Truly, in every sense, Tom Wolfe was nonpareil. Svelte and urbane, he could often be found slinking through the streets of Manhattan, brazenly clad in a double-breasted white suit and fedora, while wielding a silver-tipped cane to augment his dandiacal mien. As a pioneering man of letters, he was fundamental to the development of the New Journalism that flourished at the height of American counter-culture, and yielded such indispensable works as The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Indeed, Wolfe’s fondness for chronicling diverse current affairs endured throughout his life. In 1996, for instance, he published Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died, an essay that examined the advent of genetic determinism, and probed the potential impact of neuroscientific explanations for human nature on morality and existence.
Turning to fiction mid-way through his career, Wolfe promulgated literary realism, out of staunch piety to the likes of Balzac, Zola, and Dickens. He conducted journalistic research for all of his novels by submerging himself in milieus that intrigued him, so that he could represent them authentically within an often inauthentic realm.
His first outing, The Bonfire of the Vanities, depicted unfettered avarice amongst the bond traders of Wall Street at the height of the Reagan era; coincidentally, it was published a mere week before the stock market crash of 1987. 2004’s misunderstood, prescient I Am Charlotte Simmons, meanwhile, concerned decadence and corruption on the campuses of America’s elite universities. Invariably, his books were distinguished by fizzing prose and acidulously hysterical social commentary.
Regarding his character, Wolfe was a man who naturally exuded warmth and bonhomie. Most pertinently for our purposes, however, he was also a conservative. Not imperiously so – he abstained from any sort of reductive self-labelling, and supported both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates throughout his life – but to an agreeably perceptible extent.
In addition to fraternising with William F. Buckley, Jr. and regularly appearing on his influential public affairs program Firing Line, Wolfe seldom concealed his dispositions within his non-fiction. 1975’s The Painted World and 1981’s From Bauhaus to Our House lampooned the excesses and wilful unsightliness of modern art and architecture respectively, while 2016’s The Kingdom of Speech, his final published work, excoriated Darwinism in a bewilderingly unscientific but nonetheless compulsive polemic. Still, perhaps Wolfe’s most deliciously significant contribution to the conservative canon came in 1970, with the publication of Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s.
Prior to the entrance of that glib-yet-irresistible epithet ‘champagne socialist’ into the public lexicon, Wolfe coined the equally lapidary pejorative ‘radical chic’ to be employed against the sorts of left-wing glitterati who propagate radical political views from within their caviar-stocked mansions.
Or, in the case of Leonard and Felicia Bernstein, from within a Park Avenue duplex where, on an especially notable evening, maids served ‘little Roquefort cheese morsels wrapped in crushed nuts, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi.’
To state the obvious, those maids were catering a gathering of unabashed opulence. For the Bernsteins had summoned a coterie of the north-eastern elite to their 13-room home for a fundraiser in support of the Black Panthers. Over those delectable hors d’oeuvres, figures ranging from Barbara Walters to Stephen Sondheim watched in earnest-eyed awe as representatives of the party declared themselves ‘Maoist revolutionaries’, supported major redistribution of wealth and the means of production, and condoned the burning of buildings and violence in the streets to thwart the oppression of the bourgeoisie. Somehow, the risibility of this scene was evident only to Wolfe.
The Bernsteins’ soirée exemplified a broader movement among their eminent ilk, as radical chic days and nights became orthodox. Yet the absurd espousal of wild policies and positions has retained its fashionableness for the elite far beyond the social season of 1970; indeed, our radical chic reality has endured to the present.
In an age of Twitter and ubiquitous iPhones, the social-political inclinations of the haut monde have become accessible through a mere finger tap. Consequently, the phenomenon stands as more conspicuous than ever.
We need only to recall this year’s Extinction Rebellion protests, and the 100 celebrities who branded themselves ‘hypocrites’ in an open letter for gorging on the fruits of their ‘high carbon lives’ while embracing the group with vehement passion. Emma Thompson – perhaps the purest individual personification of radical chic since Leonard Bernstein himself – notoriously flew 5,456 miles from Los Angeles to London to attend a protest on the day after her birthday, leaving an indelible carbon footprint of her own in the process.
But she had no choice, and neither did the rest of them! It was their duty to harness their ‘profiles and platforms’ to draw attention to the issue, and they were utterly fearless in doing so despite the ridicule that they would inevitably receive!
Such is an example of the ‘counter-guilt’ inherent in radical chic that Wolfe identified among the targets of his original piece. Of course, most of the signatories to that letter are unwilling to dispense with their private jets, car sponsorship deals, and steak dinners for the purpose of addressing our climate woes. But by making their concern for the issue public and untrammelled, their hypocrisy is rendered immaterial, and their style confidently assured. The power of compromise, then, is ineffable.
A similar open letter was published in November. This one, however, was written in support of Jeremy Corbyn in advance of the December general election, with signatories ranging from Mark Ruffalo to Roger Waters. Yet although the letter rightly censured the wretched growth of far-right xenophobia and racism that we have tragically observed in recent years, it made no mention of Corbyn’s farcical manifesto – a document that evoked a destructive return to the dark ages of the socialist ‘70s with its arrantly ludicrous promises on spending and taxation.
Unlike the attendees of Lenny’s party before them, therefore, the gleeful acceptance of those sorts of policies by the endorsers of that letter could only be inferred. Fortunately, inference was no longer necessary after the election when, for instance, Lily Allen took to Twitter to petulantly bemoan the outcome of an entirely free, fair, and democratic process within which the Labour Party had been afforded ample opportunity to succeed.
Nonetheless, as enjoyable as it may be to scoff at the sanctimonious, the most salient irony of radical chic’s continued prevalence is that vocal celebrity involvement in political affairs has proven consistently emetic to the general public in recent years. Most notably, the 2016 United States presidential election saw a surfeit of stars descend from the transcendent planes of pop music and Hollywood to endorse Hillary Clinton and rebuke Donald Trump. Beyoncé and Lady Gaga proclaimed their support ardently, while Joss Whedon reassembled the Avengers for a P.S.A. that encouraged Americans to vote against a ‘racist, abusive coward.’
The result, of course, was a devastating Trump victory. Likewise, earlier that year, celebrity haranguing from the likes of J.K. Rowling and Alan Sugar failed to ensure the success of the ‘Remain’ campaign in the 2016 UK EU membership referendum.
Those failures were clearly insufficient in communicating to our illustrious glitterati that their endorsements will either be ignored or actively resented by the majority. Immediately prior to our recent election, Steve Coogan evidently believed it sagacious to refer to the 17 million Britons who originally voted ‘Leave’ – and would likely vote Tory to enforce that decision– as ‘ignorant and ill-informed.’
And, in keeping with the precedents of 2016, he was greeted with a dominant Conservative majority on the morning of December 12th. Regardless, one can guarantee that the lesson of these defeats will remain perpetually unlearned, particularly as we inch ever closer to the 2020 United States presidential election.
It seems unquestionable that our peculiar twin realities of radical chic and celebrity condescension will withstand the volatility of the current political climate. Accordingly, they will continue to endlessly and inadvertently entertain in the manner that we have explored. Certainly, Tom Wolfe derived a great deal of enjoyment from observing the gathering that made the radical chic phenomenon explicit decades ago. May we similarly relish the absurd episodes of our own time.
Photo by MoSchle on Wikimedia Commons.