Tom Wolfe and Me, Part III

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The next day I was in Palm Beach, in my mom’s living room with Peggy Siegal and Michael Berman, the owner of Palmer magazine. They were putting the finishing touches on a screening of Radical Wolfe at the Norton Museum and a dinner for 150.

Peggy wanted to talk about the guest list, the speakers, and how this was her third screening event at the Norton. The first was a documentary by Bruce Weber about an Italian photographer (The Treasure of his Youth: the Photographs of Paolo Di Paolo), the second about Leonard Bernstein (“Bernstein’s Wall”).

Michael Berman, Peggy Siegal, and Tony Marx.

After reiterating that there is no movie theater in Palm Beach, Peggy said there’s a huge audience for intellectual, artistic films, what with all the New Yorkers down there, and that’s one reason she persuaded the president of the New York Public Library, Tony Marx, to come to the event the next evening.

Michael wanted to talk about how Palm Beach is changing, evolving, with an appreciation of the past, and a nod to the future. It’s younger and more diverse, he added, more culturally-minded than ever. Peggy chimed in, saying it’s no longer strictly a resort, then returned to her guest list: Tom Ford, George Hamilton, Bobbi Brown, Pepe and Emilia Fanjul, Nacho Figueras, Mai Hallingby, Blaine Trump, Kathy Rayner, Judy Taubman, Tony Shafrazi, Daisy Soros, Priscilla Rattazzi, Gayfryd Steinberg, Baby Jane Holzer, who is building a huge house on the ocean, and Tom Quick, who has a big house and is involved in “every single charity.”

Suddenly, Richard Dewey, the producer and director of Radical Wolfe (which I’d seen five times), was on speakerphone. Dewey started reading Wolfe in high school and has been a fan ever since. He wrote for Rolling Stone after college and after finishing his last film, was inspired by Michael Lewis’ examination of Wolfe’s whole life and career in Vanity Fair. Radical Wolfe is based on that 2015 article and Mr. Lewis is one of the stars, along with writers Gay Talese, Tom Junod, Gail Sheehy, Wolfe’s daughter Alexandra, his agent Lynn Nesbit, and Daniel Everett, the hero of his last book, Kingdom of Speech, which Dewey loves.

He said he spent weeks looking through Wolfe’s archives and the most surprising thing he learned from his five years on the film was that writing was so hard for Wolfe: “I guess I always assumed from reading him that it was pretty natural. His voice on the page just seems like it would have come out of him easily. To hear that it was so painful and he described it, ‘the process of writing was like having arthritis.’ That was very surprising for me and gave me comfort as a writer.”

I mentioned seeing Wolfe’s resumes in the 1950s when he was struggling to find work as a reporter and illustrator. Dewey: “I think he sent it out to 30 or 40 places and there was only one acceptance, [the Springfield Union in Massachusetts], but you can see it in the archives as well with the notebooks, the drafts and all the audio recordings he did with the astronauts for The Right Stuff. Then three years into it, he realized he didn’t really have the story, and went back. If you look at The Right Stuff that appeared in Rolling Stone, which is originally called The Brotherhood of The Right Stuff, and then what came out in the book — completely different.”

Dewey: “I think that’s one takeaway, you have to be willing to throw out a lot of ideas, material, and start from scratch. You have to be unbelievably persistent in following an idea. All of his books really were years and years in the making. Obviously, A Man in Full was the longest at 11 years, but most of them really were a decade. The Right Stuff was a decade, and Bonfire was a decade.”

A letter from Senator John Glenn thanking Wolfe for sending him a copy of The Right Stuff. He goes on to correct Wolfe about the car he drove, which was a Prinz, not a Peugot.

Dewey mentioned the importance of having an organizing principle which for Wolfe was status: “He had this lens with which he viewed different people, ideas, and organizations that I think helped him get a handle on the story. That dates back to his time at Yale as a graduate student and reading Max Weber. I think that’s important.”

He was calling from Milan, very sad he couldn’t be there, but his film just opened in London the night before, to a packed house, and almost everyone stayed for the Q&A. Now, thanks to Wolfe’s universal appeal, Dewey was busy working on international deals, finalizing one at the moment. In two weeks, Radical Wolfe would be on Spanish television.

Michael Shnayerson making his point at the screening of Radical Wolfe.

After the screening at the Norton the next evening, writer Michael Shnayerson thanked everyone for coming, singled out Kathy Rayner, then focused on the late, great man of letters.

