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Wolfe, pioneering ‘New Journalist,’ dead at 88

  • President George W. Bush (left) poses with author Tom Wolfe during the National Endowment for the Arts National Medal Awards ceremony in April 2002. AP file

  • CORRECTS AGE TO 88 - FILE - This November 1986 file photo shows author Tom Wolfe. Wolfe died at a New York City hospital. He was 88. Additional details were not immediately available. (AP Photo, File)

  • CORRECTS AGE TO 88 - FILE - This Oct. 23, 2012 file photo shows author Tom Wolfe at a book signing for his novel "Back to Blood" at Barnes & Noble in New York. Wolfe died at a New York City hospital. He was 88. Additional details were not immediately available. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, file) Charles Sykes

  • CORRECTS AGE TO 88 - FILE - In this July 26, 2016 file photo, American author and journalist Tom Wolfe, Jr. appears in his living room during an interview about his latest book, "The Kingdom of Speech," in New York. Wolfe died at a New York City hospital. He was 88. Additional details were not immediately available. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File) Bebeto Matthews

  • CORRECTS AGE TO 88 - FILE - In this June 25, 2008 file photo, author Tom Wolfe arrives to a special screening of "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" in New York. Wolfe died at a New York City hospital. He was 88. Additional details were not immediately available. (AP Photo/Peter Kramer, File) Peter Kramer



Associated Press
Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Tom Wolfe, the white-suited wizard of “New Journalism” who exuberantly chronicled American culture from the Merry Pranksters through the space race before turning his satiric wit to such novels as The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full, has died. He was 88.

Wolfe’s literary agent, Lynn Nesbit, told the Associated Press that he died of an infection Monday in a New York City hospital. Further details were not immediately available.

An acolyte of French novelist Emile Zola and other authors of “realistic” fiction, the stylishly-attired Wolfe was an American maverick who insisted that the only way to tell a great story was to go out and report it. Along with Gay Talese, Truman Capote and Nora Ephron, he helped demonstrate that journalism could offer the kinds of literary pleasure found in books.

His hyperbolic, stylized writing work was a gleeful fusillade of exclamation points, italics and improbable words. An ingenious phrase maker, he helped brand such expressions as “radical chic” for rich liberals’ fascination with revolutionaries; and the “Me” generation, defining the self-absorbed baby boomers of the 1970s.

“He was an incredible writer,” Talese told the AP on Tuesday. “And you couldn’t imitate him. When people tried it was a disaster. They should have gotten a job at a butcher’s shop.”

Wolfe was both a literary upstart, sneering at the perceived stuffiness of the publishing establishment, and an old-school gentleman who went to the best schools and encouraged Michael Lewis and other younger writers. When attending promotional luncheons with fellow authors, he would make a point of reading their latest work.

“What I hope people know about him is that he was a sweet and generous man,” Lewis, known for such books as Moneyball and The Big Short, told the AP in an email Tuesday. “Not just a great writer but a great soul. He didn’t just help me to become a writer. He did it with pleasure.”

Wolfe scorned the reluctance of American writers to confront social issues and warned that self-absorption and master’s programs would kill the novel. “So the doors close and the walls go up!” he wrote in his 1989 literary manifesto, Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast. He was astonished that no author of his generation had written a sweeping, 19th century style novel about contemporary New York City, and ended up writing one himself, The Bonfire of the Vanities.

His work broke countless rules but was grounded in old-school journalism, in an obsessive attention to detail that began with his first reporting job and endured for decades.

“Nothing fuels the imagination more than real facts do,” Wolfe told the AP in 1999. “As the saying goes, ‘You can’t make this stuff up.’ ”

Wolfe’s interests were vast, but his narratives had a common theme. Whether sending up the New York art world or hanging out with acid heads, Wolfe inevitably presented man as a status-seeking animal, concerned above all about the opinion of one’s peers. Wolfe himself dressed for company – his trademark a pale three-piece suit, impossibly high shirt collar, two-tone shoes and a silk tie. And he acknowledged that he cared – very much – about his reputation.

“My contention is that status is on everybody’s mind all of the time, whether they’re conscious of it or not,” Wolfe, who lived in a 12-room apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, told the AP in 2012.

In 1978, Wolfe married Sheila Berger, art director of Harper’s magazine. They had two children, Alexandra and Tommy.

He enjoyed the highest commercial and critical rewards. His literary honors included the American Book Award (now called the National Book Award) for The Right Stuff and a nomination for the National Book Critics Circle prize for The Bonfire of the Vanities, one of the top 10 selling books of the 1980s. Its 1998 follow-up, A Man in Full, was another bestseller and a National Book Award nominee. Wolfe satirized college misbehavior in I Am Charlotte Simmons and was still at it in his 80s with Back to Blood, a sprawling, multicultural story of sex and honor set in Miami.

Wolfe began his journalism career as a reporter at the Springfield (Massachusetts) Union in 1957. But it wasn’t until the mid-1960s, while a magazine writer for New York and Esquire, that his work made him a national trendsetter.

Wolfe had an unsuccessful pitching tryout with the New York Giants before heading to Yale University, from which he earned a Ph.D. in American studies. His career didn’t immediately take off; Wolfe once took the Associated Press writing test and “dismally failed,” he later recounted, noting that he was faulted for embellishing the test material, a primal sin at the AP.

But in 1957, he joined the Springfield paper and instantly fell in love with journalism. Two years later he jumped to The Washington Post, where he won Washington Newspaper Guild awards in 1960 for his coverage of U.S.-Cuban affairs.