Revisiting Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic (1970)
I STOPPED reading contemporary literature — works by living novelists and short story writers — when I was in my late teens or early twenties. I found it aesthetically and intellectually unrewarding. The sole exception was the work of journalist-turned-novelist Tom Wolfe, the Virginia-born, New York City-based founder and exponent of New Journalism, a type of feature reporting employing literary techniques.
A famous early classic was his hilarious, 25,000-word feature story for New York magazine — a work of journalism, not fiction: “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” June 8, 1970.
“Lenny” was the famous Jewish conductor Leonard Bernstein, and “that party” — held at Bernstein’s upscale Park Avenue apartment in 1970 — was a fundraiser for the violent, anti-white Black Panther Party at which Panther Field Marshal Donald Cox (Oakland) was the guest of honor. Others present were Robert Bay, Henry Miller (Harlem), and “the Panther women,” who, believe it or not, were black.
“Radical Chic” quickly became famous, introducing a new term into the English language. The “delightfully scathing story,” Jewish writer Elon Green noted in 2014, “pissed off more than a few New Yorkers.” “Leonard Bernstein’s wife ‘fled’ a party rather than be in a room with Wolfe’s publisher.”
The article was subsequently reprinted in book form along with another journalism piece under the combination title Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970). “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” was a feature story about colored radicals’ race baiting of white (at that time, in the 1960s) federal poverty program bureaucrats for financial gain . . . ripping off taxpayers. “Mau Mau” was originally a savage, secret tribal cult in Obama’s ancestral Kenya in the 1950s that conducted well organized, murderous attacks against whites. Thanks to Wolfe, “mau-mau” now means “to intimidate (as an official) by hostile confrontation or threats.”
With his usual panache, Wolfe reported in Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers what he personally observed:
It is one of those laughs that starts out as a laugh but ends up like he [the government bureaucrat] got hit in the stomach halfway through. It’s the first assault on his dignity. So he breaks into his shit-eating grin, this is always phase two. Why do so many [white] bureaucrats, deans, preachers, college presidents, try to smile when the mau-mauing starts? It’s fatal, this smiling. When some bad dude is challenging your manhood, your smile just proves that he is right and you are chickenshit — unless you are a bad man yourself with so much heart that you can make that smile say, “Just keep on talking, sucker, because I’m gonna count to ten and then squash you.”
In March 2014 Radical Chic was republished online in “annotated” form, the original text interleaved with questions by Elon Green, a (male) Jewish writer for Internet publications including NewYorker.com, together with Wolfe’s responses. Green tape-recorded the 4-hour interview with the 83-year-old author over two days in Wolfe’s New York City apartment earlier this year. (For the full text see “Annotation Tuesday! Tom Wolfe and ‘Radical Chic,’” May 13, 2014)
“Radical Chic” without the interspersed Q&As can be read in HTML format on the New York magazine website.
Indispensable, too, is a reproduction in PDF format of the 1970 magazine article itself. (See “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s”) It is the only online version that reproduces the 15 B&W photographs of radical chic individuals and events as they originally appeared in New York magazine. Not even the book version includes them. The photos are useful for framing the narrative, providing additional insight into the world described, and reminding readers that Wolfe really is a professional reporter, a newsman, a point fundamental to understanding both his fiction and nonfiction writing and his research methods.
As he explained to Green (and it applies to the field research he conducts for his fiction as well), he takes down everything in a notebook using Gregg shorthand. “It’s not really hard. The tape recorder is for lazy people.”
How Wolfe ended up at the party is revealing. He was visiting the Harper’s magazine office in December 1969 to pick up his Jewish fiancée, its art director, to go out to lunch. The place was empty, so, while waiting, he wandered around “poking my nose into other people’s business.” On the desk of noted Jewish journalist (and later bestselling author) David Halberstam he discovered an invitation to the Bernstein party at 895 Park Avenue — “one of the greatest Park Avenue buildings” — and decided to invite himself. He wrote down the phone number on the invitation to call to respond, phoned later, and was put on the guest list.
When he turned up at the apartment door there were big desks and a security check was conducted: “There was no way you could sneak by. And my name was on the list, so no problem!” The wealthy racial activists did implement security measures. “And I immediately introduced myself to Felicia Bernstein and to Leonard Bernstein. I didn’t know them. I told them I was from New York magazine.”
Felicia, also known as Felicia Montealegre (she adopted her mother’s maiden name for her stage name when she moved to New York City), was an American stage and TV actress. According to Wolfe, she grew up in Santiago, Chile, where her father, Roy Elwood Cohn, an engineer from San Francisco, worked for the American Smelting and Refining Co. Other sources say Felicia was born in Costa Rica, where her Jewish father headed that company’s branch. Her mother was Costa Rican. Raised Catholic, Felicia converted to Judaism when she married Bernstein.
