Henry Grunwald, Joyce Carol Oates, Taki, Ned Rorem, Annie Leibovitz, and others recall encounters with Tom Wolfe, the dandyish inventor of New Journalism and novelist, who died Monday at age 87.
1. Tidewater Virginian Gentleman
…into the clackety-clack chaos of the [New York Herald] Trib’s city room…Every desk was occupied by a man and every man wore the same shirt and tie. Except two. I spotted Tom Wolfe. He looked different [as did the tie-less and rumpled Jimmy Breslin]. His longish silky hair curled over the well-turned collar of an English-tailored tweed suit. He looked like a Tidewater Virginian gentleman, which he was. His lips were locked in a concupiscent smile. Of course, I thought he must be flicking open his satirical switchblade to dice up the status strivings of some sacred cow who had no idea he was about to be skewered. (Tom had not yet effected the wardrobe of a contemporary Beau Brummell in white suits and spats, not on a salary of $130 a week.)
Wolfe’s prose was the opposite. He invented unforgettable code phrases—“the right stuff,” the “statusphere,” and “social x-rays.” He exuded excesses of hyperbole never before seen on a black-and-white page. He spotted the first “Tycoon of Teen,” Phil Spector, and he was the first to explain the vision of Marshall McLuhan. The most mind-blowing of Wolfe’s early articles examined the LSD life of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters.
…Tom Wolfe did exchange a few words with me, in passing, and I hung on them. “The Herald Tribune is like the main Tijuana bullring for competition among feature writers,” he told me. “You have to be brave.” (New York, 1964)
—From Daring: My Passages, by Gail Sheehy (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2014)
2. Many White Suits
On my third trip to New York I bought the publishing rights in a book of essays called Candy Stream Line Flake Baby [sic]. The author was a leading exponent of the ‘new journalism.’ His name was Tom Wolfe. In addition to being an excellent essayist and a superb stylist with a range from art to astronauts, he was something of a celebrity about town and a famous ladies’ man. A trademark of Tom’s, then and now, has been the wearing of white suits. I remember our [Jonathan Cape] Publicity Director asking him when in London how he managed to keep his suit so immaculately white. He took her to his dressing room and opened the cupboard. There, hanging in a row, were six perfect white suits.
…He is exceptionally gracious, soft-spoken and well-read, and has immaculate manners. He is also outstandingly intelligent, with the enquiring mind of a superb journalist. He is a passionately caring person. Many years ago [TM’s wife] Regina had a mysterious ailment that we thought the Mayo Clinic in America might cure. Tom went out of his way to introduce us to not one but two of the leading professors there and he wrote to them as if we were his closest friends.
—From Publisher, by Tom Maschler (Picador, 2005)
3. Conversationally Frugal
The form [“New Journalism”] was invented by Tom Wolfe, a young writer of genteel Virginia background who had become a familiar character on the New York scene in his white suits. As I came to know him—we were never friends but friendly dinner party acquaintances—I was struck by his extreme frugality in conversation. He obviously saved his words for his writing and used his slightly absurd, dandyish appearance as effective camouflage from behind which he observed his surroundings with merciless precision, precision that was heightened by an almost surrealist imagination.
There were other practitioners of the New Journalism, some with greater literary credentials and fewer stylistic quirks, including Norman Mailer and Truman Capote. There were also Wolfe imitators for whom the New Journalism came down to writing themselves into an article, tediously going on about their reaction to the wallpaper or to being kept waiting. Wolfe remained the master. While he was unfailingly polite, I sometimes imagined him as poking me in the ribs and saying: “How are you fellows at Time going to keep up with me? I’m skating circles around you.” (late 1960s)
—From One Man’s America: A Journalist’s Search for the Heart of His Country, by Henry Grunwald (Doubleday, 1997)
4. What He Was Trying to Prove
…The genre [New Journalism] was famously pioneered by Tom Wolfe in his experimental articles published by the long-defunct New York Herald-Tribune and his books about the 1960s with their wigged-out titles like The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, and The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test…”One of the points I wanted to prove,” Wolfe told me when I interviewed him in Vancouver in 1972, “was that novels and non-fiction should be written the same way. You are bringing some news to the reader, and you have a solid grounding in fact and detail. It ascends from here.” His boyish, preppy head incongruously sticking out of his signature white suit and stiffed-necked collars, Wolfe kept asking me polite questions about Canada and Marshall McLuhan.
