Remembering Tom Wolfe, 'a magician' with words
Wolfe, who died Monday at age 88, was a rule breaker and traditionalist and a man of other contradictions
You only had to look at him — in his white suits and two-tone shoes — or read such books as The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Right Stuff to know that Tom Wolfe was like no other.
"He was a magician," Wolfe's friend and fellow "New Journalist" Gay Talese said on Tuesday. "He would take a sentence and work that sentence in loops and do all kinds of things with words. He'd take you out for a spin and after a while you'd wonder if he knew where he was headed. But he always knew exactly where he was headed."
Wolfe, who died Monday at age 88, was a rule breaker and traditionalist and a man of other contradictions. He mingled happily with hippies and published in Rolling Stone, but was a supporter of Ronald Reagan and otherwise old-fashioned in his tastes. He mocked the insular nature of American fiction, but was gracious in person, making a point before literary luncheons of reading the works of his fellow guests.
In recent years, he was badly stooped, but still stylish as he moved about with the help of a high cane with a wolf's head on top. Ever curious and energetic, he had figured out the world long before.
Whether sending up the New York art scene or hanging out with acid heads, Wolfe inevitably presented man as a status-seeking animal, concerned above all about the opinion of his peers. Wolfe himself dressed for company — his trademark a pale three-piece suit, impossibly high shirt collar, two-tone shoes and a silk tie.
And he acknowledged that he cared — very much — about his reputation.
"My contention is that status is on everybody's mind all of the time, whether they're conscious of it or not," Wolfe, who lived in a 12-room apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side, told the AP in 2012.
His magazine and newspaper legacy
Wolfe's legacy was tangible to countless newspaper and magazine writers. As he helped define it, the "new journalism" combined the emotional impact of a novel, the analysis of the best essays, and the factual foundation of hard reporting. He mingled it all in an over-the-top style that made life itself seem like one spectacular headline.
"She is gorgeous in the most outrageous way," he wrote in a typical piece, describing actress-socialite Baby Jane Holzer.
"Her hair rises up from her head in a huge hairy corona, a huge tan mane around a narrow face and two eyes opened — swock! — like umbrellas, with all that hair flowing down over a coat made of ... zebra! Those motherless stripes!"
He enjoyed the highest commercial and critical rewards. His literary honours included the American Book Award (now called the National Book Award) for The Right Stuff and a nomination for the National Book Critics Circle prize for The Bonfire of the Vanities, one of the top 10 selling books of the 1980s. Wolfe satirised college misbehaviour in I Am Charlotte Simmons, and was still at it in his 80s with Back to Blood, a sprawling, multicultural story of sex and honor set in Miami.
Wolfe, the grandson of a Confederate rifleman, began his journalism career as a reporter at the Springfield (Massachusetts) Union in 1957. But it wasn't until the mid-1960s, while a magazine writer for New York and Esquire, that his work made him a national trendsetter.
Wolfe traveled during the '60s with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters for his book on the psychedelic culture, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. One of his best-known magazine pieces, Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny's, took a pointed look at fund-raising for the Black Panther Party by Leonard Bernstein and other wealthy whites. And no one more memorably captured the beauty-and-the-beast divide between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones: "The Beatles want to hold your hand," he wrote, "but the Rolling Stones want to burn down your town!"
Wolfe had many detractors — including fellow writers Norman Mailer and John Updike and the critic James Wood, who panned Wolfe's "big subjects, big people, and yards of flapping exaggeration. No one of average size emerges from his shop; in fact, no real human variety can be found in his fiction, because everyone has the same enormous excitability."
But his fans included millions of book-buyers, literary critics and fellow authors.
"He knows everything," novelist Kurt Vonnegut once wrote of Wolfe. "... I wish he had headed the Warren Commission. We might then have caught a glimpse of our nation."
First failure, then success after success
Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Jr. was born in Richmond, Virginia. He had an unsuccessful pitching tryout with the New York Giants before heading to Yale University, from which he earned a Ph.D. in American studies. His career didn't immediately take off; Wolfe once took The Associated Press writing test and "dismally failed," he later recounted, noting that he was faulted for embellishing the test material, a primal sin at the AP.
But in 1957, he joined the Springfield paper and instantly fell in love with journalism. Two years later he jumped to The Washington Post, where he won Washington Newspaper Guild awards in 1960 for his coverage of U.S.-Cuban affairs and a satiric account of that year's Senate civil rights filibuster.
New York was his dream and by 1962 he was working at the now defunct New York Herald-Tribune, with colleagues including Jimmy Breslin and Charles Portis, who later wrote the novel True Grit. The next year, Wolfe was assigned to cover a Hot Rod & Custom Car show. He completed a story, the kind "any of the somnambulistic totem newspapers in America would have come up with."
But he knew there was a much richer, and longer story to tell, one about a thriving subculture that captured the post-World War II economic boom and the new freedom to "build monuments" to one's own style. No newspaper could contain what Wolfe had in mind, so he turned to Esquire magazine, wrote up 49 pages and helped give birth to a new kind of reporter.
"For the who-what-where-when-why of traditional journalism, he has substituted what he calls 'the wowie!'" according to a 1965 Newsweek story.
That same year, his first book appeared: The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, a collection of 23 Wolfe articles that included the title piece, his seminal work on custom cars. In 1968, another collection — The Pump-House Gang — appeared, as did his book on the Pranksters.
It wasn't until the early '80s that Wolfe turned his attention to fiction. His topic: New York City in the late 20th century, a melange of sexual tension, class struggles and racial animus. The Bonfire of the Vanities first appeared as a serial in Rolling Stone magazine in 1984-85, with Wolfe writing the book one chapter at a time.
When it was released as a novel in 1987, Bonfire became an immediate sensation even as it was criticised for its portrayal of blacks. One black character, the publicity-seeking Reverend Bacon, was based on a then-little known Al Sharpton. But a film version starring Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis was so disastrous that it inspired a nonfiction account of the wreckage, Julie Salamon's The Devil's Candy.
A Man in Full turned Wolfe's smirk to Atlanta society. His 2004 novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, looked at life on a fictional elite college campus. The book received poor reviews and was a commercial disappointment, leading Wolfe to switch publishers in 2008 from Farrar, Straus & Giroux — where he had been for 40 years — to Little, Brown and Company. Other recent works, including the nonfiction The Kingdom of Speech, were not well received. But he was never without ideas for future projects.
"There are still so many things I don't know about the city and I'd just like to see what's out there," he told the AP in 2012. "The Latin American population has increased enormously since 'Bonfire' and Wall Street has changed enormously. I'll follow my usual technique of just taking in a scene and seeing what happens."
Updated: May 16, 2018 12:46 PM