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Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s

Well baby, if you really—but Cox tells her that one of the big problems is finding churches in the black community that will help the Panthers in their breakfast program for ghetto children, and maybe people like her could help the Panthers approach the churches. “It’s basically the churches who have the large kitchens that we need,” he says, “but when we come to them to use their kitchens, to feed hot breakfasts to hungry children, they close the door in our faces. That’s where the churches in the black community are at.”

“Tell why!” says Leonard Bernstein. Hardly anybody has noticed it up to now, but Leonard Bernstein has moved from the back of the room to an easy chair up front. 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 . . . They really don’t know what they’re in for. Lenny is on the move. As more than one person in this room knows, Lenny treasures “the art of conversation.” He treasures it, monopolizes it, conglomerates it, like a Jay Gould, an Onassis, a Cornfeld of Conversation. Anyone who has spent a three-day weekend with Lenny in the country, by the shore, or captive on some lonesome cay in the Windward Islands, knows that feeling—the alternating spells of adrenal stimulation and insulin coma as the Great Interrupter, the Village Explainer, the champion of Mental Jotto, the Free Analyst, Mr. Let’s Find Out, leads the troops on a 72-hour forced march through the lateral geniculate and the pyramids of Betz, no breathers allowed, until every human brain is reduced finally to a clump of dried seaweed inside a burnt-out husk and collapses, implodes, in one last crunch of terminal boredom. Mr. Pull! Mr. Push! Mr. Auricularis! . . . But how could the Black Panther Party of America know that? Just now Lenny looks so sunk-down-low in the easy chair. Almost at Don Cox’s feet he is, way down in an easy chair with his turtleneck and blazer on, and his neckpiece. Also right down front, on the couch next to the wall, is Otto Preminger, no piece of wallpaper himself, with his great head and neck rising up like a howitzer shell from out of his six-button doublebreasted, after the manner of the eternal Occupation Zone commandant.

“Tell why,” says Lenny.

“Well,” says Cox, “that gets into the whole history of the church in the black community. It’s a long story.”

“Go ahead and tell it,” says Lenny.

“Well,” says Cox, “when the slaves were brought to America, they were always met at the boat by the cat with the whip and the gun . . . see . . . and along with him was the black preacher, who said, Everything’s gonna be all right, as long as you’re right with Jesus. It’s like, the normal thing in the black community. The preacher was always the go-between the slavemasters and the slave, and the preacher would get a little extra crumb off the table for performing this service . . . you know . . . It’s the same situation in the black community today. The preacher is riding around in a gold Cadillac, but it’s the same thing. If you ask a lot of these churches to start working for the people instead of for The Man, they start worrying about that crumb . . . see . . . Because if the preacher starts working for the people, then the power structure starts harassing him. Like we found this one minister who was willing for us to use his church for the breakfast program. So okay, and then one day he comes in, and he’s terrified . . . see . . . and he says we have to leave, that’s all there is to it. The cat’s terrified . . . So we say, okay, we’ll leave, but just tell us what they said to you. Tell us what they did to intimidate you. But he won’t even talk about it, he just says, Leave. He’s too terrified to even talk about it.”

Bernstein says, “Don, what’s really worrying a lot of us here is the friction between groups like the Black Panthers and the established black community.”

No problem. Cox says, “We recognize that there is not only a racial struggle going on in this country, but a class struggle. The class structure doesn’t exist in the same way in the black community, but what we have are very bourgeois-minded people”—he uses the standard New Left pronunciation, which is “boooooooozh-wah”—“petty bourgeois-minded people . . . you see . . . and they have the same mentality as bourgeois-minded people in the white power structure.”

“Yes,” says Bernstein, “but a lot of us here are worried about things like threats against the lives of leaders of the established black community—”

Suddenly Rick Haynes speaks out from the back of the room: “This thing about ‘the black community’ galls me!” He’s really put out, but it’s hard to tell what over, because what he does is look down at the Ash-Blond Beauty, who is only about 10 feet away: “This lovely young lady here was asking about what she could do . . .” What a look . . . if sarcasm could reach 550 degrees, she would shrivel up like a slice of Oscar Mayer bacon. “Well, I suggest that she forget about going into the black community. I suggest that she think about the white community. Like the Wall Street Journal—the Wall Street Journal just printed an article about the Black Panthers, and they came to the shocking conclusion—for them—that a majority of the black community supports the Black Panthers. Well, I suggest that this lovely young lady get somebody like her daddy, who just might have a little more pull than she does, to call up the Wall Street Journal and congratulate them when they write it straight like that. Just call up and say, We like that. The name of the game is to use the media, because the media have been using us.”

“Right on,” says Don Cox.

Curiously, Ash Blonde doesn’t seem particularly taken aback by all this. If this dude in a pin-stripe suit thinks he’s going to keep her off The All-Weather Panther Committee, he’s bananas . . .

