A writer who cap­tured the ex­trav­a­gance of his times

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY MATT SCHUDEL

The birth of the lit­er­ary move­ment known as “New Jour­nal­ism” can be traced to one cof­fee-fu­eled episode in 1963: Tom Wolfe’s all-nighter. He had been sent to Cal­i­for­nia by Esquire mag­a­zine to re­port on a gath­er­ing of cus­tom-car de­sign­ers and ca­su­ally cool teenagers.

Pho­tos of lac­quer-painted cars were laid out on the pages and the mag­a­zine was about to go to press, but Mr. Wolfe wasn’t able to com­plete his first as­sign­ment for Esquire. Fi­nally, man­ag­ing ed­i­tor By­ron Do­bell told him to write up his notes as a memo, which the ed­i­tors would shape into a story.

Mr. Wolfe be­gan typ­ing at 8 p.m.

“I wrapped up the mem­o­ran­dum about 6:15 a.m.,” he later wrote, “and by this time it was 49 pages long. I took it over to Esquire as soon as they opened up, about 9:30 a.m. About 4 p.m. I got a call from By­ron Do­bell. He told me they were strik­ing out the ‘Dear By­ron’ at the top of the mem­o­ran­dum and run­ning the rest of it in the mag­a­zine.”

The story, “There Goes ( Va­room! Va­room!) That Kandy Kolored (Th­ph­h­h­hhh!) Tan­ger­ine-Flake Stream­line Baby,” was more than a du­ti­ful re­port on the car con­ven­tion. Mr. Wolfe had dis­cov­ered an un­der­ground cul­ture among the West Coast

car de­sign­ers, hail­ing them as the van­guard of a new form of modern art, not un­like Pi­casso.

“I don’t have to dwell on the point that cars mean more to th­ese kids than ar­chi­tec­ture did in Europe’s great for­mal cen­tury, say, 1750 to 1850,” he wrote. “They are free­dom, style, sex, power, mo­tion, color — ev­ery­thing is right there.”

Sel­dom had jour­nal­ism seen such an au­da­cious dis­play of ob­ser­va­tion, wry hu­mor and go-for­baroque ver­bal dex­ter­ity. Mr. Wolfe in­vented words, wrote in the point of view of his char­ac­ters and pep­pered his pages with el­lipses, ital­ics and ex­cla­ma­tion marks.

Just like that, the leg­end of Tom Wolfe was born.

“It was like he dis­cov­ered it in the mid­dle of the night,” Do­bell told Van­ity Fair in 2015. “Wher­ever it came from, it seemed to me to tap a strain of pure Amer­i­can hu­mor that wasn’t be­ing tapped.”

Mr. Wolfe, who had a trans­for­ma­tive ef­fect on jour­nal­ism and later be­came a best-sell­ing nov­el­ist, died May 14 at a Man­hat­tan hospi­tal. He was 88. His niece Hughes Evans con­firmed the death, but no other in­for­ma­tion was im­me­di­ately avail­able.

In 1963, Mr. Wolfe was a lit­tle­known re­porter at the New York Her­ald Tri­bune.

Less than two years later, when his first col­lec­tion, “The KandyKolored Tan­ger­ine-Flake Stream­line Baby,” was pub­lished, he was one of the most fa­mous and in­flu­en­tial writ­ers of his gen­er­a­tion.

His books be­came bestsellers, and his ex­plo­sive, fast-mov­ing prose was seen as the per­fect ve­hi­cle for the times. He in­vented or pop­u­lar­ized phrases such as “good old boy,” “rad­i­cal chic,” the “Me Decade” (some­times al­tered to “Me Gen­er­a­tion”) and “push­ing the en­ve­lope.”

Per­haps his most mem­o­rable coinage was the ti­tle of what is of­ten con­sid­ered his great­est achieve­ment: “The Right Stuff.” Pub­lished in 1979, the book was an epic ac­count of the idea of Amer­i­can hero­ism, viewed through the ex­ploits of mil­i­tary test pi­lots and as­tro­nauts.

Mr. Wolfe chron­i­cled the rise of the hip­pie gen­er­a­tion in “The Elec­tric Kool-Aid Acid Test” (1968) and mocked the pre­ten­sions of Man­hat­tan lib­er­als in “Rad­i­cal Chic & Mau-Mau­ing the Flak Catch­ers” (1970) and of the art world in “The Painted Word” (1975). He glee­fully vi­o­lated the city ed­i­tor’s dic­tum to trim each sen­tence to a sleek, un­der­stated nugget of news: For Mr. Wolfe, no ver­bal ex­trav­a­gance was too much.