—From Here Be Dragons: Telling Tales of People, Passion and Power, by Peter C. Newman (McClelland and Stewart, 2004)
5. Very Proper, No Sweat
On one level, Tom Wolfe operated very much like Hunter [Thompson] did. Tom got his stories from odds-and-ends moments. But Tom wasn’t at all like Hunter temperamentally. Tom was very proper. He always wore long-sleeved shirts, and even if it was 95 degrees out and a 100 percent humidity he never sweated. Everyone was sweating through their clothes and Tom was completely dry. Hunter sweated a lot…
I went with Tom to Florida to cover [for Rolling Stone magazine] the launch of Apollo 17, NASA’s last manned flight to the moon. That’s when Tom started doing the research on astronauts that led to The Right Stuff. It was interesting to be with Tom because you got in everywhere. There were all these parties before the launch. (1972)
—From Annie Leibovitz at Work, by Annie Leibovitz (Random House, 2008)
6. Flow of Fashion
Everyone has a different definition of what the New Journalism is. It’s the use of fictional techniques, it’s composite characterization, it’s the art form that’s replacing the novel, which is dying…
…along comes Tom Wolfe, the Boswell of the boutiques, with a history of the New Journalism that never mentions Kempton, Cannon, or Stone. Or Lillian Ross and Joe Mitchell, who wrote for the rival New Yorker. Or any [Village] Voice writer, for that matter. Like any faithful Boswell, Wolfe only mentions his friends.
…He is a gifted, original writer, but he has the social conscience of an ant. Wolfe is a dandy. His basic interest is the flow of fashion, in the tics and trinkets of the rich.
But if Wolfe represents a conservative, or perhaps apolitical approach, there is also the committed school of Stone, Kempton, Royko, Halbertsam, Wicker, Cowar, Hentoff and many others. …
—From The Education of Jack Newfield, by Jack Newfield (St. Martin’s Press, 1984)
7. Nice Person
April 13, 1978. Yesterday, to Ann Arbor, there to meet with Tom Wolfe, who gave the Hopwood Address in the Rackham Bldg., the same building I spoke in two weeks ago exactly (surprising, that the seats weren’t all filled for his talk): Wolfe in his trademark vanilla ice cream suit with pale blue shirt and pale blue socks and white shoes (rather rushing the season, those shoes), a nice person, warm and congenial and, offstage, not at all pretentious. His talk was low-keyed and superficial, perhaps aimed for a somewhat younger (or less intelligent) audience. I am thinking of writing him a letter…We talked a bit, though not at great length. The two of us were “guests of honor” at the Inglus House dinner following the reception, which meant that we were many yards apart, at either end of a very long table.
From The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates 1973-1982, by Joyce Carol Oates (HarperCollins, 2007)
I used to read Wolfe and think, “Well, fuck you! God touched you and made you a fucking genius, and that’s the end of it!” Then in the mid-eighties I walked in to the offices of Rolling Stone one afternoon and saw him working at a desk. He was writing The Bonfire of the Vanities in biweekly installments at the time, and I looked in his eyes and saw the haunted, hunted animal look I know I have in my eyes when the shit is hitting the fan. And I thought to myself, “God bless you, Tom. You’re a working stiff after all.” (New York, mid-1980s)
—From The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft, by Robert S. Boynton (Vintage Books, 2005)
…a short note from [wife] Alexandra saying that Tom and Sheila Wolfe had called to offer their support. The great Tom had already rung me while I was waiting for my appeal [of a conviction for cocaine possession, which resulted in three months in London’s Pentonville Prison], a kindness I shall not soon forget…Like all large talents, Tom is supportive of lesser ones. And he’s no prima donna. He is as kind and considerate and gentle in his dealings with people as his literary style is precise and devastatingly accurate.
