When Vogue interviewed the late great Tom Wolfe in 1966 he was already a phenom, “the new Wild Man of American Literature,” as Elaine Dundy put it for the magazine. His first collection of adrenalized New Journalism, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, had climbed the best-seller lists and his sartorial prowess (those three-piece white linen suits!) was known far and wide. His literary career would only skyrocket in the decades to come—which makes Vogue ’s early interview such poignant reading. Here is a hyper-confident, headlong young journalist freshly arrived in New York, intent on nothing less than remaking the medium in which he worked. “I like to give people news they didn’t know was news,” Wolfe says, with characteristic brio. At that (and more) he would fantastically succeed.
Here, in its entirety, "Tom Wolfe ... But Exactly, Yes!"
“I Shall Revolt,” wrote Tom Wolfe under the name of Jocko Thor when he was twenty-five years old and studying for his Ph.D. at Yale:
I shall burst this placid pink shell
I shall wake up slightly hungover,
Favoured, adored, worshiped and clamoured for.
I shall raise Hell and be a real
Ten years later, almost to the day (one is tempted to say), It All Came True, with the publication and public acclaim of his book The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, a collection of articles he had written over a fifteen-month period. The book hit the best-seller lists right off the bat, went into its fourth printing a month after publication, and parties were given for him everywhere from New York to Boston, from Richmond, Virginia, to San Diego, California, at which he appeared in a white-on-white suit kissing the ladies’ hands, and when he wasn’t at these parties being favored and adored, he was at some radio or television studio being worshipped and clamored for. How did he like it? He loved it. On this level he is one of your simple, barefoot American boys of letters, sharing in common with them all their simple hopes and fears and determination to Make Out. What is uncommon about his celebrity is that it was won in the field of journalism rather than the novel or the play, for everyone knows that the only proper stance to assume towards journalism (especially by its practitioners) is to look down upon it—or at least sideways. Yet here was Tom Wolfe (and with that name, too ) flinging himself at it as if he’d never even heard it was Number One on Cyril Connolly’s list of Enemies of Promise, taking journalism like a walnut, cracking it wide open and getting down to the meat of what was really going on inside all those facts. And with the excitement of his discoveries came an entirely communicable rush of words, all saying— Look at what I've found and wait till I tell you about it! His style is hyperbolic, rhapsodic, and colloquial —American, that is, as opposed to English, his satire devastating, his intentions serious, and his innovation to project himself with a novelist's omniscience into his subjects so that they seem to become his own creations.
That his pieces bear rereading is attested to by the fact that every one of those in The Kandy-Kolored et cetera has formerly appeared in large-circulation newspapers or magazines—some of them have made four trips including in the hard-cover edition; by the fact that they collect well, that they don't become too much of a muchness all bunched together; by the fact that each one has a rhythm and drive peculiar to itself and yet they seem organically related so that the whole book adds up to more than the sum of its parts: The American Scene, Mid-Sixties.
Tom Wolfe, the new Wild Man of American literature, is, upon first acquaintance, the mildest of men with amiable if absentminded good manners, a soft voice gently dipped in the South (he comes from Virginia), “afred” for afraid, for instance—a voice that is hesitant and full of pauses unless he is “putting you on”—or “lying,” as it used to be called—which is quite often, at which point it becomes firm, clear, and fluent. He has fair, floppy blond hair, a sensitive, sharp, bony nose—a nose for news—and big, powerful-looking hands. A largish young man in his pink placid shell with a country air about him in spite of his dandified clothes—Tom Sawyer drawn by Beardsley—he exudes at most times a calmness, cool and loose, if not exactly a sanity—the giveaway being the pale-blue eyes that widen in panic, delight, or suspicion from time to time. This interesting mixture of phlegm and sensibility has been in his time a semiprofessional baseball player and a lorry loader before he became what he is today: the New Journalist.
In typecasting he is suited to his role of observer. What the people he is going to write about are confronted with is an easygoing chap in crazy clothes who never gets their backs up, who is willing to go along with any and all plans, who nevertheless always has a notebook in plain sight in which he jots things down in shorthand. Doesn’t the notebook put people off? Not at all, he claims, as we are all victims of what he calls "information compulsion"—i.e., the desire to unload whatever is currently on our minds.
