January 20, 2000

The year was 1971. Nelson A. Rockefeller was Governor. Having three young children and living in a place that felt remote, I had not been particularly involved in the civil rights movement of the '60s. Now, an uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in western New York State and its aftermath gave me a chance to be counted.

My memories of that time are not as vivid as I might wish, even after reading early this month that a 25-year-old lawsuit against the State of New York on behalf of 1,281 inmates had finally been settled for $12 million, with $8 million to be divided among the some 400 remaining inmates and the rest among their attorneys.

The Attica tragedy began when a group of inmates took several guards hostage and seized control of Prison Yard D. They were, The Times reported, seeking basic things: better medical care, a Muslim minister, and the right to read Black Panther newspapers.

The Governor ordered Yard D retaken. State troopers using helicopters and tear gas fired into the crowd. The attack was beyond reason, leaving 32 prisoners and 11 guards dead and scores injured. Reprisals were brutal.

The following summer, a friend asked me to help put on a benefit for a defense fund for those inmates the state had charged with kidnapping and other criminal acts. A house and a "name" were needed.

George Plimpton and his then wife, Freddie, were renting an interesting house down the beach from mine at the time, a stone's throw from the Devon Yacht Club in Amagansett, and I took it upon myself to ask if he would be the host. He agreed.

I do not remember what was said or how much money was raised, although I believe a few of the former inmates were there. Several of us had agreed to provide the buffet and I not only remember what I supplied - a huge bowl of seviché, raw fish marinated with cilantro, created under the influence of Craig Claiborne - but I can remember how it tasted. It was entirely new to me at the time, and I thought it utterly delightful.

Reading The Times's and the New York Post's account of the settlement, I was ashamed to think that I remembered something I ate more clearly than who was there and what was said.

But I did remember something else, although it may be apocryphal. The story went around later that George Plimpton, despite his social appropriateness, had a hard time and a long wait before being admitted to Devon because of the suspicions aroused by the Attica benefit.

Of course, Attica is remembered for more important things. As The Times said, Attica will be thought of in the decades ahead "not for the legal quagmire that it spawned, but for its role as a watershed event in American history, as a symbol of brute force." Helen S. Rattray