“Amer­i­can jour­nal­ism has never had a practitioner who com­bined the at­tributes of tal­ent, au­dac­ity, learn­ing, leg­work, and pure ob­ser­va­tion as well as Tom Wolfe,” au­thor and scholar Ben Yagoda wrote in “The Art of Fact,” a 1997 an­thol­ogy of nar­ra­tive non­fic­tion.

Mr. Wolfe was con­sid­ered the leader of an ink-stained avant­garde that in­cluded Jimmy Bres­lin, Joan Did­ion, Ge­orge Plimp­ton, Gay Talese and Hunter S. Thomp­son. Their per­sonal, im­mer­sive style was im­i­tated, with vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess, in prac­ti­cally every news­pa­per fea­ture sec­tion in the coun­try.

“The most im­por­tant lit­er­a­ture be­ing writ­ten in Amer­ica to­day is in non­fic­tion,” Mr. Wolfe as­serted in his 1973 an­thol­ogy, “The New Jour­nal­ism,” which be­came the stan­dard of pro­saic rubric for his style of writ­ing.

He bor­rowed cer­tain tech­niques from fic­tion, in­clud­ing char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and di­a­logue, but knew that jour­nal­ism had some­thing else go­ing for it — “the sim­ple fact that the reader knows all this ac­tu­ally hap­pened.”

In al­most ev­ery­thing he wrote, Mr. Wolfe ex­am­ined what he called “sta­tus de­tails” — the finer points of be­hav­ior, trends, fash­ion and the pur­suit of pres­tige that, in his view, shaped the Amer­i­can so­cial or­der. Sullen teenagers, South­ern good old boys, arty ur­ban­ites, elite test pi­lots — all mea­sured them­selves by what their peers thought of them. (Per­haps as a marker of his own sta­tus, Mr. Wolfe pro­nounced the word “stay-tus.”)

De­spite fre­quent ap­pear­ances on tele­vi­sion and on col­lege cam­puses, Mr. Wolfe re­mained cu­ri­ously opaque. He wasn’t a pillpop­ping, pis­tol-wav­ing rene­gade like Thomp­son; he didn’t dab­ble in Hollywood, like Did­ion; he wasn’t a party host, like Plimp- ton; and he wasn’t a se­rial hus­band with a vi­o­lent streak, like nov­el­ist-turned-New Jour­nal­ist Nor­man Mailer.

In­stead, he cul­ti­vated an im­age as an ec­cen­tric, well-man­nered South­erner who — never mind the Yale PhD and flam­boy­ant white suits — gaped in won­der at the sheer spec­ta­cle of Amer­ica in the 1960s and beyond. He re­sisted any at­tempts to be por­trayed, as the ti­tle of his sec­ond novel put it, as “A Man in Full.”

Be­ing a re­porter

The big­gest ques­tion sur­round­ing Mr. Wolfe’s meth­ods was the sim­plest: How did he man­age to win the trust of such dis­parate groups as South­ern moon­shin­ers, car fa­nat­ics, so­cialites, hip­pies and as­tro­nauts?

By his ac­count, it was sim­ply by hang­ing out, watch­ing and lis­ten­ing — in other words, be­ing a re­porter.

Cus­tom-car de­signer Ge­orge Bar­ris said Mr. Wolfe was around so much that he “even came to the house and cooked din­ner with my wife.”

He en­tered the world of stock­car driver Ju­nior John­son — the ti­tle fig­ure of a 20,000-word Esquire ar­ti­cle, “The Last Amer­i­can Hero” — so com­pletely that he de­scribed the chick­ens walk­ing across John­son’s yard in In­gle Hol­low, N.C.

At the Park Av­enue apart­ment of con­duc­tor Leonard Bern­stein, Mr. Wolfe cap­tured the awk­ward so­cial dance be­tween up­town lib­er­als and street-tough­ened Black Pan­ther mil­i­tants in the en­dur­ing phrase “rad­i­cal chic.”

In 1966, Mr. Wolfe climbed aboard a bus with an LSD-drop­ping co­terie of hip­pies led by Ken Ke­sey, au­thor of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The Merry Pranksters, as they called them­selves, traipsed across the coun­try in search of en­light­en­ment but of­ten stum­bled into mis­for­tune and un­in­tended hu­mor.

