I knew Tom for more than a half-century. I met him in 1962, when he joined the New York Herald Tribune as a general-assignment reporter. At that time, I was a general-assignment reporter at the Times, and often we’d cover the same story: events around New York, social life, something of the atmosphere of the city. I got to know him first as a rival. But very quickly, I so admired him, not only because he was beautifully dressed, which appeals to me as a tailor’s son, but because he was well-mannered, which is uncommon for journalists.
At my home in Manhattan, Nan and I had a lot of dinner parties. Single men usually came, and the last thing you would get from them was a thank-you note. Not Wolfe. His note was a folded piece of paper, upon which was drawn, with his exquisite penmanship, a thank-you that looked like it was from a monk of the Middle Ages. The “T” in “thank you” would be a page long. I framed those notes. I have them on my wall today.
Wolfe always brought a kind of splendor to the beat of journalism. I never saw him lose his temper. He was controlled, smooth, progressive and infallible as a writer. And just working all the time.
He was never politically correct, before that term had meaning. Wolfe was Wolfe. He was on the surface Mr. White Suit, Richmond, Virginia. He was really in the realm of high society. But through those interesting eyes of his, he also saw what was unusual, what was fraudulent and what was dazzling.
He had a great capacity to deal with people with whom he had next to nothing in common. Journalists today – like the worst kind of journalists we see, in Washington – don’t know anything. They can’t deal with anybody who isn’t educated. Wolfe was a Ph.D. from Yale, well-educated, tremendously well-read, a bit of a scholar. Whether it was the world of painting, or art, or architecture, he could write about it. But he could talk to drug addicts, dropouts, lunatics, and get their story. He didn’t change the three-piece suit, either. He’s out there talking to some scummy people from the Haight-Ashbury, and not many people could do that. He never tried to dress down to somebody to make the false assumption that he was on their social level. He was not a stevedore, he was not a cop on the beat, he was not a bus driver, he was not a junkie, he was not a drug dealer, he was not a pimp. He was a writer about all the above.
I went to restaurants with him as recently as a couple of times this past year. At the New York Public Library for “literary lions” night, he was there. He had this tall cane, like a bishop’s staff. He wasn’t embarrassed in any way by the fact that he wasn’t as straight-spined and as elegant as he once was, because of his ailment. He was out there – moving slowly, maybe, but he was there.
As told to David Browne.