Tom Wolfe, beat-reporter for the New York Herald, writer for Esquire, Rolling Stone, Harper’s and the Weekend Telegraph, light of the ‘New Journalism’, satirist, writer of the terrific The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and best-seller Bonfire of the Vanities, self-promoting dapper man in the white suit has died. Joseph Epstein writes in his profile of Wolfe in The New Republic: “His prose style is normally shotgun baroque, sometimes edging over into machine-gun rococo, as in his article on Las Vegas which begins by repeating the word ‘hernia’ 57 times.” “He is probably the most skillful writer in America – I mean by that he can do more things with words than anyone else,” says William F. Buckley Jr., in National Review. Adrian Chen tweets: “RIP to Tom Wolfe, who gave a generation of young writers wildly unrealistic expectations about how glamorous and lucrative a career in magazine journalism would be.”
But if it’s high praise you’re after, the reaction from Hunter S. Thompson, Wolfe’s friend and fellow reporter blessed with a no lesser sublime command of language, is hard to top. According to Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson was “the only twentieth-century equivalent of Mark Twain”. Wolfe called Thompson’s book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972) “a scorching, epochal sensation”.
The writers exchanged letters, the pick of which is a missive from Thomson to Wolfe dated March 3 1971. Thompson made a big noise about being shuffled inside Wolf’s New Journalism project, along with the likes of George Plimpton, Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Gay Talese and Norman Mailer. It wasn’t for him. He would transcend such tawdry labelling. But looking at the calibre of Thompson’s peers, the letter is steeped in bonhomie.
This was Thompson who said of Wolfe that “the people who seem to fascinate him as a writer are so weird they make him nervous”. Wolfe exuded a well-maintained, intriguing and poised self-possession. His sharp props – homburg hat, white suit and arty hair – pulled you in and defined him. Wolfe once recalled a lunch he had with Thompson in New York. “He comes into the restaurant. He’s got this bag. ‘Hunter, what’s in the bag?’ Hunter says, ‘I’ve got something in here that will clear out this restaurant.’ ” What’s in the bag, it turns out, is a marine distress signal. “Hunter says, ‘This thing can travel 20 miles across water.’ He blows it and the restaurant clears out. Now, to Hunter, that was an event.”
A conference at which both Wolfe and Thompson were paid to speak went to form. Hunter never rocked up. “He [the event’s organiser] was outraged,” said Wolfe. “I said, ‘Sir, you don’t schedule Hunter for a talk. You schedule him for an event. And you just had yours!’”
Thompson and Wolfe exchanged many letters, like this dated February 26 1968:
“Dear Tom: I just got back from a quick shot in the East, and called from the airport but you weren’t home again. Who are these old crones who answer your telephone? I have a picture of some gout-raddled old slattern on her knees in your hallway, waxing the floor when the phone rings and rising slowly, painfully, resentfully, to answer it and snarl ‘He ain’t here.’ … What stage is the Kesey book in?”
“My final reason for leaving was because I wrote this strongly positive review of [Tom] Wolfe’s Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. The feature editor killed it because of a grudge. I took the Observer’s letter and a copy of the review with a brutal letter about it all to Wolfe. I then copied that letter and sent it to the Observer. I had told Wolfe that the review had been killed for bitchy, personal reasons.” (As Hunter explained to a friend, “Somebody on the Observer—in a reject position—had worked with Wolfe on the Washington Postand hated the air that he breathed.”)
He later wrote to Wolfe:
“If it does you any good in the head to know that it caused the final severance of relations between myself and the Observer, then at least it will do somebody some good. As for myself I am joining the Hell’s Angels and figure I should have done it six years ago.”
