Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jack Abbott: From the Belly of the Beast


It was called "radical chic," a peculiar mixture of hard-line, radical politics with haute society. Writer Tom Wolfe coined the term to describe an unusual gathering at musical composer Leonard Bernstein's Manhattan apartment back in 1970. Bernstein invited a few members of the Black Panthers, a quasi-military group of black nationalists, to be his guests at a cocktail party in January 1970. The purpose of the meeting was to raise money for the so-called New York Panther 21, who were indicted on charges of plotting to kill police and blow up department stores in New York City. The unusual cocktail party made local headlines and generated scathing criticism of Bernstein and his Park Avenue friends. Some people called it slumming for the rich.

Soul on Ice
Soul on Ice

During the late 1970s and early 1980s it became fashionable in some places to delve into the more radical aspects of American politics. Extremists, especially those on the far left, were frequently glamorized in the press. The right side of the political spectrum, which contained the Aryan groups, the white supremacists and war hawks, was perceived to be outside of that specialized arena. "Radical chic" promoters appeared on TV and radio talk shows. They wrote magazine articles, newspaper stories, hit songs and in some cases, even published books. During this era, even prison inmates became a cause celebre. And if a convict could write, that was even better. Eldridge Cleaver, a former Black Panther and ex-convict from California, wrote a book called Soul on Ice (1968), which became popular on America's college campuses. Gary Gilmore, an inmate on death row in Utah, inspired a great deal of interest from the literary left, oddly enough, when he told prison authorities that he deserved to die for his crimes and wanted to be executed as soon as possible. This situation was most unusual since the majority of prisoners on death row spend their lives in appeal courts fighting their death sentences. One writer who saw a potential best seller in Gilmore's desire to be executed was Pulitzer Prize winning author, and favorite among America's literary elite, the ubiquitous Norman Mailer.

Norman Mailer, 1973
Norman Mailer, 1973

When one of Gilmore's prison mates, a man named Jack Henry Abbott, heard of Mailer's new book, he wrote to the author immediately. This was the opening round of a bizarre story concerning a world-famous author who championed a convicted-killer-turned-writer behind bars. Encouraged by Mailer, a New York City publishing house became interested in Abbott's letters as a book project. Mailer even lobbied for his new friend's parole and convinced others to do the same. Of course, no one could say for sure what would happen when a man like Abbott was released back into society. But Mailer was emphatic. Abbott's talents were of such importance, he assured, that it would be a crime to ignore it. "Culture is worth a little risk," Mailer later told reporters.

Who could have known that the risk would soon turn into cold-blooded murder?

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