Tom's new flat is on Beekman Place, one of New York’s swankier addresses. (“When I came up North, I didn't come here to fool around, you know.”) It has taken him just three months to turn it into a Chelsea pad: a four-room Chelsea pad the outlines of which are still fighting desperately to retain their original individual status but have lost. “It's all apartment,” he said enthusiastically at the time he moved in. “Nothing has been converted from one thing into something else. The dining room was always a dining room, the kitchen always a kitchen!”
Besides the kitchen which is still a kitchen and the bathroom which is still a bathroom, the dining room is a Chelsea pad, the living room is a Chelsea pad, and the bedroom is a Chelsea pad. And the fourth room has no function whatsoever. And no furniture. The largest of these Chelsea pads has improvised curtains in its windows; some (three differently coloured layers of gauze) with more ingenuity than others (bedsheets).
There are no carpets, and in the packing cases the books still lie unpacked. There is a pretty hand-painted screen done by a girlfriend and one painting—a self-portrait of a friend of his going off to the Draft Board with an inward look on his face.
There are four white chairs with a matching white table, “fake Saarinen,” a drawing board, two divans with cushions and covers—also loosely improvised, and an improvised lighting fixture covered with gauze hanging from the ceiling. For the rest, it is filled (if that's the word) with piles of his own drawings collected for his one-man exhibition at the Maynard Walker Gallery last November, piles of newspaper clippings, and piles of just . . . things. A sign over the telephone reads:
Hello, Baby,Just try this little gameone more time.
As if on cue, the phone comes to life with long, blasting, heart-attacking alarm-clock peals through the empty rooms, and Tom, although bestowing a look of hatred upon it, makes no attempt to still it. His fear of telephones is pathological. Originally, it was his editors and over-shot deadlines he was hiding from; nowadays, with his celebrity, it is just about everyone he needs to avoid if he's going to get any work done. He would like to rent a room with a telephone out in New Jersey, give out that number as his, and then sit back in New York thinking about it ringing and ringing and ringing.
Tom Wolfe arrives for his interview at Sardi’s East a surprising five minutes early wearing a pale-grey sharkskin suit and a tie twice as wide as usual with a lot of whorly clowns dancing about on it. It is a vintage tie from a line which was abruptly discontinued in about 1946, landing the shop with about ten thousand of these obsolete numbers which Tom is doing his best to get moving again.
It is necessary to refer to his clothes because he ascribes almost magical properties to them. “If that shirt and that shirt were running a race,” he will say, pointing to what appear to be two identical shirts, “that shirt would win.” Or, “What’s the matter with people, don't they realize that everything’s wrong with my coat? Too wide lapels, too much shoulder padding, and more buttons than a policeman’s uniform?” He plans his wardrobe for what might be considered oddly disparate purposes: to look well in while simultaneously giving offense to his viewers—to “shake ‘em up” as he puts it.
The interview takes place over iced tea, beer, and finally champagne in an effort to placate the hovering waiter longing to turf us out for the dinner crowd, and begins, portentously enough with (deep breath):
What do you feel is the function of journalism?
“The idea of what is news today—what people in power are doing—is still a nineteenth- century concept.” (Actually, sitting there at the table in his pale- grey suit and fancy shirt and gold watch chain, Tom himself looks very like a nineteenth-century concept.) “I don’t think that's the news. I like to give people news they didn’t know was news.
“Not the ‘big’ subjects such as the latest war wherever it may be. Stock-car racing, on the other hand, I find a significant subject and one that never got written about. Perfect journalism would deal constantly with one subject: Status. And every article written would be devoted to discovering and defining some new status.
What about the charge that you are exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction?
“That again is a nineteenth-century orientation. First implication: Anything serious has to be ponderous. Second implication: All journalism should sound as if it’s been lifted off the blotter of the police reports. To write from the ‘outside’ point of view is immediately to have about thirty-five people on your back. All your old teachers, all your literary peers—that sort of thing. ‘Watch out for excess,’ they all seem to be saying.’
Do you remember when you first discovered yourself wandering around the minds of your subjects? You have Phil Spector, the Tycoon of Teen, sitting on a plane and looking out at the rain and thinking, “All these raindrops are high or something.... Schizoid raindrops.”
“I don't remember when I started doing that, but it isn’t exactly what I’m doing. Those ‘wanderings’ are based on things Phil Spector said to me—he described that scene to me—and couched in his way of talking. What I try to do is re-create a scene from a triple point of view: the subject’s point of view, my own, and that of the other people watching—often within a single paragraph. Incidentally, I always use the present tense.”
Is there a literary precedence that you are aware of for this type of writing?
