Farewell, Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe has died:

Tom Wolfe, an innovative journalist and novelist whose technicolor, wildly punctuated prose brought to life the worlds of California surfers, car customizers, astronauts and Manhattan’s moneyed status-seekers in works like “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” “The Right Stuff” and “Bonfire of the Vanities,” died on Monday in a Manhattan hospital. He was 88.

His death was confirmed by his agent, Lynn Nesbit, who said Mr. Wolfe had been hospitalized with an infection. He had lived in New York since joining The New York Herald Tribune as a reporter in 1962.

In his use of novelistic techniques in his nonfiction, Mr. Wolfe, beginning in the 1960s, helped create the enormously influential hybrid known as the New Journalism.

But as an unabashed contrarian, he was almost as well known for his attire as his satire. He was instantly recognizable as he strolled down Madison Avenue — a tall, slender, blue-eyed, still boyish-looking man in his spotless three-piece vanilla bespoke suit, pinstriped silk shirt with a starched white high collar, bright handkerchief peeking from his breast pocket, watch on a fob, faux spats and white shoes. Once asked to describe his get-up, Mr. Wolfe replied brightly, “Neo-pretentious.”


It was a typically wry response from a writer who found delight in lacerating the pretentiousness of others. He had a pitiless eye and a penchant for spotting trends and then giving them names, some of which — like “Radical Chic” and “the Me Decade” — became American idioms.

His talent as a writer and caricaturist was evident from the start in his verbal pyrotechnics and perfect mimicry of speech patterns, his meticulous reporting, and his creative use of pop language and explosive punctuation.

“As a titlist of flamboyance he is without peer in the Western world,” Joseph Epstein wrote in the The New Republic. “His prose style is normally shotgun baroque, sometimes edging over into machine-gun rococo, as in his article on Las Vegas which begins by repeating the word ‘hernia’ 57 times.”

William F. Buckley Jr., writing in National Review, put it more simply: “He is probably the most skillful writer in America — I mean by that he can do more things with words than anyone else.”

True, all true. I remember the spring of 1998, when my wife and I were newly arrived in Manhattan. We were walking along upper Madison Avenue one afternoon, and there he came toward us, in his white suit, accompanied by two women. We stopped and moved aside to let him pass. I was too shy to say anything to him, but it was a Moment. The moment said, in part, “Welcome to New York, kid.”

Here’s  Terry Teachout’s remembrance. Here he’s talking about Wolfe’s big novel The Bonfire of the Vanities:

 I remember reading it with the same sense of bedazzled revelation that George Orwell’s Winston Smith read The Theory of Oligarchical Collectivism It was as though the veil of euphemism had been pulled back—no, ripped down—and for the first time I saw New York as it was:

Cattle! Birdbrains! Rosebuds! Goyim! You don’t even know, do you? Do you realy think this is your city any longer? Open your eyes! The greatest city of the twentieth century! Do you think money will keep it yours?…You don’t think the future knows how to cross a bridge? And you, you Wasp charity-ballers sitting on your mounds of inherited money up in your co-ops with the twelve-foot ceilings and the two wings, one for you and one for the help, do you really think you’re impregnable? And you German-Jewish financiers who have finally made it into the same buildings, the better to insulate yourselves from the shtetl hordes, do you really think you’re insulated from the Third World?

Were people talking like that in 1987? Sure—but they didn’t publish that kind of talk, which is what made Bonfire so thrilling. As I wrote in The New Criterion on the fifth anniversary of the book’s publication, “Rereading Bonfire, I found myself thinking, over and over again, Nobody would print that today….Without access to a realism of this degree of specificity and honesty, it is impossible for a writer to describe New York, or America, as it really is. Yet who can imagine any New York editor allowing such things to get into print nowadays?”

Ain’t that the truth. But look, do yourself a big favor and read Michael Lewis’s 2015 Vanity Fair profile of Wolfe, focusing on how Wolfe became a writer. Here’s Lewis talking about Wolfe leaving Virginia as a young man and ending up at Yale. This is a priceless anecdote:

For the first time in his life, it appears, Tom Wolfe has been provoked. He has left home and found, on the East Coast, the perpetual revolt of High Culture against God, Country, and Tradition. He happens to have landed in a time and place in which art—like the economy that supports it—is essentially patricidal. It’s all about tearing up and replacing what came before. The young Tom Wolfe is intellectually equipped to join some fashionable creative movement and set himself in opposition to God, Country, and Tradition; emotionally, not so much. He doesn’t use his new experience of East Coast sophisticates to distance himself from his southern conservative upbringing; instead he uses his upbringing to distance himself from the new experience. He picks for his Ph.D. dissertation topic the Communist influences on American writers, 1928–1942. From their response to it, the Yale professors, who would have approved the topic in advance, had no idea of the spirit in which Wolfe intended to approach it:

“Dear Mr. Wolfe:

I am personally acutely sorry to have to write you this letter but I want to inform you in advance that all of your readers reports have come in, and … I am sorry to say I anticipate that the thesis will not be recommended for the degree…. The tone was not objective but was consistently slanted to disparage the writers under consideration and to present them in a bad light even when the evidence did not warrant this.” [Letter from Yale dean to T.W., May 19, 1956.]

