NEW YORK

Bringing the War Home to 11th Street

The Weathermen thought they could change the world with bombs, but their self-inflicted disaster was the beginning of the end of their revolution

by

Modernistic, almost avant-garde, all acute angles and big vertical sheets of glass jutting toward the street, the red-brick structure stands in the middle of a row of mid-19th-century Greek Revival townhouses, on a tree-lined Greenwich Village block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. In its mismatched eccentricity, 18 West 11th Street cries out to be noticed, and I noticed it—and the Paddington Bear in the window—right after I moved to the neighborhood. I don’t remember what kind of costume the bear had on that summer day in 1991 (probably a bathing suit and sunglasses), just that I stopped to look and wonder why the house was so different from every other house on the block.

I’d learn soon enough that it was a New York landmark. Tourists liked to be photographed in front of it, but they were different from those who’d one day converge on Carrie Bradshaw’s house from Sex and the City, a few blocks crosstown. The house on West 11th Street beckoned to “dark” tourists, as they’re known, people attracted to historical places associated with death and tragedy, like Auschwitz and Chernobyl. They were drawn to this unusual piece of Manhattan real estate because it had once been the site of a Weathermen bomb factory. A splinter group of Students for a Democratic Society, the Weathermen, named after a lyric in Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”), were so enraged by President Richard Nixon’s war without purpose in Vietnam and the Chicago police assassination of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton—as well as the exploitative and imperialistic nature of the capitalist system—that they declared war on America, intending to commit mass murder to stop the killing.

To accomplish this, the five Weathermen living in the townhouse in early 1970 decided to build a dynamite-and-nail bomb, and by March 6 they were well along in its construction. But the two people working on the device that morning didn’t know what they were doing, and just before noon they blew themselves up, along with the house, succeeding only in making 18 West 11th Street a monument to terrorism.

In October 1971, 18 months after the explosion, I joined a subversive, anti-authoritarian student newspaper at the City College of New York. I knew that the Observation Post had ties to the radical antiwar movement. A few people on the staff had been there since 1966; they’d covered the SDS and Weathermen in real time. Others were draft resisters themselves. But none of this interested me—because I’d recently pulled a draft-lottery number that reduced to almost nil the chances of my ever being drafted. Though the war continued, for me it was over, and I’d relegated the antiwar movement to the irrelevant past.

Twenty years later, more knowledgeable about history and the connections that can exist between seemingly unrelated events, my encounter with the Weathermen house got me thinking anew about OP and the war. An editorial from early in my tenure, “Kill the Pigs,” had always stuck in my mind. “There’s nothing left to do but throw bombs or go off and fuck,” it concluded. Now I wondered if there might be a connection between the newspaper and the house. I also wanted to know what I should have, as a journalist, sought out in 1971: Who were the bomb-makers? Why’d they do it? Why in that house? And how did they die? The house on 11th Street, I thought, might be a portal to information I’d ignored for too long. Many times I returned to just stare at the house, thinking that if I looked long and hard enough I’d see something I hadn’t seen before. But the Paddington Bear was the only thing that changed. Every day he had on a different costume. If the Yankees were in the World Series, he’d be wearing a Yankees uniform. If a nor’easter was coming in, he’d be wearing a rain hat and slicker.

What the house wouldn’t tell me, I searched for at the public library, reading microfilm of newspapers from the time of the explosion. I scrutinized photos of the Weathermen. The men, often bearded and a little scraggly, and the women, with that “hippie chick” appearance (as it was called at the time), looked like people I’d worked with on OP. And one of the Weathermen, Ted Gold—stocky, athletic, with red hair that in black-and-white photos appeared to be a dense mass of black curls—reminded me of a kid I’d hung out with in 1966. We were 13-year-old recreational terrorists, building and detonating bombs for the hell of it. One afternoon when his parents were gone, we packed flash powder from a few hundred firecrackers into a cardboard toilet-paper tube, added a fuse, sealed it, and debated what to blow up. Put it in a gas tank and blow up a car? Instead, we placed our bomb on the outside windowsill of a first-floor apartment in the back of my friend’s building. He lit the fuse, and as we sprinted toward the street we heard an ear-shattering boom, followed by the sound of breaking glass. Two days later we returned to inspect the damage. Plastic sheeting covered the blown-out window, but we never heard a word about it and we never told a soul. Our bomb-making days were over.

