Tom Wolfe is having a moment. The white-suited, blue-eyed mischief-making enfant terrible who invented “The ‘Me’ Decade” and “Radical Chic,” and coined the phrase “New Journalism” in the 1970s to describe himself and journalists such as Gay Talese, Joan Didion, and Hunter S. Thompson, is coming around for another lap.
Television writer David E. Kelley has completed shooting a limited-series Netflix adaptation of Wolfe’s 1998 novel, A Man in Full, starring Jeff Daniels and Diane Lane and directed by Regina King. This month, Radical Wolfe, a documentary narrated by Jon Hamm and based on a Vanity Fair profile of Wolfe by Michael Lewis, opens at the IFC Center, in Manhattan, and at the Laemmle Royal, in Los Angeles.
Negotiations for a Warner Bros. limited-series adaptation of Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities are expected to resume when the writers’ strike ends. (The 1990 Brian De Palma movie version of The Bonfire of the Vanities, starring Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, and Melanie Griffith, bombed. Hanks later approached Wolfe at a Manhattan restaurant and apologized for the film.)
Off-screen, Picador is commissioning new introductions and jacket art for several of Wolfe’s generation-defining nonfiction books, including The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.
“It all sort of happened at the same time,” says Wolfe’s wife, Sheila, of her late husband’s cultural-cinematic revival. (Wolfe died in 2018, at age 88.) Sheila was speaking on a recent sun-dappled morning in the library of the white, Italianate-style home, built in 1879 in Southampton, where she and Wolfe and their two kids spent summers and holidays.
Upstairs was the office Wolfe wrote in when on Long Island. Wolfe’s car, a 1996 Buick Roadmaster station wagon, a burgundy model he had repainted all in white with white hubcaps and a white leather interior, was parked outside. “Tom would be working at his desk and he’d look out the window and always say, ‘Isn’t that the most beautiful car in the world?’” says Sheila.
A former art director at Esquire, and later at Harper’s, Sheila met her husband in the late 1960s. “I was an assistant in the Esquire art department,” she says. “And Tom was going to see Harold Hayes, the editor. He says he asked Hayes, ‘Who is that girl in the snakeskin dress?’ We love this story because it was not snakeskin. It was a snakeskin print. You’d see snakeskin prints all the time.”
They married in 1978 and found themselves launched on the Upper East Side party circuit around the time The Right Stuff, Wolfe’s 1979 book about test pilots selected for NASA’s Project Mercury space program, won the National Book Award for Nonfiction and became a best-seller. “People’s houses, like Oscar and Françoise de la Renta,” says Ms. Wolfe. “I had never seen anything like this. Neither had Tom, for that matter. Brooke Astor’s dinners.”
At the parties, Sheila did stealth reporting. “It was hard for Tom to observe everything because he was the center of attention,” says Sheila. “I was able to sit on the sidelines and observe things.” And when they got home—a town house on East 62nd Street—they would share their impressions. It was material Wolfe would use, concocting terms such as “Masters of the Universe” and “social X-rays,” in The Bonfire of the Vanities, his 1987 best-seller. Despite being lampooned, New York society loved him even more. “The invitations kept coming,” says Ms. Wolfe.
“Dad told me the key to being a reporter is to realize that other people have ‘information compulsion,’” said Wolfe’s daughter, Alexandra, who is also a writer in New York. “If you give people space, if there’s any silence, someone will want to fill it in and give you information.”
While Wolfe could be a merciless satirist on the page, in private he was benign. “He never lost his temper,” says Alexandra. “I never heard him curse, not even once. I was shocked when I first read Bonfire of the Vanities. I was like, ‘Dad, you curse! What are you doing? You used the f-word!’ Because we weren’t even allowed to say ‘stink.’ We’d have to say, ‘Well, that smells bad.’”
“The key to being a reporter is to realize that other people have ‘information compulsion.’”
“I was the one who cursed and yelled,” says Sheila. “Which would get him so upset. He would visibly be shaken if there was any yelling in the house.”
“Everyone I interviewed for the documentary talked about how gentle and kind Wolfe was,” says Richard Dewey, the director of the Radical Wolfe documentary. “[The journalist] Gail Sheehy talked about Tom coming over when [her husband and New York magazine co-founder] Clay Felker was sick and reading to him by his bedside. And he was always writing letters, handwritten letters, to people. He wrote letters to the people who moved into his childhood home, 40 years after he moved out.”
Wolfe was born in 1930 and raised comfortably in Richmond, Virginia, the son of bookish parents who doted on him and “always saw him as a force unto himself,” says Alexandra. Wolfe’s father, Thomas Wolfe Sr., a Ph.D. from Cornell, was the editor of The Southern Planter, a farming magazine, and his mother, Helen Perkins Wolfe, an accomplished home gardener. His father kept the novels of Thomas Wolfe on his bookshelf. “For years I thought he’d written them,” Wolfe told Vanity Fair in 1987.
Wolfe went to an Episcopal prep school, St. Christopher’s, in Richmond. For the rest of his life, he would wear socks bearing the St. Christopher’s logo to the gym. College was Washington and Lee, followed by five years at Yale, where he earned a Ph.D. in American studies and rankled his thesis advisers with his pyrotechnic writing style.
