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Tom Wolfe in his trademark white suit, 2004: For five decades, he has been a correspondent on the frontline of American society (photo: David Corio/Getty Images)

In December 1969, Tom Wolfe received an invitation to the Park Avenue apartment of Leonard Bernstein and his wife Felicia. They were holding a party for guests “to meet and hear from leaders of the Black Panther Party and lawyers for the New York Panther 21”.

Wolfe was 38 and becoming famous as the Man in the White Suit. He had published a bestselling and ground-breaking book about the hippie movement, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), as well as two collections of essays, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965) and The Pump House Gang (1968). With his wit, his powers of observation, his application of the novelist’s tools to non-fiction writing, and an unmistakable style, he turned himself in a few short years from a just another newspaper reporter into a journalistic sensation. And it was after this metamorphosis, at the end of 1969, that Wolfe found himself on the guest list for the Bernsteins’ glittering fundraiser.
The “Panther 21” were facing trial for conspiracy to blow up department stores, a police station and the Bronx Botanical Gardens and they need money to post bail and pay for lawyers. But Tom Wolfe left his chequebook at home and instead packed his notebook.    

The result of his reporting that night was an article published several months later in New York magazine. “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s” is an evisceration of the Bernsteins and other socialites who had taken to hobnobbing with the leaders of radical movements. It is the trivial concerns of those at the gathering and the shallow motivations for their involvement that Wolfe satirised so savagely:

What does one wear to these parties for the Panthers or the Young Lords or the grape workers? What does a woman wear? Obviously 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, as if one is “funky” and “of the people” . . . Look at Felicia. 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.

Not even the canapés were spared:

Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. These are very nice. Little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts. Very tasty. Very subtle. It’s the way the dry sackiness of the nuts tiptoes up against the dour savor of the cheese that is so nice, so subtle. Wonder what the Black Panthers eat here on the hors d’oeuvre trail?

Describing the fallout from the piece, National Review Editor William F. Buckley praised “Radical Chic” as a “very, very controversial” essay “for which [Wolfe] has been publicly excommunicated by the bishops who preside over the New York Review of Books”. Wolfe landed such a clean blow because he hadn’t just taken issue with the Bernsteins’ politics or the aims or tactics of the Black Panthers. Rather, he had laughed at them, and America had laughed along with him. The country is still laughing. Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, a pair of essays in a single volume, is still in print today.

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