Tom Wolfe and Me, Part II

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Credit: Andrew Fox / Alamy Stock Photo

A year later in 1993, while interning at the New York Observer, Wolfe responded to another fan letter: “Dear George, I can see you’re getting around in MEDIA-LAND! The OBSERVER should be pretty good fun to work for. It has become the Media’s medianewspaper. Weeklies are generally livelier places to work than monthlies, and dailies — even bad ones — are liveliest of all, not merely thanks to the pace but also because reader response is so much more intense. People really get HOT over what’s printed in a daily. Meantime, I thank you for trying to keep the BORORO theory alive. People tend to resist it, to use Freud’s term.

In 1995 I wrote my first story for the Observer (front page) about a reading Wolfe gave from his second novel-in-progress then titled The Mayflies. “Mayflies are an insect that have always intrigued me,” he told the crowd at East Hampton’s Guild Hall during the question-and-answer session. “They’re little gossamer insects. When you see them, the clouds are so thick that you can’t see across the street, if it happens to be a town by a river. First time I saw them — a little town in Wisconsin — I said, ‘What on earth is this?’ I happened to be with a biologist. She said, ‘They’re mayflies.’ I said, ‘What on earth are those?’ She said, ‘Well, they live 24 hours and in that 24 hours all they try to do is reproduce, and then they die. And some of the eggs reach the river and the cycle begins again.’ ‘That’s it? All that activity? It’s just a frenzy of activity.’ She said, ‘It’s true, but let me tell you two things. First of all, to them it’s a lifetime. And secondly, what makes you think your life’s any different?’”

The former Whitney Museum of American Art that Wolfe decreed as “the worst and most unfortunate museum built in America.”

Another time Wolfe and I were looking out of his living room window down at the Whitney Museum which he called “the worst and most unfortunate museum built in America … It looks like a machine-gun turret built by socialists to exterminate bourgeois women shopping at boutiques on Madison Avenue. As any honest curator at the Whitney will tell you, it’s an extremely difficult and unfortunate building. Inside, it looks like a municipal parking garage … the biennial, the Nan Goldin show? The passionate appetite for ugliness that the art world now has. Realism has crept back in — it’s OK if it’s ugly now, if it’s perverse enough, if it’s twisted enough, but God help you if it’s pretty. I don’t care what the Whitney shows, it’s just a dreadful building.”

I was there to talk to him about his efforts to save 2 Columbus Circle, which he called a jewel. The building, designed by Edward Durrell Stone for Huntington Hartford’s Gallery of Modern Art, was savaged by architecture critics like Ada Louis Huxtable (“a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops.”)

Wolfe, who profiled Hartford in the early ’60s (“The Luther of Columbus Circle”), encouraged me to track down the reclusive A&P heir. Sure enough, after looking in the phone book, I found him in an East 40s townhouse. It was late afternoon and a housekeeper said to wake him up. Hartford was lying in bed with a half-eaten piece of cherry pie and a back scratcher and the Weather Channel was on. But he was happy to talk and quite lucid. In 1997, on his 87th birthday, I escorted Hunt from his new dump on Flatbush Avenue, to a party at the Upper West Side nightclub Cream, back to Brooklyn around midnight, and cranked out another front page story.

To Wolfe, 2 Columbus Circle was “a jewel,” arguing that it must be spared.

When A Man in Full was finally published, Wolfe told me about his interest in stoicism: “It’s so totally foreign to the environment of the late 20th century in New York. Just seeing that kind of attitude, which had a certain religious sway in the first century A.D. has really been interesting. I’ll give you one story: Agrippinus was a stoic philosopher in the time of Nero, and Nero had a habit of making prominent Romans take part in these humiliating pageants that he wrote, so-called tragedies, and one day a historian named Florus came knocking on his door, very distraught, and said, ‘A terrible thing has happened, Nero has ordered me to be in one of his plays. If I do it, I’ll be humiliated in front of everyone that I know and respect in Rome, and if I don’t, I’ll be killed.’ Agrippinus says, ‘I have the same invitation.’ Florus says, ‘What do we do?’ And Agrippinus says, “You act in the play. I won’t.’ And Florus says, ‘Why me and not you?’ And he says, ‘Because you’ve considered doing it.’ That’s the essential stoic story. For stoics there are no dilemmas, there’s only the right way and the wrong way, the honorable way and the dishonorable way. Kind of rough stuff. Am I practicing it? Well, not this week.”