In “The Elec­tric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” Mr. Wolfe de­scribed a sur­real scene as a po­lice of­fi­cer pulled the bus over while a for­est fire was in full blaze.

“By this time,” Mr. Wolfe wrote, “ev­ery­body is off the bus rolling in the brown grass by the shoul­der, laugh­ing, gig­gling, ya­hoo­ing, zonked to the skies on acid, be­cause, mon, the woods are burn­ing, the whole world is on fire. . . . And the cop, all he can see is a bunch of cra­zies in scream­ing orange and green cos­tumes, masks, boys and girls, men and women, twelve or four­teen of them, ly­ing in the grass and mak­ing hideously crazy sounds. . . . So he wheels around and says, ‘What are you, uh — show peo­ple?’ ”

Mr. Wolfe was praised by nov­el­ist Kurt Von­negut Jr. — “a ge­nius who will do any­thing to get at­ten­tion” — and poet Karl Shapiro, who ex­claimed in a Wash­ing­ton Post re­view that the au­thor “is more than bril­liant . . . . He is more than ur­bane, suave, tren­chant . . . . Tom Wolfe is a god­dam joy.”

Mr. Wolfe spent much of the 1970s work­ing on “The Right Stuff,” a grip­ping chron­i­cle of the in­ner world of test pi­lots and the more rar­efied group that grew out of them — the coun­try’s first as­tro­nauts. He scaled back his cus­tom­ary satire and mock­ery, adopt­ing a rel­a­tively sober style be­fit­ting his larger sub­ject — what it takes to be a hero.

“This qual­ity, this it, was never named, how­ever, nor was it talked about in any way,” he wrote. “The idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyra­mid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even — ul­ti­mately, God will­ing, one day — that you might be able to join that spe­cial few at the very top, that elite who had the ca­pac­ity to bring tears to men’s eyes, the very Brother­hood of the Right Stuff it­self.”

The book won the Amer­i­can Book Award, be­came a best­seller and was made into a 1983 film with Sam Shep­ard and Ed Har­ris.

“Never mind jour­nal­ism, new or old,” au­thor Michael Lewis wrote in Van­ity Fair in 2015. “‘ The Right Stuff,’ in my view, is a great work of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture.”

‘Who in the name of God is that?’

Thomas Ken­nerly Wolfe Jr. was born March 2, 1930, in Rich­mond. His fa­ther was an agron­o­mist and edited the South­ern Planter, a mag­a­zine for farm­ers. His mother was a home­maker with var­ied artis­tic in­ter­ests.

At Wash­ing­ton and Lee Univer­sity in Lexington, Va., from which he grad­u­ated in 1951, Mr. Wolfe wrote for school pub­li­ca­tions. He also pitched for the baseball team and once had a try­out with the New York Gi­ants.

In grad­u­ate school at Yale Univer­sity, his dis­ser­ta­tion about com­mu­nist in­flu­ences on Amer­i­can writ­ers was ini­tially re­jected in part be­cause of its at­ten­tionget­ting style. He rewrote it in dry aca­demic prose — in­clud­ing a ref­er­ence to “an Amer­i­can writer E. Hem­ing­way” — and re­ceived a doc­tor­ate in Amer­i­can stud­ies in 1957.

Re­ject­ing academia, Mr. Wolfe toyed with the idea of be­com­ing a car­toon­ist be­fore be­com­ing a news­pa­per re­porter, first in Spring­field, Mass., and from 1959 to 1962 at The Wash­ing­ton Post.

At The Post, he had no in­ter­est in the high-pro­file na­tional desk, pre­fer­ring to cover quirky lo­cal sto­ries with a hint of the in­sou­ciant style about to come. He then joined the Her­ald Tri­bune, a strug­gling pa­per with a tra­di­tion of stylish writ­ing. The ed­i­tor of the pa­per’s Sun­day mag­a­zine, Clay Felker, en­cour­aged Mr. Wolfe to pur­sue the sto­ries — and the style — that he wanted.

De­ter­mined to stand out in other ways, the trim, 6-foot-tall Mr. Wolfe be­came a con­spic­u­ous dandy, wear­ing cus­tom-made suits, of­ten in white or pastel col­ors.

