Tom Wolfe

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Quintessential New York writer Tom Wolfe actually has quite a history on the West Coast as well. From Michael Anton’s excellent City Journal consideration of Wolfe’s California experiences, the moment Wolfe recognized the richness of Left Coast subcultures:

“It started by accident. Wolfe was working for the New York Herald Tribune, which, along with eight other local papers, shut down for 114 days during the 1962–63 newspaper strike. He had recently written about a custom car show—phoned it in, by his own admission—but he knew there was more to the story. Temporarily without an income, he pitched a story about the custom car scene to Esquire. ‘Really, I needed to make some money,’ Wolfe tells me. ‘You could draw a per diem from the newspaper writers’ guild, but it was a pittance. I was in bad shape,’ he chuckles. Esquire bit and sent the 32-year-old on his first visit to the West—to Southern California, epicenter of the subculture.

Wolfe saw plenty on that trip, from Santa Monica to North Hollywood to Maywood, from the gardens and suburbs of mid-’60s Southern California to its dung heaps. He saw so much that he didn’t know what to make of it all. Returning to New York in despair, he told Esquire that he couldn’t write the piece. Well, they said, we already have the art laid in, so we have to do something; type up your notes and send them over. ‘Can you imagine anything more humiliating than being told, ‘Type up your notes, we’ll have a real writer do the piece’?’ Wolfe asks. He stayed up all night writing a 49-page memo—which Esquire printed nearly verbatim.

It’s a great tale, but, one fears, too cute to be strictly true. I ask him about it point-blank. ‘Oh, yes, that’s exactly what happened,’ he says. ‘I wrote it like a letter, to an audience of literally one person’—Esquire managing editor Byron Dobell—’with all these block phrases and asides. But at some point in the middle of the night, I started to think it might actually be pretty good.’

That piece—’The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby’—represents the first time that Wolfe truly understood and was able to formulate the big idea that would transform him from an above-average feature writer into the premier cultural chronicler of our age. Those inhabiting the custom car scene were not rich, certainly not upper-class, and not prominent— indeed, they were almost invisible to society at large. Wolfe described his initial attempt to write the story as a cheap dismissal: ‘Don’t worry, these people are nothing.’ He realized in California that he had been wrong. These people were something, and very influential within their own circles, which were far larger than anyone on the outside had hitherto noticed.

‘Max Weber,’ Wolfe tells me, ‘was the first to argue that social classes were dying everywhere—except, in his time, in England—and being replaced by what he called ‘status groups.’ ‘ The term improves in Wolfean English: ‘Southern California, I found, was a veritable paradise of statuspheres,’ he wrote in 1968. Beyond the customizers and drag racers, there were surfers, cruisers, teenyboppers, beboppers, strippers, bikers, beats, heads, and, of course, hippies. Each sphere started off self-contained but increasingly encroached on, and influenced, the wider world.

‘Practically every style recorded in art history is the result of the same thing—a lot of attention to form plus the money to make monuments to it,’ Wolfe wrote in the introduction to his first book. ‘But throughout history, everywhere this kind of thing took place, China, Egypt, France under the Bourbons, every place, it has been something the aristocracy was responsible for. What has happened in the United States since World War II, however, has broken that pattern. The war created money. It made massive infusions of money into every level of society. Suddenly classes of people whose styles of life had been practically invisible had the money to build monuments to their own styles.’ If Wolfe’s oeuvre has an overarching theme, this is it.'”

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Fun 1984 doc about McLuhan that was scripted and “hosted” by Tom Wolfe.

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Junior Johnson having car trouble, 1953, a dozen years before he was famously profiled by Tom Wolfe.

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William F. Buckley, Jr. and Tom Wolfe (prior to lifetime confinement to white suits) discuss modern architecture in 1981.