It would have been extremely awkward for the Bernsteins and other wealthy Jews and Leftists to have Negro servants in the 1960s, so they had white ones instead. Serving at the Bernsteins’ party — thanks to Felicia’s background — was a “house staff of three white South American servants, including a Chilean cook, plus Lenny’s English chauffeur and dresser, who is also white, of course.” Wolfe added that many wealthy friends “ring up the Bernsteins and ask them to get South American servants for them, and the Bernsteins are so generous about it, so obliging, that people refer to them, good-naturedly and gratefully, as ‘the Spic and Span Employment Agency,’ with an easygoing ethnic humor, of course.”
Wolfe omitted to hint, much less explicitly report, that Leonard Bernstein was homosexual. (Nevertheless, Bernstein and his wife had three children together.) But Elon Green raised the issue in his 2014 interview. Wolfe claimed ignorance: “I didn’t know that. I hadn’t heard that. I was totally surprised when that — and to this day, I don’t really know it’s true. But I’ve heard a lot of people say that.” In fact, it was widely known among insiders, and it stretches credulity to think that Wolfe did not know it.
The Esoteric Aspect of Radical Chic
An interesting feature of Radical Chic is that in one sense it is an esoteric work, because a primary theme is that most taboo of all subjects, Jews depicted in a less-than-flattering light. Though today this element sticks out (to me) like a sore thumb, when I first read Radical Chic I knew nothing about it.
The article is a tour de force, thoroughly enjoyable, hilarious, and filled with highly entertaining literary pyrotechnics. Yet how could I possibly grasp what was really being described on literally every page when I lacked the secret key necessary to unlock it? Obviously, I read the text at some perfectly coherent but entirely superficial level.
One image that stuck in my mind over the years for some reason was of Leonard Bernstein with a gold chain around his neck seated in a low armchair close to the tall, commanding Panther leader Donald Cox: “He’s only a couple of feet from Cox. But Cox is standing up, by the piano, and Lenny is sunk down to his hip sockets in the easy chair.” The image is repeated several times. “’STEIN!’ roars Lenny [at Jewish Panther attorney Gerald Lefcourt, who had pronounced his name “Mr. Bernsteen”; he always insisted on –stein] He’s become a veritable tiger, except that he is sunk down so low into the Margaret Owen billows of the easy chair, with his eyes peering up from way down in the downy hollow, that everything he says seems to be delivered into the left knee of Don Cox.”
Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. These are nice. Little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts. Very tasty. Very subtle. It’s the way the dry sackiness of the nuts tiptoes up against the dour savor of the cheese that is so nice, so subtle. Wonder what the Black Panthers eat here on the hors d’oeuvre trail? Do the Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels wrapped in crushed nuts this way, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi, all of which are at this very moment being offered to them on gadrooned silver platters by maids in black uniforms with hand-ironed white aprons . . . The butler will bring them their drinks . . .
Incredibly, I knew no more about Jews after I’d read Radical Chic than before I’d begun it. The racial information it contained, particularly the Jewish-white information, went straight over my head as far as I can recall. I did not even have right-wing views at the time, having been raised in a Scandinavian American socialist milieu, so I wasn’t applauding it from a “conservative” perspective either.
Strange! Whites can be very dense.
The fact remains that Radical Chic can be fully appreciated only by readers possessed of esoteric knowledge — which is to say, knowledge of the Jews, for that is what it is. A whole layer of meaning, one might even say the gist of the piece, eluded me completely the first time I read it. Jews and philo-Semites on the one hand (I refer only to hardcore, knowing philo-Semites, the worst kind), and anti-Semites on the other (six of them worldwide), experience an entirely different text than do the great majority of ignorant readers.
“Among the cast of characters,” Wolfe told Elon Green in 2014, “there was a very strong racial and ethnic quality there. On the ethnic side, Leonard Bernstein himself. A great number of the people there were Jewish. And the liberal support for radical movements much more tended to come from Jewish intellectuals than other intellectuals in general.”
The 90 distinguished guests who donated money to the revolutionaries consisted mostly of wealthy Jews, including movie director Otto Preminger, Jean van den Heuvel (daughter of organized crime-linked Jules Stein, founder of MCA), musician Peter Duchin and his wife Cheray (after the death of his parents, Duchin was raised from infancy by Left-wing WASP W. Averill Harriman and his wife Marie Norton Whitney Harriman), Frank (“the entrepreneur, not the broadcaster”) and Domna Stanton, songwriters Sheldon Harnick and Burton Lane, Today Show host Barbara Walters, the editor of The New York Review of Books Robert Silvers (at 84 he still is — since 1963!), fashion photographer Richard Avedon’s wife, and movie director Arthur Penn’s wife.
