‘Big Bad Wolfe’ Looks Back

Tom Wolfe, seen through his own writings, will be the subject of a staged reading at Guild Hall tomorrow night at 8
The iconoclastic author Tom Wolfe is the subject of a one-man show at the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall tomorrow night.

   The reporter turned essayist turned novelist Tom Wolfe, seen through his own writings, will be the subject of a staged reading at Guild Hall tomorrow night at 8. Curated by Judith Auberjonois — “ I hate to use that word,” she said, “because it is a little too trendy, but I did curate it” — “Big Bad Wolfe” has her husband, Rene, playing the author, via excerpts from his work starting with the early 1960s.
    Mr. Wolfe first walked into the New York Herald-Tribune building  in 1962. Newspapers didn’t have a very elaborate hiring system then, he said in a phone interview last week. “I just happened to walk in on the day Lewis Lapham left to start his own magazine.” The typewriter on his desk had Mr. Lapham’s name on it.
    He came to New York from Washington, where he’d worked for The Washington Post. “I was like every other news reporter — I wanted to get to New York. I started off in Springfield, Mass., in 1956, then I got the Post job in 1959.”
    The city had seven dailies, morning and afternoon, in 1962: The Herald-Tribune, The World-Telegram and Sun, The Journal American, The New York Times, the New York Post, The Daily Mirror, and the Daily News.
    “The Daily News used to be the hot newspaper,” Mr. Wolfe said. He recited a 120-something-word lead that he remembers word for word, written by Art Smith, brother to the famous sports columnist Red Smith, that began with a question: “Who do these New York cops think they are, anyhow?”
    Gay Talese of The Times and Jimmy Breslin of the Trib were his demigods. “Some of those stories [Breslin] wrote are absolute marvels of fast reporting and fast writing,” said Mr. Wolfe.
    Mr. Talese, finding himself cramped by Times style, “would write these amazing pieces  for Esquire . . . He believed in saturation in coverage. He and Breslin were the two I noticed. I began using their techniques.”
    He used them well. Mr. Wolfe’s first article for Esquire, “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) that Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” was published in 1964.
    It was Pete Hamill who gave a name to the burst of creative journalism coming out of the Big Apple at the time, said Mr. Wolfe. “He said, ‘Why don’t we do a story about new journalism?’ and the name stuck.”
    At the same time as New Journalism was altering the way writers and readers looked at nonfiction, the newspaper business was contracting. Following a printers’ strike that crippled three of the broadsheets, The Herald Tribune, The World-Telegram and Sun, and The Journal American, they merged, creating The World-Journal-Tribune. A few months later, in the spring of 1967, that paper shut down, leaving the city with only three newspapers. The Daily Mirror had folded in 1963.
    Mr. Wolfe found himself at a fork in his career. While he was now out of a job, his first book, a collection of his articles with almost the same title as that first iconic Esquire piece, was enjoying critical and commercial success.
    He started freelancing, but leaving the newspaper business was not easy. “I always enjoyed writing for newspapers. Even if you write a bad story, nobody remembers the next day.”
    He was searching for a book idea. “I wanted to do a nonfiction book, sort of the way Truman Capote had done ‘In Cold Blood.’ There was an invitation on a desk” — someone else’s desk, with that person’s name on the invitation — “to a party for the Black Panthers,” R.S.V.P. only. Mr. Wolfe called the number on the card. “This is Tom Wolfe, and I accept.”
    It was the infamous fund-raiser for the Black Panthers, given by Leonard Bernstein and his wife, Felicia Montealegre, in their Park Avenue duplex penthouse. The apartment was wall-to-wall with the New York intelligentsia and artistic elite, giddily rubbing shoulders with the leadership and members of the Black Panther Party. “It was such a scene,” Mr. Wolfe said.
    Though he was looking for a book idea, he had a reporter’s bloodlust for news. “The old firebell rang and I couldn’t resist.” The result was “Radical Chic: The Party at Lenny’s,” published in New York Magazine on June 8, 1970, later to become part of a book, “Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.”
    Mr. Wolfe’s uncanny talent for unpeeling the layers to get to the pith of a story propelled him through his 1979 book on the early days of the American space program, “The Right Stuff.”
    “The real reason I wrote it was, I had read in the original report [about the first seven  astronauts] that all of them were white, all were Protestant, four of them were ‘Juniors.’ ” That described Mr. Wolfe as well, though “I felt no more like an astronaut than I did a professional wrestler.”
    He collected material for his first novel, 1987’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,” in the tradition of the reporter in the trenches, going to criminal court to watch the arraignments. “I went about it the way I would on any piece of non-fiction. I went down to Manhattan. They said, ‘This is nothing. You should see the Bronx.’ ” Good advice.
    Mr. Wolfe is saddened and troubled by what he sees happening to newspapers today. The lack of sourcing in blogs, as well as in traditional news services, deeply disturbs him. “It’s not just the new media. There is no competition left. You go across the nation. There may be two newspapers in a town, but they’re all owned by the same company,” he said.
    Rather than send two reporters to cover a story, jointly owned papers will send one, if they send any at all. “That’s going to happen now, as the newspapers dissolve into online publications,” said the author. “There’s nobody covering the police today, nobody covering the education beat. Now they just cherry-pick their stories.”
    “There was less news coverage in the 1960s than there was 75 years earlier,” he continued. “That coverage will not exist at all unless somebody does something radical.”
    Mr. Wolfe is working now on another book, which he described as “the theory of evolution, 1858 to 2013.” He is examining how faculties in major American universities react when challenged by proponents of intelligent design.
    “Intelligent design is treated as if it were some sect of right-wing Christians railing against the theory of evolution,” said Mr. Wolfe. “I don’t pass judgment on it myself. I think it’s entertaining. I envision it as a short book.”
    Mr. Wolfe is very pleased with Mr. Auberjonois’s Tom Wolfe.
    “Rene approached me,” he said. “He had been asked to read something of mine on the West Side. He has a great voice and is a terrific actor. I’ve been to two of his readings.” Mr. Auberjonois, he joked, sounds so good as Tom Wolfe that Mr. Wolfe may do audio books only in the future.
    “The work itself has told me what this is about,” said Ms. Auberjonois. “It’s about transformation, the transformation of Tom Wolfe from journalist to novelist. The transformation of America.”
    Tickets range from $50 for prime orchestra seats, with a small discount for members, down to $30, again with a slight membership discount.