I asked why he had never reprinted “Tiny Mummies” in a collection.

“I knew that if I did, the book would be reviewed solely for that; that would be the only thing anybody would notice,” he replied. “What I always wanted to do, and would do now if I thought the world had any interest, is to do just a book on the piece and re-print the whole controversy: J.D. Salinger’s telegram, E.B. White’s telegram, Dwight Macdonald’s two pieces about it. And Shawn tried to persuade [New York Herald Tribune] owner Jock Whitney to stop it. No one could figure out why Shawn would get that excited about this piece, which doesn’t condemn him or denigrate him, except to say he’s mousy and tidy and runs a dull magazine.”

(In Wolfe’s 2000 collection, Hooking Up, “Tiny Mummies” was included with a six-page afterword about the uproar).

Wolfe shared some health tips (spoiler alert: exercise every day) over dinner at Il Riccio on 79th Street. Il Riccio has since closed its doors.

In early 2001 he agreed to give me some career advice over dinner at Il Riccio on 79th Street. Having survived a quintuple bypass in 1996 and a bout of depression after that, Wolfe told me to exercise every day. That was it. He also shared an off-the-record anecdote about a Merry Prankster, his wife, and a group of Hells Angels that made my jaw drop.

In 2004 I covered a party at the Neue Gallery for his third novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, and asked guests why there were so many Tom Wolfe detractors out there, people who didn’t like for one reason or another.

Charles (Chip) McGrath worked at the New Yorker during the Shawn era, and remembered Wolfe’s low status at the magazine: “He was certainly persona non grata for a long time. You couldn’t mention his name when I was there. There was one guy who had a copy of [“Tiny Mummies”]—it was sort of samizdat. It had been Xeroxed countless times. Periodically you’d go and you’d read it, and it felt like the baddest thing you could do at the New Yorker in the mid-1970s was to go and read those pieces.”

“Some of it is part of his schtick, and he brings it on himself,” he continued, speaking of the reaction some have to Wolfe. “He once said that he wore the white suit because it annoyed people. And one of the puzzles about this guy is he’s very shy, he’s an incredibly well-mannered, polite man, and he loves to tweak people. He loves a good feud. Yes, he lives for the feud.”

“He loves the fight,” said Sheila Wolfe. Photograph by Patrick McMullan.

Former New Yorker editor Tina Brown echoed her former colleague. “I think literary feuds are what we all should be doing,” she said. “It’s better than having feuds about, you know, politics. It’s a good time for some nice literary dust-ups. It means you care about books.”

“He enjoys the criticism; he loves the fight,” said Sheila Wolfe who often helped her husband with both reporting and editing (she read everything he wrote before publication from the late ’60s on). “I think it depends upon the milieu: if he’s writing about architects, then he likes to tweak the architects. He’s writing about artists, then he likes to tweak them. I don’t know if he celebrated anybody. Has he? Oh, he celebrated Ed Hayes!”

Mr. Hayes (a.k.a. “Tommy Killian” in Bonfire of the Vanities) said his friend was a great writer, and a great man: “I think any great man has enemies, and I think that, in most cases his enemies only make him greater. I mean, I have enemies and I’m quite proud of them. If you don’t have enemies, you haven’t done anything in your life.”

Wolfe, who was wearing a double-breasted white flannel suit, blue stripe shirt, periwinkle blue tie, and faux spats shoes, told me he’d “heard” about a few critics and admitted he liked to infuriate certain people on occasion, “but I can’t assume the persona. I was so grateful to Bill Buckley when he described me as ‘the matador having tea with his mother.’ I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

In 2008, Tom made a brief appearance at a party celebrating my engagement to Hilary Heard; and in 2012 agreed to give me a blurb for my memoir George & Hilly: Anatomy of a Relationship: “A pleasure to read. As Huey Long said about himself, ‘sui generis.’ I can already see the marquee: GEORGE ‘n’ HILLY TONIGHT.” I don’t think that was at the top of his to-do list and felt guilty for asking.

