April 03, 1978 12:00 PM

I was worried about going because I thought I might just take a punch at some pimp,” the Reverend Doctor William Sloane Coffin Jr. was explaining as he sipped a Guinness and made tuna fish sandwiches. The night before, he had been sizing up one of his major pastoral problems. Vested in old chinos and a blue ski jacket, the onetime CIA agent and recently installed minister of New York’s Riverside Church had toured the Manhattan porno district with two police inspectors disguised as out-of-town rustics. He began to describe the outrages he had seen along 42nd Street.

Then, right inside his new apartment on the edge of Harlem, further proof of mankind’s imperfectibility assailed him. “Do you hear that?” he asked, interrupting himself. A pianist one flight up was repeating a passage in a Chopin étude.

Coffin, 53, planned in prep school to be a concert pianist, and for 12 years he was the son-in-law of virtuoso Arthur Rubinstein. These experiences left him with iron certitudes about music. “It should breeeeeathe there,” he said, “and broaden out far more.” Then suddenly he decided to act. One flight up, he knocked on the offender’s door and identified himself to a very surprised woman. She in turn introduced him to her shy husband at the Steinway. But the minister had burst in upon a scene of such model domestic tranquillity that he could not mar it with counseling on Chopin. He offered amenities instead, said he hoped to have his own piano with him soon, and left. The pianist in the apartment above plays on, uncorrected, and a 42nd Street flesh peddler goes unpunched, but Bill Coffin more than makes up for such benign neglect by taking on far more substantial adversaries.

From his Riverside pulpit in the past few weeks, he has chastised (1) multinational corporations “because their greater concern for disorder over injustice invariably produces more of both,” (2) U.S. leaders “for strewing the world with their blunders” and (3) nearly all content Christians “for if Christ had simply been an advocate of middle-class domesticity, he would never have been crucified.”

One Sunday morning Coffin struck even closer. He had noticed that all employees at the church, including himself, were paid with checks from a New York bank that lends money to the South African government. “It has put the entire staff in a morally intolerable position,” he told his congregation, which is about one-third black. Then he called on the trustees in charge of Riverside’s $40 million endowment—much of it from the Rockefeller fortune—to move its funds to a bank that will not embarrass him. “Meanwhile,” he said, “we’ll use our checks as bookmarkers.”

Ten years ago he might have flung them back at the church treasurer. That’s when Coffin, a 1949 graduate of Yale, was just passing the halfway mark in his 17 years as chaplain at his alma mater. Angry alumni and Yale-men high in the Johnson administration were sure that Coffin’s principal spiritual advice was counseling young men to refuse to serve in Vietnam. In the fall of 1967, after he had helped return more than 900 draft cards to the Justice Department, he was charged with conspiracy along with four others, including Benjamin Spock, the baby doctor. When Coffin’s conviction was overturned on appeal and a retrial ordered, the charge was quietly dropped.

Had Coffin lost, jail would not have been new to him. His last arrest occurred in the spring of 1972 when he and about 100 clergy and laymen crossed police lines to protest the bombing of Cambodia; that night he led hymn singing in the Washington, D.C. lockup. Coffin was first arrested in 1961 at a civil rights sit-in at Montgomery, Ala. and again in 1963 during an anti-segregation march outside Baltimore, Md. In 1964 he was picked up in St. Augustine, Fla. along with Mrs. Malcolm Peabody, the 72-year-old mother of the Massachusetts governor. His presence gave her the comfort of knowing that the jail contained another prisoner whose New England lineage was the equal of hers.

Coffin’s forebears were 18th-century whaling captains on Nantucket. His father was the principal owner of one of New York’s best furniture stores and was board president of the Metropolitan Museum. His uncle headed Union Theological Seminary. In his recently published memoir, Once to Every Man, Coffin describes the privileged life he entered in 1924 as “an American version of Tolstoy’s world. It consisted of lively and loving parents, of tutors as well as teachers, of countless games and many houses, all staffed by a more than adequate number of servants.”

One Manhattan penthouse he lived in had two roofs—”one for the children to play on, the other for the grown-ups to sit on.” His father’s death a few years after the crash of ’29 brought the family’s affluence to an end—but not its elitist ways. After a year of prep school at Deerfield, Coffin went to Paris to study music with Nadia Boulanger, whose pupils included Stravinsky and Copland.

When the German army headed for Paris, Coffin enrolled in a conservatory at Geneva, Switzerland for more music lessons and in the Ecole Internationale for academic credits. He conducted the school orchestra, played goalie on its soccer team and savored a give-and-take life with classmates from all over the world. “As they were not impressed by the refined cultural views I had developed in Paris, I rapidly became less impressed with them myself.”

