First Impressions of New York December 1963

By the 31st December 1963 New York was in the grip of what was to become one of its longest and coldest winters on record. It would continue, almost unabated, until late April. But, despite the big freeze and despite the sense of guilt and shock that still pervaded the American psyche over the recent assassination of President John F. Kennedy, society-conscious New Yorkers welcomed in the New Year as they always had done. Festively-attired diners filled the Rainbow Room, atop the Rockefeller Plaza, popped champagne corks, snapped crackers, and counted down the seconds to midnight.

Times Square New Year's Eve 1963
Times Square New Year’s Eve 1963

And, when the Lester Lanin Orchestra struck the hour, they rose from their chairs, linked arms and sang Auld Lang Syne, a ritual repeated every year. Their collective voices clearly echoed in the streets below as other revellers, including me and my friends, Ming, Rupert and Mandy, wrapped in mufflers, fur hats and woolly mittens, unable to find a taxi and unwilling to wait for an elusive bus, were making our way slowly home after saluting in the New Year in front of the giant screen in Times Square.

rainbow-room
The Rainbow Room

Although Ming and I had been invited to several parties that night, I had pleaded my case. Times Square, I said, is where I really wanted to be. I felt for my first New Year’s Eve in Manhattan I should experience the event as most New Yorkers celebrated it. And Rupert and Mandy, more than a little bored of the party circuit, indulged me. So now, as we battled our way homewards, heads bowed against the biting wind, we took temporary shelter in the brightly lit doorways of some of New York’s most famous stores, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, H.O. Schwarz and Tiffany’s, their Christmas windows ablaze and seductive with seasonal displays of expensive gifts and merchandise. As we reached the corner of each intersection we paused a moment to take an icy breath before leaping into the street to avoid stepping into the knee-high slush. This was my introduction to New Year in the Big Apple.

For over a month this freezing, penetrating wind had sliced through the cross streets, causing injuries as it drew the breath right out of people’s lungs, blew dirt and debris in their faces and knocked the unsuspecting ones clean off their feet. New York hospitals admitted a record number of patients suffering from broken arms and legs or, like me, with fragments of grit or glass lodged in their eyes.

Those of us lucky enough to reside in uptown apartments were able to respond to the sub-zero conditions by turning up our heating systems to bask in sweltering, almost tropical, temperatures but in Harlem tenants were not so fortunate, particularly those living in the apartment building at 6 West 118th Street. In fact they were so cold that winter they were forced to carry their mattresses into their kitchens. There they would sleep on the floor huddled around their gas stoves with pans of scalding water placed beside their babies and toddlers in order to keep them warm. The residents of a further 250 long-neglected and poorly maintained apartment buildings in Harlem were on rent strike. They complained about the filthy, drafty and unsanitary conditions they were forced to live in by their uncaring landlords and, on top of that, they complained, they were being plagued by an unwelcome invasion of rats seeking shelter from the harsh conditions outside. One of the striking tenants, Mrs. Addie Lewis, told us few determined reporters who shivered on duty outside the tenement buildings, “We have plenty of rats. We have plenty of roaches. We have no heat. Our one and only radiator leaks. And that‘s the truth of it! Go tell that to your editors!”

Striking Tenants in Harlem 1964
Striking Tenants in Harlem 1964

President Lyndon B. Johnson recognized the appalling circumstances facing these and 9.3 million other families in the U.S., totalling an estimated 35 million people, who he referred to on his State of the Nation address that New Year as, “the forgotten fifth of our nation who are living in substandard conditions” and he vowed to wage a war on poverty.

”It is a world where Americans are literally concerned with day to day survival,” he went on, “ a roof over their heads – where their next meal is coming from. It is a world where a minor illness is a major tragedy.”

