Tom Wolfe: The Life and Times of a Revolutionary Storyteller
Don’t touch the suit – anything but the suit!
It was the fall of 1966, and Ken Kesey decided the time had come to spruce up Furthur, the refurbished, multicolored school bus that he and his Merry Pranksters had been using for their famed road trips. In the barn at his redwood-forest home in La Honda, California, Kesey, in splattered overalls, shook a spray-paint can and his fellow Pranksters grabbed brushes – everyone except the guy in the white suit.
Tom Wolfe was meticulously researching the Pranksters and their philosophy of LSD-led liberation for what became The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, his 1968 New Journalism landmark. “He was really unobtrusive, except for the attire,” recalls Prankster and author Ken Babbs. That look – white jacket, white tie, double-breasted white vest, pressed white pants and sparkling white shoes – would become Wolfe’s signature, a key flourish in his outsize legend as one of America’s most vivid storytellers.
“Don’t just stand there, grab a brush!” Kesey called out. But as Babbs remembers, Wolfe shook his head and pointed to the suit.
One of the early readers of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was Jann S. Wenner, who was just about to launch a new magazine, Rolling Stone. Wenner was impressed with how well the book captured the Pranksters’ scene. “It was such a private world, so arcane and weird,” Wenner says. “It was staggering that it was done so vividly by an outsider.” Wenner reached out to see if Wolfe would write for Rolling Stone, forging a decades-long bond.
Wolfe himself always seemed like the product of another, more civilized, time. He spoke in an easygoing accent that betrayed his Virginia upbringing – “afraid” was “a’fred,” a reporter once observed – and wrote with pen and paper. He never had a Twitter account, hand-wrote thank-you notes and could be heard at his home on New York’s Upper East Side singing Depression-era songs like “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” Coarse language was disdained. “I remember reading The Bonfire of the Vanities and saying, ‘Daddy curses?’ ” says his daughter Alexandra. “I asked him once, ‘What do you value, Dad?’ And he said, ‘Politeness and manners.’ ”
Yet for all his refinement, few captured the madness of the past half-century of American life as memorably as Wolfe. Intensely curious, always professional and unafraid to take risks, Wolfe embodied the best of his profession and took the world along for the ride. Over the course of 13 nonfiction books, four novels and countless articles, he bayoneted the Wall Street and art-world elites, and painted complex portraits of college kids and the cowboys of the space program.
He won only one National Book Award and never was handed a Pulitzer, but his excitable, superdetailed, liberally punctuated prose (those exclamation points! those ellipses!) was an indelible chronicle of our times. Favorite Wolfe phrases like “the Me decade,” “radical chic” and “master of the universe” became part of the language. “He was in such a world of his own that you could only admire him, and never could dare try to influence him, or be influenced by him,” says his longtime friend Gay Talese. “Young people would like to be Tom Wolfe – he was rich, famous and very distinguished in person, in manner. But it was hopeless, because he was such an original.”
Born in 1930, Wolfe grew up in the heart of Virginia and attended its finest private schools. His father, T.K. Wolfe, was the editor of The Southern Planter; his mother, Helen Perkins Hughes Wolfe, designed gardens. With his large, strong hands, Wolfe made a natural baseball pitcher, a dream that he pursued through college. When he failed to earn a spot with the New York Giants, he opted to become a newspaper writer.
Within just a few years of his first bylines as a general-assignment reporter, he began to remake journalism. Sent by Esquire to cover California custom-car culture, Wolfe wound up sending dozens of pages of raw notes to his editor – so riveting that they were famously published as is, under the perfectly onomatopoeic title “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby . . .” “It was a garage sale, that piece . . . ” Wolfe later wrote, “vignettes, odds and ends of scholarship, bits of memoirs, short bursts of sociology, apostrophes, epithets, moans, cackles, anything that came into my head, much of it thrown together in a rough and awkward way. Its virtue was precisely in showing me the possibility of there being something ‘new’ in journalism,” using, he said, “techniques usually associated with novels and short stories.”
