Tom Wolfe, RIP

 
Tom Wolfe and Blue Yeti at the Uncommon Knowledge taping (video below).

The Peacock Inn in Princeton during the summer of 1979, when, having just graduated from college, I was interviewing for a job in New Jersey: Radical Chic & Mau Mau-ing the Flak Catchers. My room at No. 2 Brewer Street in Oxford in 1980, when, now a graduate student in England, I was feeling intensely homesick for my own country: The Right Stuff. The bookstore near the corner of Seventeenth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. in 1984, when, a White House speechwriter, I had read all the government memos I could stand for one day and slipped out of my office in the Old Executive Office Building in the middle of the afternoon: the first installment, in “Rolling Stone,” of Bonfire of the Vanities. Tom Wolfe’s prose wasn’t just prose. It was an event. I can recall where I was when I read each new work by Wolfe just as clearly as I can recall where I was when men landed on the moon or the Berlin Wall came down.

When a friend introduced me to him years later—by then I was at the Hoover Institution, and he spent several long stays at Stanford, researching university life for the novel that became I Am Charlotte Simmons—I learned that the man who wrote prose in the style of “machine gun rococo” (Joseph Epstein’s phrase) proved understated. A gentleman of a particular kind, a southern gentleman, as quiet and kind and wry as if he had never left Richmond, Virginia, the city in which he had grown up. When I drove him back to Stanford after our meal, Tom sat in the car for awhile, chatting. He had read my first book, my memoir of business school, Snapshots from Hell: The Making of an MBA. “You’re a writer, you know,” Tom said. He might as well have pinned me with a medal.

A word about this video.

When the Blue Yeti got in touch to arrange the shoot, Tom hesitated. Not long before, he explained, a television crew had damaged a piece of furniture—Tom lived in a beautiful apartment in a classic, pre-war building between Fifth and Madison. Infuriated, Tom’s wife, Sheila, had declared that she would never permit a crew in her home again. Then Tom turned conspiratorial. Checking the calendar, he found a morning when Sheila would be at the dentist’s. When the Blue Yeti assured Tom that the crew would arrive after Sheila had left and depart before she returned, Tom made it a date.

It almost worked. Tom welcomed us to an otherwise empty apartment—he had even ensured that the housekeeper would be out. The crew set up and we recorded the interview. But before the crew had finished breaking down the equipment Sheila returned, a good twenty minutes early. While the Blue Yeti and the crew went into double-quick mode, packing up as fast as they could, I lamely attempted to distract a cross Mrs. Wolfe with small talk. Sweetly amused, Tom hung back, doing what he always did: taking it all in.

.

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There are 35 comments.

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  1. Contributor

    As always, thank you Peter.

    • #1
    • May 15, 2018 at 10:46 am
    • 5 likes
  2. Member

    That’s a great story.

    • #2
    • May 15, 2018 at 10:50 am
    • 1 like
  3. Member

    Would that I could have the style to dress the way he did. I grew up in the “Old South” where the arrival of spring wasn’t marked by blossoms as it was in the North but by the arrival of Seersucker. To see Wolf in his white suits was to look back in time to another age. GodSpeed Tom. 

    • #3
    • May 15, 2018 at 10:51 am
    • 7 likes
  4. Member

    Thanks for this.

    I considered posting on the member feed, but decided to wait for someone with more to say. It was worth the wait.

    Tom is sui generis. Losing him is so sad.

    • #4
    • May 15, 2018 at 11:00 am
    • 3 likes
  5. Member
    AQ

    Bonfire of the Vanities. The year we moved with our two children from California to Pennsylvania, leaving behind many dear friends and the house with the memories of my children as babies and toddlers. It made me forget my grief. Farewell and thanks to a truth teller and a great artist. 

    • #5
    • May 15, 2018 at 11:16 am
    • Like
  6. Inactive

    I cannot recall on who’s recommendation, but I recently started reading Bonfire of the Vanities. I was only a few chapters in when I had to put it on hold to read Suicide of the West. I how quite enjoying it, and had decided to work my through all of Mr. Wolfe’s fiction. 

