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Hour of Tom Wolfe Chic-er Than Thou

By Gregg J. Kilday

WHEN a review copy of the newest Tom Wolfe book, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, arrived here at 14 Plympton Street a few weeks ago, Mike was the first to get his hands on it. Though only momentarily. Fresh from an especially argumentative seminar, I hit the building a few minutes later, immediately noticed the book, headed over to claim possession.

"The new Wolfe book! I've been just waiting for it to come in!"

Sure, the look in Mike's eyes said, I suppose your existence, what you might choose to call your reason for living, precisely what's been keeping you from plunging the dagger into your throbbing heart, is the publication of this meager little book . . . this little 153-page book that's hardly worth the $5.95 they expect you to pay for it . . . and you've been waiting for it . . as if to pretend you didn't already read half of it in one of the summer issues of New York.

Mike grabbed the book from my eager hands, panic now in his eyes. "Look," he shouted, his voice rising to break, oh so pain-ful-ly you almost felt guilty of some primeval injustice- you almost felt you were cheating Esau out of his damn birth-right. "Look," Mike shouted, "I've already had to fight off Garrett . . . and Scott . . . and you're not . . ."

"But I always do Wolfe," I objected, in the most reasonable of hysterical tones. . . .

And meanwhile Ryan wandered in, casually lifted the book out of both our hands, saying, "Is this the new Wolfe book? How'd you like me to review it?"

No!, our voices in unison. Enter Frank, who figured out what was going on and reached for the book himself. "We don't fight over these things," he chided. "As ed. chairman, I'll decide who reviews it."

Scared to death that Frank would want it for himself, we quickly quieted down.

And though none of us could have explained exactly why we wanted to review Wolfe's book, any more than we could have explained exactly why we slavishly read the Times and Post each day, pay for our summers through the Newspaper Fund, intern at Newsday or the Post, speak derisively of Reston and Broder and Evans and Novak, absolutely exult in drinking with King or Lucas or Halberstam, the moment did seem just the kind of thing for which we were perpetually waiting.

"I don't care who reviews it," Frank continued judiciously. "As long as whoever it is doesn't like it!"

"But, that's exactly what I intend to do. . ."

Michael shot around to stare at me, the accusation Traitor! burning through his eyes: "But, a few weeks ago you were saying how much you liked it?"

"Well, I like it," I recovered, "but I think it has real . . . problems. "

"Well, Gloria Steinem and Pete Hamill didn't like it. And, besides, if you like the book, there's no story." And with that Frank ended the dispute.

It was the kind of moment Wolfe himself would have treasured. And, allowing for certain variations, it had undoubtedly been repeated many times over during the past few months, by other people, in other places.

As when a "hip," young social writer could say of a very Establishment Beverly Hills party, "There was nothing radically chic about the Hudsons' last night. The women all wore bras, the gay libbers stayed home on Hollywood Boulevard, and few blacks were even present. It was just a fun party, but it was all the better for it."

Or as when we ourselves would get together, only for one of the more self-styled radicals in the group to proclaim, "At least, there's nothing chic about us."

Built into the very timber and structure, the energy and bravura of the sixties' new journalism, there has always been such cultural one-up-man ship. As readers of Esquire and New York, we might not be all that very different from the type of personalities we read about, but just the plain and simple fact of the situation, that a writer should be guiding us through a critical evaluation- however obliquely that criticism might be made- seemed to suggest our own superiority. It certainly contributed to our self-consciousness. And as long as we were conscious of our foibles, we were somehow free of their effects. And somehow less ridiculous that the writer's victims- who could only read about themselves after their initial gaffes had been committed and then frozen into print. For all its renegade appeal, the daring new journalism often resulted in being only complacent and self-serving. As if the reader's recognition of the writer's skill and cleverness in catching his victims unawares was justification enough for us to shout jaccuse.

If such thoughts present themselves with added force after the publication of Tom Wolfe's Radical Chic, it's only because our reception of Wolfe's book has itself contributed another turn to the screw. Not only do we allow ourselves to feel superior to Leonard Bernstein and his friends, but we also feel a certain superiority over Wolfe himself for exposing them through the methods he chose. After all now, Gloria Steinem didn't like it!

RADICAL CHIC as one is high-handed enough to assume everyone by now knows, grew out of a party-meeting- for the occasion's definition later grew to be the center of the dispute- given last January by Felicia and Leonard Bernstein in order to raise money for the Black Panthers' defense fund. Held in the Bernstein's 13-room, Park Avenue penthouse, the party-meeting featured a number of famous guests- Wolfe mentions most of them- and a collection of lesser known that Felicia had become acquainted with during her years of interest in various civil rights causes- they being the guests Wolfe bothers not to mention- as well as a number of Panthers, including Don Cox, Oakland Field Marshall, "and their women." Equally important, the party also featured assorted hors d'oeuvres, white servants (Latin American), and a confrontation between Lenny, Otto Preminger, Barbara Walters, and Don Cox. Charlotte Curtis was also there and later wrote about it all for the society page of the New York Times.