That story and the others in Wolfe’s first collection, 1965’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, made him a star. At the same time that rock & roll was pushing the boundaries of lyricism on albums like Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, New Journalism was smashing the clichés of reporting. Wolfe found himself at the forefront of a revolution in narrative writing alongside peers such as Talese, Joan Didion and Norman Mailer. “The great literary innovation of the 20th century was New Journalism,” Wolfe told Rolling Stone last year in one of his final interviews.
Wolfe had begun wearing his trademark suits in the early Sixties, inspired in part by his smartly dressed mother. They were also Wolfe’s way of distinguishing himself from his more rumpled fellow journalists. “You’ll notice how few writers are willing to appear on the back of a book with a necktie on,” he said. “If I saw one more writer with an open shirt, the wind blowing through his hair, I was going to stop buying books.”
Wolfe’s time with the Pranksters proved pivotal in many ways. “That was part of journalism – somehow to get inside a world that’s not yours at all,” Wolfe told Rolling Stone last year. “Ken Kesey would say, ‘Put your notebook aside and just be here for a while.’ ” The approach didn’t extend to all aspects of life among the Pranksters: Wolfe, ever the genteel reporter, insisted he never took acid with Kesey’s crew. Yet he ended up with an unprecedented glimpse into the counterculture. “It captured the spirit of the times,” says Babbs. “The spirit was one of rambunctiousness and going places you’d never gone before.”
Wolfe would become one of the key influences on Rolling Stone; he shared an interest in the fringes of American culture with Hunter S. Thompson, who grew close to Wolfe through their work at the magazine. “All three of us were on the same track,” Wenner says. At Wenner’s direction, associate editor Joe Eszterhas wrote to ask Wolfe why he was writing for the “establishment publications,” and Wolfe sent back a postcard: “Dear Joe, you have the guts of a burglar.”
Many ideas were batted around, including having Wolfe interview Jimi Hendrix or travel with the Rolling Stones on their 1972 tour. At Wenner’s suggestion, Wolfe flew to Florida for the last crewed Apollo launch. The astronauts’ lives were closely guarded, but Wolfe gained some of their confidences. “The taboo had to do with a secret code of conduct among military pilots, which I decided to call ‘the code of the right stuff,’ ” he wrote later. Daringly written in the voice of the astronauts, Wolfe’s four-part series, “Post-Orbital Remorse,” ran in the magazine throughout 1973. He later expanded these dispatches into his book The Right Stuff, a space-odyssey epic that remains the most evocative exploration ever of the early astronauts’ world.
To the end, the Seventies were a splendid time for Wolfe. In May 1978, he married Sheila Berger, the distinguished art director of Harper’s. But Wolfe regretted passing up a tip to check out “this new music called hip-hop” in the Bronx, although he would send Wenner his playful versions of his own rap rhymes. He would long kick himself for “all the journalist opportunities I missed.”
In 1985, Rolling Stone looked into signing Wolfe up for the first space-shuttle program to include civilians. “There is no mechanism to submit nominees,” NASA responded. “Should the field of journalists and writers be announced, we will certainly look forward to Tom Wolfe’s application.” Wolfe never had the chance: The Challenger exploded just after launch the following year.
Even as his career soared to unimagined heights, Wolfe wanted more. “Where could he go?” Talese says. “He was the number-one nonfiction writer. Everything he wrote was front-page review.”
When Rolling Stone moved to New York in 1977, Wenner had a thought: “I was looking for the next thing for Tom to do, and I remember saying, ‘Why don’t you write something about New York for us?’ ” Wolfe responded that he’d like to write a novel – inspired by William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 classic Vanity Fair, about a shameless social climber, but set in contemporary New York – and publish it serially, à la Thackeray and Dickens.
After seeing an outline that was almost 200 pages long, Wenner signed off on the grand experiment, and Wolfe began laying out the story of hapless Sherman McCoy, a car accident in the Bronx, and the mad intersection of high society, tabloids and the justice system.