    • #6
    • May 15, 2018 at 11:19 am
    • Like
  7. Member

    Greatly enjoyed the names of some of the characters in Bonfire of the Vanities. A society couple named the Bavardages or something like that, a Mexican gardener named Olvidado (or something like that – it’s been almost 30 years). RIP.

    • #7
    • May 15, 2018 at 11:22 am
    • 2 likes
  8. Thatcher

    He had The Right Stuff as a writer.

    • #8
    • May 15, 2018 at 11:27 am
    • 2 likes
  9. Member

    Interesting that in the interview that Wolfe had the same take on Nietzche’s prediction of the coming world wars and rise of authoritarian regimes and the millions who would be massacred at their hands as Jordan Peterson’s (see 2:30 of the video below):

    • #9
    • May 15, 2018 at 11:31 am
    • 2 likes
  10. Contributor

    Peter Robinson’s prose is an event too.

    • #10
    • May 15, 2018 at 11:33 am
    • 2 likes
  11. Member

    I Am Charlotte Simmons: Thanksgiving weekend at my mom’s. Literally could not put it down and read hundreds of pages all in one night just to finish it. Did not sleep a wink.

    • #11
    • May 15, 2018 at 11:35 am
    • 1 like
  12. Member

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Greatly enjoyed the names of some of the characters in Bonfire of the Vanities. A society couple named the Bavardages or something like that, a Mexican gardener named Olvidado (or something like that – it’s been almost 30 years). RIP.

    And the Sharpton-esque Reverend Bacon.

    His description of the oh-so-thin women of NY society as “social x-rays” has always stayed with me.

    • #12
    • May 15, 2018 at 11:36 am
    • 5 likes
  13. Member

    The Right Stuff, Jeddah Saudi Arabia. 

    • #13
    • May 15, 2018 at 11:39 am
    • Like
  14. Thatcher

    Matthew Hennessey (View Comment):

    Peter Robinson’s prose is an event too.

    Peter’s words are ear candy, whether it’s interviews, speeches, or podcasts.

    • #14
    • May 15, 2018 at 11:43 am
    • 2 likes
  15. Contributor

    Peter:

    I fondly remember a dinner al fresco at Il Fornaio in downtown Palo Alto with Wolfe and Forbes publisher Rich Karlgaard. You walked by, and because you knew everyone, joined us. It was a magical evening: the summer night was perfect, the dot.com boom was in full force and everyone was getting rich (temporarily) and we were sitting with America’s greatest social critic in his spectacular white suit (it looked ever better up close). I don’t remember what was said, but I’m sure it was brilliant. 

    I also remember saying goodnight to Wolfe that evening — he, like you, was writing for me in those days — and watching him walk off up University Avenue, creating shock and amazement as those he passed recognized him . . .

    Mike Malone

    • #15
    • May 15, 2018 at 12:00 pm
    • 3 likes
  16. Member

    I’m a bit disappointed that the run-in with Mrs Wolfe was not recorded. :-) He was a fascinating man.

    • #16
    • May 15, 2018 at 12:05 pm
    • Like
  17. Contributor

    Peter Robinson: “You’re a writer, you know,” Tom said. He might as well have pinned me with a medal.

    Holy cow. That’s like Nolan Ryan telling you “You know, you can pitch.”

    • #17
    • May 15, 2018 at 12:12 pm
    • 3 likes
  18. Founder
    Peter Robinson Post author

    Michael S. Malone (View Comment):

    Peter:

    I fondly remember a dinner al fresco at Il Fornaio in downtown Palo Alto with Wolfe and Forbes publisher Rich Karlgaard. You walked by, and because you knew everyone, joined us. It was a magical evening: the summer night was perfect, the dot.com boom was in full force and everyone was getting rich (temporarily) and we were sitting with America’s greatest social critic in his spectacular white suit (it looked ever better up close). I don’t remember what was said, but I’m sure it was brilliant.

    I also remember saying goodnight to Wolfe that evening — he, like you, was writing for me in those days — and watching him walk off up University Avenue, creating shock and amazement as those he passed recognized him . . .

