Tom Wolfe not only chronicled the social changes that transformed America and his adopted hometown of New York in the second half of the twentieth century but also in many ways helped shape them. While he’ll always be remembered for his inimitable prose style, he was also a man of ideas. TheBonfire of the Vanities—his debut novel, published at the tender age of 56—captured the inequities, divisions, danger, and decay of 1980s New York better than anyone ever did and opened New Yorkers’ eyes to the need for change, much as another social reformer, Jacob Riis, had done a century earlier. Characteristically contrarian, Wolfe wryly noted about that era that “the conventional wisdom among those second-hand idea salesmen, the intellectuals, was that ‘America’s large cities have become ungovernable.’”
A student of history, Wolfe didn’t believe that, and he began to champion ideas like proactive Broken Windows policing, which he believed could improve life for all New Yorkers. (Wolfe became friends with William J. Bratton and with Bratton’s Number Two in his first stint as police commissioner in New York, the late, great, John Timoney, whom Wolfe once described thusly: “Even someone in the grandstand, like me, could read the lines incised in that face, punctuated by a blunt nose, and immediately make out the words ‘tough Irish cop.’ Timoney was the platonic ideal-typical incarnation of the breed. He was the realreal thing.”)
After Rudy Giuliani was elected mayor, he and Wolfe participated in a Manhattan Institute forum in which ideas ranging from crime to education to welfare reform were discussed. Years later, the Manhattan Institute presented Wolfe and Giuliani with our Hamilton Award on the same evening. It was an honor to fete the author of Bonfire alongside the mayor who had done so much to put out the flames. In his remarks, Giuliani called Wolfe “the Dickens of our modern age” and noted how he “described the social forces that affect us. . . . in ways that explain what the impetus for reform is and the things that maybe we’re doing wrong that we can correct.”
From The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), his “nonfiction novel” about the counterculture, to The Right Stuff, his 1979 treatment of the first American astronauts, to his later works—including the Atlanta-set novel A Man in Full(1998) and Back to Blood (2012), an exploration of twenty-first century Miami—Wolfe described our social situation with unmatched flair and insight.
He was one of New York’s last true literary stars. It always caused a stir when he would arrive at a function in his trademark white suit and matching custom Cadillac, with his cane and fedora. He was an icon, a literary lion, but would always take time to encourage young writers. “Keep scribbling,” he would advise them.
A son of the South, he loved his adopted home of New York, as was evident in much of his writing, including this passage from Bonfire:
“[H]e could see the island of Manhattan off to the left. The towers were jammed together so tightly, he could feel the mass and stupendous weight. Just think of the millions, from all over the globe, who yearned to be on that island, in those towers, in those narrow streets! There it was, the Rome, the Paris, the London of the twentieth century, the city of ambition, the dense magnetic rock, the irresistible destination of all those who insist on being where things are happening— and he was among the victors!
New York has always been a magnet for those ambitious to make a living—and make a difference—through the printed word. Tom Wolfe did both.