Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers is classic Wolfe, a funny, irreverent, and "delicious" (The Wall Street Journal) dissection of class and status by the master of New Journalism
"On the night of January 4, 1970, Maestro and Mrs. Leonard Bernstein threw a bash in their thirteen-room park Avenue pad to raise money for the Black Panthers Defense Fund. New York society will probably never play Lady Bountiful in quite the same way again, because among the Beautiful People present was Tom Wolfe, pop sociologist and parajournalist supreme."Book World
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About the Author
Tom Wolfe (1930-2018) was one of the founders of the New Journalism movement and the author of such contemporary classics as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, and Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, as well as the novels The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, and I Am Charlotte Simmons. As a reporter, he wrote articles for The Washington Post, the New York Herald Tribune, Esquire, and New York magazine, and is credited with coining the term, “The Me Decade.”
Among his many honors, Tom was awarded the National Book Award, the John Dos Passos Award, the Washington Irving Medal for Literary Excellence, the National Humanities Medal, and the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
A native of Richmond, Virginia, he earned his B.A. at Washington and Lee University, graduating cum laude, and a Ph.D. in American studies at Yale. He lived in New York City.
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:March 2, 1931
Place of Birth:Richmond, Virginia
Education:B.A. (cum laude), Washington and Lee University, 1951; Ph.D. in American Studies, Yale University, 1957
Read an Excerpt
AT 2 OR 3 OR 4 A.M., SOMEWHERE ALONG IN THERE, ON August 25, 1966, his forty-eighth 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 fourteen-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 ANTI-WAR 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 rolled 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 fact—is 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, John and 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 forty-one 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 thirteen-room penthouse duplex on Park Avenue. Harassment & Hassles, Guns & Pigs, Jail & Bail—they’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 Panther—this is a first for me!” . . . never dreaming that within forty-eight 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 women—Christ, 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-wall—but 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!
Shoot-outs, revolutions, pictures in Life magazine of policemen grabbing Black Panthers like they were Vietcong—somehow it all runs together in the head with the whole thing of how beautiful they are. Sharp as a blade. The Panther women—there are three or four of them on hand, wives of the Panther 21 defendants, and they are so lean, so lithe, as they say, with tight pants and Yoruba-style headdresses, almost like turbans, as if they’d stepped out of the pages of Vogue, although no doubt Vogue got it from them. All at once every woman in the room knows exactly what Amanda Burden meant when she said she was now anti-fashion because “the sophistication of the baby blacks made me rethink my attitudes.” God knows the Panther women don’t spend thirty minutes in front of the mirror in the morning shoring up their eye holes with contact lenses, eyeliner, eye shadow, eyebrow pencil, occipital rim brush, false eyelashes, mascara, Shadow-Ban for undereye and Eterna Creme for the corners . . . And here they are, right in front of you, trucking on into the Bernsteins’ Chinese yellow duplex, amid the sconces, silver bowls full of white and lavender anemones, and uniformed servants serving drinks and Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts—
But it’s all right. They’re white servants, not Claude and Maude, but white South Americans. Lenny and Felicia are geniuses. After a while, it all comes down to servants. They are the cutting edge in Radical Chic. Obviously, if you are giving a party for the Black Panthers, as Lenny and Felicia are this evening, or as Sidney and Gail Lumet did last week, or as John Simon of Random House and Richard Baron, the publisher, did before that; or for the Chicago Eight, such as the party Jean vanden Heuvel gave; or for the grape workers or Bernadette Devlin, such as the parties Andrew Stein gave; or for the Young Lords, such as the party Ellie Guggenheimer is giving next week in her Park Avenue duplex; or for the Indians or the SDS or the G.I. coffee shops or even for the Friends of the Earth—well, then, obviously you can’t have a Negro butler and maid, Claude and Maude, in uniform, circulating through the living room, the library, and the main hall serving drinks and canapes. Plenty of people have tried to think it out. They try to picture the Panthers or whoever walking in bristling with electric hair and Cuban shades and leather pieces and the rest of it, and they try to picture Claude and Maude with the black uniforms coming up and saying, “Would you care for a drink, sir?” They close their eyes and try to picture it some way, but there is no way. One simply cannot see that moment. So the current wave of Radical Chic has touched off the most desperate search for white servants. Carter and Amanda Burden have white servants. Sidney Lumet and his wife Gail, who is Lena Horne’s daughter, have three white servants, including a Scottish nurse. Everybody has white servants. And Lenny and Felicia—they had it worked out before Radical Chic even started. Felicia grew up in Chile. Her father, Roy Elwood Cohn, an engineer from San Francisco, worked for the American Smelting and Refining Co. in Santiago. As Felicia Montealegre (her mother’s maiden name), she became an actress in New York and won the Motion Picture Daily critics’ award as the best new television actress of 1949. Anyway, they have a house staff of three white South American servants, including a Chilean cook, plus Lenny’s English chauffeur and dresser, who is also white, of course. Can one comprehend how perfect that is, given . . . the times? Well, many of their friends can, and they ring up the Bernsteins and ask them to get South American servants for them, and the Bernsteins are so generous about it, so obliging, that people refer to them, good-naturedly and gratefully, as “the Spic and Span Employment Agency,” with an easygoing ethnic humor, of course.