He and his wife and their two children live across the street from us in Southampton [N.Y.], but they prefer a quiet life and I don’t see much of them. But I treasure their friendship. …
I like everything Tom has ever written, but my favorite remains his demolition job on the ‘radical chic’ of Mr. [Leonard] Bernstein’s cocktail party…
—From Nothing to Declare: Prison Memoirs, by Taki (Viking, 1991)
10. Candle in a White Suit
Had a terrific drink tonight with Tom Wolfe, who is tall and thin like a candle in his white suit, with a dryness suddenly illuminated by joyous shafts of pure malice…I told him I was having dinner with Martin Amis. “Ah, the rising novelist of thirty-four. Funny how you are a hardened thief at thirty but a rising novelist at thirty-four.” Outside it was pouring rain and we lingered over our drink at Le Périgord. He told me he is finishing his new novel about New York and the “masters of the universe” of Wall Street [The Bonfire of the Vanities]. (New York, 1983)
—From The Vanity Fair Diaries 1983-1992, by Tina Brown (Henry Holt, 2017)
11. Lost Scene
…Wolfe’s attack on The New Yorker [in the New York Herald Tribune in 1965]…
…In the lead paragraph of his first part, he had described in lavish detail a scene in [editor William] Shawn’s office. A prospective contributor was visiting. While Shawn huddled behind the stack of manuscripts on his desk, the visitor, nervously and unthinkingly, lit a cigarette. After a couple of drags, he noticed to his dismay (though Shawn said nothing) that there were no ashtrays in the room. Desperately he reached for an empty Coca-Cola bottle and deposited the offending cigarette, point down, into its base. The barely smoked weed—all smokers will recognize this picture—continued to burn, and, as the visitor watched in mounting anguish, and Shawn smiled enigmatically from behind the barricade of his manuscripts, the brown smoke curled acridly into the unventilated room. …
And yet, as we learned from Dwight MacDonald, Wolfe had never been there. He had, unforgivably, made the incident up. …
…Wearing his trademark white suit, Wolfe is as insouciantly charming in our [1987 CBC] interview as his writing is energetic in print. After much palaver…I pop the question. Does he remember the scene? Of course. Where did he get it? He has, he confesses disarmingly, no idea now. He’d have to look at his notes. Concerned lest I take an already self-indulgent interview further down the lane of autobiography, I turn to other matters. (Toronto)
—From The Private Voice: A Journal of Reflections, by Peter Gzowski (McClelland and Stewart, 1988)
12. Sartorial Splendor
24 February 1990. Lunch with Tom Wolfe, who is here [Tokyo] to work up a novel. It has some Japanese in it, and he has come to see some Japanese. Tallish, wide forehead, gray eyes, and much sartorial splendor. He mentions this. “I guess I am old-fashioned,” he says in reference to his Edwardian vest, his watch chain, and his wide-brimmed hat. But it is also a way of dress that alerts people. I had taken him to the Press Club, not the brightest or liveliest place, and everyone recognized him at once and several came sidling up.
He is also interested, understanding, curious. Says very little about himself unless one asks. Wants to learn. Is here for that reason. Is particularly interested in what happens to art here, how it turns into money…
From The Japan Journals 1947-2004, by Donald Richie, ed. by Leza Lowitz (Stone Bridge Press, 2004)
…to be an honoree at a find-raiser for Marymount College…
The pre-prandial cocktail hour at the swanky Palace mezzanine…Wolfe, whom I’ve never met—nor were we introduced—sitting three chairs away, arranged for his famously friendly eyes never to cross with mine, which made clear that he would not be extending his hand, nor encouraging me to do so. What, I wondered, have I ever done to him? Ah yes, it must be that crank letter to the Times, years ago, when I took to task his review of Cecil Beaton’s memoir wherein he twitted queers. Still, is that enough for him to ignore my presence now, rather than, like a suave European, to separate professional feuds from social niceties? He meanwhile might argue he didn’t know who I was. (New York)
From Lies: A Diary 1986-1999, by Ned Rorem (Counterpoint, 2000)
Image Credit: Flickr/Cliff.
In March 1986, my first winter in New York, I was mugged in a deserted parking lot a few blocks north of Madison Square Park while coming home from a party downtown. It’s a funny story, actually. My mugger was unarmed, basically a panhandler who’d decided to take the direct approach, and by the time it was over I’d talked him into giving me my money back. But what strikes me now, thinking back on that night, is how alien my mugging story seems to the New York I live in now. My old neighborhood, which now goes by the trendy moniker NoMad, was then a sketchy warren of all-night bodegas and welfare hotels. A block from where I was mugged a friend of mine was held up at gunpoint by a nine-year-old. A girl I dated fended off a would-be rapist who surprised her on her apartment building’s elevator by biting the man on the face. And on just about any night you could walk along 23rd Street below Madison Square Park where the hookers hung out and see car after car with Jersey plates parked along the sidewalk, lights off, the motor running, a half-naked girl draped over the driver’s seat.
