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Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s

But at that moment Radical Chic was the new wave supreme in New York Society. It had been building for more than six months. It had already reached the fashion pages of Vogue and was moving into the food column. Vogue was already preparing a column entitled “Soul Food.”

“The cult of Soul Food,” it began, “is a form of Black self-awareness and, to a lesser degree, of white sympathy for the Black drive to self-reliance. It is as if those who ate the beans and greens of necessity in the cabin doorways were brought into communion with those who, not having to, eat those foods voluntarily as a sacrament. The present struggle is emphasized in the act of breaking traditional bread . . .

3 cups finely grated raw sweet potatoes
½ cup sweet milk
2 tablespoons melted butter
½ teaspoon each: cinnamon, ginger, powdered cloves, and nutmeg
2 eggs
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup molasses or honey
Mix together potatoes, milk, melted butter, cinnamon, ginger, powdered cloves, and nutmeg. Add a pinch of salt and the molasses or honey. (Molasses gives the authentic pone; honey a dandified version.)”

A little sacramental pone . . . as the young’uns skitter back in through the loblolly pine cabin doorway to help Mama put the cinnamon, ginger, powdered cloves and nutmeg back on the Leslie Foods “Spice Island” spice rack . . . and thereby finish up the communion with those who, not having to, eat those foods voluntarily as a sacrament.

Very nice! In fact, this sort of nostalgie de la boue, or romanticizing of primitive souls, was one of the things that brought Radical Chic to the fore in New York Society. Nostalgie de la boue is a 19th-century French term that means, literally, “nostalgia for the mud.” Within New York Society nostalgie de la boue was a great motif throughout the 1960s, from the moment two socialites, Susan Stein and Christina Paolozzi, discovered the Peppermint Lounge and the twist and two of the era’s first pet primitives, Joey Dee and Killer Joe Piro. Nostalgie de la boue tends to be a favorite motif whenever a great many new faces and a lot of new money enter Society. New arrivals have always had two ways of certifying their superiority over the hated “middle class.” They can take on the trappings of aristocracy, such as grand architecture, servants, parterre boxes and high protocol; and they can indulge in the gauche thrill of taking on certain styles of the lower orders. The two are by no means mutually exclusive; in fact, they are always used in combination. In England during the Regency period, a period much like our own—even to the point of the nation’s disastrous involvement in colonial wars during a period of mounting affluence—nostalgie de la boue was very much the rage. London socialites during the Regency adopted the flamboyant capes and wild driving styles of the coach drivers, the “bruiser” fashions and hair styles of the bare-knuckle prize fighters, the see-through, jutting-nipple fashions of the tavern girls, as well as a reckless new dance, the waltz. Such affectations were meant to convey the arrogant self-confidence of the aristocrat as opposed to the middle-class striver’s obsession with propriety and keeping up appearances. During the 1960s in New York nostalgie de la boue took the form of the vogue of rock music, the twist-frug genre of dances, Pop Art, Camp, the courting of pet primitives such as the Rolling Stones and José Torres, and innumerable dress fashions summed up in the recurrent image of the wealthy young man with his turtleneck jersey meeting his muttonchops at mid-jowl, à la the 1962 Sixth Avenue Automat bohemian, bidding good night to an aging doorman dressed in the mode of an 1870 Austrian army colonel.

At the same time Society in New York was going through another of those new-money upheavals that have made the social history of New York read like the political history of the Caribbean; which is to say, a revolution every 20 years, if not sooner. Aristocracies, in the European sense, are always based upon large hereditary landholdings. Early in the history of the United States, Jefferson’s crusade against primogeniture eliminated the possibility of a caste of hereditary land barons. The great landholders, such as the Carrolls, Livingstons and Schuylers, were soon upstaged by the federal bankers, such as the Biddles and Lenoxes. There followed wave after wave of new plutocrats with new sources of wealth: the international bankers, the real-estate speculators, the Civil War profiteers, railroad magnates, Wall Street operators, oil and steel trust manipulators, and so on. By the end of the Civil War, social life in New York was already The Great Barbecue, to borrow a term from Vernon L. Parrington, the literary historian. During the season of 1865-66 there were 600 Society balls given in New York, and a great wall of brownstone missions went up along Fifth Avenue.

In the early 1880s New York’s social parvenus—the people who were the Sculls, Paleys, Engelhards, Holzers, of their day—were the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Huntingtons and Goulds. They built the Metropolitan Opera House for the simple reason that New York’s prevailing temple of Culture, the Academy of Music, built just 29 years before at 14th Street and Irving Place, had only 18 fashionable proscenium boxes, and they were monopolized by families like the Lorillards, Traverses, Belmonts, Stebbinses, Gandys and Barlows. The status of the Goulds and Vanderbilts was revealed in the sort of press coverage the Met’s opening (October 22, 1883) received: “The Goulds and the Vanderbilts and people of that ilk perfumed the air with the odor of crisp greenbacks.” The Academy of Music is now a moviehouse showing double features, although it did enjoy one moment of eminence in 1964, when the Rolling Stones played there, live, with Murray the K as M.C.