Tom Wolfe dies
HAD ‘RIGHT STUFF’
WHEN IT CAME to style, both literary and sartorial, Tom Wolfe remained in a class all his own.
The impeccably attired writer and peerless practitioner of the groundbreaking “New Journalism” died Monday of an infection at an unspecified Manhattan hospital, said his agent Lynn Nesbit.
Wolfe, 88, earned his spot as one of the great American writers of the 20th century with his deep reporting dives for books like “The Right Stuff” and “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”
After nine nonfiction efforts, he used the same technique to write fiction, investing the time and reporting that informed “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” his scathing 1987 satire on New York City.
“Nothing fuels the imagination more than real facts do,” Wolfe once noted.
“Bonfire” was dedicated to criminal defense attorney Ed Hayes, who served as Wolfe’s guide on a journey through the daunting Bronx criminal justice system.
Among the subjects of Wolfe’s inimitable writing, with its no-detail-spared approach, were the first U.S. astronauts, the LSD-loving Merry Pranksters and feckless Manhattan limousine liberals.
Along with writers Truman Capote and Gay Talese, Wolfe — a fan of French novelist Emile Zola — emerged in the 1960s as one of the driving forces behind the New Journalism.
The longtime Upper East Sider once said the genre’s methodology combined the emotional impact of fiction, the analysis of the best essays and the deep digging of the best reporting.
“He was an incredible writer,” said Talese. “And you couldn’t imitate him. When people tried, it was a disaster. They should have gotten a job at a butcher’s shop.”
His unique approach was hardly limited to writing. Wolfe’s daily attire typically featured a threepiece suit, often white, along with a high-collared shirt, two-tone shoes and a silk tie.
Wolfe’s best sellers ran the gamut from “The Right Stuff,” his riveting account of America’s first astronauts, to fact-based fiction like “Bonfire.”
His first pass at the latter was published, one chapter every two weeks, in Rolling Stone magazine — Wolfe’s homage to the serialized 19th century tales of Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray.
“How I shall miss that swirling script on the handwritten notes, the flair of your white suit entering a room!” tweeted magazine editor Tina Brown. “You were the best of the best.”
Wolfe went boldly over the top with his writing, his tales rife with exclamation points, italics and phrases plucked from the ether as he pounded on a vintage typewriter.
“Fuhgeddaboudit” served as his one-stop New York dismissal for everything, while “radical chic” captured his take on the causes of limousine liberals.
His personal favorite of the Wolfe-coined terms: “Good ol’ boy,” from a 1964 magazine piece about stock car driver Junior Johnson.
In 1998’s “A Man in Full,” Wolfe described a morning on a Georgia millionaire’s spread: “Somehow nothing reminded him so intently of how far he had come in his 60 years on Earth as the smell of the animals.
“Turpmtine Plantation! Twenty-nine thousand acres of prime southwest Georgia forest, fields and swamp! It was his, to do with as he chose, which was: to shoot quail.”
In 1978, Wolfe married Harper’s magazine art director Sheila Berger. He was survived by his wife and their two children, Alexandra and Tommy.
Tom Wolfe (left), a pioneer of the “New Journalism,” turned his talents to New York City in the satirical novel “Bonfire of the Vanities.”