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.

LEONARD HAD EXPERIMENTED with homosexuality in college (one of his lovers was the writer and social critic Paul Goodman), and after he married, he embarked on a neverending string of heterosexual affairs, while Jean was also unfaithful. Leonard had a desperate need for adoration from women and pursued them obsessively. One affair in 1952 had him thinking of divorce; as a result Jean suffered a mental breakdown and attempted suicide twice. For the rest of her life, she continued to be affected by the electroshock treatments she underwent. Jean treated Leonard as a demigod, displaying a "fawning desire to please" him. Among Leonard's conquests detailed by Braudy were his client Judy Coplon, the psychologist he hired to care for his children while Jean was hospitalized, some of Kathy's classmates, and even one of her pregnant friends.

Born in 1943, four years after her brother Michael, Kathy spent her life, according to Braudy, alternating between seeking her father's approval and demonstrating that she had the courage to act while he merely took as clients people braver than he was. Her brother's accomplishments made her task even harder. Michael was an academic star whose legal successes--top graduate at Harvard Law School, clerk for Supreme Court Justice Harlan, partner at Covington and Burling and, in 1992, a Bush appointment as federal appeals court judge--stoked Leonard's pride, even if their views were at opposite poles. To Kathy, her brother's conservative politics were as execrable as his profession: "f--ing boring life, f--ing bad values."

If Michael promised to surpass his father as a lawyer, Kathy was determined to outdo him as an activist. She began in high school, where one of her classmates was Angela Davis, by participating in civil-rights demonstrations. Kathy never fit in at Bryn Mawr, where she sternly instructed other students as to their political and moral obligations. She led a campaign to organize the black campus maids; it was so disruptive that the administration decided to abolish their jobs. It was not the last time her ideological rigidity led her to hurt people she wanted to help.

Concerned that Kathy's political illusions went too far, Leonard arranged for her to spend her senior year at the University of Leningrad, believing it would temper her radicalism. But it seemed to have no discernible effect, perhaps because his own activities on behalf of Communist regimes minimized their crimes. On a trip to Cuba with her father, Kathy attacked him as all talk and no action and joined the Venceremos Brigade, harvesting sugar and being indoctrinated in revolution. After graduation her proposal to write a biography of Dostoyevsky was rejected by family friend Angus Cameron, a left-wing publisher, and she was unable to get a job as a junior editor at Random House. Adrift and unemployed, she went to work for Students for a Democratic Society in Cleveland in 1965.

As Kathy kept raising the ante in her confrontations with authority, Leonard continued to assist her. Jailed at the Chicago Democratic convention in 1968 for setting off stink bombs in hotels and telephoning bomb threats, she got off thanks to his legal skills. But even the organized mayhem of SDS became too tame. She joined its Weathermen faction, helping to organize and participate in the 1969 Days of Rage campaign in Chicago, during which a few hundred committed revolutionaries engaged in vandalism, fought pitched battles with the police, and set off small bombs. Kathy also trumped Leonard's sexual escapades; the Weathermen engaged in group sex to break down any vestiges of monogamy or bourgeois selfishness.

IN MARCH 1970 Kathy was living in a Greenwich Village townhouse with several comrades who were building an antipersonnel bomb that they intended to set off at a dance in Fort Dix. The incompetent bomb-makers crossed some wires and blew the house apart. Three Weathermen were killed, including Diana Oughton, whom Kathy had radicalized at Bryn Mawr. Kathy and another Weatherman staggered naked from the house, and went into hiding, beginning an underground odyssey that ended eleven years later in Nyack. Although Leonard urged her to surrender, Kathy and her comrades managed to survive on the margins of American society, supported by such celebrity sympathizers as Jon Voight, Marge Piercy, and William Kunstler. Izzy Stone praised the Weathermen as "wonderful kids" and "the most sensitive of a generation," without informing his readers that one of the fugitives was his niece. And, despite his role as an officer of the court, Leonard continued to meet with Kathy clandestinely, and he seemed to relish her status as a heroine of the revolutionary underground.

