Tom Wolfe Is Dead, and I Am in Italy

Castelvetro di Modena, Italy — On May 14, a star failed to come out. Tom Wolfe passed away that day. With his passing, the conservative movement lost its greatest social critic and America lost one of its greatest novelists. As a writer, Tom was his own man. He died as he lived: on his terms, or at least as much on his terms as a man can.

I wish I were writing from my library in Virginia and could repair to the Tom Wolfe section to consult his oeuvre, but I cannot. I am in the foothills of the Apennine Mountains of northern Italy, and the food and the drink are constant distractions, to say nothing of my sweet wife. I wish Tom’s books were all around me, but then I might sit down with them and never finish this memorial to him. His books are always engrossing, for me more so than any other writer. The memories would rush in while reading them. It was my good fortune to know him well. Once again, I would be lost in the artistry and the wit and the memories. I would never get this thing done.

The memories — they go back decades. Once I walked up an English hillside single file with Tom, his incomparable wife, Sheila Wolfe, and others. We were with Malcolm Muggeridge and a coterie of eccentrics including a nun in flamboyant garb who had been a showgirl in her grimmer days. I bet she could say #MeToo. Tom, of course, was walking along in his white suit and, I believe, white buck shoes; Malcolm was in dreary tweeds; the background music was laughter. We all laughed about everything. On the return train from the countryside, Tom called Malcolm’s retreat “a little bit of heaven” and answered questions about his recent book, “The Right Stuff.”

In those days Malcolm was deep into Christian spiritualism, and so, on the train ride back to London, I asked Tom about God. He was elliptical, cagey. Finally, he said he could not “something or other “it.” “It” was the God thing, and “something or other” was belief in God. He smiled resignedly, and we rarely took the matter up again over many decades. Tom had a vast far-reaching mind. His books reveal a man who thought about huge issues, issues more enormous than almost any mere Ph.D. might contemplate. But somehow in the end, he could not contemplate the creator of the universe. In his last year, I did not get up to New York much, and so, did not get to reopen our conversation about God. But Tom was a very good man, a gentleman who never hurt anyone unintentionally. My guess is God found a seat for him in heaven — a pretty good seat.

Tom, of course, coined more catchphrases to describe the phenomena of our time than anyone else: “the right stuff,” the “Me” generation, “radical chic” and “no hands art,” the last of which describes the imbecility of modern art, the art that takes no hands to create. Even in his 80s he coined these catchphrases. Again, I wish I had my library at hand. His artistic gift was multifaceted. He had the eye of a great reporter, the tenacity of a great researcher, the sense of language of a poet. From essays, to novels, to formal writing, he could write anything well. I served as his editor at The American Spectator many times. I say that I “served” because no one at the Spectator edited Tom Wolfe. As his editor, I waited and waited. I coaxed and coaxed. Tom had to get everything right — every clause, every word — and he always did. But gad, it took time.

Tom, along with George Will, has been the most gifted public speaker flying the conservative flag in our time. Sometimes the words he uttered were pretty provocative, but they were always perceptive. I remember he was our featured speaker at a Spectator gala. Somewhere in the middle of his speech he uttered what in official Washington was heresy. He said that The American Spectator’s treatment of former President Bill Clinton was more of an achievement than reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s treatment of former President Richard Nixon. Woodward and Bernstein had Judge John Sirica on their side, without whom their efforts would have been in vain. We had no Judge Sirica on our side, and our efforts ended in Clinton’s impeachment. Might I add that Nixon was man enough to spare the country the ordeal of a trial? Clinton was not.

I shall miss Tom Wolfe. He was a great writer and a great friend. He was a power onto himself. He died while I was on vacation in Italy. I wonder what he meant by that.

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When Senator John F. Kennedy Tried to Get a Young Reporter Named Tom Wolfe Fired

LYDON: I want to go back to this, the novelist as reporter. There’s a wonderful picture in Time magazine (Lydon referring to a November 1998 cover story on Wolfe), I’d never seen it before, 1958, you and John F. Kennedy, 40 years ago, a politician on the make and a newspaper reporter from the Springfield Union on the make. You’re a Yale Ph.D in American studies, doing reporting. And it’s been, you know, 40 years now that you’ve been just watching this stuff. How do you do it?

WOLFE: Well, that particular scene that you mentioned, it was taken outside the Springfield armory in Springfield, Mass. The armory used to be a major manufacturer of rifles, particularly for the United States military. And Kennedy when I interviewed him was Senator Kennedy, the year was 1958 …

LYDON: Getting re-elected that year …

WOLFE: … yes, right, and he had been asked to come to Springfield to see if he could do something to keep the government from getting rid of the armory. The armory had become kind of redundant by now, and so he met with a group of Springfield businessmen and the Springfield mayor, a man named Danny Brunton, and he was saying to them, this is the gist of what he was saying, he was saying, look, we’ve got to be just like these Southern politicians, these Southern senators and congressmen, they just grab whatever they feel like it of government money and they’ll make a gym for a university and name it after themselves, but that’s the way you have to play the game and that’s what we have to do to save the armory. 

At which point one of his aides said, senator, did you realize that there’s a reporter in the room (Lydon laughs) and that was me. There was one reporter, me. And (Kennedy) said no, then he turned to me and he said, this is all off the record. So rather timorously I said, well, there’s 25 Springfield business leaders here and the mayor, I don’t see how I can keep it off the record. And he said, well, it’s off the record.

So afterwards he came up to me and took me outside, he said look, I know your publisher, I know your editor really well …

LYDON (astonished; like Wolfe, a former reporter): Wow!

WOLFE: … I know that they would never want anything like this to appear in their paper and jeopardize the future of the armory. So I said, my hands are tied, I’m sorry, this is something that has happened in front of a lot of influential people in Springfield. So I went ahead and wrote the story and about a week later, Larry O’Brien, who later became postmaster general of the United States, one of Kennedy’s longtime aides (and Springfield native), came to the Springfield Union where I worked and complained to the editor that I had violated an off-the-record embargo and in effect tried to get me fired. But fortunately my editor was a Republican and he seemed to rather like me and so it didn’t cost me. But that’s what we were talking about in that picture.

LYDON: Isn’t that interesting …

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