Such an outpouring of encomiums for Tom Wolfe upon his death—the long obits, the lavish photos of his sartorial snappiness… it has all made me a little queasy.
I confess that I’ve enjoyed much of Wolfe’s writing over the years. I loved The Right Stuff and thought The Bonfire of the Vanities was a major achievement. But once again, as has happened so often over the past year when pondering gifted malefactors, I found myself struggling to square Wolfe’s journalistic and literary achievements with his own brand of bad behavior—in this case, his blithe heedlessness about how his journalistic cutting edge once sliced a family into ribbons. That family happened to be mine.
Wolfe decided to satirize my parents over their well-meaning efforts to raise money and provide support for the families of a group that was receiving unfair—if not downright racist—judicial treatment. That group was the Black Panthers, who scared white folks silly with their militant ways and infuriated many Jews with their anti-Zionist stance. In January of 1970, 15 Panthers were languishing in jail due to unfairly inflated bail amounts, awaiting trial on what turned out to be trumped-up charges involving absurd bomb plots around New York City. (When the trial finally did come around, the judge threw the whole case out for being unsubstantiated and patently ridiculous.)
The host of the fund-raising event was my mother, Felicia Montealegre Bernstein, who was married to the famed conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein. My father’s multifaceted career and Park Avenue penthouse made him a ready target for Wolfe’s social satire—even though the Maestro wasn’t involved in the event beyond showing up midway through, after his rehearsal across town at Lincoln Center.
Wolfe had not been invited to the fund-raiser; he’d sneaked in, as had Charlotte Curtis, a society reporter for The New York Times. We all know about Wolfe’s article for New York magazine, later republished in book form as part of a collection called Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. But what is less well remembered is that, after Curtis’s sneering description of the proceedings on the society page, the Times felt moved to write an editorial—an editorial!—excoriating my parents for hosting a “soirée” on behalf of a group that it claimed was “an affront to the majority of black Americans.”
What I find perhaps even more galling than the sheer fact of Wolfe’s snide article is that the author himself spent the rest of his life basking in the attention it generated and never once, it seemed, stopped to think about what effect his careless social skewering might have had on those he skewered.
My parents suffered public shame and harsh criticism from friends. (Two remarkable exceptions were Jacqueline Onassis, who wrote to them, “I think it is wonderful what you did for civil liberty”; and Gloria Steinem, who wrote, “Please, please don’t be too upset by the idiocy of that Times editorial…getting the Panthers out of jail is all that matters here.”) My father could escape into his work, much of it in Europe at the time—but my mother bore the brunt of the scorn, stuck as she was in New York raising our family. She was plunged into a severe depression, became ill, and died a few years later, at the age of 56. Of course, not all of this was Tom Wolfe’s fault. But he truly did not help.
Yet there is another, more consequential way in which Wolfe’s article was an act of heedless aggression. In today’s climate, when those of us who despair over our current administration are rooting for the FBI to get to the bottom of the corruption and deceit, it’s easy to forget how dastardly J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was. As a result of the Times articles, and above all Tom Wolfe’s piece, my father (who did not host the event) received reams of hate mail, while members of the Jewish Defense League—an organization that was itself highly inflammatory—picketed our building’s entrance, giving voice to their outrage that a fellow Jew would advocate for an anti-Zionist group. In 1980, through the Freedom of Information Act, my father was able to review part of his own voluminous FBI file. In it, he discovered evidence that hate mail was generated by the FBI—which, because of its informants, knew all about the JDL’s plans to picket.
I will give Tom Wolfe the benefit of the doubt; perhaps he did not realize the extent to which his breezy neo-journalism rendered him a veritable stooge for the FBI. By creating a rift between mainstream Jews and left-wing Jewish New York liberals, while simultaneously deriding the black activist movement, Wolfe was performing one of the bureau’s favorite tricks: setting blacks against Jews, thereby disempowering both groups in a single deft stroke. Whether consciously or not, Wolfe was complicit in a deep and ongoing process of damaging the nation’s social fabric.
Still, we get our smiles where we can. In a too-good-to-be-true footnote, the Times’ May 15 online obituary of Wolfe featured this priceless erratum: “The earlier version also misstated the title of a novel he published in 2004. It is ‘I Am Charlotte Simmons,’ not ‘I Am Charlotte Curtis.’” Charlotte Curtis, of course, was the above mentioned Times society reporter who sneaked into my mother’s fund-raiser. Wolfe himself would likely have savored this felicitous blooper.