For Wolfe, the atmosphere was redolent of Radical Chic, the social posturing he himself was about to immortalize. Radical Chic, he writes, "invariably favors radicals who seem primitive, exotic, and romantic, such as the grape workers, who are not merely radical and 'of the soil' but also Latin; the Panthers, with their leather pieces, Afros, shades, and shoot-outs; and the Red Indians, who, of course, had always seemed primitive, exotic, and romantic." And yet while supporting her cause, the Radically Chic hostess has also to maintain the proper apartment, the proper address, and, of course, the proper servants. At best, the "radicalism" of the "chic" is a tempered sympathy, complicated by social striving, misguided liberalism, and, in the case of the significant Jewish involvement, memory of an analogous oppression.

One can argue endlessly over such a definition. Chavez, properly understood, seems more an Eastern mystic than a flaming Latino. The Panthers appear to many Establishment Jews as sufficiently threatening to make any infatuation with them rather unthinkable. And it's to our dishonor that the American Indian will have to be rehabilitated before he can appear romantic again. And other chic causes? Like the Southampton party for women's lib. Certainly, whatever she may be, exotic Betty Friedan is not.

Wolfe bolsters his argument with a little historical run-through, drawing some interesting parallels to 19th century society. He even cites social thinkers- Vernon L. Parrington, Wolfe identifies as "the literary historian," while managing to cite the triad of Seymour Martin Lipset, Nathan Glazer, and Kenneth Keniston in one of the sentences that follows- but more in the way of demonstrating his own brand of Academic Chic. (Wolfe took a doctorate in American Studies from Yale, and, like many a modern-day journalist, still yearns to justify his existence to the boys in the ivory tower he left behind.) But "history" is not enough, not when Wolfe refuses to consider the larger problems of American life. Perhaps the claims of the Panthers or Chavez override the distaste we experience when presented with a little social slumming. Perhaps in some dim, less-serious way, Society itself is beginning to chafe at the bonds of a larger oppression. But to answer those questions, Wolfe would have to leave the Bernsteins' apartment, putting their soiree into the perspective of contemporary America. And that he doesn't want to do. Wolfe is so transfixed by the personalities in the room that he fails to see them as the writing on the wall.

But then with such a curious crew aboard, it's no wonder Radical Chic virtually explodes with some of the funniest and most merciless prose Wolfe has ever written. Take his description of Leonard Bernstein as Jewish father extraordinaire, orchestrating the contending forces of conversation as if it were all just another CBS Children's Concert:

"Tell why!" says Leonard Bernstein. . . . Lenny is on the move. As more than one person in this room knows, Lenny treasures "the art of conversation." He treasures it, monopolizes it, conglomerates it, like a Jay Gould, an Onassis, a Cornfeld of Conversation. Anyone who has spent a three-day weekend with Lenny in the country, by the shore, or captive on some lonesome cay in the Windward islands knows that feeling- the alternating spells of adrenal stimulation and insulin coma as the Great Interrupter, the Village Explainer, the champion of Mental Jotto, the Free Analyst, Mr. Let's Find Out, leads the troops on 2 seventy-two-hour forced march through the lateral geniculate and the pyramids of Betz, no breathers allowed, until every human brain is reduced finally to a clump of dried seaweed inside a burnt-out husk and collapses, implodes, in one last crunch of terminal boredom. Mr. Pull! Mr. Push! Mr. Auricularis! . . . But how could the Black Panther Party of America know that?

Or consider an equally wonderful moment, when Wolfe leaves the Bernsteins' to remind us of a similar party given in Southampton by Andrew Stein to benefit Chavez' grape workers:

When the fund-raising began, Andrew Imutan took a microphone up on the terrace above the lawn and asked everybody to shut their [sic] eyes and pretend they [sic] were a farm worker's wife in the dusty plains of Delano, California, eating baloney sandwiches for breakfast at 3 a. m. before heading out into the fields. . . . So they all stood there in their Pucci dresses, Gucci shoes, Capucci scarves, either imagining they were grape workers' wives or wondering if the goddamned wind would ever stop. The wind had come up off the ocean and it was wrecking everybody's hair. People were standing there with their Hands pressed against their heads as if the place had been struck by a brain-piercing ray from the Purple Dimension.

Mindlessly zonked, Wolfe's society folk wander about, from party to party and cause to cause. That Wolfe should toss their way such bitchy caricature is hardly surprising. (They do seem to invite it.) The real surprise is that he should direct his wit at such people in the first place.

