The Man in the White Suit

I ended up investigating the work of writer Tom Wolfe as a result of two things really. First, his documenting of the lunch time dancers at  Tiles, the club on Oxford Street, in his essay The Noonday Underground and, well, his clothes if I’m honest . He was well known for always wearing an immaculate white suit seemingly every day and whenever I saw him featured on TV or in print, he always looked dressed to impress . ‘Someone that well turned out’ I heard myself say ‘is someone who needs investigating further.’

I started with his books of collected essays, with which he first made his name and then moved on to his later novels and I found a diverse and interesting collection of work.

He was born Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Jr. in March 1930 in Richmond, Virginia, the son of Helen, a garden designer and Thomas Sr. an agronomist, a soil scientist, or a gentleman farmer as once described by his son, as well as editor of the agricultural magazine, The Southern Planter. A writer at a young age, Tom was editor of his school magazine, as well as a highly respected baseball player for St Christopher’s, the  private all- boys school, he attended.

He later went to Washington and Lee University and there studied English, graduating with distinction in 1951, whilst at the same time, keeping his hand in, playing baseball as a semi-professional.  In fact, he was good enough to get a trial with the New York Giants as a pitcher, though he was let go after three days. It seems his ‘fast ball’ was not fast enough. He continued his studies instead and then attended Yale, under an American Studies Programme, emerging with a PHD.

In 1956, he began working as a reporter for the Springfield Union and in 1959 was hired by the Washington Post, winning an award for his reporting from Cuba in 1961. It was whilst there, that he first began to experiment with writing fiction. He then joined the New York Herald Tribune in 1962 as a general reporter and feature writer.

It was in that year, that Wolfe first adopted the white suit, which has mentioned, became his trademark . He planned to wear the one he had recently bought, that summer, but found it too heavy in weight, so wore it in the winter instead, which caused a sensation among his colleagues and the chattering creative classes in general. Wolfe, noticing the reaction it received, therefore kept the white suit as his ‘thing’, his uniform in effect and the image stuck. He later topped off the look with a fine selection of hats, spats and walking canes.

Wolfe – ‘The outfit disarmed the people making me, in their eyes, ‘a man from Mars’  the man who didn’t know anything and was eager to know.’ Once asked to describe his get-up, Wolfe replied brightly, ‘Neo-pretentious.’

His work then became widely recognised, when an article he wrote in 1963 for Esquire magazine about the custom car and hot rod scene in Southern California, called There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby led to an offer for a book of the same name in 1964. This collected together some of his articles, including his own particular take on the nascent counter culture, pop world that was opening up.

Wolfe termed his writing style as ‘New Journalism’ using the writing devices of extensive dialogue, multiple points of view, scene-by-scene construction, and detailed description of individuals’ status-life symbols.

Fellow Southerner, Hunter S Thompson was not a fan – ‘You thieving pile of albino warts. You better settle your goddamn affairs because your deal is about to go down. I’ll have your goddamn femurs ground into bone splinters if you ever mention my name again in connection with that horrible “new journalism” shuck you’re promoting!’

Wolfe –  ‘I think every living moment of a human being’s life, unless the person is starving or in immediate danger of death in some other way, is controlled by a concern for status.’

Wolfe practiced ‘saturation reporting’ in which he as good as lived with his subject matter for an extended period of time, becoming completely attached and fully involved.

Wolfe – ‘To pull it off, you casually have to stay with the people you are writing about for long stretches. long enough so that you are actually there when revealing scenes take place in their lives.’

An example of this was his book The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test , memorably described by the Washington Post as a ‘Day Glo Book’, in which he followed ‘The Merry Pranksters’ led by Ken Kesey, the writer of the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest no less. The Pranksters travelled all over the US in 1964 in a converted school bus, handing out LSD dropped in cups of the soft drink, Kool Aid, hence the name of the article. Wolfe himself abstained from experimenting with the drug, though those who read examples of writing, might have thought otherwise…

‘Bangs manes bouffant beehive Beatle caps butter faces brush-on lashes decal eyes puffy sweaters French thrust bras flailing leather blue jeans stretch pants stretch jeans honey dew bottoms éclair shanks elf boots ballerinas Knight slippers, hundreds of them these flaming little buds, bobbing and screaming, rocketing around inside the Academy of Music Theatre underneath that vast old moldering cherub dome up there — aren’t they super-marvellous?’

