Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left

Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left

by Susan Braudy

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When Kathy Boudin was arrested in 1981 after a botched armed robbery and shootout that left a Brinks guard and two policemen dead, she ended a decade living underground as part of the radical Weathermen underground; she would spend the next 22 years in Bedford Hills prison. In Family Circle, Boudin’s former classmate Susan Braudy vividly re-creates the radicalization of this intelligent, privileged young woman who came from one of the most prominent liberal intellectual families in America. She illuminates Boudin’s relationship with her parents --and particularly with her father Leonard, a famous leftist lawyer--and shows how Kathy, swept up in the ferment of the late 1960s, moved further and further from the Old Left ideals they embodied. 

Based on extensive interviews, court documents, and Boudin family papers,Family Circle is both a rich biography of a family and a intimate window into a turbulent and fascinating time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804153614
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/29/2014
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 496
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

Susan Braudy was born in Philadelphia and was educated at Bryn Mawr, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale. She has written for many magazines, including the New York Times, Newsweek, and The Atlantic Monthly. She is the author of four previous books, among them This Crazy Thing Called Love. She lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt


The refinement of our historical past chiefly means that we keep it properly complicated.
-Lionel Trilling, "The Sense of the Past"

The great labor lawyer and scholar Louis B. Boudin (the initial B. denoting Boudinovitch, the original English translation of the name) cast a long shadow over his nephew Leonard B. Boudin's entire life. While still a small child in the second decade of the twentieth century, Leonard proclaimed that he planned to learn "all the laws in the world and be more famous than Uncle Louis."

For Louis, legal scholarship was holy; he saw the courts as a locus of enormous powers. He wrote the weighty book Government by Judiciary, attacking the Supreme Court during the Depression when the justices of the Court were blocking President Roosevelt's economic reforms. Louis's was a populist message; the people and their elected representatives should make the laws.

The fact that Louis had no sons made his arm's-length relationship with his nephew Leonard more momentous. Louis would be a prime influence on Leonard's children, Kathy and Michael, although they remembered little of his physical presence.

Louis's belief in the greatness of his mission-an intellectual life of legal service to the underclasses-overshadowed the influence of Leonard's far more ordinary father, Joe, a coarse, bellicose man who made a living in real estate law and foreclosing mortgages.

Louis was small and plump and looked like a storekeeper until he opened his mouth often to shout an opinion. And because he was so revered in Europe and the United States as an outstanding labor lawyer, foremost interpreter of Karl Marx and historian of the Supreme Court, his temper tantrums as well as his parsimony prompted fond jokes instead of enmity. He was considered "a great man" and allowances were made.

His nephew Leonard would treasure a European cartoon of Louis scowling disdainfully, under a black cloud. The figure's legs were short, his torso pigeonlike, and under one arm was a volume of the writings of Karl Marx. The caption of the cartoon: "The Hon. Louis Boudin loses his temper."

Louis B. Boudin was born in southeastern Russia in 1874, the oldest of five children. He emigrated to Manhattan in 1891 on his own, where he almost miraculously flourished in just a few years. Louis was too proud to admit that anti-Semitism had forced him to leave Russia. He earned his master's degree from New York University Law School in 1897, while shedding most traces of a Russian accent in his spoken English.

Louis's love for his new country was ever-expanding. He saw no conflict between his belief in both Marxist economics and the genius of the United States Constitution. He felt socialism was fairer than capitalism and should prevail.

Louis's mother longed to emigrate to the United States because she missed her favorite person in the world. On the rare day that a letter from Louis failed to arrive, she wept. Louis soon made arrangements for his parents, two brothers, and two sisters to flee. His brothers Joe and Samuel, and his sisters Sarah and Mary, packed handwoven linens and sateen featherbedding in preparation for their journey.

But when they reached the nearby city of Kiev, a cholera epidemic was raging. Leonard's grandmother's featherbedding was confiscated and burned. She managed to hide one little embroidered silk pillow in a brass samovar, and later bestowed it upon her favorite grandchild, Leonard.

Louis's parents never learned much English. A family story, told as a joke, illustrates that fact. Riding the subway during World War I, Louis's father misunderstood a stranger's remark excoriating pacifists and was almost arrested as a spy. The anthropologist Margaret Mead later observed that nearly all Boudin family problems were grist for jokes.

After graduation from law school, Louis had started a general practice on the Lower East Side, but soon represented almost all of the socialist and communist unions in New York, including the furriers, restaurant workers, united office and professional workers, and the amalgamated utility workers. In the first decades of the twentieth century, emerging labor unions were on the minds of many serious thinkers, politicians, and working people.

A difficult aspect of Louis Boudin's legacy is illustrated by his obdurate attempt to join the first convention of the International Workers of the World, known as the "Wobblies," on June 27, 1905, in Chicago.

