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Today's Radical Chic
by Bruce Bawer
In the June 8, 1970, issue of New York magazine, Tom Wolfe published an article that has been recognized ever since as having perfectly captured a critically important moment in the history of the American cultural elite. "Radical Chic" was Wolfe's devastating, unforgettable account of a party he had attended at the Park Avenue duplex penthouse apartment of Leonard Bernstein, then at the height of his fame. The guest list broke down into two categories. Category #1 was a who's-who of world-class artists, celebrities, and New York high-society types: actor Jason Robards, comedian Mike Nichols, playwright Lillian Hellman, artist Larry Rivers, composer Aaron Copland, photographer Richard Avedon, choreographer Jerome Robbins, songwriter Stephen Sondheim, Hollywood director Otto Preminger, Today show host Barbara Walters, and many, many more. Category #2 was a selection of Black Panther leaders from around the country, among them one Robert Bay, who just 41 hours earlier, as Wolfe noted, had been "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.'"
One of the Panthers addressed the gathering. His theme: although, for example, "21 members of the Black Panther Party" had been indicted recently "on ridiculous charges of conspiring to blow up department stores and flower gardens," the Panthers were a peaceable group whose real concerns were indicated by the clinics and children's breakfast programs they were setting up around the country. "We recognize," he said, "that this country is the most oppressive country in the world, maybe in the history of the world. The pigs have the weapons and they are ready to use them on the people…ready to commit genocide against those who stand up against them…..All we want is the good life, the same as you. To live in peace and lead the good life, that's all we want." The Panthers' lawyer compared the prosecution of the Panthers to the Reichstag fire – both being efforts by tyrannical governments to eliminate the opposition. And then the Panthers solicited contributions, in response to which the glitterati shouted out pledges – a few hundred dollars here, a few thousand there.
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