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A description of William Shockley from Tom Wolfe’s 1983 Esquire article about Robert Noyce, who worked for a time for the Bell Labs genius and boss from hell, whose erratic nature alienated pretty much everyone, and that was before he dirtied himself with nonsense eugenics theories: 

The first months on Shockley’s Ph.D. production line were exhilarating. It wasn’t really a production line at all. Everything at this stage was research. Every day a dozen young Ph.D.’s came to the shed at eight in the morning and began heating germanium and silicon, another common element, in kilns to temperatures ranging from 1,472 to 2,552 degrees Fahrenheit. They wore white lab coats, goggles, and work gloves. When they opened the kiln doors weird streaks of orange and white light went across their faces, and they put in the germanium or the silicon, along with specks of aluminum, phosphorus, boron. and arsenic. Contaminating the germanium or silicon with the aluminum, phosphorus, boron, and arsenic was called doping. Then they lowered a small mechanical column into the goo so that crystals formed on the bottom of the column, and they pulled the crystal out and tried to get a grip on it with tweezers, and put it under microscopes and cut it with diamond cutters, among other things, into minute slices, wafers, chips; there were no names in electronics for these tiny forms. The kilns cooked and bubbled away, the doors opened, the pale apricot light streaked over the goggles, the tweezers and diamond cutters flashed, the white coats flapped, the Ph. D.’s squinted through their microscopes, and Shockley moved between the tables conducting the arcane symphony.

In pensive moments Shockley looked very much the scholar, with his roundish face, his roundish eyeglasses, and his receding hairline; but Shockley was not a man locked in the pensive mode. He was an enthusiast, a raconteur, and a showman. At the outset his very personality was enough to keep everyone swept up in the great adventure. When he lectured, as he often did at colleges and before professional groups, he would walk up to the lectern and thank the master of ceremonies and say that the only more flattering introduction he had ever received was one he gave himself one night when the emcee didn’t show up, whereupon – bango!- a bouquet of red roses would pop up in his hand. Or he would walk up to the lectern and say that tonight he was getting into a hot subject, whereupon he would open up a book and – whump! -a puff of smoke would rise up out of the pages.

Shockley was famous for his homely but shrewd examples. One day a student confessed to being puzzled by the concept of amplification, which was one of the prime functions of the transistor. Shockley told him: ‘If you take a bale of hay and tie it to the tail of a mule and then strike a match and set the bale of hay on fire, and if you then compare the energy expended shortly thereafter by the mule with the energy expended by yourself in the striking of the match, you will understand the concept of amplification.’

On November 1,1956, Shockley arrived at the shed on South San Antonio Road beaming. Early that morning he had received a telephone call informing him that he had won the Nobel Prize for physics for the invention of the transistor; or, rather, that he was co-winner, along with John Bardeen and Walter Brattain. Shockley closed up shop and took everybody to a restaurant called Dinah’s Shack over on El Camino Real, the road to San Francisco that had become Palo Alto’s commercial strip. He treated his Ph. D. production line and all the other employees to a champagne breakfast. It seemed that Shockley’s father was a mining engineer who spent years out on remote durango terrain, in Nevada, Manchuria and all over the world. Shockley’s mother was like Noyce’s. She was an intelligent woman with a commanding will. The Shockleys were Unitarians, the Unitarian Church being an offshoot of the Congregational. Shockley Sr. was twenty years older than Shockley’s mother and died when Shockley was seventeen. Shockley’s mother was determined that her son would someday ‘set the world on fire,’ as she once put it. And now he had done it. Shockley lifted a glass of champagne in Dinah’s Shack, and it was as if it were a toast back across a lot of hardwrought durango grit Octagon Soap sagebrush Dissenting Protestant years to his father’s memory and his mother’s determination.

That had been a great day at Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory. There weren’t many more. Shockley was magnetic, he was a genius, and he was a great research director–the best, in fact. His forte was breaking a problem down to first principles. With a few words and a few lines on a piece of paper he aimed any experiment in the right direction. When it came to comprehending the young engineers on his Ph.D. production line, however, he was not so terrific.

