The Magazine

A Family Affair

Kathy Boudin and the generations of the radical life.

Oct 27, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 07 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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Family Circle

The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left

by Susan Braudy

Knopf, 460 pp., $27.95

KATHY BOUDIN was paroled from a New York prison this September after serving twenty-two years for her role in a robbery of a Brinks armored car in Nyack, New York, during which a guard and two policemen were murdered. Boudin and David Gilbert, father of her child, were driving one of the getaway vehicles, filled with gun-toting members of a black revolutionary group who had just killed the guard. Stopped by a police roadblock, Kathy urged the cops to holster their guns moments before her comrades jumped from the truck and shot them and she tried to run away. She avoided the life sentence Gilbert received by a plea bargain negotiated by her father, a famed civil-liberties lawyer named Leonard Boudin.

More than fifteen years ago, in "The Big Dance," a reporter for a local paper, John Castellucci, wrote an excellent account of the crime and its roots in the strange alliance of white radicals and "the Family," a gang of thugs and self-identified black revolutionaries. Now, Susan Braudy, once Kathy Boudin's classmate at Bryn Mawr, explores the glamorous but dysfunctional Boudin family to account for how a child of privilege from a family committed to both the law and left-wing causes turned into an accessory to murder.

"Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left" is a fascinating--if somewhat flawed--account of a family that has been at the center of American radical politics for many years. More a pastiche of illuminating episodes from Leonard and Kathy's lives than a detailed history, it offers a plausible and damning portrait of a group of people convinced that the America in which they were thriving was a racist, repressive, and imperialist society, and that those opposed to it, whether Soviet spies, Latin American dictators, or street thugs, deserved encouragement, support, and emulation.

Kathy Boudin's family was part of a left-wing aristocracy in America. Her great-uncle, Louis Boudin, a Russian immigrant who became a successful labor lawyer, wrote an important book that helped introduce Americans to Marxism, but he never became politically active. He was denied a seat at the first convention of the Industrial Workers of the World on the grounds that as a lawyer he was "a parasite on the working class," and a theoretical dispute led him to walk out of the first Communist party convention in 1919, never to return. Leonard Boudin idolized his uncle Louis and worked in his labor law firm for a number of years after graduating from St. John's Law School. In the early 1940s he joined Victor Rabinowitz in a law firm whose client list over the years included radicals of every stripe: Communist-dominated unions, accused Soviet spy Judith Coplon, Rockwell Kent, Paul Robeson, the Castro government, Dr. Benjamin Spock, and Daniel Ellsberg.

Kathy's mother, Jean Roisman, also grew up in a radical milieu. The daughter of a pickle-maker, she became friends as a young girl with Madeleine Leof, whose father's home was a center of radicalism in Philadelphia. Dr. Morris Leof presided over a left-wing salon where Communists, socialists, and left-wing artists mixed and mingled. One daughter, Charlotte, married physicist Robert Serber. Both members of the Communist party, they worked at Los Alamos during World War II. Jean befriended Clifford Odets and Marc Blitzstein at the Leofs. Her sister married I.F. Stone, later a radical idol.

After their marriage in 1937 the Boudins dabbled with left-wing causes but remained organizationally independent. Their sympathies, however, were clear. Jean had briefly joined a Communist student group at the University of Pennsylvania. Marc Blitzstein, a secret party member, consulted Leonard about labor law while writing "Cradle Will Rock." The Boudins helped their neighbor, Margaret Mead, found the Downtown Community School, a progressive experiment in education. When he withdrew his son from the school, Dwight MacDonald accused Leonard of being among a small cadre of "Stalinoids" who ran it. But Leonard remained aloof from the ideological wars of the American left, convinced that he could make his contribution to the transformation of America by representing left-wing clients in court. Although he frequently defended people who refused to answer questions about their Communist affiliations, Leonard twice swore out non-Communist affidavits.