Starting in mid-1984, The Bonfire of the Vanities was serialized in 27 installments in Rolling Stone over the course of a year. For Wolfe, the experience of writing a novel on deadline was hardly relaxing. “I remember the stress to this moment,” he said last year. At one point, he considered abandoning the project, and Wenner half-jokingly threatened to run blank pages. By the time the book version of The Bonfire of the Vanities appeared, in 1987, Wolfe had made some revisions, including changing McCoy from a writer to a bond salesman.
For all his gentlemanly protocol, Wolfe liked to stir it up. Based on his visit to a party for the Black Panthers at conductor Leonard Bernstein’s apartment, Wolfe’s 1970 New York magazine story “Radical Chic” was a caustic portrait of Park Avenue liberals’ early, awkward steps toward political correctness. When some scorned The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe rebutted with a scathing essay in Harper’s, taking contemporary fiction to task. “He had that rebellious spirit,” Eszterhas says. “He wasn’t afraid of taking on the literary establishment or the art establishment.”
A Man in Full, his second novel, arrived in 1998 with full Wolfe-ian splendor: a 744-page tale of the dark side of corporate America, with a first printing of 1.2 million copies and a multimillion-dollar advance for Wolfe. Wenner helped edit the manuscript, and the book was partly serialized in the magazine before publication. (Wolfe also dedicated it to Wenner, “the generous genius who walked this book along until it found its feet.”) Although another sensation, it was attacked by Mailer, John Irving and John Updike, who wrote in The New Yorker that it “still amounts to entertainment, not literature.”
Wolfe struck back with glee, calling Mailer and Updike “two old piles of bones” and noting, “It must gall them a bit that everyone, even them, is talking about me.” According to Talese, “He was gentlemanly, but put a pen in his hand and he could harpoon people. Updike and Mailer and Irving wished he hadn’t gone into fiction. They were ‘people of letters.’ But fucking Wolfe was a better man of letters than they were.”
Wolfe went even bolder in his next novel. Looking to explore 21st-century college life, he went “undercover” – for once not always sporting his white suits – at several schools. When he and daughter Alexandra had breakfast one morning while he was researching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he looked almost hung over after staying up at a frat house until 3 a.m. Following a freshman at a fictitious university, 2004’s I Am Charlotte Simmons was a surprisingly intimate examination of a corrupt college athletic program and sex on campus, through the eyes of a young woman from Appalachia. “It was startling that a man in his seventies could get into the head of a character like that,” says Wenner. “It was one of his best books.”
Although a regular presence at literary soirees, Wolfe was hardly a party animal – Talese says he never saw him drunk. But health issues began catching up. In 1996, Wolfe suffered a heart attack, resulting in quintuple-bypass surgery. Since childhood, he had been dogged by scoliosis, a curving of the spine, although he’d hidden its impact on him. “He was private,” Wenner says. “He didn’t lay his life or problems out on the table. He was very old-world in that way.”
The condition progressed, and in the final decade of his life, Wolfe became increasingly reliant on his collection of canes with wolves’ heads on each – although, typically committed to style, he kept his signature suits. “Those white suits he wore so elegantly didn’t fit him so well,” says Talese. “But he still went out all the time. He was a sign of courage.” In 2011, Wenner – wearing a white suit of his own in homage to Wolfe – introduced Wolfe when the writer received the Creative Excellence Award from the American Society of Magazine Editors.
Visiting her father at home in early May, Alexandra Wolfe found him sitting at his desk as usual, fully dressed and ready to work. He was in the early stages of several books, including ones on the medical profession and the concept of status. Almost until the end, he kept to his self-imposed rule of turning out 10 triple-spaced pages each day. He’d made some concessions to modern times; he loved Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” and Engelbert Humperdinck’s lounge-pop parody “Lesbian Seagull,” from the Beavis and Butt-Head Do America soundtrack. But he couldn’t fend off a bout of pneumonia, and he passed away in a New York hospital on May 14th. He was 88.
“It’s not as hard as people think,” Wolfe told Rolling Stone last year. “You just have to show up one day and say, ‘I’m from Mars. What is this?’ It’s powerful. It’s a technique used all the time.” He chuckled. “By the police and FBI agents.”