Like me and my friend, the 11th Street Weathermen debated what to blow up, though their appetite for destruction was more voracious, as I discovered through multiple media sources: A dance at an officers club in Fort Dix, New Jersey, because that is a military installation? Low Library at Columbia University because the military and CIA conduct on-campus research? Both? They settled on Fort Dix. Not under debate was their intent: to kill as many people as possible to “bring the war home.” Because despite Nixon’s promise to end the war, it continued with no end in sight—as TV networks beamed into American living rooms news of U.S. casualties approaching 50,000, of Vietnamese children incinerated by napalm, of a massacre in My Lai, of summary executions, of an entire country ravaged by the toxicity of crop-destroying Agent Orange, and of B-52s making every effort to carry out Air Force general Curtis LeMay’s threat to bomb North Vietnam “back into the Stone Age.” Yet America itself remained unscathed.

This is what incited the Weathermen to kill. But on that mild winter morning in 1970, the bomb exploded prematurely.

I was still in high school when I heard the news that day, feeling as disconnected from the people who built the bomb as the bomb-makers felt from the people they wanted to kill. City College, OP, the SDS, and the Weathermen (or Weather Underground, as they’d begun calling themselves to avoid any sexist connotations) were part of a world I barely knew existed. Though I was only five months short of draft age, the war seemed a distant nightmare, one that couldn’t touch me—I couldn’t imagine dying in Vietnam. And even before open admissions would allow me to attend City College for free, my high school average, good enough to get me into some half-assed college somewhere, was a ticket to a coveted four-year student deferment—and when you’re 17, four years is eternity. I felt just safe enough to let other people worry about the war.

But my reasons then for having no interest in the Weathermen were more personal: My family was lower middle class. My parents never got beyond high school. My father, a law-and-order Republican, owned a candy store and discouraged political activism of any kind—You’ll end up on a blacklist! I didn’t know anybody who lived in a townhouse. My friends lived in crowded apartments where the privacy necessary to build massive dynamite bombs was a pipe dream—and they lacked the resources to acquire crates of high explosives, which, unlike firecrackers, can’t be hidden in a desk drawer or hollowed-out book.

The Weathermen in the house at the time of the explosion were of a different world. The offspring of prominent families, most of them were red-diaper babies, their highly educated parents—including a doctor, a lawyer, a professor, and a politician—dedicated to left-wing and Communist causes. These were not public-university working-class heroes but upper-class and upper-middle-class Ivy League revolutionaries, people for whom a felony arrest might be only a minor inconvenience, not a financial disaster—because raising bail wasn’t a problem and the best criminal lawyers were a phone call away. It was as if a certain social status were required to join their sex- (they believed in free love) and-death commune—a status that I lacked.

These Weathermen had chosen that particular townhouse for their bomb factory because it belonged to Cathlyn Wilkerson’s father, James, executive vice president of the Young & Rubicam advertising agency and owner of a chain of Midwestern radio stations. The 25-year-old Cathlyn, known as Cathy, was a passionate advocate of social justice, as well as a former SDS leader and editor of its newsletter, New Left Notes. She broke with the SDS when she came to believe that violent insurrection was the only way to destroy the capitalist system, smash racism, and end the war. Raised in Stamford, Connecticut, and educated at boarding schools and Swarthmore, a Quaker college, Cathy, a reader of Mahatma Gandhi, was free at that time on $5,000 bail after an arrest for aggravated battery. During the Days of Rage antiwar demonstrations the previous October, as the Weathermen rampaged through Chicago, she’d attacked a cop with a four-foot club. She’d been arrested at least four other times, too, mostly on disorderly conduct charges but also for inciting a riot. Cathy’s father and stepmother, on vacation in St. Kitts, had reluctantly agreed to let her use the house while they were out of town. But they were due back later in the afternoon, and she didn’t want them to know that in their absence, revolutionaries had turned the place into a bomb factory. Clad only in a pair of jeans, she was ironing a cotton bedsheet in the kitchen in preparation for their return when the bomb went off. The ceiling came crashing down and the floor collapsed beneath her—only the wall-to-wall carpeting under her feet prevented her from falling through.