Also present were a smattering of fashionable Gentiles such as Gail Lumet (daughter of black singer Lena Horne and wife of Jewish movie director Sidney Lumet), heiress Cynthia Phipps (Carnegie Steel, US Steel), Mrs. August Heckscher, professional black activist Roger Wilkins (the nephew of NAACP head Roy Wilkins), the former “Boy President” of Sarah Lawrence College Harold Taylor, and black singer-actor Harry Belafonte’s white wife, Julie.
“And scores more,” Wolfe adds.
Both Wolfe’s prose and his subject matter are unique. The other night I was reading a Wolfe essay from 1966 about the difference between men’s suits with real buttons on the sleeves (tailored), and those with fake buttons sewn onto the fabric like decorations (off the rack), and he made the following observation about his friend “Ross”: “a Good Guy, thirty-two years old, a lawyer Downtown with a good head of Scotch-Irish hair, the kind that grows right, unlike lower-class hair.” Where do such words and ideas even come from? Wolfe writes that way all the time.
Movie director Otto Preminger, who had a thick German accent, sat near the front of the crowd during the Bernsteins’ party and quarreled off and on with Panther speaker Donald Cox. (He also donated money: “I geeve a t’ousand dollars!”)
Suddenly Otto Preminger speaks up from the sofa where he’s sitting, also just a couple of feet from Cox:
“He used von important vord” — then he looks at Cox — “you said zis is de most repressive country in de vorld. I dun’t beleef zat.”
“Do you mean dat zis government is more repressive zan de government of Nigeria?”
“I don’t know anything about the government of Nigeria,” says Cox. [That line always cracks me up.] “Let me answer the question — ”
“You dun’t eefen listen to de kvestion,” says Preminger. “How can you answer de kvestion?”
“If you’re for freedom,” says Preminger, “tell me dis: Is it all right for a Jew to leave Russia and settle in Israel?”
“Let me finish — ”
Most people in the room don’t know what the hell Preminger is driving at, but Leon Quat [one of the Panthers’ Jewish attorneys, a member of the Communist front National Lawyers Guild and the American Civil Liberties Union] and the little gray man know right away. They’re trying to wedge into the argument. The hell with that little number, that Israel and Al Fatah and U.A.R. and MIGS and USSR and Zionist imperialist number —
Later, Preminger apologized to Cox for his rudeness, or tried to:
In the corner, meanwhile, by the piano, Preminger has reached out and grabbed Cox by the forearm in some kind of grip of goodwill and brotherhood and is beaming as if to say, I didn’t mean anything by it, and Cox is trying to grab his hand and shake hands and say that’s O.K., and Preminger keeps going for the forearm, and Cox keeps going for the hand, and they’re lost there in a weird eccentric tangle of fingers and wrist bones between the sofa and the grand piano, groping and tugging —
Ultimately the Bernsteins and their fashionable friends, attacked by fellow Jews, “made a strategic withdrawal from radical chic, denouncing the ‘witchhunt’ of the press as they went,” not due to any change of heart, but because Jewish institutions ranging from the New York Times to Rabbi Meir Kahane’s terrorist Jewish Defense League assailed them for supporting the “anti-Semitism” and anti-Zionism of black militants. So Jews ended up sticking with the “mainstream civil rights leadership” they had created, thereby bringing us to our present pass.
Questioning Wolfe’s Central Premise
Tom Wolfe’s writing exhibits an extraordinarily keen sense of Jewish-white differences — more than enough to earn the toxic sobriquet “anti-Semitic” all by itself. This is true not only of Radical Chic, but The Painted Word (1975) and many of his other works as well. Wolfe’s semi-veiled reporting seems quite critical in comparison to how goyim write, speak, and think about Jews.
Despite this, Jews never terrorized, threatened, belittled, or ostracized Wolfe, ended his career, kicked his face in, or stomped him into a bloody pulp so to speak. I don’t recall ever seeing him labeled “anti-Semitic,” an epithet they hurl at virtually everybody. On the contrary, Wolfe has been widely acclaimed as one of the foremost literary figures of our time. Though appropriate, this contradicts how Jewish society works.
The author’s exceptional talent has nothing to do with it. Jews don’t give a damn about talent when it comes to demanding — and receiving — total submission.
Nor does the fact that Wolfe married a Jew and has two (racially) Jewish children provide him with immunity. Crusading Midwestern Scotch-Irish publisher Walter Liggett had a Jewish wife and children, but that did not stop Jews from brutalizing and ultimately murdering him in 1935 — with impunity, I might add. In 1998 his daughter wrote a book about it.
I think Wolfe cannot possibly be anti-Semitic. The fact that he ended his Aryan bloodline through intermarriage (assuming, arguendo, that he is not part Jewish) would seem to prove that.