“The Serapion Brothers group of Soviet writers in the twenties.”
Hey—if you're going to start lying this early in the—
“Brother Serapion is a character in one of Hoffmann's tales. Apparently this group of wri- ters. . . .”
All right—name some.
“Eugene Zamyatin, Boris Pilnyak. Anyway, this group of writers was finally asked by the Commissars, look, are you for or against us? And they said, we are neither for nor against. They fooled around with multiple points of view. I stumbled across these writers in the Yale stacks while reading Gogol, who fascinated me. I learned he influenced this Serapion Brothers group, so I read them.”
“With Wolfe for the Defense you don't need a Prosecutor,” is the way someone described your supposedly “ambivalent” attitude towards your subjects. Isn’t it necessary to have a moral attitude towards them?
“No! You can’t approach a subject with a moral commitment and come up with something new. As soon as any approach has reached the stage that it takes on a moral tone it is already out of date—it's frozen. Popular moral attitudes are at least fifty years out of date. Academia knows this. In journalism we have the moral concept of One World, but any sociologist knows that Europe today—never mind the Common Market—is actually more fragmented in terms of nationalism than it was before the second World War.”
But when you find yourself liking or disliking certain people you write about, doesn't it influence the way you write?
“I’ve often disliked people at the outset, but I can't think of a soul, if they turn out to be worth writing about. . . . I've never finished a story disliking them. There are some, however, that I never get through to— Cassius Clay, for instance. And I missed the important story about him: that he was getting involved with the Black Muslims at the time I was seeing him.
“I should have been aware of this from various things he said. Anyway, writing about people— it’s not a friendship situation. I’m always interested in the different responses I get to my articles. Some people think I’m attacking the subject and some that it’s a great boost. In fact, they’re attributing to me their own feelings. It’s good. It means I’ve been more or less scholarly. Rocket Scholarship.”
Explain certain calculated mannerisms that reoccur in your work: “and everything” “or some other place,” et cetera, and certain odd favourite words that are repeated: “arteriosclerotic” for instance. And your idiosyncratic use of punctuation and expletives.
“Repeating words means that they have become for me inseparable from the meaning I want. Eventually I get over them. Arteriosclerotic—I was obsessed for awhile with people’s blood vessels getting stiffer and stiffer without them knowing it. ‘And everything’ et cetera because that’s the way people talk. ‘Or some other place’ to indicate there are other places but not to be distracting, to keep the thing moving when I want it to. The exact opposite of this is The New Yorker style which requires that whenever you mention, say, an actor’s name, you give the play he was in at the time, the cast, the theatre, and the length of time it ran, and you get a fact-stuffed sentence that’s quite beside the point.
“I don't mind repetitions— three blues in the same sentence is O.K. It goes faster than another word meaning just the same thing. What I like is a tension going between colloquial speech and precise and even scholarly ways of thinking. I’m trying to restore punctuation to its rightful place. Dots, dashes, exclamation points were dropped out of prose because they ‘reeked of sentiment.’ But an ! is someone getting carried away. Why not? The writer carefully not using this punctuation doesn't bother to convey what’s exciting to the reader. Sure, dots and dashes slow down the eye. That’s good. That’s the best thing that can happen. It’s reproducing the abruptness that occurs in your mind when you’re thinking.
“People only write in careful, flowing sentences; they don’t think that way and they don't talk that way. Take Hemingway. People always think that the reason he’s easy to read is that he’s concise. He isn’t. I hate conciseness—it’s too difficult. The reason Hemingway is easy to read is that he repeats himself all the time, using ‘and’ for padding. I use expletives to indicate an atmosphere in a non-literal way. You get to a point where you have to use a word with no literal meaning to indicate an atmosphere. You can indicate a lot that way.”
Which contemporary writers do you most admire?
“There are so few writers nowadays you can have any admiration for. They are already desiccated. They’re just historical figures now. Philip Roth— not for the overall effect but for the Dickensian vignettes, and great dialogue. The white hope is Nelson Algren. He can write a great novel—The Man with the Golden Arm was—if he’ll just do it. I liked Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. And Kerouac’s momentum, only he’s a little mindless and I'm tired of the people he’s writing about.”
For homework I’ve been reading Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise because you’re “promising” and I wanted to see what your enemies were going to be. What do you think of journalism-as-enemy-of-promise?
(Tom's face is a perfect blank. Question repeated. Same reaction.)
