Radical chic

Radical chic

For the zeitgeist in 1970 New York, do read Tom Wolfe’s lengthy essay Radical chic: That Party at Lenny’sBesides its political insights, it’s a virtuosic piece of writing.

Among the luminaries invited to the fund-raising soirée for the Black Panthers hosted by Lenny Bernstein and his wife Felicia in their sumptuous Manhattan apartment, the star guest was the Panther activist Don Cox.

Felicia is remarkable. […] She greets the Black Panthers with the same bend of the wrist, the same tilt of the head, the same perfect Mary Astor voice with which she greets people like Jason, D.D. Adolph, Betty, Gian Carlo, Schuyler, and Goddard, during those après-concert suppers she and Lenny are so famous for.

Wolfe observes the social dynamics:

… Is he, a Black Panther, going on to pick up a Roquefort cheese morsel rolled in crushed nuts from off the tray, from a maid in uniform, and just pop it down the gullet without so much as missing a beat of Felicia’s perfect Mary Astor voice…

He notes ironically that

the current wave of Radical Chic has touched off the most desperate search for white servants.

And he describes the social background in florid detail.

Radical Chic was already in full swing by the time the Black Panther party began a national fund-raising campaign late in 1969. […]
By the 1960s yet another new industry had begun to dominate New York life, namely, communications—the media. At the same time the erstwhile “minorities” of the first quarter of the century had begun to come into their own. Jews, especially, but also many Catholics, were eminent in the media and in Culture. So, by 1965—as in 1935, as in 1926, as in 1883, as in 1866, as in 1820—New York had two Societies, “Old New York” and “New Society.” In every era, “Old New York” has taken a horrified look at “New Society” and expressed the devout conviction that a genuine aristocracy, good blood, good bone—themselves—was being defiled by a horde of rank climbers. This has been an all-time favorite number.

A remarkably in-depth debate ensues.

Wolfe goes on to reflect on the media backlash. As a BBC programme summarised,

Members of the press were pointedly not invited to the Bernsteins’ meeting, but two journalists managed to sneak in regardless and the next two days saw the New York Times reporting on this event as “group therapy plus fund-raising soirée” which “mocked the memory of Martin Luther King Jr”.

The Bernsteins and Don Cox vehemently objected to their intentions being portrayed as anything but genuine, with Felicia responding to the newspaper: “The frivolous way in which it was reported as a ‘fashionable’ event is unworthy of the Times, and offensive to all people who are committed to humanitarian principles of justice.”

For further discussions of the impact of the event, see e.g. here and here.

The Panther 21 were acquitted of all charges in May 1971.

Meanwhile, WAM aficionados (bless) only rarely allow politics to intrude into their appreciation of Bernstein on the podium (see under The art of conducting: a roundup).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s