It never seemed to occur to Shockley that his twelve highly educated elves just might happen to view themselves the same way he had always viewed himself: which is to say, as young geniuses capable of the sort of inventions Nobel Prizes were given for. One day Noyce came to Shockley with some new results he had found in the laboratory. Shockley picked up the telephone and called some former colleagues at Bell Labs to see if they sounded right. Shockley never even realized that Noyce had gone away from his desk seething. Then there was the business of the new management techniques. Now that he was an entrepreneur, Shockley came up with some new ways to run a company. Each one seemed to irritate the elves more than the one before. For a start, Shockley published their salaries. He posted them on a bulletin board. That way there would be no secrets. Then he started having the employees rate one another on a regular basis. These were so-called peer ratings, a device sometimes used in the military and seldom appreciated even there. Everybody regarded peer ratings as nothing more than popularity contests. But the real turning point was the lie detector. Shockley was convinced that someone in the shed was sabotaging the project. The work was running into inexplicable delays, but the money was running out on schedule. So he insisted that one employee roll up his sleeve and bare his chest and let the electrodes be attached and submit to a polygraph examination. No saboteur was ever found.•

A 1974 Firing Line with Shockley, who at this point was sadly tarnishing his reputation with a second act as a quack trying to link race, class and IQ, with African-Americans not faring too well in his theories nor anyone who was an unskilled laborer.

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Tom Wolfe interviewed for some British show at the time The Bonfire of the Vanities was published, the last time the great New Journalist had his finger on the pulse of America and a time when people still purchased their books at brick-and-mortar stores where new volumes were arranged proudly like pyramids.


"He is also loaded with facile junk, as all personal journalists have to be."

In 1965, when he was still known as Kurt Vonnegut Jr., the sci-fi novelist wrote, “Infarcted! Tabescent!” for the New York Times, a review of Tom Wolfe’s The Kandy-Colored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby. An excerpt:

“Wolfe comes on like a barbarian (as Mark Twain did), like a sixth Beatle (Murray the K being the fifth), but he is entitled to call himself ‘Doctor Wolfe,’ if he wants to. He has a Ph.D. in American studies from Yale, and he knows everything. I do not mean he thinks he knows everything. He knows all the stuff that Arthur Schlesinger Jr., knows, keeps picking up brand new, ultra-contemporary stuff that nobody else knows, and arrives at zonky conclusions couched in scholarly terms. I wish he had headed the Warren Commission. We might then have caught a glimpse of our nation.

He is also loaded with facile junk, as all personal journalists have to be–otherwise, how can they write so amusingly and fast? His language is admired, but a Wolfe chrestomathy would drive one nuts with repetitions, with glissandi and tin drummings that don’t help much. The words ‘tabescent’ and ‘infarcted’ appear again and again, and, upon investigation, turn out to be not especially useful or piquant. Young breasts (‘Mary Poppins’)–point upward again and again like antiaircraft batteries, and women’s eyes are very often like decals, and transistors are very often plugged into skulls; and feet very often wear winkle-picker shoes.

Then again, America is like that. And maybe the only sort of person who can tell us the truth about it any more is a Ph.D. who barks and struts himself like Murray the K, the most offensive of all disk jockeys, while feeding us information. Advanced persons in religion have been trying this approach for some time. Who can complain if journalists follow?”


Vonnegut profiled in the 1970s:

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From a 1996 Tom Wolfe essay, a pithy explanation about how Freudianism and Marxism cratered and neuroscience became ascendant:

“The demise of Freudianism can be summed up in a single word: lithium. In 1949 an Australian psychiatrist, John Cade, gave five days of lithium therapy—for entirely the wrong reasons—to a fifty–one–year–old mental patient who was so manic–depressive, so hyperactive, unintelligible, and uncontrollable, he had been kept locked up in asylums for twenty years. By the sixth day, thanks to the lithium buildup in his blood, he was a normal human being. Three months later he was released and lived happily ever after in his own home. This was a man who had been locked up and subjected to two decades of Freudian logorrhea to no avail whatsoever. Over the next twenty years antidepressant and tranquilizing drugs completely replaced Freudian talk–talk as treatment for serious mental disturbances. By the mid–1980s, neuroscientists looked upon Freudian psychiatry as a quaint relic based largely upon superstition (such as dream analysis — dream analysis!), like phrenology or mesmerism. In fact, among neuroscientists, phrenology now has a higher reputation than Freudian psychiatry, since phrenology was in a certain crude way a precursor of electroencephalography. Freudian psychiatrists are now regarded as old crocks with sham medical degrees, as ears with wire hairs sprouting out of them that people with more money than sense can hire to talk into.