A strong baseball pitcher, Wolfe tried out for the New York Giants but didn’t make the team. Journalism would be his sport. He went to work as a reporter at The Spingfield Union in Springfield, Massachusetts, and at The Washington Post, where he reported from Cuba, before arriving at the New York Herald Tribune in 1962.
“He was always proud of being from Richmond,” says Alexandra. “He never thought, I want to be a New Yorker. I mean, he became a New Yorker, but he always thought of himself as a Southerner.”
“I knew a lot of Southern writers who came to New York,” says Gay Talese. “William Styron lived in my house. I knew Willie Morris, from Mississippi, who edited Harper’s. Most of them wanted to blend in as New Yorkers. But Tom never tried to blend in. He was a visitor. He saw the city with a kind of detached air of amusement and a certain disregard for its posturing. He stood apart from the city, and he saw it from a distance with a severity of vision.”
Notably, Wolfe never wrote about Richmond. “Maybe I want a safe harbor to come back to,” he told Vanity Fair.
“He became a New Yorker, but he always thought of himself as a Southerner.”
The Tom Wolfe origin story—when Tom Wolfe became “Tom Wolfe”—begins with a case of writer’s block. In 1963 he was writing for the New York Herald Tribune’s Sunday supplement, which under Felker’s editorship would become New York magazine, when a newspaper strike erupted. Needing money, Wolfe pitched Esquire a story on the hot-rod custom-car culture erupting in California.
He finished his reporting and found he couldn’t write. He tried to back out, but the color pages of the magazine had already been printed. Esquire editor Byron Dobell told him to just send his notes and they could find someone to re-write him. Wolfe stayed up all night typing up his notes. Dobell crossed out the “Dear Byron” and published the notes as a piece, “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmmm)…”
Suddenly everyone wanted a piece of Wolfe. “Tom was a superstar and being pursued by everyone in New York,” says literary agent Lynn Nesbit. “Every agent was after him. And I was the new kid on the block. I was barely an agent. I was a baby. I asked him over the years, ‘Why in the world did you ever come with me?’ And he said, ‘Because you were the only agent who didn’t want me to write a novel first. You said we could sell a book of my pieces.’”
“I was on The New York Times as a reporter when I met Tom in 1961 or ’60,” says Talese. “He knew how to use the language in such a unique way that no one could imitate him. When he started becoming famous for his New York magazine pieces and Esquire pieces, and later his books, many younger writers would try to pick up on that. And it was such a disaster, because the guy could not be imitated.”
Wolfe’s most infamous piece remains “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” his 1970 New York magazine account of a cocktail party the composer Leonard Bernstein and his wife gave for the Black Panthers.
“It’s already hard to remember, but there was a strong intellectual fashion in the late 60’s to be on the side of various radical causes,” Wolfe told Book Digest in 1980. “I was a heretic for saying there was something amusing about Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Bernstein giving a party for the Black Panthers in their 13-room duplex on Park Avenue, at which the Black Panthers were invited to rise up and tell all assembled exactly what horrible things would happen to them the day the Black Panthers had their way. And of course the Black Panthers obliged.”
“He was a killer,” says Talese. “He wrote about Leonard Bernstein, and Leonard Bernstein’s whole career—which probably existed for 30 years before Tom Wolfe went to that party—was affected. People remember that goddamned party.” Notably, the party is not portrayed in Bradley Cooper’s much-praised Leonard Bernstein biopic, Maestro.
“Wolfe thought status was at the heart of everything,” says Richard Dewey, when asked why Wolfe is making a comeback. “I think culture has become even more status-focused, with social media and things like that. It could be the case that society is organizing and trending in a way that makes Wolfe’s work resonate even stronger.”
“He was a killer.”
A Man in Full is the story of Charlie Croker, a quail-hunting Southern real-estate developer facing bankruptcy—financial and physical and psychological. Like Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities, Charlie Croker is one of Wolfe’s “Masters of the Universe,” who finds himself undone by a combination of hubris and bad luck against a background of shifting social status, corporate greed, new and old money, racial politics, and marital strife. In the David E. Kelley adaptation, he’s played by Jeff Daniels.
“You are struck by how prescient Wolfe is,” says Kelley, whose streaming hits include HBO’s Big Little Lies and Love & Death. “The themes he was writing about in A Man in Full, if you look at that, he wrote that in the 90s. They’re almost more ripe today.”
To Gay Talese, Wolfe has been conspicuous by his absence. “You feel there’s certainly an emptiness in your own life because he filled so much of it with his wisdom and his writing,” says Talese. “A lot of writers, I don’t want to be disrespectful of the departed, nobody does, but a lot of writers you don’t miss.”
“When he went, our history kind of disappeared a little with his physical presence,” says Wolfe’s friend Jann Wenner, who serialized The Right Stuff, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and A Man in Full in Rolling Stone. “New York became a different place. He just had that presence. I always particularly thought of that in terms of Jackie Onassis. After she died, New York was just a different place.”
A hint of autumn was in the air in Southampton. “I think he thought he’d live forever,” says Sheila Wolfe. “We never, ever talked about death. Never talked about it, even when he was ill or dying or at the end, or even when he was frail. We never made any plans. The subject didn’t come up.”
“In the documentary, Dad says, ‘Your soul is your relationship with other people, and that’s the part of you that doesn’t die,’” says Alexandra. “I love that. I never knew he felt like that.”
Wolfe is buried in Richmond next to his parents.
Peter Stevenson and George Gurley are New York–based writers