At that same moment, another social-justice activist and child of privilege, Kathy Boudin, 27, girlfriend of SDS co-founder David Gilbert, was taking a shower in a bathroom above the kitchen. Valedictorian at Bryn Mawr—she double-majored in Russian and literature and spent her senior year studying in the Soviet Union—Kathy had grown up nearby, in another Village townhouse. Her father, civil-liberties attorney Leonard Boudin, had represented or would soon represent a who’s who of left-wing clients: blacklisted singer Paul Robeson; the Cuban government; Daniel Ellsberg, of the Pentagon Papers; and antiwar-activist Dr. Benjamin Spock—author of The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, one of the best-selling books of the 20th century—who had been charged with conspiring to help people violate draft laws. Kathy’s brother clerked for a Supreme Court justice. She, too, had been charged with aggravated battery for attacking a cop during the Days of Rage, and was free on $10,000 bail. When the bomb detonated, it engulfed her in a cascade of wreckage and sent her crashing through the floor, leaving her stunned and scraped but otherwise unhurt. As Cathy Wilkerson describes in her memoir, Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman, she heard Kathy cry out and was able to grab her hand and pull her forward. As the interior of the townhouse disintegrated, the two women, in a state of shock and barely able to see through the dust and debris, stumbled toward daylight into the street, and stood in front of the smoking ruins.

A neighbor, Susan Wagner (one of Henry Fonda’s ex-wives), was passing by. She thought she’d witnessed a gas explosion. Then she saw the two dust-covered women—a half-naked Cathy Wilkerson, her jeans in tatters, and a completely naked Kathy Boudin. Wagner took them to her own townhouse down the block and asked her housekeeper to help them clean up and give them clothes to wear. When Wagner went back outside to watch the burning house, Cathy began rifling through the drawers and closets; she grabbed a subway token and Wagner’s favorite footwear, a pair of pink patent-leather boots. Knowing they had to move fast, before the cops came looking for them, the pair, ignoring the housekeeper’s objections, slipped out of the house, walked to the subway five blocks away, went through the turnstile together with the one token, and vanished into the underground.

Soon, photographs of these two young women would be all over the news and hanging in every post office in America, on FBI wanted posters accusing them of interstate flight, mob action, homicide, riot, and conspiracy. But they didn’t look like dangerous criminals—they looked like women you might ask out on a date if you could somehow get their phone number. Cathy Wilkerson, who sometimes wore horn-rimmed glasses, had light-brown hair and a freckled face. She might have been mistaken for a graduate student who spent a lot of time in research libraries. (As reported in The New York Times, Cathy’s mother, Audrey Olena, made a public appeal to her daughter five days after the explosion, saying, “There is nothing else we need to know, except that you are safe, and nothing we need to say to you, except that we love you and want desperately to help.”)

Kathy Boudin, with her darker, shoulder-length hair framing features less delicate than Wilkerson’s, looked more like the “girl next door” (especially to residents of West 11th Street), somebody you could talk to if she were sitting next to you in a bar. Together, they served as a reminder of the sexuality at the core of the Weathermen ethos: Opposed to monogamy, which they thought was an underpinning of the capitalist system, the group believed, according to their unofficial slogan, “The army that fucks together fights together.”

Ted Gold, 22, a founder of the Weathermen, was the son of a New York doctor who also taught mathematics at Columbia University. Gold had attended Columbia, majoring in sociology. Active in the civil rights and antiwar movements, he led demonstrations against on-campus military recruiting and traveled to Cuba and Vietnam with Kathy Boudin and other Weathermen to discuss peace with Vietcong and North Vietnamese representatives. Just before his graduation, Columbia suspended Gold for his political activity; he then became a teacher of disabled children. But, like his Weathermen comrades, he came to believe that violence was the only way to ignite a revolution and stop the war. According to Days of Rage, by Bryan Burrough, during the week before the explosion, Gold’s 11th Street neighbors saw him directing workers unloading crates from a truck. The crates contained 3,000 pounds of dynamite, purchased, at two cents a pound, from a New Hampshire explosives company. The day of the explosion, Gold was returning to the house from a drugstore with a box of cotton balls the bomb-makers needed for their device. The bomb went off as he stepped through the front door, and a section of the building fell on him, crushing his chest. His was the first body recovered.

Diana Oughton, 28, had grown up on a farm in Dwight, Illinois, where her father, a liberal Republican state legislator, taught her to hunt and to ride horses. She attended an exclusive boarding school and, like Kathy Boudin, was an honors student at Bryn Mawr. Upon graduation, she worked as a teacher in Guatemala with the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization dedicated to bringing peace and social justice to the world. Then she joined the Weathermen and grew close to Bill Ayers, the organization’s co-founder. According to The New York Times, on the Christmas before the explosion, she’d gone home to Dwight and tried to explain to her mother why the Weathermen had embraced violence. “It’s the only way, Mummy,” she said. “We’ve got to bring the war home.” In Oughton’s mug shot—she, too, was arrested during the Days of Rage—her dark hair is fashioned in a kind of Beatles-’64 cut, and her eyes, behind round wire-framed glasses, seemed to communicate only defiance. She’d arrived at the townhouse on March 5 to work on the bomb.