And, with the prospect of a presidential election by the end of the year, Johnson vowed to ask Congress for $1 billion to finance the expansion of existing aid programs and create new ones in order to do something positive that would effectively alleviate their suffering and improve their standard of living.

lyndon-johnsonn-war-on-poverty
Lyndon Johnson “War on Poverty”

At the end of the previous year, 1963, I had joined millions of people around the world as we sat around our television sets mesmerized by the sight of a U.S. astronaut circling the earth 22 times at an average, unbelievable, speed of 17,000 miles an hour. Some of us had watched, in awe, as President Johnson, in a televised address, spoke to his nation about the thrilling prospect of future high-speed global communication between countries with the launch of their latest satellite, Telstar II. Earlier in the year many of us had also all watched our television sets as an estimated 200,000 Civil Rights supporters marched on Washington and listened, in silence, to the stirring “I have a dream” speech made by one of the twentieth century’s greatest orators, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And we had listened with relief as we were told that the two great superpowers, America and the Soviet Union, had eased international tension in the world by negotiating and ratifying the nuclear test ban treaty.

Martin Luther King Jr in Washington
Martin Luther King Jr in Washington

But, on the downside in the last year, we had all watched gloomily as one defiant Congressman, unwilling to move with the times, told the viewers proudly he had successfully blocked the passage of the Civil Rights Bill through Congress. This was despite the fact that it appeared obvious to us all that the majority of Americans supported its adoption. Lack of funds to schools, we were told, had meant that there were not enough classrooms around the country to educate all of America’s children. Most of the world’s youth movement listened in horrified silence as, in one of his first acts in the White House, President Johnson took the fatal decision to escalate the war in Vietnam – a decision that would so affect the emotions and lives of millions of people, young and old, around the world, including me. And, because we were young and ignorant of the facts at the time, we barely flinched when the tobacco industry proudly announced that Americans, in the past year, had smoked 523 billion cigarettes.

vietnam-war

Although, by the time I left London at the end of 1963, people there had generally come to terms with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, it was obvious to me when I arrived in the States that Americans were still convulsed by the incident. The nation was still tearing itself apart in a desperate search for answers. The contemporary investigation by the Warren Commission, then believed but later to be ridiculed, vowed it “would leave no stone unturned to elicit the truth – since Americans” it declared, “deserved nothing but the truth.”

President Kennedy visits Dallas
President Kennedy visits Dallas

Now, early in the New Year, I found that New Yorkers had a renewed sense of optimism as their much-loved newspapers finally reappeared on the newsstands following a bitter three-month strike by the print unions. Within the space of a few months they had watched with pride and amazement as a new and impressive landmark rose on their landscape, the giant Unisphere of the 1964 New York World’s Fair, due to open in April and constructed from a massive 900,000 pounds of steel depicting all seven continents. The Fair itself, all 175 pavilions, would be housed on 643 acres of the borough of Queens and would be entitled, “Peace Through Understanding” designed to help American children learn more about the world around them. And New Yorkers were relieved when the Democratic Mayor, Robert Wagner, in his tenth year as city Mayor, decided to subsidize the Transit Authority to the tune of $33.6 million in order to guarantee the 15cents bus and subway fares would remain unchanged for a further year.

1964 World's Fair - The Unisphere
1964 World’s Fair – The Unisphere

In Wagner’s decade, my boyfriend Joe later told me, New Yorkers had seen their city transformed. Manhattan’s famous avenues had been turned into one-way streets to ease the flow of increased traffic. Municipal parking lots had mushroomed to expand parking facilities for the record number of cars entering the city everyday. The Throgs Neck and Verrazano Narrows Bridges had been constructed to improve rush-hour congestion, along with the Van Wyck, Grand Central and Long Island Expressways. And several youth programs had been initiated to keep young people off the streets and out of harm’s way. Wagner, too, had helped to establish New York as a world centre of culture by saving Carnegie Hall from the wrecker’s ball, approving and supporting the development of Lincoln Centre, preserving Shakespeare in the Park and setting up a city office specifically for Cultural Affairs. Wagner also gave the green light to the Shea Stadium and to the Twin Towers, a massive $350 million development to be erected on the lower west side, to house the World Trade Centre. In 1964, New Yorkers, apart from Mrs. Addie Lewis and the other impoverished residents in the decaying slums of Harlem, had a great deal to feel optimistic about.

