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Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s

And suddenly Felicia, serene and flawless as Mary Astor, is on her feet: “I would just like to quote this passage from Richard Harris, in The New Yorker,” and she is standing up beside the other piano with a copy of The New Yorker in her hand, reading from an article by Richard Harris on the Justice Department.

“This is a letter from Roger Wilkins to Secretary Finch,” says Felicia. This is Roy Wilkins’ nephew, Roger Wilkins, former head of the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service, and now with the Ford Foundation. “‘A year ago of the question, because black leaders—even the most militant of them—knew that all they would accomplish was to get themselves and their followers killed.’” Felicia looks up at the audience, as during any first-class reading, and her voice begins to take on more and more theatrical lift. “But I think that the despair is far deeper now. You just can’t go on seeing how white men live, the opportunity they have, listening to all the promises they make and realizing how little they have delivered, without having to fight an almost ungovernable rage within yourself.” Felicia’s voice has taken on the very vibrato of emotion. And in the back room, standing close to Gail Lumet, is Roger Wilkins himself. “‘Some black children in this country,’” recites Felicia, “‘have to eat dog food or go hungry. No man can go on watching his children grow up in hunger and misery like that with wealth and comfort on every side of him, and continue to regard himself as a man. I think that there are black men who have enough pride now so that they would rather die than go on living the way they have to live. And I think that most of us moderates would have difficulty arguing with them. The other day, an old friend of mine, a black man who has spent his life trying to work things out for his people within the system, said to me’”—Felicia looks at the audience and sets up the clincher—“‘“Roger, I’m going to get a gun. I can’t help it”’.”

“That’s marrrrrrr-velous!” says Lenny. He says it with profound emotion . . . He sighs . . . He sinks back into the easy chair . . . Richard Harris . . . Ahura Mazda with the original flaming revelation . . .

Cox seizes the moment: “Our Minister of Defense, Huey P. Newton, has said if we can’t find a meaningful life . . . you know . . . maybe we can have a meaningful death . . . and one reason the power structure fears the Black Panthers is that they know the Black Panthers are ready to die for what they believe in, and a lot of us have already died.”

“. . .‘When you walk into this house, into this building’—Lenny gestures as if to take it all in—‘you must feel infuriated.’. . .”

Lenny seems like a changed man. He looks up at Cox and says, “When you walk into this house, into this building”—and he gestures vaguely as if to take it all in, the moldings, the sconces, the Roquefort morsels rolled in crushed nuts, the servants, the elevator attendant and the doorman downstairs in their white dickeys, the marble lobby, the brass struts on the marquee out front —“when you walk into this house, you must feel infuriated!”

Cox looks embarrassed. “No, man . . . I manage to overcome that . . . That’s a personal thing . . . I used to get very uptight about things like that, but—”

“Don’t you get bitter? Doesn’t that make you mad?”

“Noooo, man . . . That’s a personal thing . . . see . . . and I don’t get mad about that personally. I’m over that.”

“Well,” says Lenny,” it makes me mad!”

And Cox stares at him, and the Plexiglas lowers over his eyes once more . . . These cats—if I wasn’t here to see it—

“This is a very paradoxical situation,” says Lenny. “Having this apartment makes this meeting possible, and if this apartment didn’t exist, you wouldn’t have it. And yet—well, it’s a very paradoxical situation.”

“I don’t get uptight about all that,” says Cox. “I’ve been through all that. I grew up in the country, in a farming community, and I finally became a ‘respectable Negro’ . . . you know . . . I did all the right things. I got a job and a car, and I was wearing a suit and getting good pay, and as long as I didn’t break any rules I could go to work and wear my suit and get paid. But then one day it dawned on me that I was only kidding myself, because that wasn’t where it was at. In a society like ours I might as well have had my hair-guard on and my purple pants, because when I walked down the street I was just another nigger . . . see . . . just another nigger . . . But I don’t have that hate thing going. Like, I mean, I can feel it, I can get uptight. Like the other day I was coming out of the courthouse in Queens and there was this off-duty pig going by . . . see . . . and he gives me the finger. That’s the pig’s way of letting you know he’s got his eye on you. He gives me the finger . . . and for some reason or other, this kind of got the old anger boiling . . . you know?”

“God,” says Lenny, and he swings his head around toward the rest of the room, “most of the people in this room have had a problem about being unwanted!”

Most of the people in this room have had a problem about being unwanted. There it is. It’s an odd feeling. Most-of-the-people-in-this-room’s . . . heads have just spun out over this one. Lenny is unbeatable. Mental Jotto at 3 a.m. He has done it. He has just steered the Black Panther movement into a 1955 Jules Feiffer cartoon. Rejection, Security, Anxiety, Oedipus, Electra, Neurosis, Transference, Id, Superego, Archetype and Field of Perception, that wonderful 1950s game, beloved by all educated young men and women in the East who grew up in the era of the great cresting tide of Freud, Jung, Adler, Reik & Reich, when everyone either had an analyst or quoted Ernest Dichter telling Maytag that dishwashing machines were bought by women with anal compulsions. And in the gathering insulin coma Lenny has the Panthers and 75 assorted celebrities and culturati heading off on the long march into the neural jungle, 1955 Forever. One way or another we all feel insecure—right? And so long as we repress our—it’s marvelous! Mr. Auricularis! The Village Explainer! Most of the people in this room have had a problem about being unwanted

Cox looks at him, with the Plexiglas lowering . . . But the little gray man, the servant of history, jumps in once more. He sends a lovely young thing, one of the blondes in the room, over to whisper something in Lenny’s ear. “Livingston Wingate is here,” she tells him.

No slouch in such situations, Lenny immediately seems to dope this out as just an interruption to shut him up.

“Oh, why don’t I just leave!” he says. He makes a mock move as if to get up from the chair and leave the room. “Noooo! Noooo!” everybody says. Everybody is talking at once, but then Barbara Walters, who has had this certain thing building up inside of her, springs it loose. Everybody knows that voice, Barbara Walters of the Today Show, televised coast to coast every morning, a mid-Atlantic voice, several miles east of Newfoundland and heading for Blackpool, and she leans forward, sitting in the third row in her checked pantsuit with the great fur collar:

“I’m a member of the news media, but I’m here as an individual, because I’m concerned about the questions raised here, and there has been a lot of talk about the media. Last year we interviewed Mrs. Eldridge Cleaver, Kathleen Cleaver, and it was not an edited report or anything of that sort. She had a chance to say whatever she wanted, and this is a very knowledgeable, very brilliant, very articulate woman . . . And I asked her, I said, ‘I have a child, and you have a child,’ and I said, ‘Do you see any possibility that our children will be able to grow up and live side by side in peace and harmony?’ and she said, ‘not with the conditions that prevail in this society today, not without the overthrow of the system.’ So I asked her, ‘How do you feel, as a mother, about the prospect of your child being in that kind of confrontation, a nation in flames?’ and she said, ‘Let it burn!’ And I said, ‘What about your own child?’ and she said, ‘May he light the first match!’ And that’s what I want to ask you about. I’m still here as a concerned person, not as a reporter, but what I’m talking about, and what Mr. Bernstein and Mr. Preminger are talking about, when they ask you about the way you refer to capitalism, is whether you see any chance at all for a peaceful solution to these problems, some way out without violence.”


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