While underground, Kathy participated in at least half of the Weathermen's two dozen or so bombings; she planted one device in a women's bathroom at the United States Capitol and probably helped set off a bomb at the Pentagon. After a split among the Weathermen, Kathy drifted into a small sect called the May 19th Communist Group that formed an alliance with a remnant of the Black Liberation Army. She helped obtain cars for bank robberies and the jailbreak of convicted cop-killer Joanne Chesimard, also known as Assata Shakur.

By 1980, however, she had a baby, fathered by fellow revolutionary David Gilbert, named Chesa Jackson, after Chesimard and another murderer and self-proclaimed revolutionary, George Jackson. Leonard, delighted by a grandson, pressed her to surrender. Instead, she dropped her year-old son at day care and went to Nyack to rob a bank with a group of street thugs who had already killed people in other robberies.

NEITHER KATHY BOUDIN nor her defenders have ever come to terms with her behavior in Nyack. Leonard tried to argue that because she had surrendered before the two policemen were murdered, she was legally not responsible for their deaths. He pushed David Gilbert, whom she married in prison, to commit perjury to exculpate Kathy; only after Gilbert balked at cooperating--even by lying--with the judicial system, did Leonard negotiate the plea bargain which sent Kathy to prison for twenty years, pleading her guilty to one count of murder. At her sentencing hearing, he told the court that her "contribution to political action" had been influential and denied she was a terrorist.

As Braudy shows, however, Kathy Boudin bore direct responsibility for the killings of both policemen. At her first, failed parole hearing in 2001, she lied about trying to escape from the scene of the crime and denied taking part in Weathermen bombings or knowing that a bomb was being built in the townhouse that exploded. She claimed: "I was never involved in violence directly." Even when she expressed remorse for the murders, she continued to insist that she was some kind of idealist working to reform the political system or comparable to people who helped escaped slaves make their way to freedom via the Underground Railroad.

For all its virtues and refusal to accept the self-interested rationalizations of the Boudin family for criminal behavior and murder, "Family Circle" suffers from several defects. Although many of the anecdotes about the Boudins are revealing, the book sometimes feels like a series of vignettes. Nor is it carefully documented; the sources for many of the stories are not clear. Braudy also makes a number of errors: The Venona project did not originate because of the capture of a Finnish code book, nor did FBI agent Robert Lamphere give cryptanalyst Meredith Gardner one-time pads that he then used to crack the code. Gardner and the other cryptanalysts did not work for J. Edgar Hoover. The Reverend William Melish did not have a major position in the CPUSA but was active in a front group. And Kathy could not have adopted Steve Nelson, "who'd jumped bail in the early 1950s" as a role model because Nelson did no such thing, although he did cooperate with Soviet intelligence.

ALTHOUGH SHE ADMITS that some Communists were spies, Braudy seems to exculpate many of them. Judith Coplon was far more than a "lowly clerk in the Justice Department" who clipped newspaper articles. Leonard Boudin never demonstrated that "Hoover's FBI had framed Coplon"--because she was, in fact, guilty. Nor did Hoover frame the Rosenbergs.

For someone with no illusions about the criminality of the Weathermen and the fatuousness of their supporters, Braudy still has some odd fixations about the Communist party and its supporters. "What red-haters did not understand was that American communist sympathizers were mostly theorizers--not doers--and most had left the party because they balked at being told what to think."

Apart from the fact that sympathizers could not have left a party they never joined, Braudy's own book demonstrates just how many illusions the pro-Communist left continues to hold onto. In his autobiography, "An Unrepentant Leftist," Leonard's long-time partner Victor Rabinowitz complained that while her means were "tragically wrong," Kathy Boudin's cause was entirely just: A corrupt, racist American state deserved to be attacked and destroyed.

Despite the angry protests of police and the children of the men she helped murder, Kathy Boudin is now free. Her son Chesa, raised by fellow terrorists Bill Ayres and Bernardine Dohrn, graduated from Yale last year and won a Rhodes scholarship. One can only hope that he will reject the legacy that his parents, foster parents, and those he is named for have bequeathed him.

Harvey Klehr is Andrew Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory University.