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.