How Tom Wolfe Became … Tom Wolfe

Author Michael Lewis remembers discovering a high shelf on his parent’s bookshelf. He was 11 or maybe 12 years old at the time. The book he most remembers taking down from the shelf on-high was Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.

The only word in the title Lewis understood was “the.” The cover showed a picture of a bored-looking blonde housewife nestled in the lap of a virile black man. Inside it described a cocktail party given in the late 1960s for the Black Panthers by Leonard Bernstein in his fancy New York City apartment. Lewis had 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. Lewis recalls 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.

Back in November 2013 the New York Public Library announced that it would pay $2.15 million to acquire Wolfe’s papers. It wasn’t until earlier this year that they became available for inspection. It’s not hard to see why it took them so long. Wolfe saved what he touched—report cards, tailors’ bills, to-do lists, reader letters, lecture notes, book blurbs, requests for book blurbs, drawings, ideas for drawings never executed (“Nude Skydiver Devoured in Midair by Ravenous Owls”), and dozens of sexually explicit and totally insane letters from a female stalker, including one consisting chiefly of 17 pages of red lip prints. He just tossed all this stuff in steamer trunks and hauled the trunks up to the attic, where some of them had sat undisturbed for 50 years. He kept postcards from friends with hardly anything written on them; he kept all the Christmas cards; he kept morning-after notes from New York society ladies; and lots more.

Like this letter from a 12-year old Wolfe to his parents, dated 1943:

I hate to say this but David McDaniel is the most devlish looking and the most devlish acting person I’ve ever seen. He looks like the typical “comic book” Jap. He is short—not over 4’2”—has a very, very, very, very short monkey’s shave—high cheekbones—squinted eyes—wears glasses—a stubby nose—a toothy grin—and to top it all, he actually has pointed teeth!!!!!!!!!!!! He is as mean as he can be, he has no consideration for anyone, he acts spoiled to death. he is terribly babyish, unhumanly babyish for anyone 12 years old. This is what he looks like [see drawing on page 185, top right] … The description and drawing seem terribly exaggerated I know, but every bit of it is true—and the picture is one of the most perfect likenesses I’ve ever drawn.

The documents tell the story of the leading journalistic observer and describer of American life, in a time of radical cultural transformation, and of the sensational explosion in American literary journalism that occurred in the late 1960s and 1970s—on which the ashes and the dust are just now settling.

Read the rest of this Vanity Fair feature by Michael Lewis that uncovers the surprising, directionless start Wolfe made to becoming one of America’s most renowned literary journalists.