The only other thing to do is what Ellie Guggenheimer is doing next week with her party for the Young Lords in her duplex on Park Avenue at 89th Street, just ten blocks up from Lenny and Felicia. She is giving her party on a Sunday, which is the day off for the maid and the cleaning woman. “Two friends of mine”—she confides on the telephone—“two friends of mine who happen to be . . . not white—that’s what I hate about the times we live in, the terms—well, they’ve agreed to be butler and maid . . . and I’m going to be a maid myself!”
Just at this point some well-meaning soul is going to say, Why not do without servants altogether if the matter creates such unbearable tension and one truly believes in equality? Well, even to raise the question is to reveal the most fundamental ignorance of life in the great co-ops and townhouses of the East Side in the age of Radical Chic. Why, my God! servants are not a mere convenience, they’re an absolute psychological necessity. Once one is into that life, truly into it, with the morning workout on the velvet swings at Kounovsky’s and the late mornings on the telephone, and lunch at the Running Footman, which is now regarded as really better than La Grenouille, Lutèce, Lafayette, La Caravelle, and the rest of the general Frog Pond, less ostentatious, more of the David Hicks feeling, less of the Parish-Hadley look, and then—well, then, the idea of not having servants is unthinkable. But even that does not say it all. It makes it sound like a matter of convenience, when actually it is a sheer and fundamental matter of—having servants. Does one comprehend?
God, what a flood of taboo thoughts runs through one’s head at these Radical Chic events . . . But it’s delicious. It is as if one’s nerve endings were on red alert to the most intimate nuances of status. Deny it if you want to! Nevertheless, it runs through every soul here. It is the matter of the marvelous contradictions on all sides. It is like the delicious shudder you get when you try to force the prongs of two horseshoe magnets together . . . them and us . . .
For example, one’s own servants, although white, are generally no problem. A discreet, euphemistic word about what sort of party it is going to be, and they will generally be models of correctness. The euphemisms are not always an easy matter, however. When talking to one’s white servants, one doesn’t really know whether to refer to blacks as blacks, Negroes, or colored people. When talking to other . . . well, cultivated persons, one says blacks, of course. It is the only word, currently, that implicitly shows one’s awareness of the dignity of the black race. But somehow when you start to say the word to your own white servants, you hesitate. You can’t get it out of your throat. Why? Counter-guilt! You realize that you are about to utter one of those touchstone words that divide the cultivated from the uncultivated, the attuned from the unattuned, the hip from the dreary. As soon as the word comes out of your mouth—you know it before the first vocable pops on your lips—your own servant is going to size you up as one of those limousine liberals, or whatever epithet they use, who are busy pouring white soul all over the black movement, and would you do as much for the white lower class, for the domestics of the East Side, for example, fat chance, sahib. Deny it if you want to! but such are the delicious little agonies of Radical Chic. So one settles for Negro, with the hope that the great god Culturatus has laid the ledger aside for the moment. . . . In any case, if one is able to make that small compromise, one’s own servants are no real problem. But the elevator man and the doorman—the death rays they begin projecting, the curt responses, as soon as they see it is going to be one of those parties! Of course, they’re all from Queens, and so forth, and one has to allow for that. For some reason the elevator men tend to be worse about it than the doormen, even; less sense of politesse, perhaps.
