Tom Wolfe didn’t just provide us with enjoyable books to read, noble accomplishment as that is. He helped us understand the world. Wolfe’s insights made explicable the flaws in our fellow man which were hitherto puzzling. Most particularly he set us wise to the array of vanities and hypocrisies of that tribe loosely described as the Left.
The outstanding example was “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s”, an essay he wrote in 1970 for New York magazine. It gives an account of a fundraising party held by the composer Leonard Bernstein for the Black Panthers – an organisation which favoured revolutionary violence, “black power” and the overthrow of capitalism.
Taking part at a Manhattan apartment, we learn of this achingly fashionable and exclusive gathering. What a wonderful opportunity for the wealthy elite of the City to parade their social consciences and experience the frisson of Black Panther representatives wandering among the guests. One Panther “just 41 hours ago was arrested in an altercation with the police” and “now he is out on bail and walking into Leonard and Felicia Bernstein’s 13-room penthouse duplex on Park Avenue.”
What, the other guests wonder, do the Panthers make of the “little Roquefort cheese morsels wrapped in crushed nuts, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatball 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”.
“I’ve never met a Panther—this is a first for me!” whispers one of the guests.
Great sensitivity had been given to the social arrangements. Most importantly the servants were white: “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 van den Heuvel gave…or even for the Friends of the Earth — well, then, obviously you can‟t have a Negro butler and maid.”
Wolfe adds: “The current wave of Radical Chic has touched off the most desperate search for white servants”. If as a result of the whim of the New York Liberal establishment the black unemployed seeking such work faced discrimination then that was not a paramount concern.
Then there was the dress code to consider. “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.” Felicia Bernstein resolved the difficulty — 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 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.”
On the essay went for a brutally funny and astutely observed 20,000 words. How had Wolfe managed to get in? He had been to Harper’s magazine office to take his fiancée and had spotted an invitation to the party on someone’s desk – he wrote down the phone number, duly phoned, and was put on the guest list. Simply gatecrashing would not have worked – there were security checks at the entrance.
In any decade, on any continent, the Left’s mindset can be understood from the account of that party. That deep and particular brand of snobbery that socialists are prone to is universal and perennial. Of course there is Jeremy Corbyn and the Islington dinner party set who are thrilled at any chance to schmooze with terrorists and dictators.
But it is not just the hard left. Jonathan Powell, who was Tony Blair’s chief of staff in Downing Street has scarcely denied the buzz he enjoyed. “You would definitely choose to go to a dinner party with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness rather than with David Trimble or Ian Paisley,” he has said adding: “There’s a danger of a Stockholm syndrome happening when you spend time with terrorists.” Indeed so.
The security arrangements at the 2009 Labour Party were sufficiently flexible to grant a pass to McGuinness. He attended a reception at The Grand Hotel in Brighton hosted by The Guardian. How edgy. I wonder if any staff at the hotel had been working there 25 years earlier at the time of the IRA bomb.
“Champagne Socialist” is a familiar swipe. “Virtue signalling” is more recent. But “radical chic” is the most powerful — as with the mockery there is also a sense of the harm such indulgences can lead to. After all, a lot of funds were raised at that Manhattan penthouse in 1970.
RIP Tom Wolfe. He has died but his writing lives on.