That New York is gone now, buried beneath a glossy veneer of banker dollars and realtor blarney. In his new book, The Savage City, T.J. English pulls back this moneyed façade to expose an angry, crime-ridden New York City all but forgotten in the rush to gentrify picturesque blocks of former ghettos like Harlem and Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant. His tale makes for fascinating history and a necessary corrective for those who imagine the New York of a bygone era as all pencil skirts and three-martini lunches, but it is a story I fear is destined to fall on deaf ears in today’s amnesiac, relentlessly forward-looking city.
English, the author of several earlier books on organized crime, structures The Savage City as a kind of police procedural, following the story of a slow-witted young black man named George Whitmore, who is framed by corrupt police officers for a number of violent crimes, including a headline-grabbing murder of two young white women on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. But English is after bigger game than a simple true-crime thriller. He uses Whitmore’s ten-year ordeal in the New York criminal justice system as a lens onto a broader story of racial conflict, radical politics, and police corruption that takes readers from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the National Mall in 1963 to a series of vicious cop killings carried out by a violent offshoot of the Black Panther Party a decade later.
This tactic of using a reader-friendly narrative device to drive a complex, multi-level work of social history can be risky, but in Whitmore, English has found a perfect vehicle for the story he wants to tell. Quiet, polite, and so nearsighted he was clinically blind, Whitmore, “the proverbial invisible Negro,” was in New Jersey watching Dr. King’s famous speech on television on August 28, 1963 at the moment the two young, white “career girls,” Janice Wylie and Emily Hoffert, were brutally murdered in their apartment on East 88th Street in Manhattan. A few months later, while hunting for work in Brooklyn, Whitmore became ensnared in the investigation of an unrelated sexual assault of a Puerto Rican woman. Whitmore’s description of his police interrogation at the station house that night casts a light on an ugly, violent underworld:
“The detective kept on saying that I was suppose’ to have raped this lady, and then he started punchin’ on me…Then they stood me in front of a chair, and every time I said, ‘I never seen this lady before,’ I got knocked into the chair until I thought the chair was going to break underneath me. I told them, ‘If I told you that I did do what you said I did, I’d be lyin’.’ They called me a liar and kept beatin’ on me. So I just broke down and said, yes.”
After police persuaded him to “confess” to this crime, along with a second unsolved rape case involving a middle-aged black woman, yet another detective tried to get Whitmore to confess to the so-called Career Girls Murders as well. This took some doing, since not only had Whitmore never heard of the Career Girls Murders but he’d never even been to the Upper East Side. No matter. After nearly twenty-four hours of police questioning, he copped to that crime, too, and the next morning the “jig named Whitmore” was paraded before the press as a serial rapist and murderer.
From this beginning, English widens the aperture to include a bent cop on the take named Bill Phillips and a former gangbanger and petty criminal with the chosen name of Dhoruba Bin Wahad, who became a leader of the New York arm of the Black Panther Party. And herein lies the real value of English’s book. Typically, you see these stories handled separately. You get a book like Serpico on the culture of corruption in the New York Police Department that led to the infamous Knapp Commission hearings. Or you get books like Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice or Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flack Catchers, which deal with the politics of the Black Power Movement. Or you get any one of hundreds of books and articles exploring the causes of the rise and fall of the crime epidemic in New York City in the second half of the 20th century. In The Savage City, English combines these three stories into one, arguing in effect that none of them makes sense without a full understanding of the other two.
At times, the disparate threads of English’s narrative threaten to unravel, but what ultimately holds them together is the endemic poverty found in neighborhoods across 1960s New York, especially those populated by recent black transplants from the rural South. “There were no social services in these neighborhoods,” one Italian-American cop recalls:
“Nobody picked up the garbage. In East Harlem people would throw their garbage out the back window and it piled up almost to the first-floor windows. And there were rats everywhere. More than once I saw young children who had toes gnawed to stubs because their apartments were infested with rats.”
