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100 New Yorkers of the 1970s By Max Millard Characters: 16138

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


During New York City's newspaper strike of 1963, a 31-year-old Herald Tribune reporter named Tom Wolfe visited California in order to write an article for Esquire magazine about the souped-up, customized cars and the crowd they attracted. When Esquire's deadline arrived, Wolfe was unable to pull the article together, so he typed out his largely impressionistic notes and sent them to the editor, who decided to run "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby" exactly as written. Thus was Tom Wolfe established as one of the most important new talents in American journalism.

Today he is generally recognized as the foremost proponent of what might be called the nonfiction short story. The majority of his eight books are collections of factual articles written in the style of fiction. His latest effort, The Right Stuff (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $12.95), is about the seven Mercury astronauts and the world of military flying. Over cocktails at the Isle of Capri, a restaurant not far from his Eastside apartment, the slender, gentlemanly, and slightly bashful author spoke at length about his new book and a dozen other subjects. Dressed in a one-button, swallowtail, yellow pinstriped suit - "it's kind of an early Duke of Windsor" - he poured forth his colorful phrases in a rich, soothing, mildly Southern accent that rang with sincerity.

"I began this book in 1972, when Rolling Stone asked me to go down to the Cape and cover Apollo 17. Somewhat to my surprise, I became quite interested in the whole business of: what's the makeup of someone who's willing to sit on top of a rocket and let you light the candle? And I ended up writing four stories for Rolling Stone … in about a month. And I thought if I spent a couple of months in expanding them, I'd have a book. Well, it's now 1979 and here we are." He laughed heartily. "It was so difficult that I put it aside every opportunity I had. I wrote three other books in the meantime, to avoid working on it.

"I ended up being more interested in the fraternity of flying than in space exploration. I found the reactions of people and flying conditions much more fascinating. So the book is really about the right stuff - the code of bravery that the pilots live by, and the mystical belief about what it takes to be a hot fighter jock.

"Flying has a competitive structure that's as hotly contested as the world of show business. And the egos are just as big - in fact, in a way, they're bigger. … It's hard to top surgeons for sheer ego. I think surgeons are the most egotistical people on the face of the earth, but pilots usually make the playoffs: they're in there."

An excellent caricaturist who has published hundreds of drawings and mounted several major exhibitions, he confessed to being vain about his artwork because "I don't feel as sure of myself as I do in writing." A book of his drawings will come out in 1980. He also has a captioned drawing each month in Harper's, the magazine where his wife Sheila works as art director. Tom was a lifelong bachelor until they were married last year.

He arrived in New York in 1962, armed with a Ph.D. from Yale and three years' experience on the Washington Post. "I really love it in New York. It reminds me of the state fair in Virginia, where I grew up. … The picture of the East Side really is of the man living in the $525,000 co-op, leaving the building at night with his wife, both clothed in turtleneck sweaters with pieces of barbed wire and jeans, going past a doorman who is dressed like an Austrian Army colonel from 1870."

No relation to the novelist Thomas Wolfe, Tom Wolfe has written only one short piece of fiction in his life. He is now thinking about writing "a Vanity Fair type of novel about New York" as his next major undertaking. In the meantime, he is working on a sequel to The Painted Word, his book-length essay abut modern art that appeared in 1975.

"Another thing I'd like to try is a movie script," he added. "I've done one - a series of vignettes about life in Los Angeles. … But many talented writers just go bananas in trying to write for the movies. Because they're not in charge of what they're doing. All that a good director can do is keep from ruining the script. He cannot turn a bad script into a good movie. He can turn a good script into a bad movie. And often, I think, it happens, because the director is given a power that he simply should not have."

Another possible project, said Wolfe, is a second volume of The Right Stuff, to bring the story up to the $250 million Soviet-American handshake in 1975. The 436-page first volume has been received with acclaim. In the New York Sunday Times book review, C.D.B. Bryan wrote: "It is Tom Wolfe at his very best. … It is technically accurate, learned, cheeky, risky, touching, tough, compassionate, nostalgic, worshipful, jingoistic - it is superb."

* * *

An Interview with Tom Wolfe

from The Westsider, 11-22-79

Tom Wolfe, one of the most original stylists in American writing today, burst spectacularly on the literary horizon in 1965 with The Kandy Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, a collection of articles about contemporary American life written as nonfiction.