“If Tom Wolfe had never written a word, he still would have made a contribution to Manhattan culture with his signature white suits, of course. To catch a glimpse of him suited up on an East Side street was like seeing an egret alighting for a transitory moment. Fortunately, of course, he wrote incandescent prose and wasted no chance satirizing the status hungry. The hapless anti-hero of Bonfire of the Vanities is the character in Wolfe’s repertoire who comes to mind first. That book appeared in 1987. Brilliant as it is, I’m not sure it would work today. People are so thin-skinned and siloed.”

He shared an interesting experience he had with Wolfe in the mid-’70s when he was 18 and his father, Robert Shnayerson, replaced Willie Morris as the editor-in-chief of Harper’s. Soon there were parties at the family apartment on the Upper West Side and young Michael served hors d’oeuvres to Kurt Vonnegut, George Plimpton, Peter Matthiessen, Gay and Nan Talese, and Warren Hoge who lived on the floor above.

Shnayerson: “Wolfe was at the center of these gatherings with Sheila demurely nearby. Whenever one of the guests came up to him to praise him on his latest triumphs, Wolfe had the same reply. “You’re too kind,” he would say in his rich Virginia accent. ‘You’re too kind.’ It became our family mantra.”

After praising The Painted Word, first published in Harper’s during his father’s editorship, and Wolfe for crafting the tools of New Journalism and his work ethic, Shnayerson recalled seeing him for the last time at the Knickerbocker Club in 2018. “He arrived in a wheelchair, obviously unwell, but as his friends came one after another to greet him, his face lit up with a big grin. “You’re too kind,” he said. “You’re too kind.”

Next, Tony Marx, the director of the New York Public Library, thanked Kathy Rayner for bringing Wolfe’s archives to “the most public, the most used research library on the planet…” and gave a shoutout to two others in the audience, the NYPL’s chairman of the board Abby Milstein, and trustee Gayfryd Steinberg. After comparing Wolfe to Mark Twain, Marx said it was time for pizza.

At Pizza al Fresco on Worth Avenue, I made a beeline for the stylish revolutionary Eleanora Kennedy, the subject of the 2021 documentary Radical Love (on the New Yorker magazine’s website) along with her late husband Michael Kennedy, the attorney and civil rights advocate known for defending underdogs, Black Panthers, the Chicago 8, the Weather Underground, mobsters, and Ivana Trump in her divorce from the Donald.

Ms. Kennedy could never forgive Wolfe for his arguably cruel and hilarious 1970 article “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s” about Leonard and Felicia Bernstein’s fundraiser for the Black Panthers at their Park Avenue pad. The book that came out a year or two later was called Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. “Right after that, Leonard shut down politically,” she recalled. “It was devastating to him and Felicia. That was so humiliating and degrading so he lost me, and I never read another thing [by Wolfe]. I wouldn’t have had kind things to say.”

Felicia Montealegre, Leonard Bernstein, and Don Cox, Field Marshal of the Black Panther Party, in the Bernsteins’ penthouse on Park Avenue in Manhattan, January 14, 1970. Photo by Steve Salmieri

Years later she approached Bernstein about another cause: “Because we were friends, I said, ‘Leonard, I’m going to Nicaragua.” She wanted to help the children of the Sandinistas who had lost limbs and a carpenter who needed money to make wooden limbs. “But Leonard said, ‘I can’t be connected because I can’t let this happen to me again.’ So he said, ‘I’ll give you a lot of money and take it and you go do it, and he gave bags of cash. And we took it to them and they made limbs for so many children. After he died I told the Sandinistas who did this. And Leonard never would take any credit for anything.”

Wilbur Ross.

Next I approached Wilbur Ross. I knew that he helped Wolfe with research on A Man in Full and he confirmed it.

WR: The book had a section in it about bankruptcies, and he would call me every other day because that’s what I used to do, bankruptcy. And then, that year, as a reward, he gave me a surprise birthday party at his house in Southampton.

GG: I remember the bankruptcy scene. Don’t they really call them on the carpet and it’s kind of a humiliating experience? [the term Wolfe used was “a workout” session]

WR: Well, yes … I thought [the film] was brilliant, brilliant and he would have loved it, even the political part and everything else.

Dixon Boardman and Karl Wellner.

Dixon Boardman was at the bar, too.

