Icons / September 2016

Wolfe-Whistle: The Life & Style of Tom Wolfe

Whichever way you cut it, the man’s extraordinary style, propensity for floral language and ability to breeze his way through life arguing incessantly over whatever he should so choose, makes…

There’s a moment in The Simpsons, where the eternally geeky Lisa spots a white-suited man and exclaims “It’s Tom Wolfe! He uses more exclamation points than any other major American writer!” Wolfe’s cartoon loudly confirms, “I DO!!!!!!!” (Or at least that’s how I imagine the script read). Wolfe then launches into a dramatic, almost stageworthy introduction of a character known simply as ‘Moe’. “Ah, magnificent Moe. He stands, stoop-shouldered, blinking in the light, hollow-chested like a dough-faced fall guy who's made a career of taking dives but has decided to get his manhood out of hock and take a shot at the title. Or at least go for the jaw and thwack! Hyper-extend the champ's pterygoideus before kissing the mat good night.”

I realise introducing Tom Wolfe via the medium of a cartoon may be an injustice to the author's genius, but I think even Wolfe himself would appreciate The Simpsons writers' undeniable skill with satire and his ability to tread the line between offensive caricature and teasing representation. Especially considering he is outfitted in an all-white suit throughout, his real-life unique sartorial trademark.

The story behind the suit, however, is notoriously misconstrued. While many believe it to be an outward expression of Wolfe’s eccentricity and louche taste, in fact it was quite the opposite. One of his early jobs saw him join the Herald Tribune in a New York summer. He was only in possession of two sports jackets, and the rules of 1960s publishing dictated that gentlemen must wear suits to work, so Wolfe purchased one in white, as was the standard in society. On realising it was on the heavy side, and being too strapped for cash to do otherwise, Wolfe made the bold decision to wear it throughout winter as well, which was greeted with such alarm that he described the reaction as if he were “a man from Mars, the man who didn’t know anything and was eager to know.”

But, as his fruitful career would later attest, Wolfe was not one to shy away from stirring the pot, in every sense. While his twenties passed in a fog of run-of-the-mill journalism that stood out no more than the next man’s, his thirties saw him push against the constraints of broadsheet journalism. He wrote home to his father during the Newspaper Strike of 1962 to reveal that he was considering going on the dole – feeling every bit a writer with no one to write for. The letter read, “I’m not terribly anxious to be writing ads, but they pay very well… As yet, of course, no money has come rolling in from all this. Until it does I wonder if I should apply for state unemployment benefits? This perplexes me, and I would like your advice, because I have a great loathing of the idea of going on the dole. Perhaps it is only false pride.”



Anna Prendergast

Anna is a freelance writer and former staffer at The Rake. She is passionate about travel, well made clothes and homemade chocolate chip cookies.