Radical Wolfe, now streaming on Netflix, Apple TV, Google Play, and Vudu.

My mom last saw Tom at William Rayner’s memorial service in 2018 and when she asked him how he was doing he quoted Philip Roth — something about waking up every day amazed to be alive. She said I should call Tom. I felt like it was time to leave the guy alone, though. He’d done a lot for me already. He only lived five blocks away so maybe I’d run into him but it was not to be.

Although he died on May 14, 2018, many still feel his presence. Near the end of a brilliant new documentary, Radical Wolfe  (streaming now on Netflix), he says, “Your soul is your relationships with other people, and that’s the part of you that really doesn’t die.”

After checking my coat and umbrella at the NYPL I walked to third floor and all the way back to Room 328, the Brooke Russell Astor Reading Room. It was locked. You have to knock lightly. It felt like being outside a speakeasy or the Mike Todd Room at the Palladium in the late ’80s.

After being buzzed in, I was told to wait at a librarian’s desk, and scolded for trying to sit behind it. Already a demerit. I emptied my pockets on the desk to seem honest and professional. A few minutes later Tal sat down and smiled when I said this was like the VVIP room.

Otherwise, she was all business. I had to sign something, leave my coat and supplies there and keep the piece of nicotine gum in my pocket. I was allowed to use their paper and their pencils. Soon the first of five boxes was in front of me, Wolfe’s correspondences from 1999/2000, and I dug in. Two hours later Tal stopped by to ask how things were going. “Amazing!” I whispered.

I was referring to countless invitations, requests to speak, fan letters, movie producers wanting meetings. A Christmas card from Alex Hitz. A recommendation letter Wolfe wrote to the board of 1 Beekman Place.

A tiny sampling of invitations and requests to speak.

Wolfe’s letter to Peter Robinson with a blurb for his book It’s My Party: A Republican’s Messy Love Affair with the GOP. Another blurb for David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise sent to his agent Alice Mayhew. A long response to Barry Mendel who wanted to make a movie of Wolfe’s novella Ambush at Fort Bragg published in Rolling Stone. Jann Wenner thanking him for the inscribed copy of Hooking Up.

Gay Talese writing to say he had seen copies of A Man in Full “everywhere” he’d been in recent months including Turkey, Greece and China.

Wolfe’s tart reply to a persistent publicist: “How very thoughtful of you to forward the invitation to me, and even to go to the trouble of delivering it by hand, and I want you to know how grateful I am. However, I have no interest in going to the “book fair.’”

A beautiful, fascinating and funny seven-page letter thanking the heart surgeon who saved his life in 1996. Enclosed was a $5,000 check to the American Heart Association.

A response to his friend Tullio Pericoli and a foreword for the artist’s new book. A request from the California Art Club Newsletter to reprint Wolfe’s “fine memorial” to his friend, sculptor Frederick Hart, in the Weekly Standard.

A letter to Conrad Black about the Century Association, agreeing to give a recommendation (“the very LEAST I could do”) and calling it “a very stuffy organization and that you are doing them an EXTREME FAVOR by joining. As the saying goes, they should be so lucky.”

A letter from Thomas Wolfe Society informing him that he had been selected as the first recipient of the Thomas Wolfe Prize ($5000). Wolfe agreed to accept the invitation to speak but had to say no to the Devon Yacht Club’s offer of $1000 and a table for 8. Too many deadlines.

Wolfe congratulating Jonathan Galassi on his Academy of Arts and Letters award, before calling it “a stuffy, retrograde organization, a slag heap in the road to literary progress, but twice I have accepted their tokens with alacrity and zest.

A letter to artist Daniel Schwartz calling him a 20th century Winslow Homer.

