Thursday, May 17, 2018

Lifelong admiration

Blooming azaleas at Cherry Hill in Central Park. 4:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Thursday, May 17, 2018. It rained yesterday in New York. Mainly lightly but all day and into the night. Temperatures dropped into the high 50s. But it was a Spring rain, the kind that reminds you how important it is to all the vegetation and our ultimate needs. The green is everywhere in my neighborhood, with the park nearby and the tree outside my window. Looking out on that tree is my daily reminder.
Tom Wolfe, one of the leading voices of the last half of the 20th century American culture, died on Monday, as the world knows by now.

I never knew him, and I was flattered when his daughter once told me that he “knew who I was.” I’m not certain that I never met him, although I know we never had a conversation. My certainty is based on my lifelong admiration for his talent as a writer.

Tom Wolfe photographed by Jill Krementz in 1964; all rights reserved
In imagining his persona as we do with people we admire but don’t know, he had a witty and lucid, intellectual mind, and a contemporary turn of thought. By contemporary, I mean his era of contemporary – which was the post-World War II in the enormously prospering America that in the ensuing decades gained in technology and lost its mojo.

In many ways he was the man of that hour – a time when radical change culturally and perhaps politically was festering, getting ready to bloom. It was a time when there were three major political assassinations, all in the five years between 1963 to 1968, and all of which remain an unsettled mystery to this day.

If literature were music, Tom Wolfe’s voice was in a modern opera. A modern American opera, that is. I read somewhere that Emile Zola was his imagined master. The term “radical chic” came out of an article he wrote in 1970 for New York magazine. It was about a fund-raising party Leonard Bernstein hosted for the Black Panthers, inviting a lot of celebrity Establishment New Yorkers to attend. Tom Wolfe was covering the gilded waterfront in the times that were a-changin’.

I first saw him at a party in the Village in the early 1960s. I don’t recall the party, except for the living room which had red flock wallpaper where he was standing by himself, his backto the wall, a drink in hand, talking to no one but simply taking it all in. There was the slightest natural twinkle in the eye and the slightest smile on his face, standing erect and alone, and looking quite comfortable with the situation. I liked to imagine he was taking notes, composing his next piece.

His sartorial style clearly depicted the word “dandy,” although on the modern side. It was in no way eccentric, but rather a cut above, not unlike Fred Astaire (although Wolfe didn’t look like he was about to break into a dance), neither forced nor pretentious, but stood out. It wasn’t the white suit that later became his public signature after he was famous, but it was precise and evoked an earlier era of formality. I was impressed.
Tom Wolfe, second from left, at New York magazine in 1967 with, from left, George Hirsch, Gloria Steinem, Clay Felker, Peter Maas, Jimmy Breslin and Milton Glaser. Photograph by Jill Krementz; all rights reserved
I had already read his pieces with awe and wonder in the Herald-Tribune’s Sunday supplement, New York magazine.

He was almost overnight popular. With his wit, and curiosity, he opened up a new door to the language because he was also deadly serious in his portraits of the characters or individuals he wrote about. He was hot because he was imaginative in his sentences and the language (like “radical chic”). And if he had a political point of view (I much later learned that he did), it was expressed in terms of irony and satire rather than in terms of parties and constituencies.
Wolfe at the PEN dinner, 1987. Photo: Mary Hilliard.
In all those years that he lived here in New York and during when I lived here — the 60s through the 70s;  and then again from 1992 — I’d see him occasionally walking in the street (he had a strong but easy gait), He was married to a very important magazine art director, Sheila Berger, and they had two children, Alexandra and Tommy.

About ten or fifteen years ago, I was interviewed by his daughter Alexandra Wolfe who was then working at the New York Observer (and now writes a weekly column for the Wall Street Journal). The interview was over the phone. She has a friendly, dryly cheerful manner, and conveys a serious interest with ease, in whomever she is talking to. It is genuine and very agreeable. I quickly learned she is open-minded and was easily amused by my responses. In other words I soon learned that I could make her laugh. Making someone laugh always evokes the freshest kind of flattery to me, ham that I am. I also learned from that first interview that she was smart and quick-witted. Like father like daughter.
Tom Wolfe with his wife Sheila Berger and their two children Thomas and Alexandra in 2011 at the National Magazine Awards. Photograph by Jill Krementz; all rights reserved
Over time Alexandra and I developed one of those New York friendships where we see each other infrequently but always have a sense of the pleasure of friendship when we meet. She has a kind of bright-eyed enthusiasm that is borne not so much of adolescence (which she is not), but of a good upbringing. Her self-confidence is natural and so is her natural sensitivity to others.

It was that quality that led me to conclude that she came from a solidly stable family. This is conjecture, of course, although, having also met her mother, Sheila, a couple of times, I could add to the conclusion that I was right. It was a family of creative imaginations, stable domestic environments (parental marriages), and a healthy respect for the good.
“Living Landmark” Tom Wolfe at the New York Landmarks Conservancy dinner in November 2017.
Then last November when I was among the honorees as a “Living Landmark” at the New York Landmarks Conservancy dinner at the Plaza Hotel. Tom Wolfe was being feted, along with me and the comparably distinguished Frank Stella, Robert E. L. Stern, Sydie Lansing, Marica and Jan Vilcek, Patsy and Jeff Tarr. The Wolfes’ table was closest to the stage, and as I was taking my turn waiting to go onstage to collect the award, I was seated next to their table where Father Wolfe had Mother and Daughter and Son Wolfes, and their guests in gales of laughter. The laughter was so light and yet almost rollicking, and steady, that this writer could only conclude that was what the man’s world was like.

A few minutes later when it came time for him to take the stage, he accepted his “honor” with a Wolfe-ian sense of that humor that evoked the laughter in his family.
Host Paul Binder (front row, right) with his year's class of "Living Landmarks": Tom Wolfe, Suydam (Sydie) Lansing, Robert A.M. Stern, David Patrick Columbia, Jeff and Patsy Tarr, Marica and Jan Vilcek, and Frank Stella. Photo: Cutty McGill.
He was a Southern boy, well educated, a good athlete (baseball – even had early tryouts for one of the majors), the editor of his school paper, a graduate student with an obvious interest in culture and history. He started out as a reporter with the Newhouses’ Springfield (Mass.) Union (which at that time was the paper I read in high school), and soon moved up into New York. Very few years later he was writing in the new hot magazine in town, New York. That was almost 60 years ago, the beginning of a long and successful life as a novelist and family man. He was a man who defined his time in his work, as did a favorite novelist, Emile Zola. He carried it all with congenial dignity and steady productivity.

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