Bernstein: after the ball

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Bernstein and wife

What the Bernsteins probably did not realize at first,” wrote Tom Wolfe toward the end of his historic 1970 essay “Radical Chic,” was that after Charlotte Curtis’s story about the party at which Leonard and Felicia Bernstein‘s society friends had mingled with Black Panthers was distributed worldwide by the New York Times News Service, it provoked “an international chorus of horse laughs or nausea, depending on one’s Weltanschauung. The English, particularly, milked the story for all it was worth and seemed to derive one of the great cackles of the year from it.” The Times itself – then a very different organ from the paper that currently goes by that name – ran an editorial that harshly criticized the “[e]mergence of the Black Panthers as the romanticized darlings of the politico-cultural jet set,” calling this development “an affront to the majority of black Americans” and charging that the Bernsteins’ party “mocked the memory of Martin Luther King Jr.”

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Charlotte Curtis

Indeed. Alas, the Bernsteins’ shameless shindig didn’t marked the end of something but its beginning – namely, the birth of a deeply institutionalized practice, on the part of the American cultural, media, and political establishment, of idealizing, credentializing, and rewarding radical race warriors (and, later, pseudo-radical race hucksters, hustlers, and shakedown artists) instead of affording attention and respect to those who have addressed with wisdom and frankness the hard questions about the terrible pathologies afflicting inner-city America. Wolfe’s term “radical chic,” of course, entered the language – and justifiably so, because it perfectly captured the superficiality and faddishness the characterized the support by various cultural elite types for violent movements explicitly dedicated to their death and destruction.

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The curtain call at the premiere of “MASS”

In any event, the Bernsteins and their friends soon showed just how shallow their dedication to the Black Panthers was. After Charlotte Curtis’s news article and Tom Wolfe’s essay exposed their folly for the world to see, they scattered like rats. Yes, most of them transferred their loyalty to other harebrained far-left causes – or found other ways to broadcast their moral virtue to the world.

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Harold Schonberg

Bernstein, for example, composed “MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers,” which was performed at the September 1971 opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and described by New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg in his review as “a pseudo-serious effort at rethinking the Mass that basically is, I think, cheap and vulgar.” Schonberg might well have been recalling Bernstein’s party for the Black Panthers when he wrote, in his review, that “MASS” was “a very chic affair” that offered “a sentimental response to great problems of our time” by “a musician who desperately wants to be with it.” (At the piece’s climactic moment, a Christian cross is destroyed.)

bppIn later years, Bernstein’s dedication to superficial virtue-signaling persisted: among other things, he lent his strong support to the Kremlin-backed 1980s movement for unilateral nuclear disarmament by the West.

But the Black Panthers? In 1970, after the news of their silly party had traveled around the world, Bernstein and company dropped the Panthers like a hot potato. Not because they had learned anything, not because they had grown wiser, but only because they were more worried about being mocked than about being murdered.

East Side Story

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Leonard Bernstein, 1955

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.

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Tom Wolfe

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.

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Sidney Lumet

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 thesmart set” showed its very stupid side. More tomorrow.