After graduating from Andover, Coffin joined the Army, which taught him to speak Russian well enough to become a liaison officer to the Soviet military on the eastern front. There Coffin helped with the forced repatriation of anti-Stalinist Soviet soldiers who had switched to Hitler’s armies before they surrendered to U.S. forces. Although he realized that “maybe Stalin’s regime was worthy of desertion and betrayal,” Coffin kept his conscience in check—but with torment. On their last day in U.S. safekeeping, he watched desperate men open their veins or hang themselves rather than face military trials—and probable execution—back in the Soviet Union.

That tragedy left Coffin with a guilt he believes he will always carry. His attempts to atone have been mixed. He gives it partial credit for his civil disobedience 20 years later in protesting the Vietnam war. “The forced repatriation of those 2,000 Russians showed me that in matters of life and death, the responsibility of those who take orders is as great as those who give them,” Coffin wrote. “What I did, or rather did not do, has made me sympathize with the Americans I consider war criminals in the Vietnam conflict. Some of them at least must now be experiencing the same bad moments I have had so often thinking of the lives I might have saved.”

As an undergraduate at Yale—where he was so clubbable a BMOC that he joined the exclusive Skull and Bones society (with the Bundy brothers, Bill Buckley and George Bush)—Coffin began thinking about the ministry. After graduation he enrolled at Union Theological and helped out for a while at a Harlem storefront church.

But as the Cold War intensified, he volunteered for the CIA, which had tried to recruit him at Yale. “I was longing to escape my dutiful WASP self,” Coffin decided years later. “How could I better avoid myself than to live under another name, in countries other than my own, speaking for the most part a language not my own?” Coffin still does not reveal where he was stationed, but what he did for the CIA he now regrets. He recruited and helped train émigré Soviets who were parachuted back into their homeland as subversives. Every one of them is believed to have been captured soon after landing—probably because a Soviet counterspy had infiltrated Coffin’s operation. “Our work for three years,” he said, “was a spectacular failure.”

Except that it turned him back to religion. He was at Yale Divinity School for three years and then served one-year tours as chaplain at Andover and Williams College. When he began dating Rubinstein’s daughter Eva, who was then dancing in the Broadway musical The Girl in the Pink Tights, the old pianist told her he did not look forward to having Billy Graham as a son-in-law. Coffin allowed that he did not feel much better about having Liberace for a father-in-law. But for 12 years the marriage prospered and enabled the virtuoso to fuss over three grandchildren (Amy, now 20, Alex, 19, and David, 18). Although Rubinstein never once invited his son-in-law to play the piano for him, Coffin remembers a family holiday at which he sang Schubert songs with a beaming Rubinstein at the keyboard—an accompanist no professional singer could engage.

Even though he passed up an offer to be a Yale Whiffenpoof, Coffin has always liked to sing. Its demands on his throat and lungs have given him a rich and rough-hewn speaking voice that is the envy of other men of the cloth. Norman Mailer heard it outside the Pentagon during the ’60s and described it in Armies of the Night as “close to the savvy self-educated tones of a labor union organizer, but there was the irreducible substance of Ivy League in it as well…”

All over the Ivy League that voice was then raising blood pressures. In New Haven Coffin had made his pastoral rounds on a motorcycle. But when he took up preaching to most of academic New England to stop the war, he switched to the family station wagon, which he dodged through heavy traffic as if on a bike. One shaken hitchhiker told him, “To hell with turning in my draft card to you, Reverend. I think the government should lift your driver’s license.”

Coffin was in his mid-40s by then and heading into a midlife sag. To start it, his marriage came apart (the children remained with him; Eva is now a successful photographer). “The courage I mustered to confront what I thought was wrong in the life of the university or the nation—that courage simply was not there when it came to coping with difficulties at home,” Coffin wrote in Once to Every Man. An editor on that book was his second wife, and on its next-to-last page, Coffin notes that their marriage failed too.

After a sabbatical from Yale and some travel, he moved in with playwright Arthur Miller and his family in Connecticut. Coffin grew tomatoes, meditated and finished his book. After friends had talked to other friends, an invitation to Riverside turned up and the minister without a church was stirred to accept it.

His congregation comes from all over New York, a city Coffin was born in, loves and wants to keep alive. Organized crime seems to him one of its larger blights, but he is convinced that organized religion can confront it. He saw organized protest stop a war on the other side of the world, and he says it can make the streets safe at home. “If, in the tradition of John Wesley, we can combine personal holiness with social righteousness,” Coffin said in his Easter sermon, “this city—now crucified—can be resurrected.”

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