Tom Wolfe and Me, Part I

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Tom Wolfe walking the city streets. Credit: Adam Scull / Alamy Stock Photo

On Saturday March 24 I spent four hours at the New York Public Library looking through Tom Wolfe’s papers, something I’d wanted to do for years.

As a reporter who has taped every interview he’s done, I wanted to see what Wolfe’s shorthand notes looked like, from his interviews with the Merry Pranksters in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, say, or the test pilots and astronauts in The Right Stuff.

Tackling Box 1 of 236 of Tom Wolfe papers at the New York Public Library.

There are nearly 250 boxes of Wolfe’s archives in the NYPL’s vault, thanks to the generosity of Katherine J. Rayner who in 2015 made sure his archives stayed in New York.

For a long profile of Wolfe in Vanity Fair that year, Michael Lewis got the first crack and revealed some of the contents, such as a wonderful letter young Tom wrote to his loving and intellectual parents, Thomas and Helen. It was a great piece and I was jealous and ornery. Why didn’t I get that assignment? I was Tom Wolfe’s biggest fan. And what did Vanity Fair want me to write about at the time? Sex dolls!

I figured it would be a hassle to get access to Wolfe’s papers, even if you were a journalist with an assignment which I didn’t have, and I was afraid of being denied. So I put it off.

Little did I know the Wolfe papers are available to the PUBLIC and all you have to do is ask. Well, “restrictions apply” and you have to request an in-person appointment with a librarian. A few weeks ago I swallowed my pride, screwed up my courage and filled out the online application, and it was approved. A 1 p.m. meeting, that is.

Under flooding conditions I walked 20 blocks down Fifth Avenue and accidentally got on a crosstown bus. That was okay. I left early. Wanted to be right on time. Around 53th and Broadway I realized it was just me and the bus driver. I thought of that old New Yorker cartoon with the empty bus and the buzzer goes off and the driver is spooked … I looked out the window. Despite the downpour Times Square was as packed as ever, with hundreds waiting in line for theater tickets. What would Tom Wolfe think of this wild scene? It hit me. He’d say, “I love living in New York because it’s the state fair every day.”

Didn’t he interview Cassius Clay in the Sheraton Hotel? Yes he did. And met with the publisher of the old Confidential scandal magazine (Robert Harrison) somewhere around here? (Yes, at Lindy’s). Behind me was MoMA which always makes me think of Wolfe’s 1975 masterpiece The Painted Word, just like certain glass box buildings are inextricable from From Bauhaus to Our House.

While remembering the master and walking past the Algonquin Hotel I couldn’t help thinking about his two-part article in 1965 about the New Yorker magazine and its second editor-in-chief, William Shawn (“Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!” and “Lost in the Whichy Thickets”).

There are memory triggers all over the city. The playground by 77th and Fifth Avenue brings to mind his “Nanny Mafia” story. Madison Avenue in the 60s and 70s on the weekend? “The Saturday Route,” with appearances by Greta Garbo, Kenneth Jay Lane, Babs Simpson, John Loeb Jr., and August Heckscher.

The restaurant Isle of Capri on 61st and Third Avenue? Wolfe used to go there. He liked Arab cuisine, too. 62nd Street? His townhouse was between Second and Third. 79th Street? His apartment was off Madison and I was inside it twice. The Union Club on 69th and Park? That’s where I first met him, at my mother’s wedding reception in 1982. It was also the first time I succeeded in getting drunk on red wine. I had to leave the party early and be put into a taxi by the groom. Then another taxi because of the mess I made in the first one. Sorry mom!

Two portraits of Tom Wolfe dominate my mantel.
A stack of all my worn and well-read Tom Wolfe books.

When I shook Wolfe’s hand in East Hampton a year or so later, I was more starstruck and tongue-tied than the time I was introduced to Muhammad Ali in an elevator at the New School. We kidded around. He fluttered his fingers really fast behind my ears, and it sounded like a bird or a playing card in a bicycle spoke.

By then I knew who Wolfe was. I vividly remember the moment my mom (Katherine Bryan) gave me a paperback copy of The Right Stuff. She’d met Tom and Sheila Wolfe at an East 60s block association cocktail party and they hit it off, hung out here and there, spent a long weekend at the Ausable club in the Adirondacks.

My mom Katherine Bryan (right) with Tom and Sheila Wolfe not long after they hit it off at a block association cocktail party.
Tom Wolfe with daughter Alexandra and son Tommy in the Adirondacks where my mom spent a long weekend with the Wolfe family.