William Buckley asking for an “enormous” favor: “I need two sentences, at most three, describing the characteristic habit of Henry VIII as per attached photo. Further, I need it within a week. Would you be so kind?… It was grand seeing you in your lair, and I am truly pleased that you are taking on the computer.”

Wolfe replied with a beautiful three-page letter describing it all in great detail, and next to a picture of the King, indicating the Flat Hat, Warrior’s Fraternal Chain, Silk Lining and Puffed Shoulder of the Chamarre, Doublet, Passementerie, Codpiece, and Skirt of Tunic.

On Talk magazine letterhead, Tina Brown thanking Wolfe so much for “those nice quotes in today’s Daily News. I shall cut them out and frame them! Praise from you is something I treasure, believe me. And nothing would give me greater joy than to publish something by you. If you’re interested or around on June 6, I’m giving a party for Martin Amis and his publication of Experience at the home of Caio Fonseca. I think it’s going to be an interesting evening — Saul Bellow, Salman Rushdie, and many other friends of Martin are going to be there and I know how much she would love it if you were able to show …”

A letter to “Brooke” (Astor? Hayward? Shields?): “America’s most pervasive age-related disease is not senility, but juvenility, the obsessive desire to look 23, dress 14, and act nine, avoiding responsibility, and as Dr. Johnson put it, hanging loose upon society. >>Tom.”

Christopher Buckley writing to say that “wild horses couldn’t keep me from serving up an encomium to you on the occasion of your Medal of Honor. And that I was tickled and humbled to be asked and by the way “rococo Marxists” was just aces. Ever, warmly, Christopher.”

A long one from Wolfe to a Yale friend, Peter, saying he couldn’t accept the speaking engagement and mentioning his “cardiac adventures of 1996. I had a big bypass operation — the biggest — the grand Quinella — quintuple — and since then have been on a prescribed regimen of aerobics and weight training. I work out an hour and a half a day, six days a week. The irony is that today, at 70, I am probably in better shape, and in a strictly athletic sense, than I was when I was young, and had my own raging case of the endemic, American male disease, i.e., dreams of sports stardom. Of course, all that actually counts is the condition of the new arteries, and that no one can really see. For now, anyway, I remain vertical and, with my rather, after-the-fact, highly trained body, I feel fine …. I’m under terrific pressure to get my college novel done quickly and must keep my schedule as clear as possible.”

Another from Christopher Buckley: “If I were Norman Mailer, or John Updike, or John Irving”—Wolfe had an essay in Hooking Up called “My Three Stooges” — “I’d be digging myself a very wide hole in the ground and planning on stocking it with six months’ provisions — nicely done, maestro!” And: “Do you know I’ve been wanting to read ‘Tiny Mummies’ and ‘Whichy Thickets’ for a quarter century? They were worth the wait ….”

To William Buckley: “Dear Bill, I’ve been on your [National Review] website for days now. In the meantime, please tell me what happened with Henry the Eighth and Hans Holbein, yours Tom.”

To Brian Grazer’s assistant at Imagine Entertainment: “I am a great fan of Crybaby and Apollo 13 and would be delighted to meet Mr. Grazer sometime and much appreciate his interest in my work …”

A fan letter from a Carl Saxby in Indiana: “This is a belated thank you for changing my life,” Mr. Saxby began, explaining that in 1970 he was a college freshman majoring in English and suffering — until he got a copy of Wolfe’s first book: “It was an epiphany. Suddenly I discovered what it meant to be educated, to be able to think, and to show others better ways to see into ….” Then he read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: “I wore a white tuxedo, white shirt, white socks, and white shoes at my wedding …. I now hold a PhD and I am an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Southern Indiana. I am not educated yet, but I am working on it every day …. Again, thank you for sharing your vision …”

A letter from the publisher of Harper’s magazine, Rick MacArthur, thanking him for the essay, the cover photo (next to one of Mark Twain), the speech at the magazine’s anniversary party and so on. “I’m very grateful to you on all counts. So far the reviews of the issue been very good.” Wolfe wrote back, “You’re generous and kind, but the pleasure was all mine.”