Two hundred socialists, anarchists, and union leaders gathered there to create "one big industrial union" to be "founded on the class struggle." The delegates refused to seat Louis, then thirty-one, because as a prosperous lawyer he was "a parasite on the working class." Louis shouted out his commitment to the working man for six long days. But it was no use.

Delegate Lillian Forberg told the assembled group: "It is a well-known fact that no attorney of law could be anything else but a parasite. We are here to fight the whole parasitical class and to organize the working class."

The situation was complex: Louis believed himself to be morally superior to middle-class friends because of his work on behalf of the less fortunate. But Louis's life was buttressed by the objects and security of class privilege and this anomaly led him to sometimes talk as if he were trying to destroy himself. Seventy-five years later, Kathy Boudin claimed to see her birth to a family of well-to-do whites as an agonizing defect to be obliterated by rationalization, violence, and self-deprivation. Kathy wanted above all somehow to discipline her mind and body into being a member of the black working class.

Soon after Louis's humiliation at the convention in Chicago, his brother Joe fell for fair-haired Clara Hessner at the Henry Street Settlement in Manhattan. Founded by Lillian Wald, a shrewd, generous nurse of German-Jewish descent, the center trained volunteers to teach immigrant women like Clara Hessner how to talk back to school superintendents, court clerks, police sergeants, and other public officials who condescended to them.

Although overlooked as a role model for Leonard and his children, Louis and Joe's sister Sarah was a pioneer in the emerging field of social work. As a young woman, Sarah sewed neckties in a sweatshop, the rare Boudin to possess a legitimate if brief membership in the proletariat. Nights she took classes to qualify for law school. She organized coworkers for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. The hours were long-the harsh cry of management was "If you don't come in on Sunday, don't come in on Monday"-and the male shop foreman had free rein to humiliate female workers.

Sarah retaliated by organizing the women to stop work as soon as he was out of sight. But she was fired after the foreman saw her picture at a strike meeting on the front page of the Forward, the six-page daily Yiddish-language newspaper. She then went to work as a secretary for her favorite brother, Louis, in preparation for law school. But Sarah came to realize that she'd find legal research boring, and she soon married William Edlin, an editor and drama critic at the Forward.

When Louis's wife, Anna, died, his sister Sarah and her husband moved into Louis's big house in Brooklyn, where Sarah tended to Louis's small children. Sarah's husband, William, felt neglected. After a divorce, Sarah thought about going to law school again, rejected the idea, and enrolled instead at the New York School of Social Work, vowing to "make a difference."

After her graduation Sarah took over the Lakeview Home on Staten Island for unmarried mothers sponsored by the Jewish Board of Guardians. Recent immigrants from Russia, the young girls had worked as domestics and factory workers. Her duties for the next fifty years ranged from "statistics to shoveling coal." Sarah insisted the girls see themselves as worthy members of society. She canceled restrictive practices such as locking the girls' clothes in lockers in the basement to keep them from running away. Encouraged by Louis, she wrote a blunt book called The Unmarried Mother in Our Society, replete with common sense and affection.

Following Louis's lead, Leonard's mother, Clara, disdained Sarah's endeavors as not truly intellectual. Clara saved all adulatory reviews of Louis Boudin's ponderous books. Presumably she knew exactly how much her practice irked her insecure husband, Joe. Joe felt more comfortable around his brother Samuel, also a City College graduate, and a highway and tunnels engineer.

Joe screamed that Louis was "selfish" and cared only about famous friends and footnotes in his books. Louis bragged of shouting at Leon Trotsky and of his correspondence with Rosa Luxembourg as well as with Jack London who signed "Yours for the revolution." A founder of the U.S. Socialist Party, Louis was a popular speaker on socialism and democracy at college campus meetings of the LID (League for Industrial Democracy, the precursor to SDS, Students for a Democratic Society).

Leonard B. Boudin (he adopted the "B" in homage to his uncle) was born on July 20, 1912. When he was six, his father moved his family from Brooklyn to a large corner house at Eighty-fifth Avenue and 150th Street in Richmond Hill, Queens. Leonard loved rolling on the big lawns with his collie. He watered the family's acre of cornfields and helped his father grease his automobile on Sundays.

There was perhaps only one person who could have foreseen that the dazed little boy with a lisp would one day be known as "a great man" to judges and legal theorists in England, Chile, Cuba, and the United States. But that person made all the difference. She was Leonard's weepy and fine-featured mother. Throughout his life Leonard would retain the attitude of an adored boy.

Clara saw her own angelic face every time she looked at Leonard. She brushed his fair hair and whispered in his ear that despite Joe's insults, Leonard was "the smartest little boy in America." He seemed unable to stop hugging her. When he lost her full attention he pretended to duck under her skirt. As an adolescent he became sexually aroused for the first time at the sight of her underwear.

