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May 16, 2018

Pioneer of ‘new journalism’ Tom Wolfe dies aged 88

By Sam Forsdick

Author and pioneering journalist, Tom Wolfe, has died aged 88.

Wolfe, the grandson of a Confederate rifleman, began his journalism career as a reporter at the Springfield Union, Massachusetts, in 1957.

During his career he worked for The Washington Post, New York Herald Tribune, Rolling Stone Magazine and Esquire magazine, among others.

It was not until the mid-1960s, while a magazine writer for New York and Esquire, that his work made him a national trendsetter.

Wolfe also authored several books including The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff,  The Bonfire of the Vanities.

He also co-edited The New Journalism, a collection of articles from the likes of Hunter S Thompson, for which he wrote an introduction, saying: “Journalists, would wipe out the novel as literature’s main event.”

Wolfe’s literary agent, Lynn Nesbit, told the Associated Press that he died of an infection in a New York City hospital on Monday.

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His breakout article for Esquire on the custom car racing scene in California was titled: “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby…” and was published despite being unfinished.

It broke stylistic ground and was predominantly written in a long stream of consciousness.

In a radio interview with the BBC in 1980, Wolfe described his writing process for the article.

He said: “I had run up about six or seven-thousand dollars worth of hotel bills for Esquire magazine, who was underwriting my trip out there.

“And I blocked completely, so I called up the managing editor of Esquire Byron Dobell and I said: ‘I cannot write this piece, I cannot get a word out’.

“So he says: ‘Look, I tell you what, just type up your notes. We’ve got to have a piece. We’ve got about $15,000-worth of plates on the press of these stupid-looking automobiles you’re supposed to be writing about.

‘We’ve got about $8,000-worth of your bills from the hotel and we’re damn well going to have an article, so type up your notes and we’ll get a competent writer to write it.’

“So with a very heavy heart and feeling very guilty I sat down one night and I started typing up my notes and it was in the form of a memorandum.

“I said: ‘Dear Byron’ – typing at top speed just to get it over with – but when I did that I lost all inhibitions because I though t I was writing just for one person. I didn’t try to censor out anything, if I felt that [something] was awful I wrote ‘that’s awful!’ exclamation point.

‘By dawn I had typed 48 pages of this memorandum. I carried it over to Esquire and left it on their doorstep – that place hadn’t even opened up – and that afternoon I was awakened at about 4 o’clock by Byron Dobell and he said: ‘Look, we’re going to knock Dear Byron off the top of this memorandum and run it.'”

As Wolfe helped define it, the “new journalism” combined the emotional impact of a novel, the analysis of the best essays, and the factual foundation of hard reporting.

“She is gorgeous in the most outrageous way,” he wrote in a typical piece, describing actress-socialite Baby Jane Holzer.

“Her hair rises up from her head in a huge hairy corona, a huge tan mane around a narrow face and two eyes opened – swock! – like umbrellas, with all that hair flowing down over a coat made of… zebra! Those motherless stripes!”

During his time as a journalist Wolfe profiled Muhammad Ali, 1960s hippy culture and The Mercury Seven (NASAs first class of astronauts).

In the book Conversations with Tom Wolfe, Wolfe said: “Many people are excellent letter writers but the same persons tend to freeze when writing for publication.

“We censor out our emotions and best phrases so as not to reveal too much of ourselves. I simply learned not to censor out the things that run through my mind as I write.”

He was astonished that no author of his generation had written a sweeping, 19th-century-style novel about contemporary New York City, and ended up writing one himself: The Bonfire Of The Vanities.

His work broke countless rules but was grounded in old-school journalism, in an obsessive attention to detail that began with his first reporting job and endured for decades, according to Press Association.

“Nothing fuels the imagination more than real facts do,” Wolfe told the AP in 1999. “As the saying goes, ‘You can’t make this stuff up’.”

Wolfe’s interests were vast, but his narratives had a common theme, inevitably presenting man as a status-seeking animal, concerned above all about the opinion of one’s peers.

Wolfe himself dressed for company – his trademark a pale three-piece suit, impossibly high shirt collar, two-tone shoes and a silk tie. And he acknowledged that he cared – very much – about his reputation.

Additional reporting by Press Association.


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