    Mike Malone

    Oh, Mike, I remember this, too! Why hadn’t iPhones been invented yet? Why don’t we have pictures? But it’s just as well. Your word picture is the picture I’d have chosen.

    • #18
    • May 15, 2018 at 12:35 pm
    • Like
  19. Founder
    Peter Robinson Post author

    Kevin Creighton (View Comment):

    Peter Robinson: “You’re a writer, you know,” Tom said. He might as well have pinned me with a medal.

    Holy cow. That’s like Nolan Ryan telling you “You know, you can pitch.”

    Jokingly, I asked Tom to write a letter explaining the matter to my children, who were still little, but who would realize one day that I would almost certainly have foregone quite a lot of income if I led the life Tom recommended. A couple of weeks after Tom had returned to New York, a letter showed up. I still regard it as perhaps my greatest treasure.

    • #19
    • May 15, 2018 at 12:37 pm
    • 10 likes
  20. Member

    Mountie (View Comment):

    Would that I could have the style to dress the way he did. I grew up in the “Old South” where the arrival of spring wasn’t marked by blossoms as it was in the North but by the arrival of Seersucker. To see Wolf in his white suits was to look back in time to another age. GodSpeed Tom.

    I wouldn’t mind seeing some style in an airport, and in the aircraft cabin as well.

     

    • #20
    • May 15, 2018 at 12:37 pm
    • 6 likes
  21. Admin

    We’ve done around 100 shows since I have had the honor of producing Uncommon Knowledge. This is the only time I have ever taken a photo with a guest.

    They say don’t meet your heroes, you’ll only be disappointed. That was not the case here. It was awesome. Thanks for everything, Mr. Wolfe.

    P.S. As Peter mentioned, we shot this interview in Tom’s apartment. I of course could not resist looking around a bit. His office was in the next room and there I spotted a galley of Jonah’s soon to be released Liberal Fascism. I snapped a photo of it and texted it Jonah and we geeked out about the coolness of that for weeks afterwards (Tom ended up blurbing the book, too).

    • #21
    • May 15, 2018 at 2:19 pm
    • 8 likes
  22. Thatcher

    You’ve done some wonderful interviews, but this one was the very best. Thank you so very much for this treasure.

    • #22
    • May 15, 2018 at 3:53 pm
    • 1 like
  23. Thatcher

    A sad question: do any conservatives under 40 read Tom Wolfe?

    Is politics downstream of culture? I guess we mean pop culture or twitter culture.

    At the end of the latest Commentary podcast, after a thoughtful and passionate discussion of the left’s insanity over Gaza, JPod called an audible and substituted Tom Wolfe’s death as the last item.

    The bright young men at Commentary — and they are exceedingly bright — had nothing to say.

    Podhoretz stepped up with a smart, nuanced, politically astute and almost philosophical retrospective.

    Thank you John.

    But what does it say about conservative culture when Rothman, Greenwald and Ahmari have nothing to say about the greatest and grandest conservative writer of the past half century?

    Let’s be frank, the world of conservative American fiction isn’t that vast. Percy, Helprin, Wolfe, McCarthy, Dos Passos and Bellow.

    Quit Twitter and hit the books boys!

    • #23
    • May 15, 2018 at 4:04 pm
    • 2 likes
  24. Member

    Peterson honors Wolfe:

    The book is also on Peterson’s recommended reading list. 

    • #24
    • May 15, 2018 at 4:29 pm
    • 5 likes
  25. Coolidge

    Quake Voter (View Comment):

    A sad question: do any conservatives under 40 read Tom Wolfe?

    Is politics downstream of culture? I guess we mean pop culture or twitter culture.

    At the end of the latest Commentary podcast, after a thoughtful and passionate discussion of the left’s insanity over Gaza, JPod called an audible and substituted Tom Wolfe’s death as the last item.

    The bright young men at Commentary — and they are exceedingly bright — had nothing to say.

    Podhoretz stepped up with a smart, nuanced, politically astute and almost philosophical retrospective.

    Thank you John.

    But what does it say about conservative culture when Rothman, Greenwald and Ahmari have nothing to say about the greatest and grandest conservative writer of the past half century?