To this comes appended the genuinely shocked reviews of three Yale professors. It’s as if they can’t quite believe this seemingly sweet-natured and well-mannered southern boy has gone off half cocked and ridiculed some of the biggest names in American literature. The Yale grad student had treated the deeply held political conviction of these great American artists as—well, as a ploy in a game of status seeking. This student seemed to have gone out of his way to turn these serious American intellectuals into figures of fun. “The result is more journalistically tendentious than scholarly…. Wolfe’s polemical rhetoric is … a chief consideration of my decision to fail the dissertation.” To top it all off … he’d taken some license with the details. One outraged reviewer compared Wolfe’s text with his cited sources and attached the comparison. Sample Wolfe passage: “At one point ‘the Cuban delegation’ tramped in. It was led by a fierce young woman named Lola de la Torriente. With her bobbed hair, leather jacket, and flat-heeled shoes, she looked as though she had just left the barricades. Apparently she had. ‘This is where our literature is being built,’ exclaimed she, ‘on the barricades!’ ” Huffed the reviewer: “There is no description of her in the source, and the quotations do not appear in the reference.”

Which is to say that, as a 26-year-old graduate student, just as a 12-year-old letter writer, Tom Wolfe was already recognizably himself. He’d also found a lens through which he might view, freshly, all human behavior. He’d gone to Yale with the thought he would study his country by reading its literature and history and economics. He wound up discovering sociology—and especially Max Weber’s writings about the power of status seeking. The lust for status, it seemed to him, explained why otherwise intelligent American writers lost their minds and competed with one another to see just how devoted to the Communist cause they could be. In a funny way, Yale served him extremely well: it gave him a chance to roam and read and bump into new ideas.

You’ve just got to read Lewis talking about Wolfe and The Right Stuff. And then, how even though he was one of the leading lights of the New Journalism, he refused to turn himself into a character, like Truman Capote or Hunter S. Thompson:

Tom Wolfe wasn’t like that. For years after he became famous for his writing he was unable to stand up and give a talk without writing it out first. He simply hadn’t been raised for the job of being a famous American writer circa 1970. “I got by on the white suit for quite a while,” he now says. The white suit reassured people that he was busy playing a character when he was in fact busy watching them. In truth he had no sense of himself as a character; he thought of himself as a normal guy in an abnormal world. That he had no great ability to attract attention to himself except through his pen proved to be a huge literary advantage. He wanted status and attention as much as anyone else, but to get them he had to write. His public persona he could buy from his tailor.

His career, he suspects, is no longer possible. I also think that is true, for all sorts of non-obvious reasons—the career turned on the distinctiveness of his voice, and he found that voice only because he was given lots of time to do it. The voice also came from a particular place, now dead and gone. Not New York in the 1960s and 70s but Richmond, Virginia, circa 1942, when he was a boy and figured out what he loved and admired. Wolfe thinks his career would no longer be possible for a more obvious reason: the Internet. Electronic media aren’t as able or as likely to pay for the sort of immersion reporting that he did. And the readers of it aren’t looking—or at least don’t think they are looking—for a writer to create their view of the world. “I wouldn’t have the same pathway from the bottom to the top,” he says. “At some point you get thrust into the digital media. God, I don’t know what the hell I’d do.”

Then he surprises me. Looking back on it, he says, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers is his favorite book. His second novel, A Man in Full, published in 1998, sold the most copies, but Radical Chic was the one he wouldn’t change a word of. In the same breath he says that he recalls his father’s reaction to the book. “I remember him saying, ‘God, you’re really a writer.’ ”

Read the whole thing. It’s just great. When I was just starting out as a professional writer, there were three journalists who inspired me, because they showed what a writer could do with journalism: Truman Capote, Pauline Kael, and Tom Wolfe. What a man!

