Tom Wolfe (1930-2018):
”A lie may fool someone else, but it tells you the truth: you’re weak.’‘
In the 1960s a bunch of new kind of writers grabbed readers attention: George Plimpton, Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tom Wolfe. They came to be labeled the ”New Journalists”. As one of the leaders of that group, Wolfe helped change the balance between fiction writers and writers of nonfiction. He was willing to submerge himself in a subject, and then borrow from the novelist’s technique of using dramatic dialogue, scene-by-scene construction, vivid characterization and shifting points of view. Plus, he made himself one of the characters in his nonfiction writing.
Wolfe brought a new style of reportage in his collection of essays The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965); The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), his account of the novelist Ken Kesey‘s experiments with LSD; and The Right Stuff (1979), about of the pilots who would become America’s first NASA astronauts. Wolfe even helped popularize the term ”New Journalism” itself with his publication essay collection that he titled New Journalism (1973), where he included his own writing alongside Capote, Didion and Thompson.
Born in Virginia, Wolfe attended Washington And Lee University, and became a reporter soon after graduating. He moved to Washington DC, and then NYC in 1962 to write for The New York Herald Tribune. He never left, living in the city with his wife Sheila Berger, an art director at Harper’s Bazaar, and their two children until his passing on May 14.
In 1962, during a newspaper strike, and on the verge of unemployment, he went looking for work. Esquire Magazine flew him to L.A. to write a piece on custom-made cars. On his return, his editor requested his notes on the topic for someone else to write the piece. Wolfe’s notes were 50 pages of insightful observations. The editor, Byron Dobell (1927 – 2017) wrote:
”It was like he discovered it in the middle of the night. Wherever it came from, it seemed to me to tap a strain of pure American humor that wasn’t being tapped. He didn’t sound like Capote or Lillian Ross … or anyone else.”
Esquire published Wolfe’s notes in their entirety. He found his writer voice and within a year, Wolfe had become a cult figure in the publishing world.
His writing is crammed with references to surface appearances, clothing styles, cultural trivia and commercial brand names. The minutiae of modern life not only fill his paragraphs but dominate the inner lives of his characters. According to Wolfe, deep down, people are petty, grasping, self-serving narcissists in love with their own images reflected in our culture.
I ate up his books, but for me, and many others, Wolfe was also noted for his iconic sartorial style, famously always wearing a three-piece white, bespoke suit, immaculately finished with a silk tie and a flamboyant printed pocket square. It was a look that Wolfe described as ”Neo-pretentious”. He had over 50 white suits, a nod to southern gentlemen (of which he was one).
The legend behind the suit has been seriously misconstrued. It was not an expression of Wolfe’s louche taste, in fact, it was quite the opposite. When he first worked at the Herald Tribune, Wolfe only owned two sports jackets, and the rules of 1960s publishing world dictated that gentlemen must wear suits to work, so he purchased one in white, and being too strapped for cash to do otherwise, Wolfe made the bold decision to wear it throughout winter as well as summer. He claimed:
”…it makes me look like a man from Mars, the man who didn’t know anything and was eager to know.”
He wrote tales of excess and status-seeking with a ruthless eye and unfettered energy. He would shadow his subjects over a long period of time, recording their observations in minute detail. Wolfe: “
”To pull it off, you casually have to stay with the people you are writing about for long stretches, long enough so that you are actually there when revealing scenes take place in their lives.”
Equally, his penchant for florid language was reflected in the romance of his clothing. Wolfe:
”You never realize how much of your background is sewn into the lining of your clothes.”
Wolfe wrote about American popular culture, politics and way of life, especially about how money shaped the country in the era of prosperity after WW II. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, about the Hippy Movement, made him a bit of an authority on psychedelics.
His novel, Bonfire Of The Vanities (1987) was a huge bestseller with over three million copies in hardcover and paperback. It is a smart satirical look at greed in the Reagan era NYC, where bond trader Sherman McCoy ends up in court in the Bronx, after hitting a black man with his car. The novel features a range of immoral and amoral characters of the type you find in our current White House: greedy brokers, corrupt politicians, crooked lawyers, sensationalistic reporters, Russian hookers, and self-serving activists. It was serialized in Rolling Stone Magazine in 1984-85 with biweekly deadlines. Bonfire Of The Vanities adapted to a famously hated film in 1990.
His second novel, A Man In Full (1998) was also a bestseller. A third novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004) received mixed reviews. For his fourth, Back To Blood (2012), Wolfe was paid an advance of $7 million.
Wolfe engaged in very public battles with his biggest critics: Mailer, John Updike, John Irving and Noam Chomsky, who he dubbed ”Noam Charisma”. In his essay My Three Stooges (2000), Wolfe took on Mailer, Updike and Irving:
”It must gall them a bit that everyone, even them, is talking about me, and nobody is talking about them.”
Wolfe leaves us with 18 books, 14 works of nonfiction and his four novels. He continued to write until recently, his last book is The Kingdom Of Speech (2016), a controversial commentary on Charles Darwin and Chomsky.
On a 2006 episode of The Simpsons, Lisa spots a man in a white suit and exclaims: ”It’s Tom Wolfe! He uses more exclamation points than any other major American writer!’‘ Cartoon Wolfe then launches into a dramatic introduction of the character known simply as ”Moe”:
”Ah, magnificent Moe. He stands, stoop-shouldered, blinking in the light, hollow-chested like a dough-faced fall guy who’s made a career of taking dives but has decided to get his manhood out of hock and take a shot at the title. Or at least go for the jaw and thwack! Hyper-extend the champ’s pterygoideus before kissing the mat good night.”
Wolfe introduced the terms “Statusphere”, “The Right Stuff”, “Radical Chic”, “The Me Decade”, and “Good Ol’ Boy”, into our lexicon. He is also partly responsible for the use of the present tense in magazine profile pieces; before he began doing so in the early 1960s, profile articles had always been written in the past tense.
Thinking of him today, I must say that I love the idea of sauntering through life in beautiful ivory blazers, hats, spats and walking stick, arguing about everything that seems too easy to leave un-argued. As Wolfe put it:
”If you are not having a fight with somebody, then you are not sure whether you are alive when you wake up in the morning.”
Esquire’s 80th is the terrific documentary film that explores how Esquire Magazine has explored the evolution of popular culture through its coverage of politics, war, fame, women, sports, technology, and style. On-camera commentators include many of the significant creators and subjects of the magazine including: writer Jay McInerney, designer George Lois, actors George Clooney and Mary-Louise Parker, football star Joe Namath, Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, and other writers, celebrities, photographers and editors who have contributed to the magazine over 80 years, including Tom Wolfe.
Esquire’s 80th was the premiere broadcast event for NBC Universal’s Esquire Network, which launched in September 2013. The film is directed by World of Wonder founders Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the award-winning directors/producers of documentaries such as: In Vogue: The Editor’s Eye (HBO), The Strange History Of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (HBO), and Inside Deep Throat (Universal), Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures (HBO), The Eyes Of Tammy Faye (Universal), and Party Monster (Picture This!).