Grinding poverty, combined with rigidly enforced residential segregation, begat a culture of lawlessness, which was met, in turn, with violence and indifference from the judicial system, which was run almost entirely by white people. Cops routinely beat confessions out of black suspects they believed to be guilty, and without black lawyers, judges, or in many cases even black jurors, there was no way for an innocent black man to defend himself. Worse, the widespread sense among white police officers and civilians alike that black people were inherently criminal led crooked cops to prey on defenseless ghetto-dwellers. While corrupt policemen wet their beaks in all precincts of the city, English argues, they were especially aggressive in their graft in poor, black neighborhoods. “The truth was, most cops hated the ghetto,” he writes. “And for many it was a short leap from being disgusted by the people and the conditions of that environment to fleecing it shamelessly for personal profit.”
Finally, in the 1960s, black New Yorkers struck back, first through the fiery rhetoric of Black Muslim leader Malcolm X, and after his assassination in 1965, through the far less disciplined leaders of the Black Panther Party. Much of The Savage City is devoted to placing the split between the nonviolent Southern Civil Rights Movement and the more violent Northern Black Power Movement into its proper historical context. In the South, segregation was the law, which meant Dr. King and others could afford to wait for Southern lawmen overplay their hands on national TV and then push the courts to change the laws. In Northern cities like New York, the Bull Connors of the world would never dream of turning their dogs on preachers and innocent school children. They did their violence behind closed doors, which gave Northern race activists little option but to take their fight to the streets, which they did with a vengeance in the late 1960s.
Unlike many historians of the era, especially white liberal ones, who tend to adopt the faintly patronizing stance that to be poor and black is to be by definition without moral complication, English has some sympathy for the white cops. As the violence ratcheted upward in the later years of the decade, hard-line black activists tended to direct their attacks not against ordinary citizens, but against the police, who were often the only white people who actually ventured into the ghetto. By the early 1970s, once the Black Power Movement had run its course and its leaders had split into warring factions, the more extreme elements of the movement unleashed a series of attacks in which cops were lured by false emergency calls and then ambushed. In one especially unsettling incident in 1972, two NYPD officers were gunned down execution style by multiple gunmen, one of whom “danced in the street and fired shots in the air in celebration” after shooting one of the wounded cops in the groin.
English argues that the scars of this savage era lives on today even as New York has been transformed into America’s safest big city, but I’m not so sure. Pockets of abject poverty still exist in New York, and as the Sean Bell killing five years ago attest, New York’s Finest can still be trigger-happy when it comes to young black men. But New York today is nothing like it was a generation ago. In the 1980s, when I first moved here, 42nd Street was a squalid eyesore. The South Bronx looked like a bomb had hit. The subways were terrifying after midnight, and whole neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Northern Manhattan had been laid to waste by crack cocaine. That just is no longer true today. After 9/11, New Yorkers fearful for their safety began to look upward, scanning the skies for low-flying planes, rather than into the dark alleys of their own neighborhoods.
A sense of how utterly the memory of the bad old days has faded in the half century since George Whitmore was framed for the Career Girls Murders can be found in how little critical heat The Savage City has attracted. Jon Stewart put English on The Daily Show, but the New York Times has yet to do a full-scale review, and a Google search for other reviews of The Savage City turns up a smattering of newspaper and blog raves alongside stories about an R&B band called Savage City. This isn’t English’s fault. He has done his part by turning out a terrific work of social history, but he’s spitting in the wind. Since 9/11, and even more so since the election of Barack Obama, New York City – and white America, in general – has been living in a bubble of denial when it comes to the issues of race and poverty. White people say, “Yes, yes, of course racism still exists,” and shake their heads at the ever-growing income gap and the shocking incarceration rates of young black men, but as a society, we lack a communal memory of where these factors can lead. What I don’t know, and what The Savage City cannot tell us, is whether this complacency is rooted in genuine systemic change or whether it is just – well, denial. After all, most white New Yorkers in the early 1960s had no idea how angry the poor black people around them were, either. They, too, lived in a bubble of denial, telling themselves, “Yes, there are racists down South, but here in the North, we all get along just fine.” And then ten years later, radicalized black men were shooting cops in cold blood and dancing with joy over their corpses.