I was around for a few dinner parties. At one Wolfe said it has been “a month of Sundays” since he’d last seen me. At another, some of the dozen individuals around the table were drinking wine, making a lot of noise and showing off, except for Wolfe who was quietly, politely listening. I wanted to yell “Shut up everyone! We have Tom Wolfe right here! Ask him some questions, let HIM talk!” When he was asked about a certain topic, he first made it clear that having written about it did not make him an expert. That was cool. Genuinely humble.

After Bonfire of the Vanities came out I thought I noticed similarities to real life. For instance, driving back to the city from LaGuardia one night in the mid-’80s my mom took the exit into the Bronx — Just like Sherman McCoy —and paid a cab driver $30 to help her find the Upper East Side. But who hasn’t made a wrong turn like that, even with GPS? Driving back from the Hamptons not long ago I ended up in New Jersey. On the way from my in-laws in Beaufort, South Carolina to my rental in Charleston, I ended up in Savannah. My six-year-old boy still makes fun of me for that.

From the Tom Wolfe papers: An outline for The Bonfire of the Vanities, 1985.

In 1991, when I was finishing up my fifth year of Kansas University undergrad (playing frisbee, washing dishes, seeing bands, drifting, going nowhere), I received a letter from Wolfe agreeing to an interview: “I’ll be happy to see you. But I must warn you that although you may ask better questions than the ones you asked William Burroughs, I can’t guarantee that you’ll get as good a set of answers. In fact, I doubt that you would … thank you for the Zola short story. I have come to like Zola almost as much as Balzac, the man he based his approach on. But we can talk about this in other matters when I see you.”

I was thrilled and the two months spent studying Wolfe was like being hit by a bolt of lightning on two hits of Owsley acid, a freaking mind blowing revelation, way better than discovering The Fountainhead my sophomore year. Wolfe had cracked all the codes. HE was better than LSD.

Detail from 1st edition cover of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, 1968.

Our interview covered a lot of ground in two hours. Wolfe discussed cultural amnesia and “the Great Relearning”; hygiene in San Francisco in the late ’60s; English journalists in New York; leveraged finance, yuppie angst and moral fever; the psychological novel and brain physiologist Jose Delgado; Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Tolstoy, Carlyle, Max Weber, Madonna, and Camille Paglia. And why he did what he did:

“I think what all writers want, myself included is applause … from everybody. If you get applause from this group, you’re not getting it from that group, you want them both. Writers are seldom happy with the applause they get. I was once asked at the end of a talk, at some university, on the hippies. First question is ‘Why do you write?’ And I had never asked myself the question, and I wouldn’t have answered it, but I was up on stage, and I felt obliged to act like a know-it-all. So I free associated. And I suddenly thought of the Presbyterians Catechism, which I hadn’t read since I was seven or eight years old. First question on the Presbyterian Catechism is ‘Who created the Heaven and Earth?’ And the answer is God. Second question is ‘Why did he do it?’ And the answer is ‘for His own glory,’ which is an interesting answer if you think about it. I just quoted the Catechism. I didn’t make the next step.”

Did Wolfe write for his own personal glory? I asked.

“No, I want to be read. I honestly have never tried to identify the audience I want to reach. I’ll give myself this much credit. I try to write the kind of things that I would like to read. So if I derive enormous satisfaction from reading Cousin Bette by Balzac, or Nana by Zola or Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis, I figured I should try to write something like what they’ve done.”

“I thought the interview was terrific. Of course, my viewpoint is not dispassionate!” Wolfe wrote in a letter to me.

I lovingly, carefully transcribed every word by hand. The interview ran in a campus literary magazine in 1992. It was “the best course I ever took in college,” I said in the introduction and predicted that Wolfe would be remembered, along with Freud and Solzhenitsyn, as someone who most influenced life in the 20th Century.

This clip helped land me an internship at Art & Auction and an assistant editor job at Avenue magazine which lasted six months (fired). In a letter Wolfe mailed from Flint Hill, Virginia, he apologized for being so slow in responding, adding that “I thought the interview was terrific. Of course, my viewpoint is not dispassionate!” That exclamation mark was huge and orange. My confidence soared.

When my mom and her husband Shelby Bryan moved to Europe, there was a big going away party at Doubles. Mark Hampton gave a fine toast to their hospitality, and Wolfe cracked everyone up with a very funny routine about all their various residences in Manhattan and Long Island (each of which is given a chapter in Mom’s new book Great Inspiration: My Adventures in Decorating With Notable Interior Designers, which Rizzoli is publishing in August).

Like a stalker I went up to Wolfe later that evening and whipped out a copy of Theory of the Leisure Class, which was over my head. He agreed it was tough read because Veblen didn’t use examples, specifics.

End of conversation.

Part II coming tomorrow

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