An editor of GQ asking Wolfe who he’d like to see play Charlie’s Angels in the new movie version. He declined but when Mad magazine’s John Ficarra asked him for a witty response to “What drives you mad?” for an anniversary issue, he agreed to be included with Winona Ryder, Jason Alexander, two US Senators, Representative Barney Frank, and Fred Schneider of the B-52s.

Wolfe’s pet peeve was automated, answering machine messages giving you options: “Right away I know I am entering … PHONE MAIL JAIL. Punch any of the ensuing 2 to 9 ‘options’ and you descend to the second level of Hell, where there are 2 to 9 sub-‘options.’ Half an hour later, you punch a sub-sub-sub-sub-‘option’ and your only remaining ‘option’ is to return to a prior sub-sub-sub-‘option’ at a prior level of Hell — and at that point you realize you’re now a LIFER in PHONEMAIL JAIL. I refuse to go through that. Instead, when that VOICE says, ‘If you are calling from a rotary telephone, please remain on the line; an operator will be with you shortly,’ I remain on the line and wait 15 minutes, so that I may be told by an actual human being: ‘Please send us your head. We will freeze-dry and shrink-wrap it and return it to you. Please allow 4 to 6 weeks for delivery.”

A Men’s Journal editor, working on a design issue, asking Wolfe what was his favorite object and why. His reply: “You have to love fountain pens real ink, and calligraphy to understand this, but for me, it’s the Sheaffer Calligrapher fountain pen set, with a pen barrel in Sports Blue plastic — either opaque or translucent — and the trim in shiny steel metal. It’s the year 2000, 19 century elegance, the best functioning pen in the world, plus three shiny calligraphic nibs. Cost: $19.95.”

Tommy Wolfe’s report card from the 1941/’42 school year.

My second Wolfe box was even better. Among the delights were Tommy Wolfe’s report cards from St. Christopher’s school in Richmond, beginning with the term ending Jan. 29, 1939. Two years later he was ranked first in his class, having scored a 98 on his Religious Studies exam, a 100 in Spelling, 98 in Latin, 93 in Grammar, 92 in Arithmetic and 96 in Geography …

Some of Wolfe’s character doodles.

A military man he drew in 1935 when he was five; funny drawings of baseball players, Napoleon, “Little Fatty,” “Little Oscar,” and “Sir Hughes”; and a very sweet, illustrated Valentine’s Day card to his father, the editor of The Southern Planter who had a PhD from Cornell in genetics, plant, physiology, and soil technology:

“Some Dads get so mad they send you to bed for all day … some Dads just throw you down … some Dads get put in jail for being drunk … some Dads pray to idols … Some Dads fall through the ice when they show off on the ice … But my Dad gives me Valentines.”

According to an article about Dr. Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, he met his wife Helen Hughes, a garden designer, at Cornell and it took her two years to make up her mind before they were married on June 27, 1923.

Another short story by young Tommy was about a cute little boy named Otto von Ritz who learned to play the piano and at 16 was invited to perform at a concert hall, “but a sad thing happened. Poor Otto got the chicken pox and couldn’t go to the concert hall. Another man played instead of Otto (in the picture is the man) but the man couldn’t play half as good as Otto. Otto was so disappointed. He cried, and cried, and cried. At the age of 21 he could play as well as any person in the country … and was asked to play in the concert hall in Berlin …. He dressed up as you can see from the picture.

“When the day came Otto went to Berlin …. He walked to the concert hall and played and played. A huge audience cheered and cheered and cheered and cheered! He was a great success. That audience was going to remember Otto for a long, long time …. Through the years Otto played and played the piano. All Europe like to hear him play. Otto became famous. All who knew him loved him. All who heard him play praised him. So our little Otto became a musical genius. And he lived the rest of his days in happiness. The end.”

The short story of Otto von Ritz by young Tommy.

The only notes I made that afternoon:

“I wish he was still around so I could ask him about this story. And ask if he might have known that he was writing about himself.”

Part III (final) coming Sunday, 4/7
For Part I, click here.

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