photo of Catherine Kitty Genovese, 28. Lips closed

Kitty was killed on March 13, 1964, and for the 50th anniversary of her senseless death, a new books has come out to discuss the act that has been oft-analyzed and never forgotten. But one part of the conversation that is rarely touched upon was the fact that Kitty was a lesbian.

Kevin Cook‘s Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America includes the truth about Kitty’s life, the truth left out, the girlfriend that was erased in order for people to “not get distracted” by the horrifying tragedy that occurred. Mary Ann Zielonko was Kitty’s lover, but was called her roommate, her friend during the trial that convicted Kitty’s killer, and in any other published reports about Kitty’s life and death.

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Mary Ann is still alive and openly discusses her relationship with Kitty. She shares the kinds of things that she feel safe talking about now, like the couple’s love of Greenwich Village (“the one place where I felt like I belonged”), pulp novels and folk music. In the book, Cook writes about New York in 1963, when homosexuality was illegal but underground gay and lesbian bars were popular places, and where Mary Ann first met Kitty.

The Swing Rendezvous was an underground club at 117 MacDougal. The Swing had a long wooden bar scored with more initials than a grade-school desk, vinyl platters playing on the PA, multicolored scrims shading the lightbulbs overhead, women of all shapes and sizes crowding the dance floor. The dancers wore Shalimar, Arpege, and L’Aimant. They slow-danced to Piaf, Judy Garland, and Streisand’s “Cry Me a River.” Some slow-danced even when the music changed and everybody else started doing the Twist or the Swim. One night Mary Ann was making her way through the fragrant crowd to the bar when a cute brunette appeared at her elbow, a girl she hadn’t seen before. Pegged slacks, a loose blouse, dark tousled hair. “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” the girl asked.

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Mary Ann and Kitty danced together but hadn’t even exchanged names at the end of the night, so Mary Ann said she wondered if she might never see the beautiful brunette ever again. But Kitty was savvy, and she somehow found Mary Ann’s apartment, leaving a note that she’d call her at the pay phone across the street at 7  that night.

Their next meeting was on St. Patrick’s Day, at another secret gay bar called The Seven Steps where Mary Ann says there was a butch bartender, Mitch, who was murdered within the next year. Mary Ann said she and Kitty shared green beers while getting to know one another.

“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?”

They were 27 (Kitty) and 24 (Mary Ann), both working in bars. They quickly moved in together in a one bedroom in Kew Gardens, Queens. Kevin Cook describes the neighborhood as full of families and charm, a book shop, record store and cafe all lining the street. Bailey’s Pub was on the corner, which caused the only real ruckus some nights when there were lover’s quarrels as drunks would head home from the bar. This was later used as an excuse for so many on-lookers who heard Kitty’s cries and assumed she was a wife merely upset by her husband’s words.

Most of the neighborhood assumed Kitty and Mary Ann were friends, young single women (possibly stewardesses) that would eventually find husbands and go their separate ways. The only one Kitty came out to was Sophia, a young wife and mother who was the last one to see Kitty alive. The book details Kitty and Mary Ann’s happy home together, Kitty’s interest in Betty Friedan‘s The Feminine Mystique and non-fiction. Mary Ann was an artist, a painter, who had started to paint a portrait of Kitty before she died. She wouldn’t finish it until years later.

It’s made clear that Kitty wasn’t ashamed of her sexuality, but knew that it wasn’t safe to be out about her relationship with Mary Ann. Even in Greenwich Village among the other queers and hippies and other celebrants of counter-culture it could be dangerous. But inside their home, they loved one another deeply and took Sundays and Mondays off to spend together. They’d drive up to Connecticut to spend time with Kitty’s family, who knew Mary Ann was not simply Kitty’s roommate, but held their tongues.

scene looking across the street where on March 13, Catherine Kitty Genovese

“We didn’t act gay or butch,” Mary Ann said in the book. “We weren’t kissing in public. Our friends knew we were lovers, of course. I’m sure some of the neighbors suspected because we were always together, but it’s not like anybody said the word ‘homosexual’ or ‘lesbian,’ even if they were thinking it. Kitty’s parents knew for sure, but they were very Catholic. It’s like they knew but didn’t want to. It made them uncomfortable. I made them uncomfortable. But they tried to treat me nice and I liked them for that.”

