LEONARD BERNSTEIN '39 sure can throw a party. It was late, one o'clock in the morning, yet all the dignitaries were assembled in the Adams House Junior Common room--President Bok, Dean Epps, the Adams House Masters--to hear the maestro speak about his latest world tour.
Bernstein juggled a scotch on the rocks, a tin of imported cigarettes and a ream of papers. Throughout the night each one of those distractions competed for the great maestro's attention. With 70 "student leaders" in attendance, hung over and left over from the Memorial Hall dinner where Bernstein was supposed to give his speech, he told of "the Enemy" that people create to give life a clearer purpose. As a country, we force the Soviet Union into that role, Bernstein argued--putting down the scotch on the rocks and spraying ashes on the Junior Common Room carpet--just as in our own lives we may hold a grudge against a neighbor.
In his jet-set sermon, Bernstein peppered his moral advice with examples from his own life: personal squabbles among Austrian politicians that he helped settle, people in his life with whom he ended feuds. To underscore the point, he publicly apologized to President Bok, for a three year feud. He encouraged those of us in the audience to make similar amends for our wrongs in the past.
When the part-speech, part-group therapy session ended, I felt part of something special. Members of the self-selected and the Epps-selected crowd were speechless; they too felt part of something special. The maestro was surrounded by a newly-converted following, some of whom were presumably going to rush home to their own high holiday rituals, telling of their brush with greatness.
DURING THIS TIME of self-examination I happened to stumble upon Tom Wolfe's book Radical Chic, in which he describes another special party that Bernstein hosted a decade and a half ago.
That party was held on Bernstein's own turf in a Park Avenue duplex. Tuxedoes would have been oh-so-formal for this crowd. Italian designers had the day. The party was a union between the glitterati and radical politics, a marriage of convenience that for a brief moment made urban revolutionaries the darlings of Manhattan society.
The guest of honor 16 years ago was not Bernstein himself, but Don Cox, who was pinch-hitting for Huey Newton, the minister of Defense for the Black Panthers who had just been arrested. That night the richest and most liberal New Yorkers gathered to hold a fund-raiser for 21 Black Panthers who had been jailed months earlier.
And the paradoxes were aplenty.
Wolfe writes brutally about the Bernsteins party:
Lenny and Felicia are genuises....They are at the cutting edge of Radical Chic. Obviously, if you are giving a party for the Black Panthers, as Lenny and Felicia are this evening...well then obviously you cannot have a Negro butler and maid, Claude and Maude, in uniform, circulating the living room, the library, and the main hall serving drinks and canapes. One simply cannot see this moment.
Some 15 years later Bernstein was up to his old tricks. In front of a bunch of pretentious, tuxedo-clad, self-construed student-leaders at Harvard, he preached about how the mythic "Enemy" prevents Americans from working for world peace--how fear of the Soviet Union stops this country from socializing industry and perhaps making life a little better for the worse off in this country.
Bernstein concluded by thanking the audience for making the "experience" possible, and furthermore saying that the power of the visceral talk came from them. No way. The audience had nothing to do with it.
Perhaps Bernstein will always be misunderstood by the Tom Wolfes of the world. Petty journalists will always be obsessed with the irony of designer clothing clad partiers making the Black Panther fist of protest, of political radicalism as a status symbol.
Well, call me petty. That night I thought I was part of something unique, and it turns out that Bernstein has been performing that same show for nearly 20 years. And thanks to this high holiday season and his vow to make amends with his alma mater, I will have the opportunity to catch his act over the next three years. Maybe that'll be enough time for me to buy a tuxedo--but, knowing my luck, Lenny will be wearing Georgio Armani.