The Beatles on the Jack Paar Show
The Beatles on the Jack Paar Show

On the 3rd January I watched with a sense of nationalistic pride as the Beatles, made a taped U.S. television appearance on NBC’s Jack Paar Show in preparation for their first U.S. tour due to begin in February. Jack Gould, the TV critic, wrote somewhat stuffily in the New York Times the following day:

“While trade papers of the U.S. entertainment world indicate that recordings made by the Beatles should find favour among individual teenagers, it would not seem quite so likely that the accompanying fever, known as Beatlemania, will also be successfully exported. On this side of the Atlantic it is dated stuff.”

Beatle fans in the US

I was indignant. How dare he?  And, as if to prove Gould wrong, I was happy to witness teenagers across America embrace the Beatles, their songs, their music and their style. In the shopping malls across the country Beatle wigs became an instant best selling item. Despite Gould’s words I was certain that the “Fab Four’s” impact on American youth matched, or even surpassed, the impact they had already made on my own youth culture in Britain. As if to confirm this 10,000 screaming fans, braving the cold, showed up alongside me at Kennedy airport to wave, blow kisses, shriek and work ourselves up into a fainting frenzy as the four mop-haired Brits stepped off their plane from London. And, two days later on the 9th February, it was estimated that 74 million people tuned in to the Ed Sullivan Show to watch their first live TV appearance making it, at the time, the highest rated programme in TV history. It even surpassed the appearance of Elvis Presley shaking his hips on the very same show a few years earlier that had caused such a furore among the older generation. I was glad to see that Jack Gould’s prediction looked sadly out of touch as Beatlemania took hold in the States in a way that even the most optimistic of their seventeen American press agents could never have dreamed of.

Making up for the loss of three months, the New York papers, desperately needing advertising revenues, bombarded us with a surfeit of news early in the New Year. Overseas Pope Paul VI cried openly, reporters informed us, in front of the Holy Sepulchre on his first pilgrimage to the Holy Land. One thousand, nine hundred and fifty three Cubans set sail from Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba, in one hundred ninety three boats, hoping to reach U.S. shores and freedom. Canada’s Prime Minister, Lester Pearson, upset Nuclear Disarmament groups around the world by announcing that his government would be willing to sell uranium to France to support its independent nuclear force. Early in the year, too, five U.S. pilots died in Vietnam, on one of the worst days of the war for helicopter pilots since the U.S. stepped up its military support of South Vietnam, bringing the total number of American deaths to one hundred seventy three. In Europe, Britain and France announced an agreement to build a tunnel beneath the Channel, 162 years after the original link was suggested to Emperor Napoleon by a French engineer. The European Union moved closer to a reality by solving their farming and trade problems while their own imperialist power continued to diminish in Africa, resulting in the emergence of new independent African states. And the Soviet Union staved off famine by reaching a trade deal with the U.S. Congress to buy American wheat from the prairie farmers to feed their starving population.

In an effort to increase its investment and trade with Latin American countries, the U.S. signed an agreement with Colombia to invest in a little known area of the country, namely Medellin.

In a special edition the  New York Times described “Medellin  as the Gateway to a New World of Business on the Make” and Colombia as “the most stable country in South America, both politically and economically.” The paper went on to say ” Medellin, because of its premier location, its proximity to several ports and its perfect climate, offers wonderful opportunities for highly profitable business.” Not even the New York Times could have predicted what such a massive injection of US capital would do to the once sleepy rural town of Medellin. Nor could it possibly have suspected that Medellin would attract not legitimate businessmen but some of the world’s most notorious drug dealers and end up claiming the dubious reputation as the cocaine-smuggling capital of Latin America.