DB: I knew Tom and I had him speak at an investments conference that I had on hedge funds, and he was very sarcastic and wonderful about it. Yes, he came into my office actually and spent a day in there to learn about hedge funds. I read all his books, and I LOVED the movie. I thought it was wonderful.

Photographer Mary Hilliard was sitting nearby. She called Radical Wolfe “enthralling and beautiful. Of course it makes me want to read all the books again but I don’t know when I’m ever going to have time to do that.”

Next to her was Christine Pressman, who had mixed feelings about the doc: “I started really liking him and then I kind of didn’t like him a little bit. I understand his need to cut people to the quick. That was interesting, the whole insider/outside thing, but I think as he aged he didn’t get mellow, he got more vengeful. Everyone’s mortal. So when he had his heart attack, it kind of made him realize, ’Oh, I’m mortal, I’m not above everybody that I’m attacking.’”

Ms. Pressman didn’t buy Wolfe’s nice, humble southern gentleman persona: “I don’t believe it. But what’s interesting is he couldn’t change with the times. Nobody can read 700 pages. I don’t even think I could read 700 pages on myself.”

Gene and Christine Pressman.

Dinner was served. Carefully, I crouched down next to Baby Jane Holzer, the subject of one of my favorite Wolfe stories from the ’60s, “The Girl of the Year.” I apologized for bringing it up again with her but I just had to.

GG: I’ve read it like ten times. Do you look back fondly on it?

JH: Our friendship continued.

GG: I love that story. You’re with the Stones and it’s so much fun. Did that story change your life?

JH: A bit, yeah. Because my parents were horrified.

GG: What did the doc do for you?

JH: It didn’t do anything for ME. It did something for Tom.

GG: In other words, it didn’t make you nostalgic for the late 20th Century because you’re doing so many cool things today?

JH: You have to move

It was funny the way she said it.

Jane Holzer, Tom Ford, and Kelly Klein.

Gayfryd Steinberg praised the doc: “I think it brought you as close to Tom Wolfe as you could possibly get and it represented very well the human being Tom Wolfe, with his friends and family and the journalist Tom Wolfe.”

At the first luncheon she ever went to in Manhattan in the early 1980s, Ms. Steinberg sat between Wolfe and his good friend Eddie Hayes, the lawyer who inspired “Tommy Killian” in Bonfire: “They were both wearing white suits and I said to them, ‘What about the white suits?’ and a conversation ensued between them that would put a couture buyer to shame because they discussed all of the ins and outs of having internal seams and horsehair versus something else. I mean, I was just a newbie to New York and I thought, well isn’t this marvelous?”

Gayfryd Steinberg.

The longtime NYPL board member said Wolfe was very kind and generous to the library and that when his archives became available there was much competition: “The University of Texas wanted it and there are a lot of big spenders in Texas. Well, Kathy Rayner made it her business. She felt it was a New York archive and it absolutely couldn’t go anywhere else. And we remained very competitive and thank God we have it.”

Ms. Steinberg, who is married to Michael Shnayerson, remembered the last time she saw Wolfe, at the biannual President’s Council fundraiser dinner for the library not long before he died. “And Tom had agreed to appear. You could see physical struggles, but he just carried on.”

Did she ever help Wolfe with research for his novels? “No, Tom was a little bit before my time. I think I knew Norman Mailer better than I knew Tom, which, of course, in this documentary, he was quite disparaging. But I think that’s when literary life in New York was really fun and interesting.”

Journalist and author Judith Miller said she and her late husband, Jason Epstein, the editor and New York Review of Books co-founder, were very good friends with Wolfe: “When my last book [The Story: A Reporter’s Journey] came out and it was very controversial, Tom was there in his white suit and said, ‘I’m with you kid.’ He was absolutely so supportive of writers. He was one of the finest, gentlest men I knew, and that’s why I love this movie.”

Judy Miller.

“I think one thing it may have missed was his patriotism, his profound pride and love of this country,” Ms. Miller continued. “It also didn’t really dwell on the fact that he became more conservative as he got older. I mourn the fact that he is not here to capture the last [five] years. Because there is no one who could have captured it better than Tom Wolfe. We don’t have anyone like that today.”

Across from her was Kit Pannill who said she and Wolfe had mutual friends, the McVeighs in Richmond, and they all would all come over for lunch at her place. Alexandra Wolfe, the other great writer in the family, visited one time when she was really young and took a nap on Ms. Pannill’s bed.