Wolfe's adoption of stream of consciousness, his unorthodox use of italics and exclamation marks, his repetition of letters, and his effectiveness in inventing hip phrases with nonsense words and classical references, helped establish an entirely new literary form - the nonfiction short story.

His reputation was cemented by such books as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Pump House Gang and The Painted Word, a lengthy essay on modern art. Wolfe sometimes illustrates his work with pen-and ink drawings.

His latest book, The Right Stuff, deals with the age of rockets, the early astronauts and the world of military flying. Published in September 1979, it is a critical and commercial success that has already hit the best-seller list.

A tall, slender 48-year-old transplanted Southerner with a rich baritone voice, Wolfe speaks softly, chooses his word carefully, and exhibits a kind of schoolboy bashfulness when discussing his own work. A New Yorker since 1962, he lives on the Upper East Side with his wife Sheila, the art director of Harper's magazine. On the day of our interview, Wolfe is wearing his customary one-button, swallow-tailed, yellow pin stripe suit, which he describes as "early Duke of Windsor."

Q: What made you decide to write this book?

A: Back in 1972, Rolling Stone asked me to go down to the Cape and cover Apollo 17. That was the last mission to the moon. … Somewhat to my surprise, I really became quite interested in the whole business of what's the makeup of someone who's willing to sit on top of a rocket and let you light the candle? And I ended up writing four stories for Rolling Stone in about a month. And I thought if I spent a couple of months in expanding them, I'd have a book. Well, it's now 1979 and here we are." (He laughs.) It was so difficult that I put it aside every opportunity I had. I wrote three other books in the meantime, to avoid working on it.

I ended up being more interested in the fraternity of flying than in space exploration. I found the reactions of people and flying conditions much more fascinating. So the book is really about the right stuff - the code of bravery that the pilots live by, and the mystical belief about what it takes to be a hot fighter jock, as the expression goes. I became interested in people like Chuck Yeager, who broke the sound barrier back in 1947. When the seven Mercury astronauts were chosen, they were not the seven hottest test pilots in America, although they were presented as such at the time. The arrival of the astronauts as a type completely upset the competitive hierarchy of flying.

Flying has a competitive structure that's as hotly contested as the world of show business. And the egos are just as big - in fact, in a way, they're bigger. . … It's hard to top surgeons for sheer ego. I think surgeons

are the most egotistical people on the face of the earth, but pilots usually make the playoffs: they're in there.

Q: Speaking of your other books: how do you manage to know all the hip phrases of the day? Do you spend a lot of time with teenagers?

A: At one time, people thought I was some sort of medium who hung around with children to pick up what young people were thinking and doing. Well, that interested me very much in the '60s, when suddenly young people were doing extraordinary things - things they had never done, which really boiled down to living lives that they controlled, sometimes in a communal way, going with their own styles, rather than imitating that of their elders. So it was fascinating. I made a point of learning about it.

Sometimes now I turn on the radio and I don't recognize a single song on the charts. Right now I have no idea what any of the top 20 singles are. And I have the feeling that it's probably not worth finding out, because we're now in a phase where we're just filling in the spaces of what was introduced by rock and the Beatles and the Grateful Dead and so on. There's nothing very new, I don't think. Maybe I'm wrong.

Q: How do you choose your clothes?

A: Right now I'm in the phase of pretentiousness. During the late '60s I had a lot of fun by making mild departures in style - wearing white suits instead of blue suits, things like that. That was very shocking and unusual in 1963. Suddenly things reached a point beyond which it really wasn't worth going, as far as I was concerned, when Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman appeared on the Dick Cavett Show in body paint.

There's one direction in which clothes can go that still annoys the hell out of people, and that's pretentiousness. If you wear double-breasted waistcoats, which I rather like, that annoys people. Spats more than annoy people: they infuriate people. Try it sometime if you don't believe me. They think that this is an affront. It stirs up all sorts of resentment. We're in a period now in which the picture of the East Side really is of the man living in the $525,000 co-op, leaving the building at night, both clothed in turtleneck sweaters with pieces of barbed wire and jeans, going past a doorman who is dressed like an Austrian Army colonel from 1870.

Q: Do you do a lot of drawing?

A: I have a regular feature in Harper's. I do one large drawing each month, with a caption.

Q: What's your artistic background?