Back home in the southern States of America admission of young black students to local, previously all-white universities continued methodically but slowly although a whites-only policy still applied in Mississippi churches despite the fact that the Minister of the largest and most influential church in the State preached brotherhood and prayed for all mankind. Dr. George E. Mueller, the Director of the Manned Space Flight Program announced that man would land on the moon by 1968. The astronaut, John Glenn, gave up plans to be part of this exciting new space program by entering the Senate race in Ohio. Barry Goldwater, the right wing senator from Arizona decided to “give Americans a choice” by challenging Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York for the Republican presidential nomination. And, Dr. Luther Terry, the Surgeon General, published his long-awaited report on smoking that, for the first time ever, officially concluded that, “cigarette smoking contributes substantially to the American death rate.”

Barry Goldwater
Barry Goldwater

On the cultural front New York in early 1964 was buzzing. The eagerly awaited musical, “Funny Girl” starring the new singing sensation, Barbra Streisand, was in rehearsals and already fully booked six months ahead. The highly respected British actor, Alec Guinness, was playing to packed audiences as the troubled Irish writer Dylan Thomas at the Plymouth, and Carol Channing was all set to star in the musical, “Hello Dolly” at the James Theatre. Lionel Bart’s “Oliver” was entering its second successful year at the Imperial and four young Englishmen, Dudley Moore, Peter Cooke, Alan Bennett and Paxton Whitehead were about to open in the brilliant satirical revue, “Beyond the Fringe.”

Beyond the Fringe
Beyond the Fringe

Film, too, was flourishing. The movie, “Beckett” starring two of Britain’s most respected but most controversial actors, Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton, had just opened at Loew’s State, the queen of melodrama, Joan Crawford, was starring in “Straitjacket” and two young British stars, Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie, were starring in the film version of the recent stage play, “Billy Liar”. The Italian director, Frederico Fellini’s, “8 ½”, which had been playing to packed audiences in Europe, was due to open. And, for light comedy, New Yorkers had a choice between Doris Day and James Garner in “Move Over Darling”, Jack Lemmon in “Under the Yum Yum Tree” or Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in “Charade”. Audrey Hepburn was fast becoming the darling of America as girls all over the country chopped off their hair, hoping to emulate her “gamine” look.

During that winter the incident that had the most indelible and deeply disturbing effect on me was the murder of a young Queens resident, 28 year old Catherine “Kitty” Genovese. I suspected that New Yorkers were long hardened to news of murders on their doorstep. They read about them every day in the newspapers and every year the numbers seemed to be rising to a point where New York was considered by some to be the murder capital of the world. But I was not used to it at all. In London, fortunately, murders were still a fairly rare event. But, even for Americans, Kitty’s murder, or the reaction to it, revealed, for the first time, something disturbingly sinister, something shameful and something deeply shocking about themselves.

Kitty had been working as a bar manager on the night of Thursday 12 March and, in the early hours of Friday morning, drove herself home to Kew Gardens, a pleasant, leafy, middle-class neighbourhood of Queens. At approximately 3.20am she left her car in a parking lot about 35 yards away from her apartment building and walked towards her door. From behind a street lamp a man jumped into her path, grabbed her and started stabbing her repeatedly. Kitty screamed for her life. Suddenly a quiet suburban street was fully awakened by her cries for help.  Lights appeared in the windows as silhouettes of people, drawing back their curtains and peering out into the darkness, were clearly visible from the sidewalks below. Kitty must have seen them too – and prayed that someone would come to her rescue.

Kitty screamed again and again. “Help me, please help me! Oh, God, please help me!”

One lone voice shouted from the safety of a fourth floor window, “Leave that girl alone!” And then silence. For a few brief minutes the attacker backed off, walked away, reparked his car around the corner out of sight of the witnesses but then, when he saw no one was about to confront him, returned to his victim.