Wolfe stayed with her in Palm Beach twice when he came to give lectures and she still has the letters he wrote her. Ms. Pannill’s first husband was in the newspaper business in Richmond, and her Aunt Polly knew Wolfe, too.

I told her I wanted to know more about Wolfe’s parents and how I looked at his childhood drawings and straight A report cards from St. Christopher’s. She said she could put me in touch with the McVeighs.

Talbott Maxey and Kit Pannill.

KP: The movie really brought back a lot of memories of him, because he was from Richmond, but also the fact of what an extraordinary, amazing, intellectual man he was, and how nice he was. Always nice and always a gentleman.

GG: Even when he was writing stories that were devastating to the subject? “Hey, you know, I’m doing my job, right?”

KP: Yeah and “I don’t care what you think.”

GG: The truth is more important.

KP: “I don’t care what you think.”

Pannill’s daughter Talbott Maxey asked if she wanted vanilla or chocolate. Chocolate it was.

GG: Don’t you feel like there’s a void with Wolfe gone? He was this guy who would always define the times, explain the spirit of the age.

KP: Yeah.

GG [on his fifth glass of wine]: And we’ve lost him and, I mean, the last ten years, it would be good to have him around, right?

Talbott Maxey: Did you tell him about Cathy, your housekeeper? What was the name of the book …?

GG: I Am Charlotte Simmons?

TM: He would stay at Cathy’s mom’s house for research in the mountains of North Carolina.

KP: Oh, that’s the most famous part of it all. Cathy Nichols was my housekeeper for 40 years. Rest her soul.

TB: And in the front of the book — you can look it up — that is her longtime caretaker and housekeeper, Cathy and Mack. Because he did all the research with them.

Indeed, in the “Vos Saluto” pages of Wolfe’s third novel, of the 26 people in seven states thanked by name for going “far out of their way on my behalf,” the first two acknowledged are Mack and Cathy Nichols, “whose understanding and eye for details were superb.”

The two “in New York” Wolfe thanked were Jann Wenner and Counselor Eddie Hayes; last but not least — under “In domo” — he wrote to his beloved wife of 50 years: “My dear Sheila, `scribere iussit amor,’ as Ovid put it. Scripsi.”

KP: We loved the film tonight.

GG: I’ve seen it six times. It’s so great. It’s on Netflix.

TM: I know, I can’t wait to see it again.

Gigi and Harry Benson.

It turned out Talbott knew my mom and is good friends with my brother Austin — she’s the only woman who can play in his poker group.

Daily News and Quest columnist Richard Johnson was sitting at a table with Christine Schott, Harry and Gigi Benson, and others. I thought Richard might have written a gossip item or two about Wolfe.

RJ: There was no scandal about him but he’d get into disputes with people and say something funny. He was hated by the Establishment. I think people are starting to like him now that he’s dead. The Times would give him terrible reviews.

GG: What did the doc do for you?

RJ: It was good to see Ed Hayes in that documentary. It made me realize that there’s a bunch of Tom Wolfe books that I haven’t read yet. I thought I had read everything.

GG: His last book The Kingdom of Speech is great and underrated.

RJ: I just reread The Right Stuff because my daughter was reading it for school so I took it from her when she was done with it.

Bobbi Brown and Steven Plofker.

Bobbi Brown praised the doc and shared one of the big regrets in her life: “I was at a party and he was there and I didn’t ask him for a picture. And I was wearing a white suit. So I did go and introduce myself to George Hamilton tonight … and we talked about being suntanned.”

George Hamilton had a theory about Wolfe’s sartorial style.

GH: Well, he crossed his southern gentility, first families of Virginia with his pimp. Don’t you think?

GG: He would probably like to hear that.

GH: He must have thought if he was going to rub shoulders with the Black Panthers he wanted to have a little pimp attitude. As a journalist, he was amazing and he really got his attitude and his look down.

Eleanora Kennedy was sitting with Tony Shafrazi, Bruce Weber and his longtime wife and agent Nan Bush. Ms. Kennedy had something to admit: “As a matter of fact I read some of [Wolfe’s] books but I didn’t buy them. I borrowed them. It’s the same with Woody Allen — I love his films but I buy a ticket for another film and go watch his.”