And so the headline-making and hugely enjoyable rant:
March 3, 1971
Woody Creek, CO
You worthless scumsucking bastard. I just got your letter of Feb 25 from Le Grande Hotel in Roma, you swine! Here you are running around fucking Italy in that filthy white suit at a thousand bucks a day laying all kinds of stone gibberish & honky bullshit on those poor wops who can’t tell the difference . . . while I’m out here in the middle of these goddamn frozen mountains in a death-battle with the taxman & nursing cheap wine while my dogs go hungry & my cars explode and a legion of nazi layers makes my life a goddamn Wobbly nightmare…
You decadent pig. Where the fuck do you get the nerve to go around telling those wops that I’m crazy? You worthless cocksucker. My Italian tour is already arranged for next spring & I’m going to do the whole goddamn trip wearing a bright red field marshal’s uniform & accompanied by six speed-freak bodyguards bristling with Mace bombs & when I start talking about American writers & the name Tom Wolfe comes up, by god, you’re going to wish you were born a fucking iguana!!
OK for that, you thieving pile of albino warts. You better settle your goddamn affairs because your deal is about to go down. “Unprofessorial,” indeed! You scurvy wop! I’ll have your goddamn femurs ground into bone splinters if you ever mention my name again in connection with that horrible “new journalism” shuck you’re promoting.
Ah, this greed, this malignancy! Where will it end? What filthy weight in your soul has made you sink so low? Doctor Bloor was wright! Hyenas are taking over the world! Oh Jesus!!! What else can I say? Except to warn you, once again, that the hammer of justice looms, and that your filthy white suit will become a flaming shroud!
In November 2013 the New York Public Library paid $2.15 million for Wolfe’s papers. He was a hoarder, saving anything on paper in 190 boxes – “tailor’s bills, to-do lists, reader letters, lecture notes, book blurbs, requests for book blurbs, drawings, ideas for drawings never executed (“Nude Skydiver Devoured in Midair by Ravenous Owls”), and dozens of sexually explicit and totally insane letters from a female stalker, including one consisting chiefly of 17 pages of red lip prints…He kept postcards from friends with hardly anything written on them; he kept all the Christmas cards; he kept morning-after notes from New York society ladies:
“Dear Tom, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking I am a prevert [sic] or a sex fiend or something but actually, I have never tried to give anyone after dinner gropes before. Well not at the table anyway….
Don’t be mad at me.
Please.” [November 17, 1964.]
A saved invitation harks:
Mrs. Leonard Bernstein
requests the pleasure of your company
at 895 Park Avenue
on Wednesday January 14 at 5 o’clock
To meet and hear from the leaders of the Black Panther
Wolfe had the reporter’s chutzpah and blag. Michael Lewis explains how Wolfe spotted the invite, marked for the attention of another, and felt this s nose twitch:
He called the number to R.S.V.P. “This is Tom Wolfe,” he said, “and I accept.” And they just take his name down, and he’s on the guest list. He never tells Halberstam what he’s done. He simply takes out a brand-new green steno notebook with the spirals on top and writes on the cover, in his new rococo script: Panther Night at Leonard Bernstein’s. And then he’s off, to see the world, anew.
The night helped shape his 1970 story in New York magazine, entitled These Radical Chic Evenings – a term he coined (His a neologistic frame of mind also gave to the English language The Right Stuff, The Me Decade and Masters of The Universe.)
In 1991, he aded:
Fortunately the world is full of people with information-compulsion who want to tell you their stories. They want to tell you things that you don’t know. They’re some of the greatest allies that any writer has.
And write from the heart. When his Yale professors rejected the topic of his thesis – Communist influences on American writers, 1928–1942 – Wolfe showed bis versalitity in a letter to a friend dated June 9, 1956.
“These stupid fucks have turned down namely my dissertation, meaning I will have to stay here about a month longer to delete all the offensive passages and retype the sumitch. They called my brilliant manuscript ‘journalistic’ and ‘reactionary,’ which means I must go through with a blue pencil and strike out all the laughs and anti-Red passages and slip in a little liberal merde, so to speak, just to sweeten it. I’ll discuss with you how stupid all these stupid fucks are when I see you.”