A: I never was trained in art. I worked for a commercial artist a number of summers when I was in high school. And I learned anatomy from drawing boxers in Ring magazine. It was the only way I could think of to learn anatomy.

I've had two gallery shows of drawings. … And I'll have a book of drawings coming out next year. I find myself very vain about my drawing. I guess I don't feel as sure of myself as I do in writing; therefore I'm always straining to get people's reactions to what I've drawn.

What I do mostly is caricature. I try not to make them too cartoony. This is a period that absolutely cries out for good caricature. Part of it is that the great caricaturists used to be people who were determined to be fine artists. Every artist, whether he was good or bad, learned anatomy very thoroughly. He learned how to render landscapes, buildings, and learned something about costume. So the ones who didn't make it as easel painters might turn to doing caricature, and some of them were spectacular.

We all grow up thinking we're in an era of progress, because we have had so much technological progress. But it simply doesn't work that way in art and literature. We're living in an era - to use Mencken's phrase - of the "Sahara of the beaux arts."

I wrote about that in The Painted Word. In fact, I'm doing a sequel to that now. It will be an article for Harper's magazine. I'm moving into the areas of architecture and serious music and dance. It's very enjoyable to work on a subject like that after a long haul of writing about astronauts - essentially because it's easier.

Q: What do you like to watch on TV?

A: To be honest, my two favorite shows are Mannix - which, alas, is no longer except in reruns - and the Johnny Carson Show. I just think he's terrific. It was such a common currency among those in the general category of intellectuals to like the Dick Cavett Show and not the Johnny Carson Show. And that is so much the party line that it takes awhile to dawn on you that Carson is really extremely funny. Dick Cavett, he has a lot of talent, but when it comes to wit, and even in handling the language, he's simply not in Carson's league.

There are a whole bunch of shows, I must say, in which I simply don't know who these people are. A lot of general-circulation magazines today are really television magazines. People magazine is a television magazine. Look at these people. Who are they? Who are Mindy and Mork? I mean, I've never seen the show. And yet, they're obviously extremely well-known.

These magazines now, in an era in which general circulation magazines are in trouble, have hit upon this idea: all these people that are watching television will have the thrill of recognition if we write about the people they've seen on television. So Sports Illustrated will tend to give you a kind of a rehash of the game of the week or the fight that everyone saw on television. It's kind of funny. At first, television was always cannibalizing the printed word for material, and now it's suddenly turning around.

Q: Do you have any other major projects coming up?

A: For years I've been telling myself that I was going to try a Vanity Fair type of novel about New York, and I think I should probably try to make myself tackle that next. I've debated whether to make it fiction or nonfiction. My fiction writing has been confined to one short story that I did for Esquire. And I was surprised that it was harder than I thought to write fiction. I thought that I could sit down on a Sunday afternoon and knock out a short story, because you could make things up.

Another thing I'd like to try is a movie script. I've done one - a series of vignettes about life in Los Angeles. … But many talented writers just go bananas in trying to write for the movies. Because they're not in charge of what they're doing. All that a good director can do is keep from ruining the script. He cannot turn a bad script into a good movie. He can turn a good script into a bad movie. And often, I think, it happens, because the director is given a power that he simply should not have.

Q: Do you feel a lot of pressure on yourself when you sit down at the typewriter, as being one of the trend-setters in American writing today?

A: It was terrible after my first book came out, and I suddenly got a lot of publicity I never dreamed I'd get. I was still working with the Herald Tribune as a general assignment reporter at the city desk. And I suddenly was made aware by publicity that there was something called the Tom Wolfe style. And this can really do terrible things to you. I wrote a whole series of just dreadful article because the first phase I went through was: "Well, I'll be damned. I have the Tom Wolfe style, I guess I'd better use it." And so I started writing these self-parodies. The second phase was: "I've got to stop this. It's self-destructive." And I would write something and a bell would go off and I'd say, "That's Tom Wolfe style. Now is that good the way I've used it there, or it is bad the way I've used it?" And this became very troublesome.

When I did this book, The Right Stuff, I decided I really was going to try to tailor my language to the mental atmosphere of pilots, and somehow make my tone what I have elsewhere called the downstage voice. You're writing in the third person about other people, but your own writing style takes on their tone. So I think the result is a book that seems different in style, and is sort of an experiment for me.

********

WESTSIDER PINCHAS ZUKERMAN

Violinist and conductor

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