Leonard Bernstein (1918-90) was a genius – a profound, remarkably versatile genius. He was arguably the first world-class American symphony conductor, waving his baton at the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969 and serving as guest conductor of other major orchestras around the world. He was a gifted composer of classical music – producing innumerable symphonies, operas, chamber works, choral works, and even a Mass.
He composed the background music for On the Waterfront, which won the Academy Award for Best Film of 1954. He supplied the tunes for such classic Broadway shows as On the Town, Wonderful Town, and West Side Story, including such standards as “Some Other Time,” “Tonight,” and “I Feel Pretty.” He penned several absorbing, illuminating books about music for the general reader. And he hosted a series of network television programs that did a truly brilliant job of introducing young people to serious music.
But he could also be a fool. In the years after World War II, his close ties to several Soviet front groups led the FBI to pay close attention to his activities. Ultimately, the FBI concluded that he was just a naïf, not a Communist. Yet what a naïf! Tom Wolfe proved, once and for all, in a deathless 25,000-word article entitled “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” just what a naïf Bernstein was. Indeed, he was not just any naïf – he was the naïf whose naïveté, thanks to that brilliant June 1970 cover story for New York Magazine, became the very archetype of late Sixties and early Seventies liberal-establishment naïveté in the face of the trendy revolutionary politics of the day.
Wolfe’s article, as the title itself indicates, was all about a party. Specifically, a party at Bernstein’s “13-room penthouse duplex on Park Avenue,” where he lived with his wife, Felicia Montealegre. It wasn’t just any party. Held the previous January, it was, in fact, one of a series of parties thrown by various members of the Manhattan haute monde so that their hoity-toity friends could meet, mingle with, and contribute money to various radical-left groups.
This was a time, it should be remembered, when many prominent, privileged members of the American Establishment were getting their jollies, perversely, by identifying with fanatics who were hell bent on bringing down that Establishment and crushing its privileges. It made no logical sense.
But it happened. Only a week before the Bernsteins’ party, film director Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, The Verdict) had held a soirée for the Black Panthers. A week earlier, a prominent publisher had also hosted the Black Panthers. Jean vanden Heuvel, a.k.a. Jean Stein, the socialite mother of current Nation publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel, had welcomed the Chicago Eight rioters to her home; a week after the Bernstein bash, philanthropist Eleanor Guggenheimer would hold a get-together for the Puerto Rican radical group the Young Lords.
These upper-class hosts and hostesses were all, in their various ways, useful stooges, aiding and abetting some of the most virulent, totalitarian-minded enemies of the free, democratic capitalist societies in which they themselves had thrived. But thanks in large part to Wolfe’s article, Bernstein became the very personification of that memorable historical moment when the “smart set” showed its very stupid side. More tomorrow.