    Let’s be frank, the world of conservative American fiction isn’t that vast. Percy, Helprin, Wolfe, McCarthy, Dos Passos and Bellow.

    Quit Twitter and hit the books boys!

    I’m 34 and a high school drama teacher. I’ve read Tom Wolfe. In fact, when I read I am Charlotte Simmons the year after it came out, I had to set it aside for a few months. It’s realism was so ridiculously painful that I couldn’t continue until I had taken a break. When I finished it, it was an absolute gut-punch. Shocking that a man in his 70’s could have exposed my generation wriggling on a pin in that manner. 

    I wouldn’t take the Commentary young folks as examples. They are serious foreign policy wonks, and I’m a literary nerd. They’ve read extensively where I have not, and vice versa. 

    • #25
    • May 15, 2018 at 7:54 pm
    • 1 like
  26. Member

    Brian Watt (View Comment):

    Peterson honors Wolfe:

    The book is also on Peterson’s recommended reading list.

    The first book I ever picked up that I just couldn’t put down. Not just a book, an experience.

    • #26
    • May 15, 2018 at 9:14 pm
    • 2 likes
  27. Member

    My favorite tweet from today :

    • #27
    • May 15, 2018 at 11:51 pm
    • 2 likes
  28. Thatcher

    Drusus (View Comment):

    Quake Voter (View Comment):

    A sad question: do any conservatives under 40 read Tom Wolfe?

    Is politics downstream of culture? I guess we mean pop culture or twitter culture.

    At the end of the latest Commentary podcast, after a thoughtful and passionate discussion of the left’s insanity over Gaza, JPod called an audible and substituted Tom Wolfe’s death as the last item.

    The bright young men at Commentary — and they are exceedingly bright — had nothing to say.

    Podhoretz stepped up with a smart, nuanced, politically astute and almost philosophical retrospective.

    Thank you John.

    But what does it say about conservative culture when Rothman, Greenwald and Ahmari have nothing to say about the greatest and grandest conservative writer of the past half century?

    Let’s be frank, the world of conservative American fiction isn’t that vast. Percy, Helprin, Wolfe, McCarthy, Dos Passos and Bellow.

    Quit Twitter and hit the books boys!

    I’m 34 and a high school drama teacher. I’ve read Tom Wolfe. In fact, when I read I am Charlotte Simmons the year after it came out, I had to set it aside for a few months. It’s realism was so ridiculously painful that I couldn’t continue until I had taken a break. When I finished it, it was an absolute gut-punch. Shocking that a man in his 70’s could have exposed my generation wriggling on a pin in that manner.

    I wouldn’t take the Commentary young folks as examples. They are serious foreign policy wonks, and I’m a literary nerd. They’ve read extensively where I have not, and vice versa.

    They are senior editors of one of the foremost journals of conservative ideas, not Foreign Policy.

    You think a thirty year old Norman Podhoretz or Irving Kristol ever said, “Well I’ve never read any Bellow, but …”

    If politics is downstream of culture, and our brightest conservative yuggins are more conversant with Marvel and the next Battlestar Gallactica reboot than Tom Wolfe, we’ve got a problem.

    • #28
    • May 16, 2018 at 9:09 am
    • 6 likes
  29. Member

    Plug: Back to Blood, Wolfe’s last novel, garnered mixed reviews, for whatever that’s worth. For anyone who is familiar with, or is a fan of, Miami (as I am), it’s a worthy endeavor–and most certainly for those who do audio books.

    The book is basically a series of interwoven, extended character portraits set in the city, and the audio narration by Lou Diamond Phillips is IMO superb (likely the best I’ve heard in an audio book), Phillips captures Wolfe’s staccato prose perfectly and adds a dimension perhaps missing on the printed page. Worth the time for Wolfe fans.

    • #29
    • May 16, 2018 at 9:40 am
    • 1 like
  30. Thatcher

    Interesting. Not knowing his work, nor recalling having him recommended, I’ve not read a word of his. And had no idea he is considered a great conservative writer.

    Guess I’ll have to get started.

    FWIW, I’m 51 yo.

    • #30
    • May 16, 2018 at 10:21 am
    • Like
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