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PBS’ “Little Women” looks thoroughly unfashionable

Courtesy of Masterpiece on PBS, BBC and Playground

Courtesy of Masterpiece on PBS, BBC and Playground

Midway through the first hour of PBS’s “Little Women,” my husband turned to me and asked when the handsome and mysterious drifter was going to show up.

To be clear, he didn’t want something terrible or ribald to happen to the March sister. He merely wanted to know if there was a point to devoting three hours of time to this literary adaptation, the first hour of which premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on "Masterpiece." (The concluding two hours air May 20, also beginning at 8 p.m.)

Explaining to him that Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel had no such twists — no outside threats, no piquant, torrid romances, no spikes of heart-pounding anxiety or excitement. The main threat is an outbreak of scarlet fever. At this his face slackened into a puddle of bewilderment as he quietly muttered, “I’m just not sure why I’m watching this.”

Lots of people will be asking themselves that question I suspect, even those who adore Alcott’s tale. The roots of that love reach deep, but even that level of affection may not be enough to triumph over the emotional aridity of this new "Masterpiece" production.

The challenge screenwriter Heidi Thomas and director Vanessa Caswill face in updating “Little Women” for 2018 is multifold. First, Alcott’s creation is so timeless that the story has been adapted for film and television screens numerous times already, although not lately.

Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 production with Ryder, Susan Sarandon and Christian Bale (!) as Laurie, the prototypical guy who gets friend zoned, is the novel’s most recent cinematic take. But in the quarter century that has passed since the release of that work and this one, our expectations of what a period piece can or should look like have drastically changed.

Simply put, we’ve been primed to expect something to happen in such stories.

Downton Abbey,” a drama borne on a cumulus clouds of etiquette and fantastic, glittering refinement, brought in problems straightaway in the form of the seductive Mr. Pamuk. Hence my husband’s assumption that, following the girls’ whinging about an impoverished Christmas, some guy that looks like Colin Farrell would show up at the door and, you know, mix things up.

No such luck!

Then again, neither are they set upon by zombies, a la “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” or made to dodge vampires hunted by Abraham Lincoln. I’m not being entirely ridiculous in citing those titles, given how popular twisting literary greats proved to be only recently. “Little Women” itself wasn’t immune to that craze. Only three years ago, The CW was developing this grim, millennial-targeted take on the story:

“…disparate half-sisters Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy band together in order to survive the dystopic streets of Philadelphia and unravel a conspiracy that stretches far beyond anything they have ever imagined – all while trying not to kill each other in the process.”

Even that version, as in all others, everyone would envision themselves as a Jo.

At different points in cinematic history the independent, ambitious protagonist of “Little Women has been played by trendsetting women of a given era, Winona Ryder and Katharine Hepburn among them. Here Maya Hawke, the daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke, brings Jo to life in this news production's version 19th century Massachusetts, a place far removed from the grime and peril of the Civil War.

Hawke commands the focus of the story quite ably. Sometimes, actually, her Jo outshines the other March girls sharing scenes with her, particularly Willa Fitzgerald’s graceful and confident Meg and Annes Elwy’s frail and retreating Beth. This is less excusable for Fitzgerald’s society butterfly that Elwy’s shy heroine, even if Beth is in one key respect the heart and soul of the piece.

In contrast Kathryn Newton, cast as the self-involved and bratty Amy, holds her own. She’s second strongest performer in the cast after Angela Lansbury, pitch perfect as the high-handed Aunt March, a mistress of caustic wit and spiritual sister to the dowager Countess of “Downton.” Declaring Lansbury to be a revelation is like informing you that the sky is blue: the woman elevates everything she does, and her work in this “Little Women” is evidence of that.

Less impressive, though not for lack of talent, is Emily Watson’s Marmee, written as a matriarch who allows her girls space to blossom into their individual personalities but realized here almost as auxiliary to the action.  Their neighbor Laurie (Jonah Hauer-King), grandson to the wealthy Mr. Laurence (Michael Gambon, who is barely there), soon becomes Jo’s bosom confidante and the source of romantic competition, though muted between her and Amy.

With the family patriarch (Dylan Baker) tending to soldiers on the front lines, Marmee and the girls are said to barely be getting by. Yet their dresses are smart and they have a servant; they’re not stuffed into a crumbling cabin and they can afford to blow the occasional quarter on pickled limes.

The visual demarcations of social and economic status aren’t particularly obvious, save for Aunt March’s ostentatiously decorated parlor and her overly familiar parrot; a scene where the bird chomps on Amy’s bow is a rare entertainment.

Beyond that, and to its detriment, “Little Women” returns to the classic PBS “Masterpiece” style of being true a piece of literature nearly to the point of drowning it in formaldehyde.

