Bernstein’s noble savages

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Jean-Jacques Rosseau

The belief that primitive peoples are naturally endowed with goodness and purity, and that civilization poisons these attributes, is as old as civilization itself. The idea is embodied in the term “noble savage,” which first appeared in a 1672 play by John Dryden. The Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), whose views helped shape modern Western thought, routinely sang the praises of primeval man, untainted by what he saw as the decadence of civilization. During the Romantic Era of the late 1700s and early 1800s, authors, poets, and painters all over Europe depicted in an idealized way the lives of unlettered, uneducated men whom they saw not only as living in nature but as parts of nature themselves, as pure as the country air they breathed or the unpolluted streams from which they drank.

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Kirkpatrick Sale

Back then, many a European aristocrat embraced romantic images of the native peoples of the Americas, Asia, and Africa; more recently, authors like Kirkpatrick Sale, in books like Sale’s The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy (1990), have proffered the puerile fantasy that before European voyagers found their way to what they arrogantly called the New World, the natives led lives of peace and harmony, enjoying a rare bliss that the newcomers replaced with cruelty and destruction.

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Tom Wolfe

Plainly, this is a mentality that was much in evidence at the Leonard Bernstein party immortalized by Tom Wolfe in his essay “Radical Chic.” For Bernstein and many of the moneyed celebrity friends whom he invited to his home on the evening of January 14, 1970, the Black Panthers who were the party’s special guests were just that – noble savages. It was an offensive attitude, a racist attitude, a patronizing attitude – an attitude, in fact, that enabled them to belittle the very real danger that the Panthers obviously represented. In his essay, Wolfe quotes a “Park Avenue matron” who, at one of the pre-Bernstein “Radical Chic” parties, exclaimed about the Panthers: “These are no civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three sizes too big—these are real men!”

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Felicia Montealegre, Richard Bernstein, and Black Panther Field Marshal Donald Cox

In other words, they weren’t drab, dull, law-abiding middle-class blacks – they were real-life noble savages, embracing their nobility and their savagery! Such views on the part of Bernstein’s movers and shakers, needless to say, represent prejudice at its ugliest – prejudice dressed up as sensitivity and tolerance.

Among the Black Panthers who attended the Bernsteins’ fête that night were Robert Bay, who only a couple of days earlier had been arrested in Queens on a gun charge; Don Cox, the group’s Oakland-based “Field Marshall,” Henry Miller, its “defense captain,” and Ray “Masai” Hewitt, its Minister of Education and a member of its Central Committee.

Also present was lawyer Leon Quat, who at the moment was busy defending no fewer than twenty-one Black Panthers who, as Wolfe noted, “had been arrested on a charge of conspiring to blow up five New York department stores, New Haven Railroad facilities, a police station and the Bronx Botanical Gardens.”

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Frank Stanton

Mingling with these criminals in the Bernsteins’ thirteen-room Park Avenue duplex were such nabobs as high-society bandleader Peter Duchin, CBS president Frank Stanton, popular songwriters Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof) and Burton Lane (Finian’s Rainbow), New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers, and the wives of such eminences as chic photographer Richard Avedon, film director Arthur Penn, and singer Harry Belafonte. Wolfe quoted Cheray Duchin, spouse of the bandleader, as telling society columnist Charlotte Curtis, who would break the story of the party in the next day’s New York Times: “I’ve never met a Panther—this is a first for me!”

More tomorrow.

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