Renowned jour­nal­ist Tom Wolfe dies

Broke lit­er­ary, stylis­tic ground in ex­am­i­na­tion of pop cul­ture

Woonsocket Call - - FRONT PAGE - By HIL­LEL ITALIE

Wolfe, 88, wrote ‘The Right Stuff,’ ‘Bon­fire of the Van­i­ties’

NEW YORK — Tom Wolfe, the white-suited wiz­ard of “New Jour­nal­ism” who ex­u­ber­antly chron­i­cled Amer­i­can cul­ture from the Merry Pranksters through the space race be­fore turn­ing his satiric wit to such nov­els as “The Bon­fire of the Van­i­ties” and “A Man in Full,” has died. He was 88.

Wolfe’s lit­er­ary agent, Lynn Nes­bit, told The As­so­ci­ated Press that he died of an in­fec­tion Mon­day in a New York City hospi­tal. Fur­ther de­tails were not im­me­di­ately avail­able.

An acolyte of French nov­el­ist Emile Zola and other au­thors of “re­al­is­tic” fic­tion, the stylishly-at­tired Wolfe was an Amer­i­can mav­er­ick who in­sisted that the only way to tell a great story was to go out and re­port it. Along with Gay Talese, Tru­man Capote and Nora Ephron, he helped demon­strate that jour­nal­ism could of­fer the kinds of lit­er­ary plea­sure found in books.

His hy­per­bolic, styl­ized writ­ing work was a glee­ful fusil­lade of ex­cla­ma­tion points, ital­ics and im­prob­a­ble words. An in­ge­nious phrase maker, he helped brand such ex­pres­sions as “rad­i­cal chic” for rich lib­er­als’ fas­ci­na­tion with rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies; and the “Me” gen­er­a­tion, defin­ing the self-ab­sorbed baby boomers of the 1970s.

“He was an in­cred­i­ble writer,” Talese told the AP on Tues­day. “And you couldn’t im­i­tate him. When peo­ple tried it was a dis­as­ter. They should have got­ten a job at a butcher’s shop.”

Wolfe was both a lit­er­ary up­start, sneer­ing at the per­ceived stuffi­ness of the pub­lish­ing es­tab­lish­ment, and an old-school gentle­man who went to the best schools and en­cour­aged Michael Lewis and other younger writ­ers. When at­tend­ing pro­mo­tional lun­cheons with fel­low au­thors, he would make a point of read­ing their lat­est work.

“What I hope peo­ple know about him is that he was a sweet and gen­er­ous man,” Lewis, known for such books as “Money­ball” and “The Big Short,” told the AP in an email Tues­day. “Not just a great writer but a great soul. He didn’t just help me to be­come a writer. He did it with plea­sure.”

Wolfe scorned the re­luc­tance of Amer­i­can writ­ers to con­front so­cial is­sues and warned that self-ab­sorp­tion and mas­ter’s pro­grams would kill the novel. “So the doors close and the walls go up!” he wrote in his 1989 lit­er­ary man­i­festo, “Stalk­ing the Bil­lion-Footed Beast.” He was as­ton­ished that no au­thor of his gen­er­a­tion had writ­ten a sweep­ing, 19th-cen­tury style novel about con­tem­po­rary New York City, and ended up writ­ing one him­self, “The Bon­fire of the Van­i­ties.”

His work broke count­less rules but was grounded in old-school jour­nal­ism, in an ob­ses­sive at­ten­tion to de­tail that be­gan with his first re­port­ing job and en­dured for decades.

“Noth­ing fu­els the imag­i­na­tion more than real facts do,” Wolfe told the AP in 1999. “As the say­ing goes, ‘You can’t make this stuff up.’”

Wolfe’s in­ter­ests were vast, but his nar­ra­tives had a com­mon theme. Whether send­ing up the New York art world or hang­ing out with acid heads, Wolfe in­evitably pre­sented man as a sta­tus-seek­ing an­i­mal, con­cerned above all about the opin­ion of one’s peers. Wolfe him­self dressed for com­pany — his trade­mark a pale three-piece suit, im­pos­si­bly high shirt col­lar, two-tone shoes and a silk tie. And he ac­knowl­edged that he cared — very much — about his rep­u­ta­tion.

“My con­tention is that sta­tus is on ev­ery­body’s mind all of the time, whether they’re con­scious of it or not,” Wolfe, who lived in a 12-room apart­ment on Man­hat­tan’s Up­per East Side, told the AP in 2012.

In 1978, Wolfe mar­ried Sheila Berger, art di­rec­tor of Harper’s mag­a­zine. They had two chil­dren, Alexan­dra and Tommy.

He en­joyed the high­est com­mer­cial and crit­i­cal re­wards. His lit­er­ary hon­ors in­cluded the Amer­i­can Book Award (now called the Na­tional Book Award) for “The Right Stuff” and a nom­i­na­tion for the Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle prize for “The Bon­fire of the Van­i­ties,” one of the top 10 sell­ing books of the 1980s. Its 1998 fol­low-up, “A Man in Full,” was an­other best-seller and a Na­tional Book Award nom­i­nee. Wolfe sat­i­rized col­lege mis­be­hav­ior in “I Am Charlotte Sim­mons” and was still at it in his 80s with “Back to Blood,” a sprawl­ing, mul­ti­cul­tural story of sex and honor set in Mi­ami.

A panel of judges or­ga­nized in 1999 by the Mod­ern Li­brary, a Ran­dom House im­print, picked “The Right Stuff” as No. 52 on its list of the cen­tury’s 100 best English-lan­guage works of non­fic­tion. An­other panel of ex­perts, list­ing the best jour­nal­ism of the cen­tury, cited Wolfe three times on its list of 100, for “The Elec­tric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” ‘’The Kandy-Kolored Tan­ger­ine-Flake Stream­line Baby” and “The Right Stuff.”

Wolfe, the grand­son of a Con­fed­er­ate ri­fle­man, be­gan his jour­nal­ism ca­reer as a re­porter at the Spring­field (Mas­sachusetts) Union in 1957. But it wasn’t un­til the mid-1960s, while a mag­a­zine writer for New York and Esquire, that his work made him a na­tional trend­set­ter. As Wolfe helped de­fine it, the “new jour­nal­ism” com­bined the emo­tional im­pact of a novel, the anal­y­sis of the best es­says, and the fac­tual foun­da­tion of hard re­port­ing. He min­gled it all in an over­the-top style that made life it­self seem like one spec­tac­u­lar head­line.

“She is gor­geous in the most out­ra­geous way,” he wrote in a typ­i­cal piece, de­scrib­ing ac­tress-so­cialite Baby Jane Holzer.

“Her hair rises up from her head in a huge hairy corona, a huge tan mane around a nar­row face and two eyes opened — swock! — like um­brel­las, with all that hair flow­ing down over a coat made of ... ze­bra! Those moth­er­less stripes!”

Michael Na­gle/Bloomberg

Au­thor Tom Wolfe at a film fes­ti­val in 2015; the apos­tle of “New Jour­nal­ism” who cap­tured the ex­trav­a­gance of his times, died Mon­day at 88.

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