One positive note is Caswill’s cinematography, evocative of an aesthetic that resembles Hudson River School landscape art in miniature. Woefully the action occurring within these settings is less interesting: Unless you find watching Jo, Meg and Amy change into a variety of gowns, prance between fancy parlors and poor, dilapidated homes, or run through the wintry woodlands of 19th century Concord enticing, there’s precious little to keep a person enthralled.

Perhaps loyal “Little Women” readers would argue that Alcott’s examination of their progress from adolescence to adulthood holds its own fascination, and to those viewers the production’s close adherence to the source material could be seen as its strength. To them, Marmee being called away to care for Mr. March, leaving the girls to find their own way in the world, is all the action “Little Women” requires.

Alcott’s story is a journey of maturity, after all, one that empowers and tests the sororal bonds of the March sisters. Largely that narrative perspective is Jo’s. Admirably Thomas has written a script that allows room for Meg, Amy and even poor Beth to stand out as individuals finding their own way within a world where their choices are limited and prescribed for them. Jo defies these notions; that’s why so many love her.

But you may hanker refreshed view of this bygone era akin to what Julian Fellowes achieved with “Downton” after about an hour of “Little Women.” Even the smallest refinements to Alcott’s dialogue to make it sound natural to modern ears, in the way Kenneth Lonergan finessed turn-of-the-20th-century conversation in Starz’s recent presentation of “Howards End,” would have done a service to the production without sacrificing its charm.

Worse still, and much to my spouse’s chagrin, the tale’s central non-familial relationship plays out between two actors, Hawke and Hauer-King, who have zero onscreen chemistry. Readers might excuse this, suspecting this lack of spark is intentional given how their story plays out, but it does very little to spicy up the two-hour second part of the work. It’s fine that no alluring strangers show up, and maddening that none of Alcott’s uplifting zest does either.

Salon Talks: Mayim Bialik

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Giuliani puts the kibosh on Stormy ‘payoff’ claim, and throws Laura Ingraham for a loop

Rudy Giuliani dropped what many are calling a bombshell during an interview on Fox News Channel’s Hannity, saying that President Donald Trump paid back his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, the $130,000 paid to porn star Stormy Daniels.

And while Giuliani was adamant that the pay off didn’t involve campaign money, the revelation sent the left into a frenzy because Trump stated on April 6 that he was not aware of the payment — even Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, a former defense attorney, said “that’s a problem,” but is there a simple explanation that’s being missed?

In a panel discussion Wednesday night on FNC’s The Ingraham Angle, contributor Byron York suggested that Giuliani “may not have thought this whole thing through,” prompting an interesting reply from Ingraham.

“If you go on ‘Hannity,’ you better think it through,” she said. “I love Rudy, but they better have an explanation for that, that’s a problem.”

Giuliani told Hannity that the $130,000 payment was “perfectly legal.”

“That money was not campaign money, sorry,” he claimed. “I’m giving you a fact now that you don’t know. It’s not campaign money. No campaign finance violation.”

When Hannity asked if this was because the money was “funneled” through Cohen’s law firm, the former mayor said, “Funneled it through the law firm, and the President repaid him.”

But Giuliani would also say Trump “didn’t know the specifics” of the payment.

Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., a participant on Ingraham’s panel, had a ready explanation that proved to be much closer to the truth, based on a later clarification by Giuliani.

“I don’t think somebody with President Trump’s income level writes all of his checks, you know what I mean?” he told Ingraham. “It would not surprise me if he authorized a payment and it gets lost in the shuffle. I know that sounds crazy perhaps on a certain level but here’s a guy with a massive income and he’s dealing with a lot of things.”

In a later interview with the Washington Post, Giuliani insisted the disclosure was no gaffe, saying he discussed it with Trump beforehand.

With the anti-Trump forces whipped into a lather over the possibility that Trump has been caught in a lie, Giuliani added more context to his comment with Fox News’ John Roberts — which is being described as “damage control” by the media.

“Rudy Giuliani told me that while reimbursed Cohen for the $130k SD payment, POTUS didn’t know what the money was used for. Giuliani says Cohen merely told the President he had “expenses” for which POTUS reimbursed him,” Roberts tweeted.

The payment is being described in the media as a “loan” because Trump reimbursed Cohen and anti-Trump forces insist it is related to his campaign, which will ensure wall-to-wall coverage.

But there’s so much vagueness in Giuliani’s revelation. In the end, it’s more likely to serve as another rabbit hole the president’s detractors will go chasing down in their quest to destroy him.

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