Marxism was finished off even more suddenly—in a single year, 1973—with the smuggling out of the Soviet Union and the publication in France of the first of the three volumes of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Other writers, notably the British historian Robert Conquest, had already exposed the Soviet Union’s vast network of concentration camps, but their work was based largely on the testimony of refugees, and refugees were routinely discounted as biased and bitter observers. Solzhenitsyn, on the other hand, was a Soviet citizen, still living on Soviet soil, a zek himself for eleven years, zek being Russian slang for concentration camp prisoner. His credibility had been vouched for by none other than Nikita Khrushchev, who in 1962 had permitted the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s novella of the gulag, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, as a means of cutting down to size the daunting shadow of his predecessor Stalin. “Yes,” Khrushchev had said in effect, “what this man Solzhenitsyn has to say is true. Such were Stalin’s crimes.” Solzhenitsyn’s brief fictional description of the Soviet slave labor system was damaging enough. But The Gulag Archipelago, a two–thousand–page, densely detailed, nonfiction account of the Soviet Communist Party’s systematic extermination of its enemies, real and imagined, of its own countrymen, by the tens of millions through an enormous, methodical, bureaucratically controlled “human sewage disposal system,” as Solzhenitsyn called it— The Gulag Archipelago was devastating. After all, this was a century in which there was no longer any possible ideological detour around the concentration camp. Among European intellectuals, even French intellectuals, Marxism collapsed as a spiritual force immediately. Ironically, it survived longer in the United States before suffering a final, merciful coup de grace on November 9, 1989, with the breaching of the Berlin Wall, which signaled in an unmistakable fashion what a debacle the Soviets’ seventy–two–year field experiment in socialism had been. (Marxism still hangs on, barely, acrobatically, in American universities in a Mannerist form known as Deconstruction, a literary doctrine that depicts language itself as an insidious tool used by The Powers That Be to deceive the proles and peasants.)

Freudianism and Marxism—and with them, the entire belief in social conditioning—were demolished so swiftly, so suddenly, that neuroscience has surged in, as if into an intellectual vacuum. Nor do you have to be a scientist to detect the rush.” (Thanks to The Electric Typewriter.)

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What was termed New Journalism reached critical mass in the 1960s, though Joseph Mitchell and A.J. Liebling and others had been doing it for decades. The colorful writing appeared prominently in the New York Herald Tribune, New York (which was born of the Trib), Esquire and numerous other periodicals. The style varied, but, oh, there was style. The Birth of ‘The New Journalism’: Eyewitness Report By Tom Wolfe,” was the New York article, published in its February 14, 1972 issue, that defined the liberation of ink-stained wretches after it had overthrown the accepted order. An excerpt in which Wolfe recalls the furious work ethic behind the birth of the new:

“The Herald Tribune assigned me split duties, like a utility infielder’s. Two days a week I was supposed to work for the city desk as a general assignment reporter, as usual. The other three days I was supposed to turn out a weekly piece of about 1,500 words for the Herald Tribune’s new Sunday supplement, which was called New York. At the same time, following the success of ‘There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmm) . . . . .’—I was also cranking out stories for Esquire. This setup was crazy enough to begin with. I can remember flying to Las Vegas on my two regular days off from the Herald Tribune to do a story for Esquire—’Las Vegas!!!!’—and winding up sitting on the edge of a white satin bed in a Hog-Stomping Baroque suite in a hotel on the Strip—in the décor known as Hog-Stomping Baroque there are 400-pound cut-glass chandeliers in the bathrooms—and picking up the phone and dictating to the stenographic battery of the Trib city desk the last third of a story on demolition derbies in Long Island for New York—’Clean Fun at Riverhead’—hoping to finish in time to meet a psychiatrist in a black silk mohair suit with brass buttons and a shawl collar, no lapels, one of the only two psychiatrists in Las Vegas County at that time, to take me to see the casualties of the Strip in the state mental ward out Charleston Boulevard. What made it crazier was that the piece about the demolition derbies was the last one I wrote that came anywhere close to being 1,500 words. After that they started climbing to 3,000, 4,000, 5,000, 6,000 words. Like Pascal, I was sorry, but I didn’t have time to write short ones. In nine months in the latter part of 1963 and first half of 1964 I wrote three more long pieces for Esquire and twenty for New York. All of this was in addition to what I was writing as a reporter for the Herald Tribune city desk two days a week. The idea of a day off lost all meaning. I can remember being furious on Monday, November 25, 1963, because there were people I desperately needed to talk to, for some story or other, and I couldn’t reach them because all the offices in New York seemed to be closed, every one. It was the day of President Kennedy’s funeral. I remember staring at the television set . . . morosely, but for all the wrong reasons.”


The New York Herald Tribune for sale in Paris:


The opening of “The Fifth Beatle,” Tom Wolfe’s 1965 kandy-kolored profile of New York disc jockey Murray the K, who horned in on Beatlemania and made himself a pop icon of sorts for a while:

“John, Paul, George, Ringo and–Murray the K!–the fifth Beatle! Does anybody out there really understand what it means that Murray the K is the Fifth Beatle? Does anybody comprehend what something like that took? Does anybody comprehend what a victory it was to become George the Beatle’s roommate in the hotel in Miami and do things like tape record conversations with George during those magic bloomings of the soul just before a man goes to sleep and bring back to the kids the sound of a pure universe with nothing but George, Murray the K and Fedders Miami air-conditioning in it? No; practically nobody out there comprehends. Not even Murray the K’s fellow disc jockey William B. Williams, of WNEW, who likes singers like Frank Sinatra, all that corny nostalgia of the New Jersey roadhouses, and says, ‘I like Murray, but if that’s what he has to do to make a buck, he can have it.’

You can imagine how Murray the K feels! He not only makes a buck, he makes about $150,000 a year, he is the king of the Hysterical Disc Jockeys, and people still look at him and think he is some kind of amok gnome. Do they know what’s happening? Here in the studio, close up, inside the glass panels, amid the microphone grilles, cue sheets and commercials in capital letters, Murray the K sits on the edge of his seat, a solidly built man, thirty-eight years old, with the normal adult worried look on his face, looking through the glass at an engineer in a sport shirt. Granted, there are Murray the K’s clothes. He has on a stingy brim straw hat, a shirt with wide lavender stripes on it, a pair of black pants so tight that have to have three-inch Chinese slits on the sides at the bottom so they will fit over the gussets of his boots. Murray the K has 62 outfits like this, elf boots, Russian hats, flipnik jerseys, but isn’t that all part of it?”


In 1974, Murray the K, still a name but no longer a star, promotes sock hop concerts on a morning TV show in NYC:

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Midge MacKenzie 1966 film, “Neon,” profiles Pop Art sculptor Billy Apple, who made good use of the titular gas. Tom Wolfe, seen here in those sad years before the white suit had been invented, is featured.

From a March 18, 1966 Time magazine piece: “BILLY APPLE, 30, a New Zealander (real name: Barrie Bates) who works in Manhattan, believes ‘neon is the purest, hippest color in the world; Day-glo phosphorescent paint looks 1929-ish next to it.’ In Auckland, he wanted to be an engineer, now carefully varies the diameter of his neon tubes to produce different hues. Apple turned to art and working in a paint factory, he contracted dermatitis and a lasting dislike for turpentine. Even before he arrived at London’s Royal College of Art, he says, he found his solution in electric colors. While experimenting with them, Apple learned to make highlights by bathing bronze objects in neon. The bronze tints are erased and only the fluid splash of reflected neon remains like a cloak of many colors.”