Weber and I talked about his latest doc (The Treasure of his Youth: The Photographs of Paolo Di Paolo) and music (jazz, bossa nova). Then Tom Ford appeared wearing a black suit and confessed that he had not been at the screening.

Nan Bush, Bruce Weber, Peggy Siegal, George Hamilton, and Katherine Bryan.

TF: I had a tennis match so I only came to the dinner.

GG: Could he play word association with “Tom Wolfe”?

TF: White! I don’t know, it sounds a little racist in today’s world.

Judy Taubman and Tom Quick.

At the next table was Judy Taubman.

JT: Well, I knew Tom Wolfe. He wasn’t a friend of mine but I used to see him at dinners in Southampton at the beginning of the ’80s … and I always thought he was quite a character. I never got into a conversation with him. I read Bonfire of the Vanities … and it made me want to to go back and read some of the articles, like the one about the Black Panthers, Radical Chic. So I thought I would come home and I order some on Amazon.

GG: Get Electric Kool-Aid and The Pump House Gang.

JT: He really captured an era. I mean, Bonfire, there was nothing more New York at that time than that book.

GG: People will be reading it in 200 years from now.

JT: Forever. It is really like Proust who wrote about his period.

Bret and Amy Baier.

Fox News anchor Bret Baier was sitting at a table with George Hamilton, Emilia and Pepe Fanjul, Dixon Boardman, Blaine Trump, Peggy Siegal, and my mom who called Tom a sweetheart.

Bret Baier: I was a huge Tom Wolfe fan. I read every book and for some reason he spoke to a whole generation. His books were massive, but people dove into them and 740 pages felt like 100. I think there is a nostalgia for the long form writing of Tom Wolfe, and in today’s soundbites and X and Twitter and Facebook, it’s tougher. I don’t think my kids could make it through 740 pages, but we at that time embraced him.

GG: Wolfe was around for so long to explain the times and now there’s this void. He could have made sense of the last few years.

BB: There were only a few people who did that for me. Charles Krauthammer, who used to work with me, could kind of cut through the noise. And Tom Wolfe could cut through the noise of everything else. I love the part of the film when someone said years from now we’re going to look back and say, these [books] were touching on the moments of our time. Are you the screenwriter?

GG: No, that’s my brother Jack Bryan.

Alex Hitz, Katherine Bryan, and George Hamilton.

Alex Hitz said Wolfe’s younger sister was roommates with Hitz’ mother at Sweet Briar college in Virginia, and he’d known him his whole life. When Wolfe was researching A Man in Full in Atlanta, he’d have dinner with Hitz and his cousins, and stayed in his guest house once. He thought the doc was fantastic, but had a bone to pick with it.

AH: Tom’s undergraduate degree came from Washington and Lee University, which is alternatively called ‘the Princeton of the South’ or they call Princeton ‘the Washington and Lee of the North.’ It’s a very old family, tony school. I happen to have been fourth generation to go there. It’s a gentleman’s school and Tom was a gentleman. Every sort of outward expression of Tom was full-on conditioned by that education. So to me that’s what was missing, drastically missing in that very, very good documentary. He was also on the board of W&L for many, many years and he would come often to W&L. He loved it, and when I was a student there, I would always entertain him and tour him around the campus. It’s the third oldest school in this country. The movie was great, well done, but it would have just made it even better.

GG: What might Wolfe have had fun with in the past five years?

AH: He would have had a field day with woke. He would have gone absolutely nuts with it and nobody would have been able to dissect or skewer woke like Tom could have. Nobody.

Tony Marx and Mai Hallingby.

On her way home was Mai Hallingby who remembered hanging out with the Wolfes in Southampton and going to India with her daughter Cornelia and her Chapin classmate Alexandra Wolfe.

MH: Tom was very warm, he was wonderful, he was funny. We had wonderful dinners together. There was the man and the writer and the thing is, when you were just cozy with him, four or six people having dinner, he was just normal and making jokes and so on. So we always wondered, is he going to use that in his next book?

Before Kathy Rayner left, she caught up with Tony Marx from the NYPL. I interrupted, saying I’d just spent four hours studying Wolfe there and thanked Ms. Rayner for her generosity.

She had seen already seen the doc when she hosted a screening of it a few months ago.

KR: But you learn something new every time. You know what was so great in the documentary is that he was doing the interviews in the Rose Reading Room! It made me want to go home and read Tom Wolfe.

Click here for Part I
Click here for Part II

Photographs by CAPEHART

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