Traitors to Their Class

Rich people today mostly post Instagram photos of themselves. They used to sometimes do left-wing politics too.

Illustrations by Ayumi Takahashi

Thanks to a banner 2016 and some great book sales, Bernie Sanders finally joined the ranks of the one percent, which, along with his fancy winter coat, has fueled accusations of hypocrisy. But Sanders isn’t the first child of the New Left to turn against his fellow social betters. The 1960s and ’70s was an era stacked with such class traitors.

Jane Fonda

Many actors flirted with the counterculture during the 1960s, but “Hanoi Jane,” for better or worse, remains the poster girl for that era’s blurring of show business and activism. Fonda, daughter of Hollywood royalty and radicalized during her six years in Paris, marched for Native American rights, befriended the Black Panthers, campaigned for working mothers, and, most prominently, agitated against the Vietnam War, earning her decades of conservative enmity.

Abby Rockefeller

The odds were that John D. Rockefeller’s ever-multiplying progeny would eventually produce a Marxist. Abby, the daughter of Chase Manhattan CEO David, first refused her $25 million inheritance, then started giving it away to radical causes. In 1968, she helped found the militant, Marxist women’s liberation group Cell 16, which held that women were the proletariat of the family and advocated for gender separatism and the teaching of martial arts. In the early 1970s, she started a business producing the more ecologically sound composting toilet.

Leonard Bernstein and Felicia Montealegre

Musical genius Leonard Bernstein was the subject of a Bible-sized FBI file because of his support for civil rights and antiwar causes. His wife, Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre, had founded an antiwar organization and raised money for the aclu and other causes. But this was quickly forgotten when the pair were lampooned as clueless dilettantes for drawing on their wealthy friends to fundraise for the Black Panthers’ legal bills and their families’ living expenses. The Times chided them for “elegant slumming” that “mocked the memory of Martin Luther King,” while conservative reporter Tom Wolfe coined the term “radical chic” to mock their activism.

George Pillsbury

He was the Pillsbury Doughboy, but socialist. Instead of selling hot pastries, George Pillsbury gave away the enormous amount of dough he inherited to left-wing causes, setting up the Haymarket People’s Fund and the Funding Exchange to funnel money to activist groups, and convincing his lefty scion friends to do the same. “This money should rightfully have been going to employees of the Pillsbury Corporation over the years but was skimmed off and ended up in trust funds for people such as myself,” he explained.

The Weather Underground

During the heyday of the Weathermen, there was a joke that you couldn’t get in unless your parents were millionaires. Bill Ayers was the son of the CEO of Commonwealth Edison; Kathy Boudin, the daughter of a prominent left-wing lawyer; Silas Bissell, the heir to a carpet-cleaning fortune; Diana Oughton, whose great-grandfather founded the Boy Scouts and whose father was one of the wealthiest men in Illinois; and Cathy Wilkerson, whose millionaire father owned a chain of Midwest radio stations. All felt a profound unease toward the material comfort they grew up in. It was in Wilkerson’s father’s townhouse that the bomb the Weathermen were building accidentally went off, killing Oughton and two others.

Jean Seberg

Most moviegoers probably knew Jean Seberg best as the female lead in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. J. Edgar Hoover just knew her as that actress who supported the Black Panthers. Seberg backed a variety of political causes, but it was her donations to the Panthers — “the biggest threat to national security,” according to Hoover — that made her the target of an FBI misinformation campaign that ultimately led to the stillbirth of her child and her suicide ten years later in 1979.

David Dellinger

The son of a well-off lawyer and local GOP chairman who once had Calvin Coolidge over for dinner, David Dellinger spurned the destiny his elite pedigree guaranteed — cutting short stints at Yale and Oxford, declining offers to work for the State Department  for antiwar organizing. What his father saw as “throwing his life away,” Dellinger, one of the “Chicago 8,” saw as preparation. He went on to organize the 1967 march on the Pentagon and use his North Vietnamese connections to negotiate the release of American POWs.

Elinor Gimbel

Elinor Gimbel didn’t let her directorship of her parents’ brewing companies — nor her marriage into the Gimbel family, of department store fame — stop her from being a vocal supporter of leftist causes. In the 1940s, she funded the left-wing newspaper PM, happily associated with communists, and chaired Women for Wallace. Warren Hinckle tried to get her to pony up for his radical monthly Ramparts in the 1960s, but accidentally stepped on one of her purebred toy dogs, killing it.

Victor Rabinowitz

Victor Rabinowitz’s career spanned many decades, but he did some of his most important work during the 1960s and ’70s, representing hundreds of draft resisters, Jimmy Hoffa and the Black Panthers, civil rights activist Julian Bond (who was refused the seat he’d been elected to), and the governments of Fidel Castro and Salvador Allende. Among his rules: never to represent a landlord suing a tenant, an employer suing a union, or a right-wing institution. His father, a socialist immigrant who struck gold by inventing bra-strap hooks, must have been proud.

Obie Benz

The genetic lottery was kind to Obie Benz, who stood to inherit both the Sunbeam bread and Daimler-Benz auto fortunes. Benz spent the sixties organizing against the Vietnam War, setting up childcare for workers at his college, and helping local farmers with their harvests. He saw the Vanguard Public Foundation that he founded with his inheritance in 1972 as an extension of these efforts, backing groups “too small, too radical, or experimental” to get funding. It set up, among other things, one of the country’s first shelters for domestic-abuse victims, and was the model for George Pillsbury’s later efforts.

Bert Schneider

Hollywood producer Bert Schneider, former Wall Street trader and the son of a studio head, didn’t just bring the New Left to the screen through films like Easy Rider; he helped keep it alive through his wealth. Schneider gave to antiwar organizations, partly financed the 1967 Pentagon march, donated office space for a peace rally, bankrolled Abbie Hoffman, Huey Newton, and other radicals, and much more. When the anti–Vietnam War documentary he had financed, Hearts and Minds, won an Oscar, he read a telegram from a Vietcong official in his acceptance speech.