Author and journalist

Born: March 2, 1930;

Died; May 14, 2018

IN a lengthy essay in his 1973 anthology, The New Journalism, a concept he had helped to pioneer, Tom Wolfe, who has died at the age of 88, wrote the following, about his own beginnings in the trade of journalism.

“God knows I didn’t have anything new in mind, much less anything literary, when I took my first newspaper job. I had a fierce and unnatural craving for something else entirely. Chicago, 1928, that was the general idea … Drunken reporters out on the ledge of the News peering into the Chicago river at dawn … Nights down at the saloon listening to ‘Back of the Yards’ being sung by a baritone who was only a lonely blind bulldyke with lumps of milk glass for eyes ... Nights down at the detective bureau - it was always nighttime in my daydreams of the newspaper life. Reporters didn’t work during the day. I wanted the whole movie, nothing left out …”

Wolfe had a distinctive voice that shone through everything he wrote. His prose style was variously described as “neon-lit” and “pyrotechnic”, as “shotgun baroque”, and he made innovative, scattershot use of punctuation. Not everyone admired his approach, or his body of work: one of his later novels, A Man in Full, prompted an unseemly feud with his fellow literary heavyweights Norman Mailer. John Updike and John Irving, who ridiculed the book mercilessly; Wolfe responded by describing them as “the three Stooges”.

However, Gay Talese, one of the writers included in that ground-breaking anthology, spoke for many admirers of Wolfe’s when he said this week: “He was an incredible writer. And you couldn’t imitate him. When people tried it was a disaster. They should have gotten a job at a butcher’s shop.”

Wolfe’s most celebrated books included The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities, both of which were made into films. He was an astute chronicler of the Sixties - the “me decade”, as he called it, and he had a formidably sharp eye for detail, for people’s follies. His dandyish dress-sense - the white three-piece suits and the two-tone shoes - ensured that he would stand out in any crowd. He once described his sartorial style as “neo-pretentious”.

Tom Brokaw, the US TV newsman, tweeted a tribute on news of Wolfe’s death: “Tom Wolfe was a close friend, a bon vivant with a soft drawl, white suit, walking stick and foppish hat. He eviscerated the excesses of the 60s before turning to novels. Unfailingly good company, polite in that drawing room way and always entertaining.” Wolfe also crops up in Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair Diaries: she writes of having, in March 1984, a “terrific drink” with Wolfe, “who is tall and thin like a candle in his white suit, with a dryness suddenly illuminated by joyous shafts of pure malice.”

Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Jnr was born in Richmond, Virginia, on March 2, 1930. His father was a professor of agronomy at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, and editor of the Southern Planter. His mother, Helen, was a garden designer, and it was from her that the young Wolfe discovered the lifelong pleasure of reading. He was just nine when he attempted to write a biography of Napoleon.

The young Wolfe was privately educated in Richmond, and he later studied English literature at Washington and Lee University in Richmond, graduating in 1951. He was a good pitcher and he had a try-out for the New York Giants, but he was not selected. He took a PhD in American studies at Yale and thereafter focused his ambitions on journalism.

After a brief spell at a newspaper in Springfield, Massachusetts, he joined the Washington Post, where in 1960 he won an award for his reporting on Cuba. In 1962 he joined the New York Herald Tribune. In his introduction to the New Journalism anthology (which he co-edited with E.W. Johnson) he wrote about the state of the building and its inhabitants: “The place looked like the receiving bin at the Good Will ... a promiscuous heap of junk ... Wreckage and exhaustion everywhere ...” But the paper also boasted some hugely talented features writers, including Jimmy Breslin, Charles Portis and Dick Schaap. In 1962 Wolfe was impressed by a remarkably candid portrait of the boxer Joe Louis in Esquire magazine, by the writer Gay Talese. Breslin’s cutting-edge columns in the Herald Tribune also alerted Wolfe to a different way of newspaper and magazine writing.

He began contributing distinctive essays to Esquire, and one of them became the title essay in his first collection, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby, which was published in 1965 and which captured the American 1960s in all their unerring flamboyance. It became a bestseller, and the New Journalism was born. It meant, he said, “writing nonfiction, from newspaper stories to books, using basic reporting to gather the material but techniques ordinarily associated with fiction, such as scene-by-scene construction, to narrate it.”

His 1968 book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, was about the writer Ken Kesey, his ‘Merry Pranksters’ community and American LSD culture. In The Guardian, in May 1969, critic Stanley Reynolds wrote: “For all its seeming superabundance of punctuation and participles, every word seems placed with a care and a skill of contrivance which should command respect. The subject is a seemingly esoteric one, many of the details are blood chilling and nauseating, but the book is undeniably a major journalistic contribution to the future analysis of our own and America’s strange period of this century.” Wolfe denied taking LSD while researching the book, but in 1980 admitted that he had tried it, once: “It scared the hell out of me. It was like trying yourself to a railroad track to see how big the train is.”

In June 1970 New York magazine gave over an entire issue to Wolfe’s acerbic depiction of a fund-raising evening for the Black Panthers given by the conductor Leonard Bernstein and his wife in their Park Avenue apartment. “Do Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled on crushed nuts this way, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi, all of which are at the very moment being offered to them on gadrooned silver platters by maids in black uniforms with hand-ironed white aprons?,” Mr. Wolfe wrote. Much black and liberal outrage followed. The essay appeared in Wolfe’s next collection, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.

In 1973 Wolfe published the New Journalism anthology, which included Gay Talese, Hunter S Thompson and Truman Capote. Perhaps his finest book, The Right Stuff (1979), about America’s first astronauts, originally appeared in four parts in Rolling Stone magazine, in 1973. The film version won four Oscars, but the film made of a later book, The Bonfire of the Vanities, a coruscating portrait of 1980s New York (and in which Wolfe gave us the phrase, ‘Masters of the Universe’) was a mis-fire, despite starring Tom Hanks.

Wolfe’s later works included the Atlanta-set A Man in Full (1998); I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), about the campus experiences of a young woman from small-town North Carolina; and Back to Blood (2012), set in hot, multiethnic Miami. His 2016 book, The Kingdom of Speech, attacked Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky and the theory that human language is partly a product of biological evolution.

Wolfe, who is survived by his wife Sheila and their children, Thomas and Alexandra, will be much-missed. As Tina Brown, former editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, wrote yesterday: “He loved to stir it up. He loved to skewer political correctness. I’d love to have the 60-year-old Wolfe working now in what is such an intellectually inhospitable time. He’d have nailed the rampant PC-culture in a way that very few other people have the courage to do. He was insubordinate. I don’t think I’ve seen anybody else do the same acrobatics with language but at the same time keep their poise as a journalist.” To Graydon Carter, until recently editor of Vanity Fair, Wolfe “molded the English language to fit his needs every bit as much as [PG] Wodehouse did. In his hands, it came alive in a way it never had before. His legacy is now and for a long, long time.”