Born in Queens to a father who worked in a garment factory and a mother who’d attended a public college, Terry Robbins was the plebeian exception in the exclusive New York chapter of the Weathermen bomb-building club. A photo of Robbins taken during the Days of Rage shows him leading a march down a Chicago street with four other Weathermen. On his right is Ayers, wearing a football helmet to protect himself in the likely event the police start bashing in his head. Robbins, 22, his hair fashionably long, looks like what he is: an English major and poet who dropped out of Kenyon College. Now a Weathermen leader, he’s wearing black-framed glasses, a white hoodie, and jeans. Raising two clenched fists in the air, his mouth open, he appears to be shouting. As Cathy Wilkerson recounts in her memoir, five months later, at the house on 11th Street, Robbins decided he was fed up with the dinky Molotov cocktails they’d been tossing at police stations, ROTC buildings, and the homes of certain judges. Firebombs, Robbins said, just didn’t do enough damage; they didn’t even make the news anymore. It was his idea to graduate to the serious stuff used in a real war: dynamite. It was safer, too, he said. It wouldn’t go off by accident. You needed a triggering device, like a blasting cap. (Ayers and the other Weathermen leaders agreed.) Robbins had spent the night before the explosion in bed with Cathy, talking about their plans and fears and his insecurity about his lack of bomb-building skills. He knew next to nothing about dynamite, electricity, or how the fuses worked. In the documentary The Weather Underground, Carl Oglesby, an SDS leader, describes Robbins and Ayers as “crazy” men with a “Butch Cassidy and Sundance attitude—they were blessed, they were hexed, they would die young.” And Cathy Wilkerson’s book suggests that Robbins was entranced by the violent ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Whatever might have been spurring Robbins on, his machismo streak was wide, and he wasn’t going to let a little ignorance stop him from constructing a nail-laced explosive device designed to cause mass casualties.

As if animating the opening line of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”—“Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine”—Robbins, with Oughton by his side, groped his way through the instructions in a bomb-making manual as they went about their task in the sub-basement, at a workbench that Wilkerson’s father used for refinishing antique furniture. But they’d neglected to rig a safety switch to test the bomb without detonating it. And as they were putting the finishing touches on the device, Robbins accidentally touched a wire to the wrong terminal. The bomb blew up in their faces and they died instantly, their bodies torn to pieces as the explosion obliterated the basement, the first floor, and the façade, leaving the top two floors sagging and near collapse and shattering windows up and down the block. In the adjoining house, No. 16, a little while before the bomb went off, actor Dustin Hoffman had gotten up from his desk in the living room and gone out. The bomb blasted a hole in the wall, destroying the desk.

Four days later, as heavy machinery was clearing the wreckage, a cop on the scene spotted pieces of a body amid the debris in a crane’s bucket. The coroner would determine through a thumbprint that these were the remains of Diana Oughton, whose head was never found. Sometime later, police located Terry Robbins’s corpse, too mangled to identify. Two months passed before a Weathermen communiqué acknowledged that the body was his.

By the time all the rubble was cleared, in addition to a gray mass of dynamite adorned with nails and blasting caps investigators had found 60 more sticks of dynamite, more blasting caps, and unwrapped packages of dynamite. The FBI determined that if all the explosives had detonated, the blast would have leveled the entire block on both sides of 11th Street. Thus, the Weathermen had brought the war home—to the very house they lived in—killing only themselves.

Inevitably, the smoldering remnants of the house were torn down, the land sold, and in 1978, another townhouse, the modernistic one, was built in its place—despite the neighborhood association’s objections that the radical design was a desecration of the block’s character. Inside this lavish residence, in one of the big windows jutting toward 11th Street, the owners, metals magnate David Langworthy and his wife, Norma, would display the Paddington Bear of cognitive dissonance. A passerby might have been struck by the incongruous-looking structure and the adorable bear, but unless they were steeped in local history, they’d never know that they were gazing upon the scene of a mini-9/11, a house (today valued at about $21 million) marking a location of death and destruction, the place where one disastrous moment seemed to serve as a line of demarcation, a prelude to the horrors of the months to come. In May, the National Guard would murder four students at Kent State, and 11 days later, Mississippi police would murder two students at Jackson State, an outrage overlooked in the shadow of Kent State. The ’70s were underway.

