Tom Wolfe, 88, a writer ‘in full’

by WorldTribune Staff, May 15, 2018

Journalist and nonfiction novelist Tom Wolfe, who wrote such classics as “The Right Stuff”, “Bonfire of the Vanities” and “A Man in Full” passed away on May 14. He was 88.

Tom Wolfe. / Contour by Getty Images

William F. Buckley Jr., writing in National Review, said of Wolfe: “He is probably the most skillful writer in America – I mean by that he can do more things with words than anyone else.”

Wolfe died in a Manhattan hospital where he had been hospitalized with an infection. He had lived in New York since joining The New York Herald Tribune as a reporter in 1962.

“In his use of novelistic techniques in his nonfiction, Mr. Wolfe, beginning in the 1960s, helped create the enormously influential hybrid known as the New Journalism,” The New York Times said in its May 15 obituary.

“In June 1970, New York magazine devoted an entire issue to ‘These Radical Chic Evenings’, Wolfe’s 20,000-word sendup of a fund-raiser given for the Black Panthers by Leonard Bernstein, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and his wife, the Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre, in their 13-room Park Avenue penthouse duplex — an affair attended by scores of the Bernsteins’ liberal, rich and mostly famous friends,” The Times’ obit noted.

“Do Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled on crushed nuts this way, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi, all of which are at the very moment being offered to them on gadrooned silver platters by maids in black uniforms with hand-ironed white aprons?,” Wolfe wrote, outraging liberals and Panthers alike.

When a Time reporter asked a minister for the Black Panthers to comment on the accuracy of Wolfe’s account, he said, “You mean that dirty, blatant, lying, racist dog who wrote that fascist disgusting thing in New York magazine?”

Wolfe’s editor at Esquire, Byron Dobell, told the London newspaper The Independent in 1998 that “There is this about Tom. He has this unique gift of language that sets him apart as Tom Wolfe. It is full of hyperbole; it is brilliant; it is funny, and he has a wonderful ear for how people look and feel. He has a gift of fluency that pours out of him the way Balzac had it.”

Following are excerpts from the N.Y. Times obituary:

… But as an unabashed contrarian, he was almost as well known for his attire as his satire. He was instantly recognizable as he strolled down Madison Avenue — a tall, slender, blue-eyed, still boyish-looking man in his spotless three-piece vanilla bespoke suit, pinstriped silk shirt with a starched white high collar, bright handkerchief peeking from his breast pocket, watch on a fob, faux spats and white shoes. Once asked to describe his get-up, Mr. Wolfe replied brightly, “Neo-pretentious.”

It was a typically wry response from a writer who found delight in lacerating the pretentiousness of others. He had a pitiless eye and a penchant for spotting trends and then giving them names, some of which — like “Radical Chic” and “the Me Decade” — became American idioms. …

Even more impressive, to many critics, was “The Right Stuff,” his exhaustively reported narrative about the first American astronauts and the Mercury space program. The book, adapted into a film in 1983 with a cast that included Sam Shepard, Dennis Quaid and Ed Harris, made the test pilot Chuck Yeager a cultural hero and added yet another phrase to the English language. …

After “The Right Stuff,” published in 1979, he confronted what he called “the question that rebuked every writer who had made a point of experimenting with nonfiction over the preceding 10 or 15 years: Are you merely ducking the big challenge — The Novel?”

The answer came with “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” Published initially as a serial in Rolling Stone magazine and in book form in 1987 after extensive revisions, it offered a sweeping, bitingly satirical picture of money, power, greed and vanity in New York during the shameless excesses of the 1980s.

The action jumps back and forth from Park Avenue to Wall Street to the terrifying holding pens in Bronx Criminal Court, after the Yale-educated bond trader Sherman McCoy (a self-proclaimed “Master of the Universe”) becomes lost in the Bronx at night in his Mercedes with his foxy young mistress. After running over a black man and nearly igniting a race riot, he enters the nightmare world of the criminal justice system. …

His second novel, “A Man in Full” (1998), also a whopping commercial success, was another sprawling social panorama. Set in Atlanta, it charted the rise and fall of Charlie Croker, a 60-year-old former Georgia Tech football star turned millionaire real estate developer. …

In 1962, Mr. Wolfe joined The Herald Tribune as a reporter on the city desk, where he found his voice as a social chronicler. Fascinated by the status wars and shifting power bases of the city, he poured his energy and insatiable curiosity into his reporting and soon became one of the stars on the staff. The next year he began writing for New York, the newspaper’s newly revamped Sunday supplement, edited by Clay Felker.

“Together they attacked what each regarded as the greatest untold and uncovered story of the age: the vanities, extravagances, pretensions and artifice of America two decades after World War II, the wealthiest society the world had ever known,” Richard Kluger wrote in “The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald Tribune” (1986).


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