I mean, don’t you find yourself falling into these pitfalls: Immediate Impact, Necessity to Exaggerate to Make a Point, Writing for Now Instead of Eternity?
“I’m not bothered at all by the last. And most of the things I’ve written have been written under such pressure that I didn’t have time to consider the impact. All I was worried about when I finally handed them in was whether they were legible, much less readable. But I don't look at journalism as an enemy of promise.
“On the contrary, I think it’s really important to stay in journalism. Otherwise you run the danger of getting as completely out of touch as Salinger. What I would have Salinger do is write four pieces of journalism right now because it would force him to get in touch. You can’t, by just leading your daily life, really see a goddam thing. You have to force yourself to get into unfamiliar areas. We’re no longer living in a set feudal system.”
There have been about twenty parodies of you so far. What do you think of your parodists?
“I think I've done a lot for them. Liberated them. I think they all like to kick their heels up a little now and then. Lillian Ross’s doing a parody of me in The New Yorker was the best thing that could have happened to her. When they all came out at once—along about when my book was being reviewed, I got a little self-conscious when I’d sit down and write. Hesitant about an exclamation point. But since I’ve been out of New York these past months—to Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Columbus—and started working again, that’s vanished.”
What do you feel about your imitators? Cyril Connolly said that Hemingway’s tragedy as an artist was that he hadn’t the versatility to run away fast enough from his imitators. “
Well—I don't know—I think they're great. I’ll be told about an article that’s supposed to be an imitation of me and I always find I’m reading it right through and enjoying it.”
How many times do you see a person you’re writing about?
“As often as possible and while they’re doing something. But it varies. Sometimes two hours are enough. Junior Johnson, the stock car racer, took four trips to the South. And a lot of it was boring because I was alone a lot when I wasn’t seeing him and his crowd. But I know now that every extra bit of effort produces something.”
What are your ideal working conditions?
“Still to be alert and not tired from eight P.M. to midnight. I’ve taken more physical punishment while writing than anything else I’ve ever done. My body has been more punished from writing than from any sport I’ve ever played. I write on unlined paper. I don’t type it to begin with. I correct as I go along and I like to think that I’ll just type it straight from that, uncorrected. But it never works out that way. I always correct and change as I type, so I’m really doing two drafts. But I never rewrite after that. With me it seems they either run it the way it is or refuse it outright.”
You take their word for it?
When you write, have you anyone in particular in mind you are writing for?
Do you have writer's block, and is there any specific thing you do to get over it?
“If I can somehow get some organization to my thoughts about what I’m writing, some concept, I’m O.K. The other thing that sometimes helps is to go out and have an Arabic meal —some kibbe.”
What do you feel you have the greatest talent for?
The least talent for?
“Creating stable ties with other people.”
What economic class do you come from?
“A comfortable background. There was never any financial strain. But then I was never very extravagant when I was growing up. Never spent any money. I had one good suit, and my family had to force me to get another one.”
What does your father do? This is going back to C. Connolly again. According to him, it should be possible to learn as much about an author from one paragraph of his writings as from his check stubs and love letters. And my guess—solely from internal evidence, you understand—is that your father was . . . (dramatic pause) . . . an undertaker!!
Because you seem absolutely obsessed with anatomical pathology and you know all the words.
“My father, before he retired, was an agronomist. He edited a farm journal, was one of the directors of a farmer’s cooperative, and he had two farms. Maybe I’m a frustrated scientist. At Yale I roomed with two medical students and I picked up a lot of those medical terms from them.”
Oh well. Have you got any old check stubs on you?
(Tom produces check stubs revealing that he spent a week in Columbus, Ohio, at the Holiday Inn motel, while doing a story on motorcycle racing; upon returning, went to the Ondine, a New York discotheque where he drank a bottle of wine, and is walking around at the moment with roughly seventy bucks in cash.)
Do you feel that you had an important childhood—i.e., very disturbed, or unhappy, or ecstatic—in short, one that you find you keep constantly referring back to in your mind?
“I was lucky, I guess, in my family in that they had a very firm idea of roles: Father, Mother, Child. Nothing was ever allowed to bog down into those morass-like personal hang-ups. And there was no rebellion. The main thing about childhood was to get out of it. A child is at a great disadvantage. It's smaller than everyone else. I had a successful school career, I was a day student at St. Christopher’s in Richmond, Virginia, and I always liked making good grades —get that extra smile from the teacher.”
You’ve never had a desire to write your autobiography?
