Leonard Bernstein's Radical Chic Real Estate
My mind is so fried that I can’t recall if it was like this before social media, but it feels like a very modern thing the way we occupy our days between the truly big, horrible, sad, tragic, and truly world-changing events by loudly kvetching about small, usually stupid things. I’m not immune. A few months back, whenever the photos of Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein surfaced, I was one of those people who just had to chime in with some little joke about how bad his prosthetic nose looked. Mine was a riff on the Steve Buscemi 30 Rock meme except it was a picture of Cooper with the caption, “How do you do, fellow Yids” underneath. And yeah, I still think that’s funny, but I also continue to tell people I can’t wait to see Maestro, especially after some of my friends who saw early previews raved about it.
Since I’m trying to be surprised, I haven’t asked any of those friends if the movie that centers on Bernstein’s relationship with his wife Felicia Montealegre includes anything about the 1970 fundraising party that the couple threw at their Upper East Side home for the Black Panthers. Depending on how you look at it, that event was either one of the most famous or infamous in New York City history thanks to Tom Wolfe’s New York magazine account, “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s.”
I’ve always loved Wolfe for the way he showed up to any situation the best-dressed person in the room but was secretly a fly in the ointment, observing every little thing going on and then writing it the way he saw fit. And “Radical Chic” might be the best example of that. Wolfe’s way of telling a story the way he believed it should be told still has its critics who will tell you he didn’t report and write accurately. That’s fair, but also why I’ve always taken his work with a grain of salt. Do that and I think you’ll enjoy Wolfe more. I mean, the image of Aaron Copeland or some rich WASP socialite taking one of the hors d'oeuvres (take your pick from “Roquefort cheese morsels wrapped in crushed nuts this way, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi”) off a silver platter held up by a maid while trying to mingle with “real revolutionaries, who actually put their lives on the line” is objectively funny in a proto-Lindsay Bluth-Fünke saying she’s too stuffed to eat at the “Stop the Hunger” wine-and-cheese fundraiser she hosted.
I chose to read “Radical Chic” as a very specific sort of New York City reporting that I will never tire of. It’s rich people doing rich people's stuff and being too rich to know or care how it might look to everybody else. One of my favorite recent examples was back in 2017 when Ben Widdicombe wrote about a seance hosted by the Milstein siblings, Larry and Toby, whose family fortune is just north of $3 billion. It took place in their apartment at the Dakota, and they were hoping to conjure the spirit of the unit’s former resident, Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein and his family moved into the building in 1975, a few years after it gained notoriety as “the Rosemary’s Baby building” but before fellow tenant John Lennon was shot and killed outside of it. Also five years after “Radical Chic” was published. Bernstein died while living in the Dakota in 1990, and a few years after his passing, in 1997, the unit sold for $4 million, and then a decade later, the Milsteins bought it for $20 million. The “Radical Chic” penthouse, meanwhile, went on the market in 2020. The asking price: $29.5 million.
The apartment is one of those places with “good bones,” according to the seller. One that somebody will eventually buy and likely spend millions more renovating. When it was purchased by a couple named Maurice and Carol Feinberg in 1974, their son could recall one of the few things his parents changed: “I remember the dining room had these red velvet walls and a big, square, mirrored table. I was sad to see both go.”