Round up Wolfe's previous subjects if you will, and you find they are all either outlaws or outcasts. Murray the K, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Mick Jagger, Cassius Clay, Junior Johnson, Carol Doda, Natalie Wood, Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady- even, within such a context, Hugh Hefner. Certainly all worthy of Who's Who, but hardly New York's Four Hundred. That most of the personalities on Wolfe's little list are also celebrities is a testament to the sheer force of their outlandishness. They've forced fame to conform to their standards: their success the result of their crazy new talents and having nothing to do with education or birth.

Wolfe clearly feels at home amongst this counter-society (one hesitates to call it a culture ) and is quite willing to use his razz-ma-tazz prose to further his subjects' own ends. He's caught on to the fact that the most revealing documentation of modern day America is carried on through the voice of the press release. (PR, you may remember, was even invented by an American, Cambridge's own Edward Bernays.) So when Wolfe takes off on his great tirades of trade names and trivia, the neon flashing in his eyes, the fury of apocalypse heavy on his breath, he becomes our twentieth-century Walt Whitman singing America's new bod ELECTRIC.

The derision Wolfe heaps on Felicia Bernstein's Mary Astor accent towers over the loving paean he delivers to Carol Doda's plasticene breasts. But then Felicia is in, really in, and Carol, however notoriously, was always out. Felicia is the obvious target for the satirist's scorn. Wolfe could laugh with poor Carol, at her audience and at herself, but he can only laugh at dear Felicia. And so a sharpness enters his voice where it did not previously exist.

The whole problem of Tom Wolfe's voice has always been a particularly tricky one. Even within the realms of a single essay, he comes off the indefatigable ventriloquist, first projecting his voice through one character and then rushing off to speak through another. Where Mailer chooses to raise himself as the touchstone against which the rest of his work can be measured, Wolfe dissolves into an invisible man. Occasionally he allows us glimpses of himself, white-suited and bemused, but always he remains elusive.

Now that's fine enough when you're dealing with styles- and that is what Wolfe claims to be dealing with- but it's a pretty inadequate method of dealing with what must be recognized as a social problem. True enough, the oppression the Panthers encounter can only be heard as a distant echo within the Bernstein duplex. There is something funny in the Bernsteins' noblesse oblige. But to treat the Panthers' predicament as equally amusing- "Lenny reaches up from out of the depths of the easy chair and hands him [Don Cox] a mint . . . a puffed mint, an after-dinner mint, of the sort that suddenly appears on the table in little silver Marthinsen bowls, as if deposited by the mint fairy"- is to regard what is at best tragically macabre as a comic trifle.

THE BERNSTEIN party achieved fame for being the last, as well as the most publicized, Panther party. (Thanks largely to the New York Times, which sent the Curtis story out over its wire and then published its own damning editorial. Wolfe repeats the Bernsteins' conspiracy theory explanation, but defaults as a journalist in not investigating the Times' Bernstein pogrom himself.) When word of the party got around, everything suddenly went askew, other stories were cancelled, and the only radical cause left in vogue became the preservation of ocelots and cheetas. In short, the chic had hit the fan. A potential source of funds for the Panther defense disappeared.

While Wolfe has revived the controversy, the Panthers had become demodee months before his tardy article was published. (The new line invokes support of Panther civil rights, but absolutely deplores the Panther stance on Israel.) In any case,

Wolfe couldn't be expected to calculate the effects of his article- such second-guessing could lead a journalist to catatonio. Let the chic fall where it may.

BUT one's attempts to treat Wolfe with magnanimity quickly dissipate after a single reading of "Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers," the other half of the book. Wolfe's title refers to the chaos that the anti-poverty program has created in San Francisco. If minority groups want to qualify for poverty funds, they have to present themselves as angry militants by threatening the lives (mau-mauing) of second-string bureaucrats (the flak-catchers).

Again Wolf focuses on the immediate absurdities of styles, denying the more tragic implications of motivation. And so we see blacks, chicanos, Filipinos dress themselves up with the Klan-cloths of terrorism in their attempts to get Massah to throw them the crumbs. And since Massah knows it's all a charade, he only has to pretend to be scared.

Wolfe can find something to love in the blacks' outrageousness, but, dealing as he is with a type and not an individual (Carol Doda was not meant to be all big-breasted women, but in "Mau-Mau," Chaser is meant to be every black urban leader), his humor descends into racism:

When everybody started wearing the Afros, it was hard on a lot of older men who were losing their hair. They would grow it long on the sides anyway and they would end up looking like that super-Tom on the Uncle Ben Rice box, or Bozo the Clown.

Aw, go ahead, then Tom, why don't you just get it over with, go ahead and touch it and see if it feels like wool . . .

No one is asking Wolfe to respect the poverty program- that it dehumanizes all involved his prose unwittingly attests- but only to respect the basic seriousness of America's social crises. Instead Wolfe appears to blame the black for the white liberal's sins. And to pull off a good joke in the process. His only mistake was to alienate his potential allies- Bernstein et al.- within the pages of the same book. So while it may be chic to turn thumbs down on poor Tom, for once it might also be quite the decent thing to do.

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