Tom Wolfe gave few early signs that he would become one of the most widely read and widely imitated American writers of the post-World War II era. His now-familiar trademarks—the white suits, the doeskin shoes, the Borsalino pimp hats, the nitro-methane-fueled prose that helped give birth to the New Journalism and eventually turned Wolfe into a mega-bestselling novelist—nobody saw any of that coming.
That’s because Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Jr., who died on May 14 at 88, had a thoroughly conventional Southern upbringing in Richmond, Virginia, where his father edited The Southern Planter magazine and his mother worked as a landscape designer. Wolfe attended St. Christopher’s, an all-boys Episcopalian prep school, editing the student paper and excelling at baseball. From there it was on to Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., a jacket-and-tie proving ground for southern gentlemen, where Robert E. Lee and his horse are entombed and where Wolfe joined a fraternity, majored in English, and helped found a literary magazine. It was at W&L that Wolfe’s inner clothes horse was foaled. He started wearing hats and dark shirts, he carried an umbrella even on sunny days. It was the first hint of what was to come.
After graduation, Wolfe had a tryout as a pitcher with the New York Giants, but his fastball proved too slow, and so he enrolled in Yale’s American Studies program, where he interviewed Archibald MacLeish, James T. Farrell, and other leftist heavyweights for his doctoral thesis, which was rejected because… well, because it was too much like the writing of Tom Wolfe—“journalistically tendentious,” in the sniffy estimation of one professor, “reactionary,” “consistently slanted” and “full of “polemical rhetoric.” Disgusted by what he called “these stupid fucks,” Wolfe excised the offending passages and copped his degree, but through the writings of Max Weber he had found his true subject, the thing that would sustain his entire career: the dissection of the peculiarly American lust for status.
After undistinguished reporting stints at the Springfield Union in Massachusetts and the Washington Post, Wolfe made his way to New York City in 1962, where he got hired by the Herald Tribune as a reporter and started contributing to its Sunday supplement, New York, whose editor, Clay Felker, gave his writers a long leash.
That year, two momentous things happened to Wolfe. First, he bought a white suit made of silk tweed, which proved heavy enough to wear year-round, which was a good thing because, Wolfe claimed, he couldn’t afford to buy a winter suit. And second, the printers’ union went on strike, shutting down the city’s seven daily newspapers for 114 days and forcing many reporters to scramble for magazine gigs.
Esquire sent Wolfe to Los Angeles to write about car customizers, but when he returned to New York he couldn’t figure out how to tell the story. His editor, Byron Dobell, faced with a large white hole in the magazine as deadline approached, told Wolfe to type up his notes; a rewrite man would work them up. Wolfe spent the night channeling Céline and Henry Miller as he banged out a letter to Dobell. “Dear Byron,” it began, “The first good look I had at customized cars was at an event called a ‘Teen Fair,’ held in Burbank, a suburb of Los Angeles beyond Hollywood. This was a wild place to be taking a look at art objects…” The letter ran to 49 pages, a delirious lava flow, a tale about kids no one else deemed worthy of noticing, a tale about status. Dobell was astonished. He struck “Dear Byron” and ran the letter verbatim in the magazine under the headline “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm) …” On that day, Tom Wolfe was born.
New York at that time was bristling with journalistic talent—Gay Talese, Nora Ephron, Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill, Judith Crist, and many others—and without even realizing it, they launched what would come to be known, to the dismay of many of them, as the New Journalism, a hybrid of shoe-leather reporting and novelistic techniques, something unheard-of in American newspapers and magazines, a breakthrough that seduced such far-flung practitioners as Grover Lewis, Joan Didion, Michael Herr, Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson. None of them, arguably, surpassed Wolfe in originality or impact. By 1965, a prominent Madison Avenue adman in the mold of Don Draper wrote to the president of the Herald Tribune that Wolfe was “becoming the object of a cult.” A 1966 portrait by renowned photographer Irving Penn sealed the deal.
Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby became the title of a collection of Wolfe’s magazine pieces, and it was soon followed by more books, all of them driven by Wolfe’s jacked-up prose, rococo punctuation, and X-ray vision into the way people strive for status and display its elaborate hardware. Somehow, he infiltrated such infra-dig subcultures as surfers (The Pump House Gang, 1968), Ken Kesey and his Merry Prankster acid-heads (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, 1968), and good ole boy stock car drivers (“Junior Johnson Is the Last American Hero. Yes!” in Esquire) and, yes, especially yes!, New York City socialites (Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, 1970).
After relatively minor efforts on the contemporary art world (The Painted Word, 1975) and another collection (Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, 1976)—and after his marriage to Sheila Berger, a magazine art director—Wolfe in 1979 uncorked his biggest and most ambitious book to date, a deeply reported dive into the insular worlds of fighter pilots and astronauts The Right Stuff. The book is, in Wolfe’s own words, an exploration of “the dimensions of man’s love of himself or, rather, his ceaseless concern for his own standing in comparison to other men.” Which is a workable definition of status. The book became a bestseller and was turned into a hit Hollywood movie, and the right stuff entered the American vernacular along with other Wolfe-isms, including radical chic… social X-rays… pushing the envelope… the Me Decade …
Wolfe could have been forgiven for phoning it in after that—he had enough money to buy all the bespoke white suits in the world—but he had other ideas. He yearned to write a big rollicking contemporary New York City novel along the lines of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, something that involved the kind of reporting he did so well, something in the vein of Balzac and Zola and Dickens. The result was 1987’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, a delirious send-up of a gallery of Wall Street “Masters of the Universe,” race-card players, washed-up journalists, hustler lawyers, all the foamy flotsam of New York’s go-go-go-to-hell Reagan years. The book had the good sense to appear just as the stock market and the whole house of cards came crashing down, and it, too, became a monster bestseller and ushered Wolfe into the high inner sanctum where the Big American Novelists roam.
The novels that followed—A Man in Full (1998), I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), Back to Blood (2012)—were far less successful artistically, but they fetched seven-figure advances and sold by the long ton without even seeming to break a sweat, which was bound to inspire grumbling. And it did.
After A Man Full sold more than 1 million copies in hardcover, a staggering number in un-literary America, John Irving equated the novel with “a bad piece in a magazine.” John Updike dubbed it “entertainment, not literature.” And Normal Mailer likened reading the 742-page novel to having sex with a 300-pound woman: “Once she gets on top, it’s all over. Fall in love or be asphyxiated.” Their mewling appeared to amuse Wolfe. Instead of lashing out at his troika of detractors as these stupid fucks, he dismissed them as “My Three Stooges,” adding, “The lead dog is the one they always try to bite in the ass.” Which was a workable definition of Wolfe’s status. The point was hard to miss. Wolfe was so rich and so famous and so popular that he could afford to tell three of the biggest names in American literature to go piss up a rope.
Wolfe kept working late into his long life. He is survived by his wife and their daughter, Alexandra Wolfe Schiff, and their son, Tommy. As he looked back on it all, Wolfe decided ’70s Radical Chic was the favorite of his books—and what’s not to love about Lenny and Felicia Bernstein inviting a bunch of Black Panthers into their Park Avenue palace and having white maids serve them these nice little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts, along with asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi? After the book appeared to great acclaim, Wolfe’s father uttered words of praise every writer yearns to hear. “God,” Thomas Wolfe Sr., told his son, “you’re really a writer.”