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Words About Tom Wolfe

To my mind, Michael Lewis, no mean stylist himself, wrote the best summation of Tom Wolfe when he went through Wolfe’s papers at the New York Public Library and then visited the man in 2015. Read his full report from Vanity Fair.

Most memorable was Lewis’ unearthing of Wolfe tidbits from the archives.

A letter to his mother and father:

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.

Written when Wolfe was twelve years old. (or should I have written… twelve years old!!!!!!)

And an excerpt from Wolfe’s initially rejected Yale thesis:

At one point ‘the Cuban delegation’ tramped in. It was led by a fierce young woman named Lola de la Torriente. With her bobbed hair, leather jacket, and flat-heeled shoes, she looked as though she had just left the barricades. Apparently she had. ‘This is where our literature is being built,’ exclaimed she, ‘on the barricades!’

Lewis accurately and delightfully concludes:

Which is to say that, as a 26-year-old graduate student, just as a 12-year-old letter writer, Tom Wolfe was already recognizably himself.

My own take on Wolfe is that his writing leads one to think he was having great fun recounting the exploits of his real and imagined characters. He often referred to America as a “carnival,” and what palpable delight he took in her.


Tom Wolfe.jpg

Addendum: George Plimpton’s 1991 interview, Tom Wolfe, The Art of Fiction No. 123, in the Paris Review also gives one a good aperçu into an unaffected, thoughtful man.

Addendum: Closer to home, my classmate Dean Esserman ‘79’s father, Paul Esserman, was Tom Wolfe’s doctor for 37 years. When Paul Esserman passed away in 1999, Wolfe gave his eulogy at a gathering hosted by the Ethical Culture Society in Manhattan. For the occasion, Wolfe wore a black suit.

Wolfe’s practice of the calligraphic arts certainly mirrored his writing style:

Wolfe Dedication.jpg

This dedication page is found inside Wolfe’s book, “Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine” — a first edition that he gave to Paul Esserman.


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