Much of Leonard's difficulty as a small child stemmed from his humiliating lisp. Joe berated Leonard for not speaking up in classrooms. Leonard's elementary-school teachers, two of whom lived next door, told Joe that Leonard daydreamed four serial fantasies at once.

In later years Leonard remembered his teachers as "mediocre and dull." He and Joe agonized over Leonard's poor performance in Latin and German. Leonard also had terrible handwriting, despite hours of practicing the Palmer method with Joe. He despaired: his father and uncle wrote beautifully. To please his mother, Leonard played the piano, but not well. Nonetheless Clara dreamed aloud that Leonard might be a concert pianist. To make her smile, Leonard danced while Clara played Chopin.

In 1920, when Leonard was eight, his brother Arthur was born. Athletic Arthur was his father's favorite.

A few years later, Leonard's mother, Clara, told her husband she was leaving him. Joe threw himself on the floor and banged his head against it. Leonard welcomed the silence that followed such fights.

A legendary flirt, Clara practiced Christian Science, influenced by one of Joe's real estate clients who was smitten with her. As a result, she treated Leonard's frequent headaches only with prayer. But she did enroll Leonard in speech therapy classes for his lisp.

After school he cut out editorials for his father from the New York Law Journal, cross-indexing "matrimony and divorce," and pasted bookplates in Joe's law books. Clara wept because her husband "treated Leonard like an enslaved law clerk."

When Joe taught Leonard to play chess, the boy's inability to concentrate vanished. Chess can be a harsh lesson for a child: one player's gain is another player's loss. Joe was thrilled by Leonard's passion for beating him. Mortified by his lisp, Leonard had an immediate affinity for the "silent" war strategies of chess. He enjoyed "quick slaughter." Leonard read book after book about chess champions and decided that arrogance was key.

Clara soon invited Morton Gould, whose father worked with her husband, to perform at one of her musical soirees. Three years older than Leonard, Morton was a piano prodigy and the most famous boy in Richmond Hill. He had written original compositions at the kitchen table before he was five years old. By age eight he'd won one of many scholarshops to music school. Thrilled to have him in her home, Clara flirted with the boy. Sixteen-year-old Leonard was jealous of the older boy's effect on Clara. Leonard began to practice the piano more feverishly than ever. Desperate to bask in Morton's reflected glory, Leonard embarked on a brief and fumbling intimate relationship with the older boy.

In winter 1929, Joe Boudin startled neighbors walking by his home on 114th Street in Richmond Hills, by yelling to one and all, "I'm a failure. I can't buy food to put on the table." Joe cursed his sweeping losses in Florida real estate. Leonard hid in his room where he read novels and daydreamed. Joe refused to listen to "pie in the sky" solutions to the vicissitudes of the Great Depression, espoused by his brother Louis. He jeered at news that a million frightened Americans marched on May 1 in Manhattan to commemorate the Russian Revolution.

Joe was reduced to doing clerical work: he foreclosed mortgages for landlords. He also managed a bail bond agency.

Joe was soon dealt another blow. Leonard's application for admission to City College, Joe's alma mater, was rejected. The humiliating reason: bad grades in geometry, Latin, and German. Joe pulled strings to get Leonard an interview with the college president. Leonard was winning in the interview and was admitted. In later years, Leonard simplified his problems by claiming that he had attended Harvard, where he said that he'd been nothing special as a student.

Life on the City College campus was fervent. The all-male student body was gripped by the political crises of the Depression. Many were fanatically devoted to competing intellectual solutions. They brought lunch from home in brown bags, and the select among them ate in special areas of the cafeteria. Anti-Stalinist students ate in alcove #1; these were socialists and Trotskyists and included Irving Howe, Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, and Seymour Melman. In alcove #2 were pro-Stalin students who were at times forbidden by the party to talk to members of #1. After shouting at one another until they were hoarse about how best to save the world, the boys scurried off together to afternoon classes.

Leonard helped to run the exclusive alcove of the chess team. Pure intellection was the credo. Leonard gulped down his mother's jelly sandwiches and supervised concurrent combative games of chess. Tryouts for the chess team, advertised in the school newspaper, consisted of playing three games against Leonard. A sly dig in his yearbook caption hinted at Leonard's lifelong fascination with famous men. "Lenny lives on the strength of his uncle's intelligence and his friends' cynicism."

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Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left 2.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
altesschwein on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a gossipy account, a true "guilty pleasure." I indulged.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Topic of this book was most interesting to me, as an avid reader/historian of the 1960's and Vietnam erra; but it lacked in content! I found the writing to be bland, at times incoherent, and most of all pointless.