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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Learning About Lenny, Part 2: "Radical Chic"

I have been reading about Leonard Bernstein's political beliefs. He was a man with a fervid social conscience. He stood firmly on the left of the political spectrum and did not shy away from controversy.


One of the most famous episodes involved the radical revolutionary group known as the Black Panther Party. I had forgotten about it until recently, despite having been almost of voting age when it occurred. In 1969, a group of Panthers was arrested for conspiring to bomb several sites in New York City. All of them were destitute and were being held without trial on very high bail that they could not raise. Leonard and his Chilean-born wife, Felicia, sympathized with what they saw as a denial of the prisoners' civil liberties. On January 14, 1970, they held a  meeting of about ninety like-minded friends in their Manhattan apartment, to talk about the issue and raise money for the Panthers' legal defence fund. Among the guests were three Panthers and celebrities such as film directors Otto Preminger and Sidney Lumet, journalist Barbara Walters, and several members of the press who had managed to slip in.


The following day, Charlotte Curtis reported on the event in the New York Times. She described the evening as "elegant slumming" and slammed the Bernsteins and their friends as attention-seeking elites who were merely trying to assuage their white guilt by associating themselves with black radicals with whom they had nothing in common. In her response, printed in the Times, Felicia Bernstein emphasized the deeply serious nature of the meeting, and continued: "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."


The Times article had  an immediate effect. A few days later, Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. When Bernstein stepped onto the podium, there were cheers from the audience. Outside, picketers and protesters surrounded the hall.There were members of the NAACP, the Jewish Defense League and B'nai B'rith. He had managed to arouse everyone's anger.


Five months later, Tom Wolfe wrote a lengthy article in New York Magazine entitled "Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny's". In his trademark wild, witty and caustic prose, he used the Bernsteins to illustrate what he saw as a trend among the white upper class to dabble in radical politics in order to appear to be "chic". Later he would include the episode in his book Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.


A year and a half later, the Panthers were acquitted of all charges, in part because it was revealed that undercover agents had infiltrated the party and had instigated the bomb plot. A decade later, Bernstein's FBI file was unsealed. It showed that in the aftermath of this episode the agency had been tracking his activities and attempting to undermine his good reputation. 


Bernstein's daughter Jamie has written: "For a time my father's stature as a musician was overshadowed by his awful new role as object of trendy ridicule, embarrassing to his acquaintances and infuriating to his fellow Jews. Sadly, we weren't the only ones to suffer. The FBI had deliberately pitted Jews and African-Americans against each other, fanning flames of animosity and mistrust that burn to this day. Maybe a few more people now understand what an indomitable visionary he was. All his life my father resisted the easy tendency to divide the world into Us versus Them. His embrace of humanity shines through every note of music he composed and conducted. The very existence of music, he believed, was glorious evidence of the human potential for good. That belief was the strength and soul of his lifework, and such beliefs are more powerful than any attempt to discredit them."


- Doug Tuck

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