Or—what does one wear to these parties for the Panthers or the Young Lords or the grape workers? What does a woman wear? Obviously one does not want to wear something frivolously and pompously expensive, such as a Gerard Pipart party dress. On the other hand one does not want to arrive “poor-mouthing it” in some outrageous turtleneck and West Eighth Street bell-jean combination, as if one is “funky” and of “the people.” Frankly, Jean vanden Heuvel—that’s Jean there in the hallway giving everyone her famous smile, in which her eyes narrow down to f/16—frankly, Jean tends too much toward the funky fallacy. Jean, who is the daughter of Jules Stein, one of the wealthiest men in the country, is wearing some sort of rust-red snap-around suede skirt, the sort that English working girls pick up on Saturday afternoons in those absolutely berserk London boutiques like Bus Stop or Biba, where everything looks chic and yet skimpy and raw and vital. Felicia Bernstein seems to understand the whole thing better. Look at Felicia. She is wearing the simplest little black frock imaginable, with absolutely no ornamentation save for a plain gold necklace. It is perfect. It has dignity without any overt class symbolism.
Lenny? Lenny himself has been in the living room all this time, talking to old friends like the Duchins and the Stantons and the Lanes. Lenny is wearing a black turtleneck, navy blazer, Black Watch plaid trousers, and a necklace with a pendant hanging down to his sternum. His tailor comes here to the apartment to take the measurements and do the fittings. Lenny is a short, trim man, and yet he always seems tall. It is his head. He has a noble head, with a face that is at once sensitive and rugged, and a full stand of iron-gray hair, with sideburns, all set off nicely by the Chinese yellow of the room. His success radiates from his eyes and his smile with a charm that illustrates Lord Jersey’s adage that “contrary to what the Methodists tell us, money and success are good for the soul.” Lenny may be fifty-one, but he is still the Wunderkind of American music. Everyone says so. He is not only one of the world’s outstanding conductors, but a more than competent composer and pianist as well. He is the man who more than any other has broken down the wall between elite music and popular tastes, with West Side Story and his children’s concerts on television. How natural that he should stand here in his own home radiating the charm and grace that make him an easy host for leaders of the oppressed. How ironic that the next hour should prove so shattering for this egregio maestro! How curious that the Negro by the piano should emerge tonight!
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I love going back to the 60's and 70's and re-assessing what went on. Watching PBS specials about Andy Warhol. Reading Tom Wolfe. Surreal. I' m just laughing out loud about the stupidity of those elites and their white servants.
I've just ordered three copies of this book that I thought was out of print years ago. Back in the 70s it was 'right on' and in today's politically correct world, the message of those 1970s activists -- now probably wearing suits and ties, drawing down big bucks and trying to be PC themselves -- is as important as it was 30 years ago. In many ways, the 'flak catchers' are still out there, and still uneasy with confrontation, especially by folks from different backgrounds, different colors, and different attitudes. I wonder how they would react if someone, somewhere were to turn a group of noisy kids, armed with sticky treats, loose in City Hall, and refuse to take them back home until the after-school program is funded? I urge all young activists who have not read this book to buy a copy. And for those who have read it, perhaps it's time for a remedial course in real, effective activism.
Good. Conservatives and liberals both should read it. Well written.
Great book, now read Days of Rage by Brrough for further history of the radical era in Amerika.
Disorganized and scattered essays. The first is about wealthy New Yorkers who support controversial causes as the stylish thing to do. The second is about the structure of the poverty program and how it encourages violence. I wasn't convinced by either essay, and I didn't enjoy the writing.
Two excellent novella-length essays from the Man in White, both on the subject of dysfunctional race relations in America. Radical Chic is a hilarious examination of social elites who embrace radical causes, while Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers describes a darkly amusing kabuki in which various ethnic groups in 1970s San Francisco take swing at the piñata of government anti-poverty programs.