View all Articles
Commentary By Sol Stern

Remembering the Revolution

Breaking away from a blueblood upbringing to take up radical politics.

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.

This piece originally appeared in Wall Street Journal

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal