My Car Quest

August 20, 2018

Tom Wolfe: RIP – A Great American Writer

by Wallace Wyss –

Tom Wolfe died, at age 88, a few days ago. He will be remembered in car collecting circles for his lively writing about cars, though cars were actually never his main interest; I would say it was art.

He was a Yale man, graduating in the American studies program and earning his Ph.D. in 1957. He started out not working for the glorious papers like the New York Times but as a general-assignment reporter at The Springfield Union in Springfield, Mass., only later joining the staff of The Washington Post.

Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe as young dandy, (Vanity Fair photo)

His first heavy duty reporting was done in Latin America and in 1961 he was celebrated for a series on Cuba.

SOCIAL CRITIC

He didn’t become a “social critic”, i.e., poking fun at society, until 1962, when he joined The Herald Tribune as a reporter on the city desk. He loved the intrigues of New York, always chronicling who was on top so to speak, and became a superstar there.

Then he linked up with New York Magazine, edited by Clay Felker. He and Clay began to do a real probing, always with humor, of the many establishments in the city; particularly the art world.

With his RAT-A-TAT_TAT style (he actually used phonetic effects like that) Wolfe became the number one point man for what was called “The New Journalism”, along with Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese, Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion and others.

To him the definition of that phrase was: “writing nonfiction, from newspaper stories to books, using basic reporting to gather the material but techniques ordinarily associated with fiction, such as scene-by-scene construction, to narrate it.”

He was most intrigued with the status theories as first developed by the German sociologist Max Weber. So it was that he found a styling publication to work for, Esquire.

Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe in 2007.

And wouldn’t you know it, one of his first stories there was his article about custom cars, which started out as a 49-page memo to Byron Dobell of Esquire Magazine, explaining what he saw in Los Angeles but written to explain why he couldn’t write about it. His editor then ran the letter as an article and he was off and running.

And that became a book “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby,” published in 1968.

I met him about 1970 in Hollywood when he was promoting the book at a bookstore and invited him to lunch on the Sunset Strip. I was shocked he didn’t even drive a car and yet here he was writing about cars. His most entertaining story at lunch was about how he got on a NASCAR team by showing up in a truck and they said “We don’t know who he is but damn, he’s got an empty truck.”

Later on he branched into many areas, but mostly it was high society, with portraits of socialites, and movers and shakers in the art world.

“The Painted Word” (1975), was a book where he alleged contemporary art was a con job perpetrated by cultural high priests.

He also wrote a book about the astronauts, “The Right Stuff”, that became a movie and in our lunch he mentioned a scene from that book where every time there was a crash at the base, the wives of astronauts would look out the window, dreading that a car with officers would be arriving to tell them their husband had been killed.

Among his other books, “The Bonfire of the Vanities”, also became a movie.

He had a real sense of style and became famous in the fashion world for his white suits and homburg hats.

We will miss the next book he would have written.

Wallace Wyss

Wallace Wyss

 
 
 
 
THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss is the author of 18 car books.

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

Tom Wolfe

Summary
Tom Wolfe: RIP - A Great American Writer
Article Name
Tom Wolfe: RIP - A Great American Writer
Description
Tom Wolfe died this week at the age of 88.
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Comments

  1. That is more or less a copy of what the NYT wrote some days ago. Why not quote the source?

    • All obituaries of a well known person will have pretty much the same information.

      Most of the facts about Wolfe’s life can be found in his Wikipedia biography page but the author’s first hand account of a lunch meeting with Wolfe when Wolfe was promoting his book is not mentioned in the NY Times obituary or Wikipedia.

  2. Art Salo says:

    An excellent article about a rare, fascinating, genius who will certainly be missed. I am rather old and, unfortunately, have never read any of his books. But because of your interesting article about him, I will now!

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