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Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s

Still wound up with the excitement of the mental Jotto they had all just been through, Lenny, Felicia and Don Cox kept on talking there in the duplex, long after most guests had gone, up to about 10 p.m., in fact. Lenny and Felicia knew they had been through a unique experience, but they had no idea of the furor that was going to break the next day when Charlotte Curtis’ account of the party would appear in the New York Times.

The story appeared in two forms—a preliminary report rushed through for the first edition, which reaches the streets about 10:30 p.m., and a much fuller one for the late city edition, the one most New Yorkers see in the morning. Neither account was in any way critical of what had gone on. Even after reading them, Lenny and Felicia probably had little inkling of what was going to happen next. The early version began:

“Mrs. Leonard Bernstein, who has raised money for such diverse causes as indigent Chileans, the New York Philharmonic, Church World Service, Israeli student scholarships, emotionally disturbed children, the New York Civil Liberties Union, A Greek boys’ school and Another Mother for Peace, was into what she herself admitted yesterday was a whole new thing. She gave a cocktail party for the Black Panthers. ‘Not a frivolous party,’ she explained before perhaps 30 guests arrived, ‘but a chance for all of us to hear what’s happening to them. They’ve really been treated very inhumanely.’”

Felicia herself couldn’t have asked for it to be put any better. In the later edition it began: “Leonard Bernstein and a Black Panther leader argued the merits of the Black Panther party’s philosophy before nearly 90 guests last night in the Bernsteins’ elegant Park Avenue duplex”—and went on to give some of the dialogue of Lenny’s, Cox’s and Preminger’s argument over Panther tactics and Lenny’s refrain of “I dig it.” There was also a picture of Cox standing beside the piano and talking to the group, with Felicia in the background. No one in the season of Radical Chic could have asked for better coverage. It took up a whole page in the fashion section, along with ads for B. Altman’s, Edith Imre wigs, fur coats, the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, and The Sun and Surf (Palm Beach).

What the Bernsteins probably did not realize at first was that the story was going out on the New York Times News Service wires. In other cities throughout the United States and Europe it was played on page one, typically, to an international chorus of horse laughs or nausea, depending on one’s Weltanschauung. The English, particularly, milked the story for all it was worth and seemed to derive one of the great cackles of the year from it.

By the second day, however—Friday—the Bernsteins certainly knew they were in for it. The Times ran an editorial! on the party. It was headed “False Note on Black Panthers”:

“Emergence of the Black Panthers as the romanticized darlings of the politico-cultural jet set is an affront to the majority of black Americans. This so-called party, with its confusion of Mao-Marxist ideology and Fascist paramilitarism, is fully entitled to protection of its members’ constitutional rights. It was to make sure that those rights are not abridged by persecution masquerading as law-enforcement that a committee of distinguished citizens has recently been formed [a group headed by Arthur Goldberg that sought to investigate the killing of Fred Hampton by Chicago police].

“. . . The so-called ‘party’ for the Panthers had not been a party at all. It had been a meeting. Nothing social about it . . .”

“In contrast, the group therapy plus fund-raising soiree at the home of Leonard Bernstein, as reported in this newspaper yesterday, represents the sort of elegant slumming that degrades patrons and patronized alike. It might be dismissed as guilt-relieving fun spiked with social consciousness, except for its impact on those blacks and whites seriously working for complete equality and social justice. It mocked the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday was solemnly observed throughout the nation yesterday.

“Black Panthers on a Park Avenue pedestal create one more distortion of the Negro image. Responsible black leadership is not likely to cheer as the Beautiful People create a new myth that Black Panther is beautiful.”

Elegant slumming . . . mocked the memory of Martin Luther King . . . Black Panthers on a Park Avenue pedestal . . . the Beautiful People . . . it was a stunner. And this was not the voice of some right-wing columnist like William Buckley (although he would be heard from)—this was an editorial, on the editorial page, underneath the eagle medallion with “All the News That’s Fit To Print” and “Established 1851” on it . . . in the very New York Times itself.

Felicia spoke to Charlotte Curtis, and Charlotte Curtis agreed with her that the Times was wrong to characterize the party as “elegant slumming.” The following week she wrote a story testifying to the sincerity of many Society figures, including Felicia, who had worked diligently for the less fortunate. But she stood by her original story down to the last detail. Felicia seemed to accept this in good grace. But Lenny was not so sure. The whole thing sounded like a put-up job. Look at it this way: they held a meeting—not a party, but a meeting—in his home on one of the most important issues of the day, and the Times chose to run a story not by Homer Bigart or Harrison Salisbury, but by a Society writer who puts in a lot of “hairbrained” details about his Black Watch pants and a lot of sappy quotes he never uttered—right? This sets him up like a dummy for a roundhouse right from the cheap seats—the editorial about “elegant slumming” and the mockery of the memory of Martin Luther King. Not only that, he himself was already beginning to be mocked in New York in the old word-of-mouth carnival. It was unbelievable. Cultivated people, intellectuals, were characterizing him as “a masochist” and—and this was the really cruel part—as “the David Susskind of American Music.”

Felicia sat down that very day, Friday, and wrote an aggrieved but calmly worded letter to the Times:

“As a civil libertarian, I asked a number of people to my house on Jan. 14 in order to hear the lawyer and others involved with the Panther 21 discuss the problem of civil liberties as applicable to the men now waiting trial, and to help raise funds for their legal expenses.

“Those attending included responsible members of the black leadership as well as distinguished citizens from a variety of walks of life, all of whom share common concern on the subject of civil liberties and equal justice under our laws.

“The outcome of the Panther 21 trial will be determined by the judge and jury. That was not our concern. But the ability of the defendants to prepare a proper defense will depend on the help given prior to the trial, and this help must not be denied because of lack of funds.

“It was for this deeply serious purpose that our meeting was called. 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.”

Felicia delivered the letter in person to the Times that afternoon. The Bernsteins picked up Saturday’s paper—and no letter. In fact, it did not appear until Wednesday, after the publication of a letter from someone named Porter saying things like “we shall soon witness the birth of local Rent-a-Panther organizations.” This fed the conspiracy theory, at least in the Bernstein household. By now columnists all over the place were taking their whack at the affair. Buckley, for example, cited it as an object lesson in the weird masochism of the white liberal who bids the Panther come devour him in his “luxurious lair.”