Friday, April 17, 2009

We Used to Own the Bronx


Don't let the title fool you: Eve Pell's memoir, which features her privileged upbringing on the east coast, is also a fascinating portrait of San Francisco radical journalism during the 60s and 70s.

Eve traces her U.S. roots to the mid-17th century, when Thomas Pell received enormous parcels of land from the British crown and local Indians. When she says they used to own the Bronx, she really means it. Remember the book The Taking of Pelham 123 about the hijacked subway train? (If not, you'll get another shot at it with the John Travolta and Denzel Washington film this year.) Pelham is named after them, and they still have the right to claim a fat calf annually from the city of New Rochelle.

Over the years, the Pells have sold the land, married well, and lived very comfortably in WASPy bastions like Tuxedo Park. The family's public face, I suppose, has been U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, and their name still graces the student grants he cooked up in the Higher Education Act of 1965.

The California part of the story unfolds when Eve marries an architect based in San Francisco. There she begins working for Paul Jacobs and Saul Landau, who figure heavily in the development of Ramparts magazine. Her marriage dissolves when she begins to question many of the social and political conventions her family supported reflexively.

She goes on to work in the prison movement, meets George Jackson, and is brought face-to-face with a world that couldn't be less like the one she grew up in. Later, she crosses paths with former Ramparts editor David Horowitz, who, unbeknownst to her, is tacking hard right in his political voyage. That becomes a problem when Horowitz uses her as a source to discredit the movement she labored in for years.

I don't want to give away the whole story, which Eve tells briskly, honestly, and with a great knack for selection and emphasis. But in one up-tempo book, you get an ethnography of East Coast privilege and an insider's account of San Francisco movement journalism. That's good value, people.

Full disclosure: I interviewed Eve over the telephone for the Ramparts book. Though we've never met in person, she visited my home with her husband, who was my mother's boss at the Department of Labor in San Francisco.

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