One by one the curtains drew back across the windows, the lights dimmed and Kitty’s desperate pleas went ignored. Thirty-eight people admitted later to the police they had seen the incident that night. But not one of them went to her help. Not one of them bothered to call 911. People simply shrugged their shoulders, blocked her screams from their ears and went back to the warmth, comfort and security of their beds. For 30 minutes, in the street below, Kitty struggled desperately with her attacker, screaming, “I’m dying! I’m dying! Help me, help me, please!”  On finally reaching her own doorstep she collapsed and died from multiple stab wounds and loss of blood.

The police finally received a belated call from one of Kitty’s apartment neighbours at 3.50am. They were on the scene within two minutes but Kitty was already pronounced dead and her attacker had fled. The police were convinced that had they received a call earlier Kitty’s life would have been saved.

kitty-genovese

Over the next few weeks Americans, New Yorkers in particular, were forced to look deep into their consciences and ask themselves some penetrating and painful questions. How could 38 people stand at their windows, watching a helpless young girl fight for her life and do nothing about it? How could those same witnesses return to their beds and fall back to sleep knowing there was a young girl in the street below them being murdered? And the most uncomfortable question of all – the question that no one really wanted to answer truthfully – if they were in the same position as the witnesses, would they have reacted any differently?

This represented a very black day indeed for most Americans as they were forced to swallow the new unpalatable notion of “non-involvement”. It was a bitter pill indeed and it stuck in the gullet of every concerned citizen. People were discussing it, analyzing it and trying to come to terms with it for weeks. To them and to everybody across America Kitty Genovese’s murder represented an ugly turning point in the annals of New York’s murderous history, something that deeply shamed each and every New Yorker.

I had only been in New York about three months by then. I was still caught up in the thrill of just being there, of meeting new people, of being part of the excitement of the period, of even being a participant in the action of a city which seemed, compared to London, to be awake for 24 hours a day. As I sat in my office at the recording studio of 1010 WINS each night I had read about several prominent murders in the newspapers, I had seen them consistently reported on the television news. In fact we had even reported some of them on our all-night radio programme but, to date, none of them had touched me this way. Without wanting to sound disrespectful of the other many tragic victims and their families, there was nothing out of the ordinary about most murders. But this senseless, unprovoked killing of Kitty Genovese was entirely different. This one made a huge impact on me and everyone else. This murder drove home an icy and unwelcome message that, not only was New York an unsafe city for us all to live in, but that most of its residents were too wrapped up in their own lives to care about anyone else’s.

Kitty Genovese's killer
Kitty Genovese’s killer

I, too, was faced with some uncomfortable questions, what if that had happened to me? What if no one had come to my rescue?  Or, more tellingly, what would I have done to help Kitty if had I been there? I remember being stunned, saddened and appalled, at the same time, when I heard the first sketchy details of the murder before I left the radio station early on the morning of Friday 13 March. My initial reaction was to reassure myself that this could never have happened in London. People would not have thought twice about risking their own lives to come to Kitty’s rescue. Having thought of Americans, until this point, as much like the British, with a sense of duty, a sense of community spirit and a sense of compassion, I was now compelled to see them in a totally new and disturbing light. This, in itself, was a harsh and painful lesson. Now, suddenly, they appeared to me as selfish individuals, callous, cold-hearted and self-serving, concerned only with their own welfare and their own survival. It was a feeling that was not forgotten overnight, it stayed with me for many years colouring my attitude and sense of trust towards almost each and every American I met from then on.

3 thoughts on “First Impressions of New York December 1963

  1. Hi! I can’t find a way to send a private message to you in this blog so I guess I will just leave a comment here. I would like you to know that I relied heavily on this blog for references in a blog entry I have written regarding the ongoing historical revisionism of the martial law era that I will publish very soon. I will let you know as soon as I finished proof-reading it. Thank you!

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