How Tom Wolfe Became … Tom Wolfe


Wolfe, by Irving Penn, in 1966. The writer had already become “the object of a cult.”

“I was 11 or maybe 12 years old when I discovered my parents’ bookshelves. They’d been invisible right up to the moment someone or something told me that the books on them were stuffed with dirty words and shocking behavior—a rumor whose truth was eventually confirmed by Portnoy’s Complaint. The book I still remember taking down from the shelf was Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. The only word in the title I understood was ‘the.’ The cover showed a picture of a bored-looking blonde housewife nestled in the lap of a virile black man. It seemed just the sort of thing to answer some questions I had about the facts of life. It didn’t. Instead, it described a cocktail party given in the late 1960s for the Black Panthers by Leonard Bernstein in his fancy New York City apartment. I’d never been to New York City, or heard of Leonard Bernstein, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and had only a vague notion of who or what a Black Panther revolutionary might be—and none of that turned out to matter. The book started out with this weird old guy, Leonard Bernstein, rising from his bed in the middle of the night and having a vision of himself delivering a speech to a packed concert hall while being heckled by a giant black man onstage beside him. I remember thinking: How would anyone know about someone else’s bizarre private vision? Was this one of those stories that really happened, like Bart Starr’s quarterback sneak to beat the Dallas Cowboys, or was it made up, like The Hardy Boys? Then, suddenly, I felt as if I were standing in Leonard Bernstein’s apartment watching his waiters serve appetizers to Black Panthers. … At some point came a thought that struck with the force of revelation: this book had been written by someone. Some human being must have sat down and scribbled the Hardy Boys series, along with the Legends of the NFL—how else would I have ever known that Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman Bob Lilly lifted a Volkswagen by himself? I’d never really stopped to ask who had written any of those books, because … well, because it didn’t matter to me who had written them. Their creators were invisible. They had no particular identity. No voice. Now rolling around a living-room floor in New Orleans, Louisiana, howling with laughter, I asked a new question: Who wrote this book? Thinking it might offer a clue, I searched the cover. Right there on the front was a name!!! Tom Wolfe. Who was Tom Wolfe? …”
Vanity Fair


Milton Glaser, Gloria Steinem, and Wolfe at a New York magazine party, in 1967.

About 1960s: Days of Rage

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This entry was posted in Black Power, Books, Hippie, Hunter S. Thompson, Ken Kesey, Project Mercury, Sports and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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