“I just want to make sure,” he later said, “that when I walk into a room, ev­ery­body there turns around and says, ‘Who in the name of God is that?’ ”

A four-month news­pa­per strike al­lowed Mr. Wolfe time to write his first pieces for Esquire. When the strike was set­tled in May 1963, Mr. Wolfe flour­ished, writ­ing free­wheel­ing sto­ries for his news­pa­per and trav­el­ing on week­ends for Esquire. After the Her­ald Tri­bune folded in 1967, Felker re­launched the pa­per’s Sun­day mag­a­zine — New York — as an in­de­pen­dently weekly and made it a show­case for Mr. Wolfe.

His style was so over­whelm­ing that it masked what wasn’t there: Through­out the tur­bu­lent 1960s and ’70s, he largely avoided writ­ing about the war in Viet­nam, civil rights, the women’s move- ment, for­eign pol­icy or pol­i­tics. He sel­dom wrote about celebri­ties.

“I was afraid that read­ers would like the pieces for their sub­jects,” he told The Post in 1979, “not for my writ­ing.”

Above all, Mr. Wolfe never wrote about him­self.

When he mar­ried for the first and only time at 48, it took many by sur­prise, if only be­cause he was so guarded about his per­sonal life.

Sur­vivors in­clude his wife, Sheila Berger, a for­mer art di­rec­tor at Harper’s mag­a­zine, of New York, and two chil­dren, jour­nal­ist Alexan­dra Wolfe of New York and fur­ni­ture de­signer Tommy Wolfe of Brook­lyn.

For years, Mr. Wolfe dis­par­aged the modern novel as a life­less relic that could be re­vived only with a mus­cu­lar frame­work of re­port­ing and so­cial re­al­ism. De­cid­ing to do the job him­self, he pub­lished “The Bon­fire of the Van­i­ties” in Rolling Stone mag­a­zine, then, after con­sid­er­able re­vi­sion, in book form in 1987.

The novel de­scribes the come­up­pance of a wealthy bond trader and self-crowned “mas­ter of the uni­verse” amid the racial and cul­tural tur­moil of New York. “Bon­fire” sold mil­lions of copies and was made into a 1990 film with Tom Hanks, Me­lanie Grif­fith and Bruce Willis.

In many ways “Bon­fire” was his last lit­er­ary tri­umph. His books on art and ar­chi­tec­ture, in­clud­ing “From Bauhaus to Our House” (1981), re­ceived bit­ing re­views, in­clud­ing this one from Michael Sorkin in the Na­tion: “What Tom Wolfe doesn’t know about modern ar­chi­tec­ture could fill a book. And so in­deed it has.”

Mr. Wolfe re­ceived a 2001 Na­tional Hu­man­i­ties Medal from Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush and sold his ar­chives to the New York Pub­lic Li­brary in 2013 for $2 mil­lion.

His later nov­els — “A Man in Full” (1998), “I Am Charlotte Sim­mons” (2004) and “Back to Blood” (2012) — re­ceived tepid re­views. He feuded with nov­el­ists John Updike and John Irv­ing over dis­mis­sive com­ments they made about his fic­tion. He con­tin­ued to pub­lish non­fic­tion books well into his 80s, with crit­ics not­ing that he of­ten skew­ered the ab­sur­di­ties of the left but never the buf­foon­ery of the right.

What he didn’t lack was con­fi­dence in the power of his prose.

“I re­gard my­self in the first flight of writ­ers, but I don’t dwell on this,” Mr. Wolfe said in 1981. “If any­thing, I think I tend to be a lit­tle mod­est.”

“Wher­ever it came from, it seemed to me to tap a strain of pure Amer­i­can hu­mor that wasn’t be­ing tapped.” By­ron Do­bell, for­mer man­ag­ing ed­i­tor of Esquire mag­a­zine


Tom Wolfe in Man­hat­tan at the 2005 Tribeca Film Fes­ti­val. The cham­pion of “New Jour­nal­ism” died Mon­day at 88. His ca­reer in­cluded a stint re­port­ing for The Wash­ing­ton Post.


ABOVE: Wolfe as a Wash­ing­ton Post staff writer in 1961.


LEFT: Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush presents Wolfe with the Na­tional Hu­man­i­ties Medal in 2002.


TOP: Tom Wolfe in his New York apart­ment in Novem­ber 1998. Video at wapo.st/ tomwolfe: Post critic Ron Charles ex­plains how Wolfe rev­o­lu­tion­ized fic­tion writ­ing.

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