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Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s

Soon—just a few weeks after his first big Radical Chic party—Andrew Stein was throwing another one, this time for Bernadette Devlin, the Irish Joan of Arc. Not to be outdone, Carter Burden, his chief rival, developed what can only be termed the first Total Radical Chic lifestyle. In 1965 Burden, then 23, and his wife Amanda, then 20, had been singled out by Vogue as New York’s perfect young married couple. They had moved into an ample co-op in the Dakota and had coated and encrusted it with a layer of antiques that was like the final triumph of a dowager duchess in an Angela Thirkell novel. They were described as possessing not merely wealth, however, but also “enquiring minds.” To clinch the point, Vogue pointed out that “Mrs. Burden, with the help of a maid, is learning how to keep house.” Just a year after their Dakota triumph, the Burdens moved to River House, flagship of the East River co-op gold coast from Beekman Place to Sutton Place. They set up house in a duplex and hired Parish Hadley, interior decorators to Jacqueline Kennedy, Jay and Sharon Rockefeller, the Paleys, the Wrightsmans and the Engelhards. “Gossip has it,” said Town & Country, “that a cool million was invested in Carter and Amanda Burden’s River House apartment alone, just for backgrounds. Most of the art and furniture were already there.” But in a couple of years the Burdens went Radical Chic. True, they did not give up their River House showplace. In fact, they did not disturb or deplete its treasures in the slightest. But they did set up another apartment on Fifth Avenue at 100th Street. This established residence for Burden in the Fourth Councilmanic District and qualified him to run for the New York City Council; successfully, as it turned out. It also gave him the most exquisitely poised Total Radical Chic apartment in New York.

There was genius to the way the Burdens gave visual expression to the double-track mental atmosphere of Radical Chic. The building is perhaps the scruffiest co-op building on Upper Fifth Avenue. The paint job in the lobby and hallways looks like a 1947 destroyer’s. There is a doorman but no elevator man; one has to take himself up in an old West Side-style Serge Automatic elevator. But . . . it is a co-op and it is on Upper Fifth Avenue. The apartment itself has low ceilings, a small living room and only five rooms in all. But it does overlook Central Park. It is furnished almost entirely in the sort of whimsical horrors—japanned chairs, brass beds, and so on—that end up in the attic in the country, the sort of legacies from God knows where that one never gets around to throwing away . . . And yet they are . . . amusing. The walls are covered in end-of-the-bolt paintings by fashionable artists of the decorative mode, such as Stella and Lichtenstein . . . the sort of mistakes every collector makes and wonders where he will ever hang . . . and yet they are Stellas and Lichtensteins . . . somehow Burden even managed to transform himself from the Deke House chubbiness of his Early Vogue Period to the look known as Starved to Near Perfection. It is within this artfully balanced style of life that the Burdens have been able to groove, as they say, with the Young Lords and other pet primitives from Harlem and Spanish Harlem and at the same time fit into all the old mainline events such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 100th anniversary gala and be photographed doing the new boogaloo.

So . . . Radical Chic was already in full swing by the time the Black Panther party began a national fund-raising campaign late in 1969. The Panthers’ organizers, like the grape workers’, counted on the “cause party”—to use a term for it that was current 35 years ago—not merely in order to raise money. The Panthers’ status was quite confused in the minds of many liberals, and to have the Panthers feted in the homes of a series of social and cultural leaders could make an important difference. Ideally, it would work out well for the socialites and culturati, too, for if there was ever a group that embodied the romance and excitement of which Radical Chic is made, it was the Panthers.

Even before the Bernsteins’ party for the Panthers, there had been at least three others, at the homes of John Simon of Random House, on Hudson Street, Richard Baron, the publisher, in Chappaqua, and Sidney and Gail Lumet, in their townhouse at Lexington Avenue and 91st Street. It was the Lumets’ party that led directly to the Bernsteins’. A veteran cause organizer named Hannah Weinstein had called up Gail Lumet. She said that Murray Kempton had asked her to try to organize a party for the Black Panthers to raise money for the defense of the Panther 21.

The party was a curious one, even by the standards of Radical Chic. Many of the guests appeared not to be particularly “social” . . . more like Mr. and Mrs. Wealthy Dentist from New Rochelle. Yet there was a certain social wattage in the presence of people like Murray Kempton, Peter Stone, writer of 1776, the Lumets themselves, and several Park Avenue matrons, the most notable being Leonard Bernstein’s wife, Felicia.

Anyway, the white guests and a few academic-looking blacks were packed, sitting and standing, into the living room. Then a contingent of 12 or 13 Black Panthers arrived. The Panthers had no choice but to assemble in the dining room and stand up—in their leather pieces, Afros and shades—facing the whites in the living room. As a result, whenever anyone got up in the living room to speak, the audience was looking not only at the speaker but into the faces of a hard front line of Black Panthers in the dining room. Quite a tableau it was. It was at this point that a Park Avenue matron first articulated the great recurrent emotion of Radical Chic: “These are no civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three sizes too big—these are real men!”

The first half of the session generated the Radical Chic emotion in its purest and most penetrating form. Not only was there the electrifying spectacle of the massed Panthers, but Mrs. Lee Berry rose and delivered a moving account of how her husband had been seized by police in his hospital room and removed summarily to jail. To tell the truth, some of the matrons were disappointed when she first opened her mouth. She had such a small, quiet voice. “I am a Panther wife,” she said. I am a Panther wife? But her story was moving. Felicia Bernstein had been present up to this point and, as a longtime supporter of civil liberties, had been quite upset by what she had heard. But she had had to leave before the session was over. Each guest, as he left, was presented with a sheet of paper and asked to do one of three things: pledge a contribution to the defense fund, lend his name to an advertisement that was to appear in the New York Times, or to make his home available for another party and fund-raising event. By the time she left, Felicia was quite ready to open her doors.


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