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Rolling Stone at 50: How Tom Wolfe Helped Create New Journalism

From the real lives of astronauts to ‘Bonfire of the Vanities,’ Wolfe’s work with Rolling Stone broke new ground for both the writer and the magazine

Rolling Stone 50th Anniversary Flashback: The Man in White

Author Tom Wolfe outside his home, 1968.

Martha Holmes/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

In the mid-1960s, the acid tests thrown by Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters were the white-hot center of the psychedelic revolution: dusk-to-dawn parties, usually in the Bay Area, that brought together freaks and Hells Angels, offered free LSD in plastic tubs and sometimes featured live accompaniment by the Grateful Dead. One night in 1966, Kesey and his followers found an unlikely figure in their midst: a genteel, Virginia-born former newspaper reporter in a three-piece suit. The book that Tom Wolfe would write about Kesey and his orbit, 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, became the first great account of the Sixties counterculture. It also helped redefine journalism, thanks to a wild-eyed, fast-paced style that dropped readers right inside the action. “Not even the hip world in New York,” Wolfe wrote of one of Kesey’s legendary bus trips, “was quite ready for the phenomenon of a bunch of people roaring across the continental U.S.A. in a bus covered with swirling Day-Glo mandalas aiming movie cameras and microphones at every freaking thing in this whole freaking country while Neal Cassady wheeled the bus around the high curves like Super Hud…”

By that point, Wolfe was one of the most 
important magazine writers in America,
 and his work – which read less like conventional nonfiction and more like a novel
 you couldn’t put down – helped establish 
an emerging form known as New Journalism. Among the many who’d ingested
 The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann S.
 Wenner. “I’d been to some of those Acid
 Tests and was bowled over by how accurate and well-reported the book was and how he was able to penetrate that crazy world,” Wenner recalls. In 1969, the ambitious young editor reached out to Wolfe to see if he’d be willing to write for Rolling Stone.

The magazine was only two years old; getting a writer like Wolfe would be a coup. But Wolfe, it turned out, was a fan of Rolling Stone. “At a time when everyone was saying you had to compete with television and write short,” Wolfe remembers, “Jann just let it run if it was good.” Wenner and Wolfe began exchanging letters. “I have been enjoying Rolling Stone very much,” Wolfe wrote to Wenner at one point. “I’m proud of you,” he added. It was the start of a decades-long relationship with the magazine that would take Wolfe’s career and his work to new heights.

After a few initial story ideas (including a Jimi Hendrix profile) didn’t pan out, Wenner suggested that Wolfe cover the 1972 launch of Apollo 17, the last crewed moon landing. Since most of what had been reported on the lives of astronauts had been carefully coordinated and whitewashed by NASA public relations, their world was a great untold story. Wolfe embedded himself with the astronauts. Most hadn’t heard of Rolling Stone, except for the slightly hip Scott Carpenter, but Wolfe’s doggedness and genuine curiosity opened doors. “It’s the greatest impulse in journalism, just to ask people what’s going on in a certain situation,” says Wolfe.

Wolfe’s space odyssey became a four-part series called “Post-Orbital Remorse”; its first installment, “The Brotherhood of the Right Stuff,” came out in January 1973. Wolfe wrote in the collective personae of the astronauts explaining their wild-side story: “God knows how [the press] misjudged us. I don’t know how they could ever buy the idea that a bunch of test pilots and combat pilots would turn into programmed Merit Badgers as soon as they were given the title Astronaut.” Even Wolfe’s manuscripts were works of art. His drafts came with his own crisp handwritten edits, and he’d sometimes add comments in playful thought bubbles.

“Post-Orbital Remorse” earned raves, even from the astronauts themselves. In a letter to Wolfe sent to the RS office, Carpenter wrote, “The whole thing was excellent. I can’t imagine how you did it.” When The Right Stuff, the book version of the series, appeared in 1979, it also included a subtle homage to Rolling Stone: The depiction of Chuck Yeager’s attempt to break the sound barrier was inspired by the work of Hunter S. Thompson, whom Wolfe calls “the Mark Twain of the 20th century.”

Published in 1974, Wolfe’s
 “Funky Chic” turned a criti
cal eye on the counterculture, 
which had latched on to what
Wolfe called “Late Army Sur
plus” fashion – jeans, ponchos,
 work shirts – to prove it was in
 sync with the downtrodden: “I
 never talked to a group of black
 militants, or Latin militants, for
 that matter, who didn’t eventually comment derisively about the poor-boy outfits their middle-class white student allies insisted on wearing or the way they tried to use black street argot, all the mans and cats and babies and brothers and baddests…”

Wolfe’s next Rolling Stone adventure would be his most daring yet: a novel about contemporary, chaotic, racially divided New York along the lines of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. To ensure he’d finish it, Wolfe wanted to publish it in serialized form in a magazine, like Dickens and Thackeray a century before. Esquire turned down the idea, but Wenner was intrigued and agreed to publish a chapter of at least 5,500 words in each issue for more than a year.

The Bonfire of the Vanities was a sharply satirical tale of writer Sherman McCoy, his hit-and-run calamity, a distorted media feeding frenzy and a wobbly judicial system. To ensure he had a cushion, Wolfe handed in the first three chapters at once, but the magazine published all three in RS 426/427 (July 19-August 2, 1984). “I opened the first issue and, oh, my God,” Wolfe recalls. “Jann wanted to make a big splash.” Wolfe was forced to scramble. “I remember the stress of the moment,” he says. “It’s all in your hands and there’s nothing anyone else can do for you.”

To meet his deadlines, Wolfe sometimes worked out of Rolling Stone‘s office on Fifth Avenue. He would be among the last to leave on production nights, as he tweaked the chapters, in which it was clear Wolfe was more than capable of incorporating his keen New Journalism approach into fiction. Describing one character’s taxi ride, he wrote, “There was a sliding plastic security window between her and the driver, half open, grossly scratched, and cloudy as a cataract. It was like sitting in an egg carton.” The serialization was unlike anything in magazines at the time. But Wolfe, ever the perfectionist, wasn’t completely satisfied and rewrote parts of Bonfire for the 1987 book version, in which McCoy became a bond salesman.

Wolfe brought that same diligence to his most recent work for the magazine, “Ambush at Fort Bragg,” which ran in two parts in 1996. The novella eviscerated the cutthroat world of TV newsmagazines and the lengths to which they would go for a “scoop,” legit or not. As always, Wolfe bore down on his work: “Round three … of my battle with the chapter about the Whitney,” he wrote to Wenner in November 1995. “I think perhaps this one works.” The magazine published excerpts from two of Wolfe’s post-Bonfire novels. 1998’s A Man in Full (which Wenner helped edit) wove an equally character-rich, dark-side-of-America tale of corporate chicanery and racial tension in modern Georgia. Published in 2004 and also excerpted in Rolling Stone, I Am Charlotte Simmons was Wolfe’s scorched-dorm depiction of elite college life through the eyes of a freshman from Appalachia; not surprisingly, Wolfe spent time at colleges – “undercover,” he joked, meaning without his trademark white suit – to ensure an accurate portrait of frat life.

Wolfe made his mark with Rolling Stone in other ways: He was the first person to tell Wenner about a new style of music emerging from the Bronx called hip-hop. But his contributions secured the magazine’s reputation as a home to groundbreaking journalism. As Wolfe reflects, “When you think about it, [the idea that] a magazine based on, of all things, rock music would come up with such a wealth of terrific journalism is quite an accomplishment. Jann was always willing to do irrational things in the name of magazine journalism. It really paid off.”

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