How Tom Wolfe wooed and wowed Manhattan


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... Even as he savaged its literati, artistes, architects, critics, elites, eggheads, liberals, Darwinians — and just about everybody else




When he peacocked into a room, or penned a flamboyant sentence, or skewered a nemesis, or hatched an outlandish thesis, or reveled in an old-fashioned literary feud, you knew at once: This was a true original.

He was, in his own phrase, a “neo-pretentious” dandy who unmasked the pretensions of others. He loved culture, then tossed hand grenades into its temples. He sought status, then mocked the “status-sphere.”

Exuberant and adrenalized and iconoclastic, gleeful foe of the pompous and nonsensical, scourge of the upper-crust vanities and extravagances, bane of the self-aggrandizing snobbery that could, at times, inform his own persona and works, Tom Wolfe was, in a word, unforgettable.

The old newspaper beat reporter and magazine essayist — a co-founder of the New Journalism who skyrocketed to fame as a nonfiction writer, novelist, social satirist and cultural commentator — died on May 14 of an unspecified infection at an unnamed Manhattan hospital. He was 88.

Clad in his trademark three-piece, white-linen suits with a silken necktie and two-tone shoes and typically bearing a silver cane, Wolfe broadcast to the city he felt possessed too many cookie-cutter personalities that he was a one-of-a-kind character-cum-icon, a man in white who stood apart in a town of grays.

And then he proved it with a body of work that began in 1962, at the long-defunct New York Herald Tribune, and gathered steam when its Sunday-magazine supplement emerged as New York magazine after the Trib folded following a 1966 strike, and then exploded in a torrent of best-sellers that delighted readers while enraging critics for the next half-century.

Along the way, he delivered into the lexicon such immortal phrases as “radical chic” and the “me decade,” the “right stuff” and “pushing the envelope,” “social x-rays” and “good old boys” and “masters of the universe” and the list goes on.

Judge a man by his enemies and his oppositionalities, for while Wolfe worshipped art and literature and architecture, he had scant use for the bulk of artists and writers and builders.

Pablo Picasso may have been a demigod, but Wolfe disdained him. “He never learned perspective or anatomy,” he wrote. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe? The “cult-like” architect of the Seagram Building degraded the city, and his legacy was the “rohe after rohe” of “correct glass box after correct glass box.”

As for the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission — which failed to act when Huntington Hartford’s white marble museum at 2 Columbus Circle was redesigned and effectively obliterated a decade ago — “it is the bureau of the walking dead.”

Manhattan’s marquee literati fared little better:

When his 1998 novel “A Man in Full” was published, John Irving offered that “it makes you wince,” John Updike opined that it “amounts to entertainment, not literature,” and Norman Mailer branded its author the “hardest-working showoff the literary world has ever owned.”

Wolfe’s answer was “My Three Stooges,” an essay about those “piles of bones ... our three old novelists” who don’t report, don’t portray the social reality of America today, and who appear increasingly “effete and irrelevant.”

Added Wolfe, “It must gall them a bit that everyone — including them — is talking about me, and nobody is talking about them.”

Born in Richmond, Virginia in 1930, Wolfe achieved global celebrity status with “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” a New York magazine takedown about a 1970 party for the Black Panthers at Leonard Bernstein’s 13-room penthouse duplex at 895 Park Avenue — in which, he observed, the Panthers devoured “little Roquefort cheese morsels” by the concert grand piano.

Another classic, “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!” was a public dissection of revered New Yorker editor William Shawn, who he branded a “museum curator, mummifier, preserver-in-amber and smiling embalmer” who carried a hatchet in his briefcase because he feared getting stuck in an elevator.

By 1987, at the tender age of 56, Wolfe penned his first novel.

“Bonfire of the Vanities” was a mega-hit about race and avarice, class and politics, that gave the world “Masters of the Universe,” from super-producing, bond-salesman protagonist Sherman McCoy, and “social X-rays,” which captured the skinny, rich, ladies-who-lunch set on the Upper East Side and was modeled after society hostess Nan Kemper.

That was Wolfe’s world for he was a creature of the UES.

And one of his most memorable pieces, for Esquire magazine in 1985, rankled his across-the-park critics on the Upper West Side when he posited that there were only 42 “Good Buildings” in all of New York — and every single one of them was in the old Silk Stocking District.

A social and political conservative, he loved ridiculing the pretensions of Manhattan liberalism and baiting the left: To wit, he recently branded Donald Trump a “lovable megalomaniac.” And the intellectuals of both East and West Sides were always those “second-hand idea salesmen.”

The right-of-center establishment loved him back. And in 2006, he shared a stage with ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who dubbed him the “Dickens of our modern age,” as the Manhattan Institute awarded him its Alexander Hamilton Award.

New York Times columnist David Brooks made the introduction, and he put it like this:

“Many of you have probably observed that history has a pattern of imitating Tom Wolfe novels. There was ‘Bonfire of the Vanities,’ and then came Al Sharpton. There was ‘I Am Charlotte Simmons,’ and then came the Duke Lacrosse scandal.

“Tom Wolfe is so good that even God is plagiarizing him!”

invreporter@strausnews.com






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