‘You can take off your hats now, gentlemen, and I think perhaps you had better.” That was Stephen Vincent Benet in 1941, in the Saturday Review of Literature, on the work of Scott Fitzgerald, who had recently died.
I thought of it on the death of Tom Wolfe. Not that he was ignored or forgotten, but we are coming to terms with his greatness in a purer, less guarded way than in the past.
He picked up American journalism and shook it hard, then he picked up the novel and shook that too. He saw what was happening all around us, and he said that’s not “what’s happening,” that’s history—the social and cultural story of the great Hog-stomping Baroque America of the second half of the 20th century, which was begging to be captured and finally was, by him, in a way no one else would or could.
He invented characters that presented us to ourselves. He had two masterpieces, “The Right Stuff” in nonfiction and “The Bonfire of the Vanities” in fiction. He issued one of the great literary manifestos: Stop your navel gazing, get out your notebook, there’s a world exploding out there.
His words entered the language. He fearlessly, brazenly faced up to America’s blood wars, its ethnic and racial rivalries, its merry bitterness. “Yo, Gober!” “He’s another Donkey, same as me.”
On top of that he strutted through the world like some crazed, antique peacock—the faded vanilla suits, the high-collar shirts, polka-dot ties, the socks and handkerchief, the spats.
What a figure! When I heard the news I thought of last November, at the New York Public Library’s annual gala. When I walked in he and Sheila, his warm, elegant wife, were seated alone as the party raged around them. I kissed them hello, they asked me to sit, and 20 minutes later, after talk of Donald Trump, toward whom he was equal parts fair-minded, amused and amazed, I left to join friends. Halfway through the room I turned back. Tom was gazing, bemused, at the crowd. “That’s Dickens,” I said to a friend. “That’s Zola.” There should have been a line waiting to meet him, to say, “I shook Tom Wolfe’s hand.”
I saw him over many years and thought of him as Paul McHugh, a professor and psychiatrist who was his close friend, did. “He was warmhearted,” he said. Tom Wolfe had killer eyes but was not cold. There was sweetness there, and sympathy. He wrote of social status, and as Dr. McHugh said, “he was especially great at deflating those whose position led them to the bullying of others.”
He worked himself hard. Dr. McHugh would call him and say, “I know I’m interrupting you.” Tom would reply, “Thank God!”
He suffered and was gallant. He’d had scoliosis when young, and an injury the past decade had left him with a spinal misalignment. He was bent sharply at the waist; his trunk tilted right. He was often in pain. His famous walking stick with the wolf’s head wasn’t only for fun and show, he needed it to walk.
Imagine caring so much about how you presented yourself to the world and facing that challenge. Imagine doing it anyway, in part because it gives the world delight.
We met more than 20 years ago when we were thrown together as seatmates at a Manhattan think-tank dinner. The auspices were not good. I’d recently tangled with a close friend of his, and to make it worse I’d been in the wrong and knew it. Beyond that I was awed. I never told him, but my first book was half an homage to him: “Bonfire” and his manifesto, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” filled my soul. His prose had an anarchic, liberating impact. In one chapter I realized my puny self was in the thick of history. I set myself to describing the audio experience of Air Force Two, its curious, soft pulsating sound. GARRRUUUMMMM. “The engines weaving in and out; the air conditioned hum; the soft murmurings of power: I’m flying.” My editor was alarmed. Cut that: “People will think you’re imitating Tom Wolfe!” “I am imitating Tom Wolfe! It’s my tribute!” He laughed. We kept it.
At the dinner, uncomfortable and awed, I turned earnest. Nothing’s more boring than that! Still, we were together, and did our best. At one point he started talking about what was happening in neuroscience. He was amused by the new pill that affects sexual mood—I think he said sexual readiness—it’s flying off the shelves! I said yes, but the pill that will be more popular, and which they’ll eventually make, will be the one that makes you fall back in love, because that will solve everyone’s problems. “He’s responsible and sweet but it’s just not enough!” “I don’t love my wife anymore!” That’s the pill that will really sell!
We giggled. He gave me a scrutinizing look and said: “You’re quite a woman.” I answered solemnly, as if considering the proposition obvious and the burden heavy: “Yes, I am.” He threw back his head, and we were off to the races.
The last time I saw him was almost three months ago, at the wedding of a brilliant young woman and a handsome man. The wedding party was in a fashionable restaurant in downtown New York. We were seated at a red leather banquette, where we had a Writer Moment. I looked out at the boisterous crowd—laughing, gesturing, talking over the din, big decibels. I said, “Tom, this sound of the voices hitting the ceiling, the laughter—this reminds me of the description in ‘Bonfire’ of a grand Park Avenue party or reception: ‘Their swimming teeth.’”
Tom got a look of immediate interest, a flush of approval. “Did I say that?”
He laughed like Oh, that was good.
I said I remember reading it and thinking “Oh, I am in a presence.” He pressed my hand and held it for a moment.
Once the aged Tolstoy was in his sitting room, a fire in the fireplace. His daughter came in and said “Papa, listen.” She read a page of a description of a great battle. He listened and said, “Oh, that’s good. Who is that?” She said, “Papa, it’s you. ‘War and Peace.’ ”
All writers forget. And the greatest and most prolific forget most.
This was a great man. And I see him now as I did a dozen years ago, again at a New York Public Library dinner. We met as we were leaving, walked through the lobby, parted at the door.
It was something to see that man going down the broad imposing steps, tricked out in the white suit, a flowing black cape, a big, broad brimmed black hat worn at a tilt, the stick, walking carefully but with a certain flair, a certain élan, because he knew he was being watched because he was, let’s face it, Tom Wolfe. And I was watching, as he disappeared into the night, into the teeming city, going northward toward home.
Goodbye Tom Wolfe. May you be awed, thrilled and over the moon this day by what you find now, a new and unreported world. “Flights of angels—”
Oh, it was good to have him here, wasn’t it?