A second group of essays called ‘The Pump House Gang’ was published in 1968.

“You know who Chuck Yeager is?”
“Everyone knows who Chuck Yeager is.”

Wolfe’s  book The Right Stuff was published in 1979 and it detailed the selection and training of those who were to become the first wave of NASA astronauts. The book was later adapted for film in 1983 and starred the likes of Ed Harris, Sam Shepherd and Scot Glenn, going on to win four Oscars.

He often mentioned writing a novel, but after he put in the hours of research and ‘shadowing’ work , he struggled with writer’s block. A way round it was found by Jann Wenner, editor of Rolling Stone magazine, and a neighbour of Wolfe’s, who in the early /mid 80s, serialised Wolfes work, called The Bonfire of The Vanities, echoing what the likes of Charles Dickens had done with many of his great novels in the 1800s .

Wolfe finally overcome his block and revised and reworked that into a novel of the same name, which saw the light of day in 1987. The story of a young Wall Street trader, it was a huge critical and commercial success and went on to sit on the best seller list for a very long time. The 1990 film made of the book, directed by Brian De Palma and starring Tom Hanks, was not as popular critically or at the  box office however.

His follow up took eleven years to complete and A Man in Full was published in 1998. Critically acclaimed, it again became a best seller, though not in the same league of his debut. A third novel I Am Charlotte Simmons appeared in 2004, written after Wolfe, then aged 73, had survived heart surgery. It met with a poor response from the critics and his fourth Back to Blood, for which he was paid an advance of a reputed $7 Million US dollars, fared even worse, though he still had his supporters.

Kurt Vonnegut –  ‘The most exciting—or, at least, the most jangling—journalist to appear in some time, a genius who will do anything to get attention.’

Paul Fussell –  ‘Reading him is exhilarating not because he makes us hopeful of the human future but because he makes us share the enthusiasm with which he perceives the actual.’

William F. Buckley Jr.  – ‘He is probably the most skilful writer in America — I mean by that he can do more things with words than anyone else.’

However, not everyone was not on side, such as Norman  Mailer, who said reading a Wolfe novel compared to having sex with a 300 lb woman – ‘Once she gets to the top it’s all over. Fall in love or be asphyxiated.’

Wolfe, who simply laughed off any criticism (the 7 million dollars would have helped I guess?) lived in New York from 1962 and ended up in a 12-room apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where each day he would dress up (white suit of course) and sit and write, with the aim of achieving 10 pages. If it took 3 hours he was done for the day, but ‘if it takes me 12 hours, that’s too bad, I’ve got to do it.’

Tom Wolfe died aged 88, in May 2018, survived by his wife Sheila Berger, a designer with Harper’s Bazaar, their daughter Alexandra and son Tommy.

Jann Wenner  – ‘He was very easy to work with. He didn’t make any crazy demands – in high contrast to Hunter S Thompson, who was extraordinarily demanding. Like Hunter, Tom was raised in the south, but instead of becoming a southern bad boy he became a southern gentleman. He was courteous and considerate with everybody; he didn’t want to load people with work or take too much of their time. I think he’ll be remembered as one of the greatest writers of our time, after a lot of other big names will be forgotten. Tom’s exploration of American society was deep and vivid, and his writing – his way of using words beyond the strict rules of grammar – will be remembered as a breakthrough. Norman Mailer was a precedent in terms of a journalist/novelist, Philip Roth was an unquestionably great writer, but Tom occupies a peak all by himself. I have a long set of memories of Tom, all of them delightful. I can’t think of one unpleasant memory, not one.’

The Mumper of SE5

Read The Mumper’s other weekly musings on the The Speakeasy Blog page




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