Breaking away from a blueblood upbringing to take up radical politics.
MARCH 2, 2009
By SOL STERN
In 1970, Eve Pell was 33 years old, the mother of three young
children, married to a successful architect and living in a
fashionable San Francisco home overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.
She was also a member in good standing of one of America's most
privileged family dynasties, a legacy that dated back to the mid-17th
century when Eve's forebear Thomas Pell purchased a large part of New
York's Bronx and Westchester counties from a local Indian tribe.
And then, almost overnight, this former debutante gave it all up and
joined "the revolution." She found herself intoxicated by San
Francisco's counterculture, joined women's consciousness-raising
groups, entered into affairs with Marxist professors and read Lenin
and Franz Fanon. She left her husband and transformed herself into a
radical journalist, writing articles for one of the Bay Area's
underground newspapers. She became a leader of the Prison Law
Collective, a Bay Area organization that championed the cause of
incarcerated black criminals who announced themselves to be American
revolutionaries and political prisoners.
Now Ms. Pell has written a memoir that recounts the life-changing
events she experienced almost four decades ago. Her chronicle is
filled with interest, but one finishes "We Used to Own the Bronx"
still puzzling about what made this daughter of the ruling class
suddenly take a huge leap to mindless radicalism -- a rebellion not
merely against her own upbringing and the values of her family but
seemingly against common sense itself.
The first half of the memoir, it should be said, is a literary treat.
Relying on her extensive research into the family's archives, Ms.
Pell gives us a kind of cultural anthropology of the closest thing in
America to a landed gentry. Land -- lots of land -- was the key to
the Pell family's status and affluence. Eve Pell's ancestors, as her
book title suggests, really did once own a major part of the Bronx,
even possessing a deed issued by the British crown. By the time Eve
was born in 1937, the huge tract of land once called the Manor of
Pelham had been broken up many times. Still, her family estate in
Tuxedo Park, N.Y., remained large enough for horse stables, riding
paths, tennis courts and residences for the dozens of servants and
hired hands who looked after her needs from the moment she was born.
The family was never among the nation's truly super rich, but there
was enough money so that the Pell men didn't really have to be grubby
climbers in the business and banking worlds. Instead, they preserved
their creative energies for the manly arts of polo and racquets and
spent many an afternoon in Manhattan's exclusive social clubs. (One
of the notable exceptions to the rule was Eve's older cousin
Claiborne Pell, the late U.S. senator from Rhode Island who did many
useful things, including creating the Pell grants for college study.)
The Pell women were expected to learn the social graces, ride horses
elegantly, get a minimal education in a proper boarding school and
then "come out" at a debutante's ball. The ideal was then to be
married quickly to the right suitor from an acceptable family.
Eve Pell broke the mold by attending Bryn Mawr, the elite women's
college, where she majored in European history. After a stint in
Washington she was off to San Francisco with her architect husband
just in time for the Age of Aquarius. Looking back on her political
and personal transformation, Ms. Pell writes that she had come to
believe fervently that "capitalism and private property beget
injustice" and that " 'common criminals' are actually political
prisoners, guilty of being poor and nonwhite."
The part about nonwhite criminals as America's political prisoners
was not, for Ms. Pell, just boilerplate. She helped turn the Prison
Law Collective into one of the most extreme outcroppings of the once
idealistic New Left. The ostensible purpose of the group was to
provide legal counsel to celebrity black criminals like George
Jackson and Fleeta Drumgo and to publicize the brutal conditions
under which these alleged victims of racist oppression were
incarcerated in California prisons. But the result was bloody
insurrection. Indeed, for sheer self-destructiveness and delusional
ideology, Ms. Pell's group rivaled the Weather Underground's
terrorist bombing campaigns of that same era.
Under cover of providing constitutionally protected legal assistance,
the women of the collective used prison visitations to serve their
revolutionary clients' other interests, including their sexual needs.
Those involved with the collective eventually became unwitting
enablers for a violent uprising hatched by George Jackson from within
San Quentin. Jackson was about to go on trial for the January 1970
killing of a prison guard; his brother had already tried to extort
Jackson's freedom by seizing hostages in a Marin County courtroom, an
incident that ended in four deaths, including that of a judge. The
uprising within San Quentin, in August 1971, was a botched prison
break that took the lives of George Jackson, two other prisoners and
three guards, whose throats were slit by Jackson and his allies. In a
horrible denouement, one of Jackson's prison group who had previously
won his release turned his violent rage against the leader of the
Prison Law Collective, a lawyer named Fay Stender -- shooting her
five times. (Stender survived but later committed suicide.)
In "We Used to Own the Bronx," Ms. Pell does not judge her earlier
self or detail much of her life since that turbulent time, except to
describe her attempts to heal the breach with her family and to refer
briefly to her continuing work in journalism. (She even interviewed
George W. Bush in 2000 for PBS.) It's sad that, after all these
years, she still seems under the spell of the political enthusiasms
that caused her to celebrate sociopaths like George Jackson. "He made
me feel like a real woman," she reminiscences about Jackson, "not the
lady I had been trained to be, but a female comrade in the struggle
against oppression. . . . If he could value me, as I believed he did,
then maybe I was more of a person than I had previously suspected."
Surely Eve Pell could have found a less costly way to build her self-esteem.
Mr. Stern is a contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.