As doubtless expected, the passing of Abe Rosenthal has inspired a mini-orgy of fourth estate gum-flapping. The NYT led the way with a massive obit detailing his lengthy and — as they say in the trade — “controversial” career. But the ever-cheeky Charlie Kaiser sidles up to “the goods” towards the end of his New York Observer hail-and-good-riddance:
“Rosenthal also had problems with gay people, though I never thought I was affected by that, because I was still firmly in the closet when I worked at The Times. Walter Clemons was not so lucky. When Clemons was clearly the best candidate to fill a slot as one of the paper’s daily book critics in 1970, Rosenthal passed over him after Christopher Lehmann-Haupt told the editor that Mr. Clemons was gay.
“I was outraged and hurt, and thought, What has this got to do with anything?” Clemons remembered.
On the other hand, when Rosenthal started dating Shirley Lord, the beauty editor at Vogue, more gay people entered his social circle, and he became more comfortable with them. In January, 1993, he even used his column to come out in favor of Bill Clinton’s short-lived proposal to allow gay people to serve openly in the military.”
Many days late and dollars short. But it’s most amusing to hear Charlie speak of the “firmness” of his closet back in the Bad Old Days (lovely metaphor, dear. We know how much you appreciate firmness) and good to have verified that it was the loathesome Lehmann-Haupt who brought out the knives on Walter Clemons — thus leaving us all to the tender mercies of Machiko Kukatani. As for details on Abe’s antipathy prior to joining up with that “bosomy dirty book writer” (as the late and much-lamented Spy invariably called Shirley) Edward Alwood’s Straight News is a “must read.”
Actually it’s a “must read” for anyone seriously interested in journalism. For in it Alwood dissects how gays and lesbians became what Roland Barthes calls the “structuring absence” of history, particularly as recounted by the press. Abe’s pivotal role in all this came with his discovery, sometime in the early 60’s that (oh horror!) there were homosexuals living on Third Ave.! Clearly this had to stop and the Times did its part — with the especial help of “science” reporter Jane Brody, and her frequent articles on “causes” and “cures” for the love that dare not sing Cole Porter too scrupulously.
But times (and even The Times) change. A major speed-bump popped up on Abe’s superhighway in 1971 when the Sunday Magazine (over which Abe didn’t have as much control as he probably would have liked) publied Merle Miller’s “On Being Different: What It Means to be a Homosexual” (about which I’ve written previously, and will doubtless refer to in future.) Soon everything was different — even (eventually) Abe.
But a distant echo from his tenure continues to resonate — the Kitty Genovese story. As the NYT oibut notes —
One article assigned by Mr. Rosenthal, focusing on New Yorkers’ fear of involvement in crime, recounted the murder of Kitty Genovese, a Queens woman whose screams were ignored by 38 neighbors while her killer stalked and attacked her repeatedly on a street for 35 minutes. The article shocked New York, and Mr. Rosenthal later wrote a short book on the episode, “Thirty-Eight Witnesses.”
As a result of Rosenthal’s effort Kitty Genovese became a metaphor for urban indifference. though as this lengthy, detailed study of the case indicates there are considerable grounds for arguing that Abe and his acolytes misrepresented the incident. The murder took place in several stages in different locations at the apartment comles, hence the neighbors might well have been unable to see or even hear with any degree of clarity.
At the same time, there’ one bit of information about Kitty Genovese that Rosenthal left out. She was a lesbian.
Could she have been as this 2004 Mountain Pride editorial suggests the Mattthew Shepherd of her day? Maybe. Maybe not.
But it’s always good to be fully informed, and not get written out of history, as Abe once would have wished.