“No. The first girl I ever fell in love with came from divorced parents. That was her status symbol to me. I was so envious of her because I thought, what dramatic lives they’re all having—real material to write about. I guess I always wanted to be a writer. I didn’t actually become one until I was thirty-two. I suppose there was a lot of fear involved.”
Do you feel having a Southern background has helped you?
“Yes, and a semi-rural one especially. I like the way people talk in rural areas—homey phrases, it’s a richer speech and phrasing. For instance, there’ll be a bunch of men sitting around playing poker all day which, let’s face it, is a pretty go-to-hell existence, and one of them will draw a really bad hand and say, ‘! [email protected]@@@xxxxx!!!!!.’ ”
Every single word of that is unprintable. Any other phrases?
“Let’s see. I like to slip them in. Sometimes it’ll be a thing that probably I’m the only one aware of. Like in one piece I say the way they pass a Saturday in Georgia is to go down to the railroad tracks and watch the Seaboard sleeper barrelling through to New York City. I mean nobody in New York calls it New York City. ‘Just plain-long tired’ is a phrase that’s been cut out of every piece I’ve tried to use it in.”
After you got your Ph.D. at Yale —what?
“I was offered a job teaching history in the Midwest but I turned it down. I’d had enough of academic life. But I stuck around New Haven and decided to become a bohemian. Jack London of all people was my model. I got myself a cloth cap and became a furniture mover for a trucking firm. But I could see that the girls in the offices weren’t impressed. They couldn’t see that this was a bohemian moving all that stuff. The last thing they want is a furniture hauler. Believe me there is no insight to be gathered from the life of the working-class milieu.
“This guy I worked with thought that all that was wrong with his life was the way his boss made him change the electric light bulbs in all the basements three times a week. Then afterwards sitting in a bar and drinking beer and watching television till it’s time to go off to bed. That’s all. So after two months of moving office supplies, I quit. I decided I wanted to be a newspaper reporter.
“I wrote to one hundred and twenty newspapers and only the Springfield Union answered. But I went up there and they gave me the job. At fifty-five dollars a week. All the way back on the train that day I kept singing to myself, I-am-a-member-of- the-working-press! Springfield (Mass.) was a revelation to me. It was the first time I realized that a city could be made up of more than one ethnic group that was politically powerful, that had its own way of life and its own restaurants.
“There were the Irish Politicians, and the Italian community, and a [African American] Councilman— yes, being from the South, I definitely took notice of that. There were the French Canadians, and the Jewish community and the Orthodox Russians. That was where I first discovered Arab food. I covered all the ‘beats’ for the paper. The police station. City Hall. The fire department. The railroad station to see who was coming into town. It was very good for a person as lazy as me.”
Are you politically Right or Left?
“I find Right and Left a totally obsolete idea. I would be tempted to support extremists on both sides simultaneously—you need extremist groups so that no one can get too much power. And I can conceive of joining a civil liberties organization to check a syndrome. The only danger to me as a writer is that any person could get big enough to stop me.”
Tell about the lying. For instance, at one point you told me you had eight brothers and sisters and then later retracted it.
“That one began in Sunday school when I was about five. The teacher asked each of us in a kind of getting-to-know-one-another way if we had any brothers and sisters, and I said I had eight. She knew I hadn’t and spoke to my mother about it, but it still persists. I don’t understand it. I’ve always had the fantasy of lots of brothers and sisters. I have a fantasy brother named Harris who runs a hotel in Cuba and he leads to a fantasy of the F.B.I, being on my trail because of him. I think there must be some symbolic truth underneath the lies.”
What makes you angriest?
“Humiliation. I never forget. I never forgive. I can wait. I find it very easy to harbour a grudge. I have scores to settle.”
What makes you happiest?
“A good meal after some kind of victory.”
Have you any superstitions?
“I have to look in the mirror every morning. Immediately. As soon as I get up. And it’s not always the pleasantest sight but you have to keep track of how you’re going, you know?”
What about love or sex? Cyril Connolly says . . . never mind.
“Love is tremendously important when things are going wrong. This is a part of status because every time I’ve been tremendously in love it means that my status has been in tremendous trouble. That wonderful love relationship comes when you want to create the second smallest status-sphere—one other person’s approval is all that matters. It’s comforting— one woman’s approval.”
“Right now I think of marriage as a luxury . . . and as an unnecessary complication. . . .”
Strange young man. Shy but vain. Alone but not lonely. Self-absorbed yet open to the subtlest nuances of people and places. And promising . . . infinitely promising....