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A City Built of Clay

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Clay made sure I got a great ride, too. Late in 1969 I came up with the idea of writing a non-fiction version of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair about New York, a “non-fiction novel,” to use the label Truman Capote had stuck onto In Cold Blood, as if to say, “Let’s get one thing clear: This isn’t journalism, this is literature.” (Even Solzhenitsyn … even he … stuck a label on The Gulag Archipelago reading “an experiment in literary investigation,” that being its subtitle.) So one day I was hanging around a hallway at Harper’s magazine. Harper’s had a knockout of an art director named Sheila, and I got the bright idea of maybe asking her out for lunch, which was marginally more serious than wanna go get a cup of coffee. While I was waiting for her to finish up whatever she was doing in the art department, I wandered next door into the office of David Halberstam, who wasn’t there. Nosily I noticed a rather fancy card on his desktop … I couldn’t believe it. It was an invitation from Leonard Bernstein and his wife, Felicia, for a reception at their apartment at 895 Park Avenue, corner of Park and 79th Street, in support of the Black Panthers. Now, there was a match made on Donkey Island for you … Leonard Bernstein gives a party for the Black Panthers on Park Avenue, in the Seventies, no less. If this wouldn’t make a chapter in a non-fiction Vanity Fair about New York, what would? You were supposed to RSVP to a certain telephone number. So I called it, using David Halberstam’s telephone, and said, “This is Tom Wolfe, and I accept.” On the other end there must have been a functionary working for some sort of Panther defense committee, writing down acceptances on a yellow legal pad or whatever, because that was that.

When I reached Leonard Bernstein’s apartment on the appointed evening, there was a security check at a desk outside the door. I said, “Tom Wolfe,” and sure enough, there he was, Tom Wolfe, listed on a yellow legal pad. Inside, I could see immediately that the entryway hadn’t begun to reveal the scale of the place. It was a thirteen-room penthouse duplex, not nearly so swell and overwhelming as Clay’s duplex, but it had its own swell touches. In the living room, near the windows, there was a pair of grand pianos, the indisputably grand sort of grand pianos. One look, and you couldn’t help but imagine sublime evenings chez Bernstein … playful yet magical piano duets with Bernstein himself at one piano and some other not merely sophisticated but knowing artist at the other piano trying to out-descant one another with great garlands of notes in elliptical orbits only barely and yet always subject to the gravitational pull of the cantus firmus … Like any boy who has been instructed at cotillion to pay his respects to the host and hostess first and then be gracious and circulate, I sought out Leonard and Felicia Bernstein and introduced myself. I kept my National Brand shorthand pad and ballpoint pen in plain view. I mention that because afterward I can’t tell you how many people accused me of perfidiously turning on my hosts. Bernstein’s sister wrote a letter enumerating my sins in an ascending order of perfidy. Serving the forces of oppression wasn’t the worst and ultimate. The worst and ultimate was sneaking a hidden tape recorder into her brother’s home. I took that as a great compliment, since in this life one should take his satisfactions where he can. It meant that my shorthand recording of the evening’s dialogue, which I did quite openly, must have struck Leonard Bernstein as a bull’s-eye. The evening’s cast of characters … leonine Leonard Bernstein and his beautiful blonde former actress wife, Felicia, three fiercely-turned-out Black Panther dudes and “the Panther women,” as they were referred to, a couple of organizers in gray suits who had Engineers on the Freight Train of History written all over them, the two dozen or so celebrities (e.g., Barbara Walters, Otto Preminger), socialites (e.g., Jean vanden Heuvel, Cynthia Phipps), and “intellectuals” (e.g., Robert Silvers, Harold Taylor) … this cast would have been pure gold for any writer. The sight of the rich, the famous, and the brainy kowtowing to a band of black radicals from Oakland, California, in Leonard Bernstein’s living room, baring their soft white backs the more poignantly to feel the Panthers’ vengeful lash, then imploring them not to kill their children—no writer would have ever dreamed of a bonanza quite this rich. It was all too much for me to try to keep penned up in a shorthand pad until I was ready to fit it in as a chapter of a “non-fiction novel.” That scene cried out for New York Magazine—now. Just about any magazine other than The Nation and Mother Jones, who would have raised their forearms to shield their eyes from the light like werewolves shrinking from the dawn—just about any magazine would have published material like that. But only Clay would understand how potent it was. Only Clay would give the writer his head and publish it down to the last detail, no matter how many pages it took. It took 30 pages, it so happened. He devoted almost the entire June 8, 1970, issue of New York to “That Party at Lenny’s,” as the headline read.


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