And if they think this is going to deflect Leonard Bernstein, they’re all out to lunch. About five people are talking at once—Quat—Lefcourt—Lenny—Cox—Barbara Walters is on the edge of her chair, bursting to ask a question— but it is the Pastmaster who cuts through:

“I want to know what the Panthers’ attitude is toward the threats against these black leaders!” says Lenny.

Lefcourt the lawyer jumps up: “Mr. Bernsteen—”

“STEIN!” roars Lenny. 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.

“Mr. Bernstein,” says Lefcourt, “every time there are threats, every time there is violence, it’s used as an indictment of the Black Panthers, even if they had nothing whatsoever to do with it.”

“I’m hip,” says Lenny. “That’s what I’m trying to establish. I just want to get an answer to the question.”

Lefcourt, Quat, half a dozen people it seems like, are talking, telling Lenny how the threats he is talking about, against Whitney Young and Roy Wilkins, were in 1967, before the Panthers were even in existence in New York, and the people arrested in the so-called conspiracy allegedly belonged to an organization called Revolutionary Action Movement, and how the cops, the newspapers, TV, like to aim everything at the Panthers.

“I think everybody in this room buys that,” says Bernstein, “and everybody buys the distinction between what the media, what the newspapers and television say about the Panthers and what they really are. But this thing of the threats is in our collective memory. Bayard Rustin was supposed to be here tonight, but he isn’t here, and for an important reason. The reason he isn’t here tonight is that he was warned that his life would be in danger, and that’s what I want to know about.”

It’s a gasper, this remark. Lefcourt and Quat start talking, but then, suddenly, before Don Cox can open his mouth, Lenny reaches up from out of the depths of the easy chair and hands him a mint. There it is, rising up on the tips of his fingers, a mint. It is what is known as a puffed mint, an after-dinner mint, of the sort that suddenly appears on the table in little silver Marthinsen bowls, as if deposited by the mint fairy, along with the coffee, but before the ladies leave the room, a mint so small, fragile, angel-white and melt-crazed that you have to pick it up with the papillae of your forefinger and thumb lest it get its thing on a straightaway, namely, one tiny sweet salivary peppermint melt . . . in mid-air, so to speak . . . just so . . . Cox takes the mint and stares at Bernstein with a strange Plexiglas gaze . . . This little man sitting down around his kneecaps with his Groovy gear and love beads on . . .

Finally Cox comes around. “We don’t know anything about that,” he says. “We don’t threaten anybody. Like, we only advocate violence in self-defense, because we are a colonial people in a capitalist country . . . you know? . . . and the only thing we can do is defend ourselves against oppression.”

Quat is trying to steer the whole thing away—but 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.”

Cox says, “Let me answer the question—”

Lenny breaks in: “When you say ‘capitalist’ in that pejorative tone, it reminds me of Stokely. When you read Stokely’s statement in The New York Review of Books, there’s only one place where he says what he really means, and that’s way down in paragraph 28 or something, and you realize he is talking about setting up a socialist government—”

Preminger is still talking to Cox: “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. “Let me answer the question—”

“You dun’t eefen listen to de kvestion,” says Preminger. “How can you answer de kvestion?”

“Let me answer the question,” Cox says, and he says to Lenny: “We believe that the government is obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income . . . see . . . but if the white businessman will not give full employment, then the means of production should be taken from the businessman and placed in the community, with the people.”

Lenny says: “How? I dig it! But how?”

“Right on!” Someone in the back digs it, too.

“Right on!”

Julie Belafonte pipes up: “That’s a very difficult question!”

“You can’t blueprint the future,” says Cox.

“You mean you’re just going to wing it?” says Lenny.

“Like . . . this is what we want, man,” says Cox, “we want the same thing as you, we want peace. We want to come home at night and be with the family . . . and turn on the TV . . . and smoke a little weed . . . you know? . . . and get a little high . . . you dig? . . . and we’d like to get into that bag, like anybody else. But we can’t do that . . . see . . . because if they send in the pigs to rip us off and brutalize our families, then we have to fight.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more!” says Lenny. “But what do you do—”

Cox says: “We think that this country is going more and more toward fascism to oppress those people who have the will to fight back—”

“I agree with you one hundred percent!” says Lenny. “But you’re putting it in defensive terms, and don’t you really mean it in offensive terms—”

“That’s the language of the oppressor,” says Cox. “As soon as—”

“Dat’s not—” says Preminger.

“Let me finish!” says Cox. “As a Black Panther, you get used to—”

“Dat’s not—”

“Let me finish! As a Black Panther, you learn that language is used as an instrument of control, and—”

“He doesn’t mean dat!”

“Let me finish!”

Cox to Preminger to Bernstein to . . . they’re wrestling for the Big Ear . . . quite a struggle . . . Cox standing up by the piano covered in the million-dollar chatchkas . . . Lenny sunk down into the Margaret Owen easy chair . . . Preminger, the irresistible commandant of the sofa . . . they’re pulling and tugging—

—whereupon the little gray man, the servant of history, pops up from beside the other piano and says:

“Mr. Bernstein, will you yield the floor to Mrs. Bernstein?”


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