Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers
by Tom Wolfe
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970
Reissued by Picador, 2009
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Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, Tom Wolfe's fourth book of social commentary, consists of two devastatingly funny essays, closely related in theme and substance, dealing with political stances and social styles in a status-minded world. In "Radical Chic," Wolfe describes an intriguing phenomenon of the late Sixties: the courting of romantic radicals-Black Panthers, striking grapeworkers, Young Lords-by New York's socially elite. He focuses primarily on one symbolic event: the gathering of the radically chic at Leonard Bernstein's duplex apartment on Park Avenue to meet spokesmen of the Black Panther Party, to hear them out, and to talk over ways of aiding their cause. Tom Wolfe re-creates the incongruous scene-and its astonishing repercussions-with high fidelity. But he gives us more than just a wry account of life among the Beautiful People; he also provides a historical perspective on that impulse of the upper classes to identify themselves with what they imagine to be the raw, vital lifestyle of the lower orders.
In the companion essay, Wolfe travels west to San Francisco to survey another meeting ground between militant minorities and the liberal white establishment: the newly emerging art of confrontation developed by young blacks, Chicanos, Filipinos, Chinese, Indians, and Samoans in response to the bureaucracy that grew up in and around the poverty program. Wolfe's account of the performances of such masters as the Mission Rebels, the Youth for the Future, and the New Thang, and the responses of the catchers of the flak, including the Mayor himself, makes for uproarious farce. But the points he makes about racial and ethnic game-playing in America's class wars are inescapably valid.
"A notable piece of reportage . . . Radical Chic will never be the same." -Playboy
"In both 'Radical Chic' and 'Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,' beneath the absurdity, the hilarious scenes, there is the counterpoint of the human situation. And beyond that is an understanding of the history of that portion of it which makes all of this intelligible." -Robert Kirsch, The Los Angeles Times
"In Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Cathcers, Tom Wolfe devastatingly describes the emergence of Radical Chic . . . Mercilessly magnified through Wolfe's analytical eye and set down here in his top form are the political and racial games that Americans play." -Edna Buchanan, TheMiami Herald
"[Wolfe] both defends and exonerates the Bernsteins, that is-their motives were sound, liberal, serious, responsible-while cocking an almighty a snook at 'the essential double-track mentality of Radical Chic-nostalgiede la boue and high protocol' that can entertain Afro hair-styles with Roquefort cheese savouries in a Park Avenue duplex." -Michael Joseph, TLS
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From the June 8, 1970 issue of New York Magazine.
At 2 or 3 or 4 a.m., somewhere along in there, on August 25, 1966, his 48th birthday, in fact, Leonard Bernstein woke up in the dark in a state of wild alarm. That had happened before. It was one of the forms his insomnia took. So he did the usual. He got up and walked around a bit. He felt groggy. Suddenly he had a vision, an inspiration. He could see himself, Leonard Bernstein, the egregio maestro, walking out on stage in white tie and tails in front of a full orchestra. On one side of the conductor’s podium is a piano. On the other is a chair with a guitar leaning against it. He sits in the chair and picks up the guitar. A guitar! One of those half-witted instruments, like the accordion, that are made for the Learn-To-Play-in-Eight-Days E-Z-Diagram 110-IQ 14-year-olds of Levittown! But there’s a reason. He has an anti-war message to deliver to this great starched white-throated audience in the symphony hall. He announces to them: I love. Just that. The effect is mortifying. All at once a Negro rises up from out of the curve of the grand piano and starts saying things like, The audience is curiously embarrassed. Lenny tries to start again, plays some quick numbers on the piano, says, I love. Amo, ergo sum. The Negro rises again and says, The audience thinks he ought to get up and walk out. The audience thinks, I am ashamed even to nudge my neighbor.’ Finally, Lenny gets off a heartfelt anti-war speech and exits.
For a moment, sitting there alone in his home in the small hours of the morning, Lenny thought it might just work and he jotted the idea down. Think of the headlines: BERNSTEIN ELECTRIFIES CONCERT AUDIENCE WITH ANTIWAR APPEAL. But then his enthusiasm collapsed. He lost heart. Who the hell was this Negro rising up from the piano and informing the world what an ass Leonard Bernstein was making of himself? It didn’t make sense, this superego Negro by the concert grand.
Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. These are nice. Little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts. Very tasty. Very subtle. It’s the way the dry sackiness of the nuts tiptoes up against the dour savor of the cheese that is so nice, so subtle. Wonder what the Black Panthers eat here on the hors d’oeuvre trail? Do the Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels wrapped in crushed nuts this way, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi, all of which are at this very moment being offered to them on gadrooned silver platters by maids in black uniforms with hand-ironed white aprons . . . The butler will bring them their drinks . . . Deny it if you wish to, but such are the pensées métaphysiques that rush through one’s head on these Radical Chic evenings just now in New York. For example, does that huge Black Panther there in the hallway, the one shaking hands with Felicia Bernstein herself, the one with the black leather coat and the dark glasses and the absolutely unbelievable Afro, Fuzzy Wuzzy-scale in factis he, a Black Panther, going on to pick up a Roquefort cheese morsel rolled in crushed nuts from off the tray, from a maid in uniform, and just pop it down the gullet without so much as missing a beat of Felicia’s perfect Mary Astor voice. . . .
Felicia is remarkable. She is beautiful, with that rare burnished beauty that lasts through the years. Her hair is pale blond and set just so. She has a voice that is theatrical, to use a term from her youth. She greets the Black Panthers with the same bend of the wrist, the same tilt of the head, the same perfect Mary Astor voice with which she greets people like Jason, D.D. Adolph, Betty, Gian Carlo, Schuyler, and Goddard, during those après-concert suppers she and Lenny are so famous for. What evenings! She lights the candles over the dining room table, and in the Gotham gloaming the little tremulous tips of flame are reflected in the mirrored surface of the table, a bottomless blackness with a thousand stars, and it is that moment that Lenny loves. There seem to be a thousand stars above and a thousand stars below, a room full of stars, a penthouse duplex full of stars, a Manhattan tower full of stars, with marvelous people drifting through the heavens, Jason Robards, John and D. D. Ryan, Gian Carlo Menotti, Schuyler Chapin, Goddard Lieberson, Mike Nichols, Lillian Hellman, Larry Rivers, Aaron Copland, Richard Avedon, Milton and Amy Greene, Lukas Foss, Jennie Tourel, Samuel Barber, Jerome Robbins, Steve Sondheim, Adolph and Phyllis Green, Betty Comden, and the Patrick O’Neals . . .
. . . and now, in the season of Radical Chic, the Black Panthers. That huge Panther there, the one Felicia is smiling her tango smile at, is Robert Bay, who just 41 hours ago was arrested in an altercation with the police, supposedly over a .38-caliber revolver that someone had, in a parked car in Queens at Northern Boulevard and 104th Street or some such unbelievable place, and taken to jail on a most unusual charge called criminal facilitation. And now he is out on bail and walking into Leonard and Felicia Bernstein’s 13-room penthouse duplex on Park Avenue. Harassment & Hassles, Guns & Pigs, Jail & Bailthey’re real, these Black Panthers. The very idea of them, these real revolutionaries, who actually put their lives on the line, runs through Lenny’s duplex like a rogue hormone. Everyone casts a glance, or stares, or tries a smile, and then sizes up the house for the somehow delicious counterpoint . . . Deny it if you want to! but one does end up making such sweet furtive comparisons in this season of Radical Chic . . . There’s Otto Preminger in the library and Jean vanden Heuvel in the hall, and Peter and Cheray Duchin in the living room, and Frank and Domna Stanton, Gail Lumet, Sheldon Harnick, Cynthia Phipps, Burton Lane, Mrs. August Heckscher, Roger Wilkins, Barbara Walters, Bob Silvers, Mrs. Richard Avedon, Mrs. Arthur Penn, Julie Belafonte, Harold Taylor, and scores more, including Charlotte Curtis, women’s news editor of the New York Times, America’s foremost chronicler of Society, a lean woman in black, with her notebook out, standing near Felicia and big Robert Bay, and talking to Cheray Duchin.
Cheray tells her: I’ve never met a Pantherthis is a first for me! . . . never dreaming that within 48 hours her words will be on the desk of the President of the United States . . .
This is a first for me. But she is not alone in her thrill as the Black Panthers come trucking on in, into Lenny’s house, Robert Bay, Don Cox the Panthers’ Field Marshal from Oakland, Henry Miller the Harlem Panther defense captain, the Panther womenChrist, if the Panthers don’t know how to get it all together, as they say, the tight pants, the tight black turtlenecks, the leather coats, Cuban shades, Afros. But real Afros, not the ones that have been shaped and trimmed like a topiary hedge and sprayed until they have a sheen like acrylic wall-to-wallbut like funky, natural, scraggly . . . wild . . .
These are no civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three sizes too big
no more interminable Urban League banquets in hotel ballrooms where they try to alternate the blacks and whites around the tables as if they were stringing Arapaho beads
these are real men!
- Archive: “Features”
- Articles by Tom Wolfe
- From the Jun 8, 1970 issue of New York