The Stonewall Riots were only a handful of years away, but gays and lesbians were still considered sexual deviates. Police raided bars looking for women wearing men’s clothing or same-sex dance partners. An excerpt on these haunts gives an idea of what Mary Ann and Kitty’s secret nightlife was like:

At the Ace of Clubs, a lesbian hangout that was one of Mary Ann’s favorites, the music was soft enough to permit conversation. The Bagatelle was more hardcore and, to Kitty, more thrilling. According to poet Audre Lorde, the smoky Bagatelle reeked of “beer and lots of good-looking young women.” Femmes at “the Bag” wore slinky dresses and slow-danced “Garrison belt to pubis and rump to rump” with butch partners who flattened their breasts with ACE bandages and wore suits, ties and fedoras.

At a time when no shopkeeper could openly sell sex toys, even in the Village, downtowners fashioned dildos from crutch cushions, the green rubber pads that fit the tops of crutches to protect users’ armpits. Those makeshift dildos made a notable bulge in the baggiest trousers. Sometimes topped with a condom to look more like a penis, they were called green hornets.

Vice raids were common, Mary Ann said, with red lights inside the bars to warn everyone inside. They risked arrest because they liked the chance to be around other people like them.

On the night of March 13, 1964, Kitty left from work, Ev’s Eleventh Hour Sports Bar, in Hollis, Queens and walked to her car. In a case of terrible luck, Winston Moseley saw she was alone, followed her until she parked near her home in Kew Gardens, and attacked her as she sensed danger and ran toward her door. In a series of three different stabbing attacks and eventual rape, Winston killed Kitty.

What made Kitty Genovese a case study for psychology students decades after was that The New York Times wrote that 38 of her neighbors heard her cries, and none of them went to help her. Kitty’s death has spawned conferences, novels, television episodes, a play, songs and even a sermon in the 1999 film The Boondock Saints. People have mourned her and learned from her for five decades, and it’s likely that 90 percent of them have no idea she was gay.

The police knew Kitty was a lesbian. Mary Ann said she didn’t want to tell the cops, but they knew, “harassing her for hours.”

“I always regretted it,” she said in the book. “What right did they have to know?”

The cops used this as an opportunity to suspect Mary Ann as having something to do with the murder, as jealousy was apparently a strong motive for same-sex lovers at the time. No one wanted to talk to Mary Ann for fear of being outed or known as part of her crowd. Mary Ann says she doesn’t blame them, though. “Gay people were paranoid enough already.”

Interestingly, detectives were not concerned with Kitty and Mary Ann’s relationship when it came to putting Winston on trial. Mary Ann took the stand as Kitty’s friend and roommate, identifying items of Kitty’s (house keys, a billfold she’d given her for Christmas). She didn’t want to out Kitty to “protect kitty’s family, and partly because it could tar Kitty’s reputation.” After she testified, Mary Ann left Kew Gardens and has never returned.

Fifty years after Kitty’s demise, the details and interest in her hasn’t died, but the truth about who she was has only just begun to surface. The time and place Kitty and Mary Ann’s relationship existed in makes it easy to see why Kitty was kept closeted in most of the discussions of her death, but now, in 2014, it’s sickening to think that her relationship would be cause for anything other than the same kind of outrage she deserved as a “straight, single” 27-year-old woman who lived with a friend; as if her being a “sexual deviate” would have instead made her more deserving, instead, of such a random act of sexual and deadly violence.

These kinds of ideas extend to today, in South Africa where lesbians are victims of corrective rape, and in Texas where a father could hate his daughter’s being with a woman so much that he would kill them both.

It’s taken years for Mary Ann to be able to feel safe enough to share the memories she has of her lover. The situation is reminiscent of a book that came out two years before Kitty was stabbed to death in her building corridor, Christopher Isherwood‘s A Single Man. The book’s protagonist George Falconer, is a professor whose partner suddenly passes away and leaves George left grieving quietly as to not out himself or his lover, decides to kill himself at the end of a long, depressing day. Mary Ann lived on and she’s owed at least the opportunity to be listed as Kitty’s survivor. The fact that Kitty was a lesbian is exactly that: a fact. Erasing our sexuality is erasing a part of ourselves and our history. Those distracted by the idea we have same-sex relationships should be considering that about themselves as they wonder if they would have helped a stabbed woman screaming in the street below.

 
 

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