It seemed inevitable, too, that a former OP editor in chief would know someone who lived and died in the house. Two weeks after the explosion, the March 20, 1970, issue carried Ken Kessler’s remembrance of a childhood friend turned bomb-building revolutionary. That edition’s masthead listed the names of people I’d be working with in 18 months, people who’d bridge the gap between a politically motivated OP and the OP that I’d become part of, one torn between the dying energies of the past and an encroaching maelstrom of quasi-nihilism—a descent into hard-core pornography and punk-like outrage for the sake of outrage that, by the end of the decade, would provoke the college administration to pull the plug on the paper after a 32-year run. It was the old OP, the one that still had a sense of purpose, that published 800 words conveying a truth no mainstream media organization was willing to acknowledge.

The article, “Ted Gold. he spoke quietly”—a reference to the way Gold had directed picket lines during a demonstration at Columbia—ran across the top of page one. Kessler had written a story of pain, connection, and loss, humanizing a bomb-building Weatherman, even as the local papers focused on his “sickness and frustration” and “how he decided to take out his troubles on society.” They had no idea who Gold was, Kessler said, or why he did what he did, shedding “what the Weathermen call white skin privilege” to become a “full-time revolutionary” and pick up “arms against imperialism.” He recalled their days at Joan of Arc Junior High and Stuyvesant High School, where Gold, “a good kid” from a “well to do” family, with “a good mind and good prospects,” was an honor student and political activist who liked baseball and wanted to be the kind of doctor his father was—one who “hates disease more than he loves money.”

“The last place [Gold] went was a brownstone on west eleventh street in the village,” Kessler wrote. And though “very possibly he made bombs,” he “was willing to give up all this society had to offer so that his brothers and sisters might be free. He was willing to give up his life.”

The Weathermen, meanwhile, now fugitive terrorists and increasingly skillful bomb-makers, continued lashing out at America wherever they could. They’d detonate 25 more bombs in the ensuing years, causing extensive property damage at such symbols of imperialism as the Capitol, in March 1971; the Pentagon, in May 1972; the State Department, in January 1975; and the Kennecott Copper Corporation, in Utah, in September 1975—a response to the mining company’s complicity, two years earlier, in the Chilean military’s overthrow and murder of Salvador Allende, the Marxist president. Kennecott was their final terrorist act. But in the aftermath of the 11th Street explosion, the Weathermen had come to the realization that committing mass murder would only hurt their cause, and not one person was killed or injured in any of the subsequent bombings.

Cathy Wilkerson remained underground for 10 years, moving through a series of safe houses and communes and giving birth to a daughter. In 1980 she surrendered to police, pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of dynamite, and spent 11 months in prison. She later taught math in adult education programs.

Kathy Boudin and her partner, David Gilbert—whose son, Chesa Boudin, born while they were underground, would grow up to become district attorney of San Francisco—spent more than a decade on the lam. Then, in 1981, in an attempt to re-energize the sputtering revolution with a substantial cash infusion, they drove the getaway car for members of the Black Liberation Army during a $1.6 million robbery of a Brink’s armored truck, in Nanuet, New York. A guard and two policemen were shot to death. Boudin and Gilbert were captured the same day. Represented by the best lawyers her well-connected family could provide, Boudin pleaded guilty to felony murder and robbery. She remained in prison until 2003, and upon her release, Columbia University hired her as a professor in their School of Social Work. Gilbert, choosing to represent himself, pleaded not guilty but was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to 75 years to life, making him eligible for parole in 2056, when he’d be 112. He’d served 40 years in maximum-security prisons when New York governor Andrew Cuomo, hours before resigning, in August 2021, commuted his sentence. Aware of Chesa Boudin’s campaign for his father’s release, Cuomo cited Gilbert’s prison work in AIDS education and the fact that he was the driver of the getaway car, not the murderer. Gilbert was now eligible for immediate parole, and two months later he was freed.

So that was it: The Weathermen were over. Some were dead, like Gold, Robbins, and Oughton, but most survived and are now free, like Wilkerson and Boudin, who did their time and, like their parents, became upstanding American citizens. And I’d learned enough about the bomb-makers who once resided in my neighborhood to be able to stand in front of 18 West 11th Street, see a house that’s no longer there, and imagine all too clearly what happened inside on March 6, 1970.  ❖

Robert Rosen is the author of Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon. His latest book, A Brooklyn Memoir, will be published in July by Headpress. This article is adapted from a work in progress about America in the 1970s.

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