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Marshall McLuhan entertains Tom Wolfe in the backyard of his Toronto home in 1970. (Thanks Documentarian.)


From Wolfe’s 1965 essay about McLuhan in the New York Herald Tribune,What If He Is Right?“: “There are currently hundreds of studs of the business world, breakfast food package designers, television net work creative department vice-presidents, advertising ‘media reps,’ lighting fixture fortune heirs, smiley patent lawyers, industrial spies, we- need vision board chairmen, all sorts of business studs who are all wondering if this man, Marshall McLuhan … is right…. He sits in a little office off on the edge of the University of Toronto that looks like the receiving bin of a second-hand book store, grading papers, grading papers, for days on end, wearing-well, he doesn’t seem to care what he wears. If he feels like it, he just puts on the old striped tie with the plastic neck band. You just snap the plastic band around your neck and there the tie is, hanging down and ready to go, Pree-Tide.

But what if-all sorts of huge world-mover & shaker corporations are trying to put McLuhan in a box or some thing. Valuable! Ours! Suppose he is what he sounds like, the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov, studs of the intelligentsia game suppose he is the oracle of the modern times – what if he is right? he’ll be in there. It almost seems that way. An ‘undisclosed corporation’ has put a huge ‘undisclosed sum’ into, McLuhan’s Centre for Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto. One of the big American corporations has offered him $5000 to present a closed- circuit-ours!-television lecture on-oracle!-the ways the products in its industry will be used in the future. Even before all this, IBM, General Electric, Bell Telephone were flying McLuhan in from Toronto to New York, Pittsburgh, God knows where else, to talk to their hierarchs about . . . well, about whatever this unseen world of electronic environments that only he sees fully is all about.”

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Tom Wolfe’s great 1965 Esquire piece about a moonshiner-cum-NASCAR pioneer (“The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!“) married New Journalism to the New South. An excerpt:

The legend of Junior Johnson! In this legend, here is a country boy, Junior Johnson, who learns to drive by running whiskey for his father, Johnson, Senior, one of the biggest copper still operators of all times, up in Ingle Hollow, near North Wilkesboro, in northwestern North Carolina, and grows up to be a famous stock-car racing driver, rich, grossing $100,000 in 1963, for example, respected, solid, idolized in his hometown and throughout the rural South, for that matter. There is all this about how good old boys would wake up in the middle of the night in the apple shacks and hear an overcharged engine roaring over Brushy Mountain and say, “Listen at him — there he goes!”, although that part is doubtful, since some nights there were so many good old boys taking off down the road in supercharged automobiles out of Wilkes County, and running loads to Charlotte, Salisbury, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, High Point, or wherever, it would be pretty hard to pick out one. It was Junior Johnson specifically, however, who was famous for the “bootleg turn” or “about-face,” in which, if the Alcohol Tax agents had a roadblock up for you or were too close behind, you threw the car into second gear, cocked the wheel, stepped on the accelerator and made the car’s rear end skid around in a complete 180-degree arc, a complete about-face, and tore on back up the road exactly the way you came from. God! The Alcohol Tax agents used to burn over Junior Johnson. Practically every good old boy in town in Wilkesboro, the county seat, got to know the agents by sight in a very short time. They would rag them practically to their faces on the subject of Junior Johnson, so that it got to be an obsession. Finally, one night they had Junior trapped on the road up toward the bridge around Millersville, there’s no way out of there, they had the barricades up and they could hear this souped-up car roaring around the bend, and here it comes — but suddenly they can hear a siren and see a red light flashing in the grille, so they think it’s another agent, and boy, they run out like ants and pull those barrels and boards and sawhorses out of the way, and then — Ggghhzzzzzzzhhhhhggggggzzzzzzzeeeeeong! — gawdam! there he goes again, it was him, Junior Johnson!, with a gawdam agent’s si-reen and a red light in his grille!•


Junior Johnson on a dirt track, 1964, Ascot Park, California.

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