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Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s

Lenny couldn’t get over the whole affair. Earlier in the evening he had talked to a reporter and told him it was “nauseating.” The so-called “party” for the Panthers had not been a party at all. It had been a meeting. There was nothing social about it. As to whether he thought because parties were held in the homes of socially prominent people simply because the living rooms were large and the acoustics were good, he didn’t say. In any case, he and Felicia didn’t give parties, and they didn’t go to parties, and they were certainly not in anybody’s “jet set.” And they were not “masochists,” either.

So four nights later Lenny, in a tuxedo, and Felicia, in a black dress, walked into a party in the triplex of one of New York’s great hostesses, overlooking the East River, on the street of social dreams, East 52nd, and right off the bat some woman walks right up to him and says, “Lenny, I just think you’re a masochist.” It was unbelievable.

The panic turned out to be good for The Friends of the Earth, somewhat the way the recession has been bad for the Four Seasons but good for Riker’s. Many matrons, such as Cheray Duchin, turned their attention toward the sables, cheetahs and leopards, once the Panthers became radioactive. The Stantons, meanwhile, dropped their plans for a Panther party and had one instead for the Buddhists, and Richard Feigen dropped his plans for a party because of the Panthers’ support for Al Fatah. Leonard Bernstein went off to England to rehearse with the London Symphony Orchestra for an already scheduled performance in the Royal Albert Hall. He couldn’t have been very sorry about the trip. Unbelievable hostility was still bubbling around him. In Miami, Jewish pickets forced a moviehouse to withdraw a film of Lenny conducting the Israel Philharmonic on Mount Scopus in celebration of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War.

In general, the Radically Chic made a strategic withdrawal, denouncing the “witchhunt” of the press as they went. There was brief talk of a whole series of parties for the Panthers in and around New York, by way of showing the world that socialites and culturati were ready to stand up and be counted in defense of what the Panthers, and, for that matter, the Bernsteins, stood for. But it never happened. In fact, if the socialites already in line for Panther parties had gone ahead and given them in clear defiance of the opening round of attacks on the Panthers and the Bernsteins, they might well have struck an extraordinary counterblow in behalf of the Movement. This is, after all, a period of great confusion among culturati and liberal intellectuals generally, and one in which a decisive display of conviction and self-confidence can be overwhelming. But for the Radically Chic to have fought back in this way would have been a violation of their own innermost convictions. Radical Chic, after all, is only radical in style; in its heart it is part of Society and its traditions. Politics, like Rock, Pop and Camp, has its uses; but to put one’s whole status on the line for nostalgie de la boue in any of its forms would be unprincipled.

Meanwhile, the damnable press dogged Lenny even in London. A United Press International reporter interviewed him there and sent out a story in which Lenny said: “They”—the Panthers—”are a bad lot. They have behaved very badly. They have laid their own graves. It was the Panthers themselves who spoiled the deal, they won’t be rational.” The next day Lenny told a New York Times reporter that the UPI story was “nonsense.” He didn’t remember what he had said, but he hadn’t said anything like that. At the same time he released a statement that he had actually drawn up in New York before he left. It said that there had been no “party” for the Panthers in his home in the first place; it had been a meeting, and “the only concern at our meeting was civil liberties.” “If we deny these Black Panthers their democratic rights because their philosophy is unacceptable to us, then we are denying our own democracy.” He now made it clear that he was opposed to their philosophy, however. “It is not easy to discern a consistent political philosophy among the Black Panthers, but it is reasonably clear that they are advocating violence against their fellow citizens, the downfall of Israel, the support of Al Fatah and other similarly dangerous and ill-conceived pursuits. To all of these concepts I am vigorously opposed and will fight against them as hard as I can.”

And still this damned nauseating furor would not lie down and die. Wouldn’t you know it—two days after the, well, meeting, on the very day he and Felicia were reeling from the Times editorial, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, that renegade, had been down in Washington writing his famous “benign neglect” memo to Nixon. In it Moynihan had presented him and Felicia and their “party” as Exhibit A of the way black revolutionaries like the Panthers had become the “culture heroes” of the Beautiful People. Couldn’t you just see Nixon sitting in the Oval Room and clucking and fuming and muttering things like “rich snob bums” as he read: “You perhaps did not note on the society page of yesterday’s Times that Mrs. Leonard Bernstein gave a cocktail party on Wednesday to raise money for the Panthers. Mrs. W. Vincent Astor was among the guests. Mrs. Peter Duchin, ‘the rich blonde wife of the orchestra leader,’ was thrilled. ‘I’ve never met a Panther,’ she said. ‘This is a first for me.’”

On February 29 someone leaked the damned memo to the damned New York Times, and that did it. Now he was invested, installed, inaugurated, instituted, transmogrified as Mr. Parlour Panther for all time. The part about their “cocktail party” was right in the same paragraph with the phrase “benign neglect.” And it didn’t particularly help the situation that Mrs. Astor got off a rapid letter to the Times informing them that she was not at the “party.” She received an invitation, like all sorts of other people, she supposed, but, in fact, she had not gone. Thanks a lot, Brooke Astor.

Fools, boors, philistines, Birchers, B’nai B’rithees, Defense Leaguers, Hadassah theatre party pirhanas, UJAviators, concert hall Irishmen, WASP ignorati, toads, newspaper readers—they were booing him, Leonard Bernstein, the egregio maestro . . . Boooooo. No two ways about it. They weren’t clearing their throats. They were squeezed into their $14.50 bequested seats, bringing up from out of the false bottoms of their bellies the old Low Rent raspberry boos of days gone by. Boooooo. Newspaper readers! That harebrained story in the Times had told how he and Felicia had given a party for the Black Panthers and how he had pledged a conducting fee to their defense fund, and now, stretching out before him in New York, was a great starched white-throated audience of secret candystore bigots, greengrocer Moshe Dayans with patches over both eyes . . .

. . . once, after a concert in Italy, an old Italian, one of those glorious old Italians in an iron worsted black suit and a high collar with veritable embroideries of white thread mending the cracks where the collar folds over, one of those old Europeans who seem to have been steeped, aged, marinated, in centuries of true Culture in a land where people understood the art of living and the art of feeling and were not ashamed to express what was in their hearts—this old man had come up to him with his eyes brimming and his honest gnarled hands making imaginary snowballs and had said: “Egregio maestro! Egreggggggggggio maestro!” The way he said it, combining the egregio, meaning “distinguished” with the maestro, meaning “master” . . . well, the way he said it meant a conductor so great, so brilliant, so dazzling, so transported, so transcendental, so—yes!—immortal . . . well, there is no word in the whole lame dumb English language to describe it. And in that moment Leonard Bernstein knew that he had reached . . .

Boooooooo! Booooooooo! It was unbelievable. But it was real. These greengrocers—he was their whipping boy, and a bunch of $14.50 white-throated cretins were booing him, and it was no insomniac hallucination in the loneliness of 3 a.m.

Would that black apparition, that damnable Negro by the piano, be rising up from the belly of a concert grand for the rest of his natural life?


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