In a digression in the middle of Radical Chic, Wolfe purveys the worn-out tale that wealthy, powerful Jews are anti-white, Left-wing extremists because of unending “persecution” and “anti-Semitism” “they” (even though his subjects weren’t even born) allegedly suffered in Europe and America through the millennia. He may believe the Persecution Myth like everybody else — nobody thinks about it critically — but, if so, he also knows and cares as little about the truth of the matter as anyone else. It is a justification for never holding Jews accountable for their actions. Somebody else is always to blame.
Especially relevant in this regard is the centrality to Wolfe of social status, a vice which, if not guarded against, trumps morality, principle, and honor.
Detailed notation of status symbols is one of the four pillars of Wolfe’s literary technique. As he explained to Green: “That comes from my belief that every conscious moment, except when we’re in danger, we are thinking about our social status: where we rank with other people who are maybe in our social group, or maybe they’re outside. In my opinion, the calculation never stops.” Tellingly, Wolfe does not exempt himself from the operation of this supposed natural law. This is a potential vulnerability that Jews could easily have used against him, but did not.
“Radical Chic,” Wolfe informed Green in 2014, “is not a story about politics; it’s a story about status. Particularly the status of very wealthy people who would find it socially correct to have a really notorious group — I mean, the Black Panthers were perfectly willing to be violent at any moment.”
In his journalism Wolfe employs a literary device he calls “the offstage narrator.”
He’s just off the stage. His mind is the general mindset of the people through whose eyes you begin to see. . . . [H]e’s right there, even though he’s not taking part in the action. If you compare the tone of “Radical Chic” with “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” it’s two totally different voices of narration, but both are trying to make you feel as if you are inside the action, not looking from a distance. And, as far as I know, both of them are absolutely accurate [journalistically, factually], as far as that goes.
Wolfe claims that the offstage narrator is not Tom Wolfe. In the 1966 article about tailored suits I mentioned earlier, the offstage narrator identifies or attributes to Manhattan attorney “Ross” (a character who may or may not be fictional) a “mania for marginal differences” in male attire that reflects Wolfe’s own real-life obsession with men’s clothing. Wolfe owns 30 or 40 custom-made suits, spends an enormous amount of money on clothes, and rewards himself for a good day’s writing by visiting his tailor to discuss new possibilities. And yet, you assume from the tone of the piece that Wolfe regards the “mania for marginal differences” in male attire that he describes as ridiculous.
About 10 years ago it emerged that Wolfe voted for George W. Bush in 2004 because of the President’s “great decisiveness and willingness to fight.” The reaction, according to the author, was as though he had said, “I forgot to tell you — I’m a child molester.” He sometimes wears an American flag lapel pin because, in his social circles, it is akin to “holding up a cross to werewolves.”
I believe the gist of Wolfe’s — not the offstage narrator’s, but Wolfe’s — assumption in Radical Chic is encapsulated in the following sentence: “Radical Chic, after all, is only radical in Style; in its heart it is part of Society and its traditions.” This weird viewpoint parallels the attitude of Ronald Reagan after Jews unilaterally destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 without informing the United States: “Boys will be boys!”
Wolfe is saying that Jewish racism and destructiveness is essentially frivolous. It can be ignored, dismissed, or laughed at. And that is how he depicts it: as high comedy, something to be cynically amused and entertained by. Wealthy, powerful Jews and their upper class groupies promoting anti-white racial revolution by funding, legal manipulation, and social legitimation at the highest levels is nothing but a harmless social game played by status hungry people.
He could not be more wrong. The Jewish destructive process, fueled by loathing and hatred of whites and Christians, is deadly earnest — and effective.
Wolfe also made the following mindboggling statement to Elon Green: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been characterized as ‘right wing’ and, when I ask, ‘What is my agenda?,’ nobody can ever tell me what my agenda is. In fact, as I’ve always thought, there’ll be an agenda when the Huns get to the city limits. I’ll start very definitely taking sides.”
That is Tom Wolfe speaking in 2014. What does he think the ’60s and ’70s were about? He lived at the center of the action, observing people and events more closely than almost anyone else. And where does he think the Huns are today? “City limits” represents last-minute commitment to be sure, but even so he must really mean his own apartment door. When the barbarian tide reaches his threshold he’ll “start very definitely taking sides.”
Wolfe possesses genuine talent of a high order. His aesthetic gifts easily transcend his (apparently) simplistic ideological and political beliefs. His sharp reportorial eye — indifferent, detached — has recorded in flamboyant, richly textured prose the collapse of Western civilization. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Wolfe finds the entire spectacle of decadence, devolution, and destruction highly amusing and entertaining.
Oddly enough, refracted through the author’s distinctive sensibility, discerning eye, and flashy prose, so do many other people, including me. Nevertheless, the Huns are at the city limits, and it is high time to be taking sides.
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