Brow Beat

Piece by Piece

Tom Wolfe’s journalistic legacy of great details and questionable tactics.

Tom Wolfe poses for a portrait during the Tribeca Film Festival at the Tribeca Grand Hotel April 23, 2005 in New York City.
Tom Wolfe poses during the Tribeca Film Festival on April 23, 2005, in New York City. Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

Before the work became flabby and a mess of verbal tics (hernia, hernia, hernia, hernia), and well before he stopped being a journalist altogether, Tom Wolfe was an observant, concise New York Herald Tribune scribbler edited by the great Clay Felker. And the stories, more than a half-century later, hold up. The writing is elegant in a manner uncommon amid the churn of a daily paper.

Take the 1963 portrait of a West Hartford grandmother, “skydiving from 5,000 feet, just her and her little, furled-up parachute, free-falling alone through the eternity of God’s Connecticut ozone at 400 to 500 m.p.h. … ” And the year before, in a story headlined “It’s All Greek To Us,” we meet fraternity members with “eyes that looked like poached eggs engraved with a road map of West Virginia.”

This is not the work for which Wolfe, who has just died, is known. This is not the mile-a-minute prose, replete with fanciful capitalization, liberal exclamation points, and frequent italics typified by 1965’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. What is Tom Wolfe’s legacy to journalism? To assess it, I think you have to answer three questions: Does the work endure? Do the practices endure? And whom has he influenced?

The curse of longevity is that eventually the work suffers. (The exception is 97-year-old Roger Angell, whose New Yorker output, perversely, seems to become more perfect each year.) And Wolfe couldn’t escape that. But he seemed aware of the falloff and declined to publish a book of original reportage after 1979. That last effort, though, doesn’t seem at all dusty. The Right Stuff still crackles with life.

Here, for example, is a bit from the opening chapter, about the ritual of informing the wife of a test pilot that her husband has died:

When the final news came, there would be a ring at the front door—a wife in this situation finds herself staring at the front door as if she no longer owns it or controls it—and outside the door would be a man … come to inform her that unfortunately something has happened out there, and her husband’s body now lies incinerated in the swamps or the pines or the palmetto grass…

In a mere 72 words, Wolfe captured the horribly vertiginous, queasy feeling of anticipating a death notice. He captured the sanitized nature of bureaucratic-speak (“something has happened”). And he conveyed, in economical language, the true brutality of how that pilot actually died. Wolfe wrote in such a casual manner, it’s easy to overlook what a high-wire act this was.

When I first started reading Wolfe’s journalism, I was skeptical of how he practiced it, the nuts and bolts of his craft. I saw the blocks of dialogue in his 1970 New York cover story “Radical Chic,” an account of a party at the apartment of Leonard Bernstein, and wondered how he’d documented it. After all, Wolfe disdained the tape recorder, telling me once—with a tape recorder sitting between us—that the device was “for lazy people.” But how, I asked, do you get all these details? “I do shorthand, Gregg shorthand,” he said. “That’s what they do at trials, to this day.” (To his credit, I haven’t heard of Wolfe flubbing anything factually.)

And in another area, Wolfe’s practice holds up less well. He outright filched the work of others. When we spoke several years ago, Wolfe happily recounted taking material for the beginning of “Radical Chic,” which describes Bernstein’s middle-of-the-night thoughts. This, he said, was from John Gruen’s book The Private World of Leonard Bernstein. “John was not really happy about that,” said Wolfe. “He really worshipped Leonard Bernstein. He thought I was using this to comic effect. Which, in fact, I was.”

Making use of other writers’ material wasn’t uncommon among practitioners of New Journalism. Wolfe’s contemporary and competitor, Gay Talese, did something similar in his profile of Joe DiMaggio. In the most famous section of the story, DiMaggio’s wife, Marilyn Monroe, recalls performing for thousands of servicemen. “It was so wonderful, Joe. You never heard such cheering,” she says. To which DiMaggio, who had played for throngs in the Bronx for more than a decade, famously replies, “Yes, I have.” The story had been lifted from interviews with Monroe by a freelance writer named Maurice Zolotow, published in the American Weekly in 1955.

The last question, of who and what Wolfe has influenced, seems less ambiguous. New Journalism may be dead—thanks, in so small part, to changes in the economics of the business—but you can see Wolfe in the work of others. Michael Lewis, for one, sees The Right Stuff as “a great work of American literature.” The Wolfeian quality in his chronicle Liar’s Poker, which documents his time at Salomon Brothers, is obvious. It’s what Joe Hagan, author of Sticky Fingers, called in an interview Tuesday afternoon “standing bemused before the facts, and having bemusement be part of the expression of the work.”

You can see that in Peter Kaplan’s New York Observer and, in turn, in a website the Observer inspired called Gawker. Which, eventually, changed the way we wrote on the web. In that respect, certainly, we all owe a great debt to Tom Wolfe.

As for me, I remain inspired by early Herald Tribuneera Wolfe. In reporting on a riotous 1963 debutante party in Southampton, New York, Wolfe noted that “registered rock throwers had demolished about 1,634 of a possible 1,640 window panes from both directions, outside and in.” It was still early in his career, but status-obsessed Wolfe was already adept at sorting people: “By mid-afternoon, the crowd at the Ladd House had been reduced to three types: Demolition experts, prostrate forms and sightseers from the ball who had heard about the devastation … ”

I’m envious of all the little details; that’s what makes journalism sing. Few could marshal the tidbits, piece by piece, better than Wolfe.