The rake

The modern voice of classic elegance

IconsSeptember 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 Tom Wolfe a rake of the highest order.


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.”

On the verge of unemployment and poverty, he went hunting for work. Esquire hired him and flew him to Los Angeles to write a piece on custom-made cars in the States. On his return, he was struck by every penman’s worst nightmare: writer’s block. Confessing to his editor, Byron Dobell, Byron requested his notes on the topic for someone else to “hammer out the text”. Wolfe’s ‘notes’ came in the form of a 49 page letter abundant in insightful observations; Dobell said “It was like he discovered it in the middle of the night. Wherever it came from, it seemed to me to tap a strain of pure American humour that wasn’t being tapped. He didn’t sound like Truman Capote or Lillian Ross … or anyone else.” With no further ado, Dobell published the letter in its entirety, Wolfe found his voice and eighteen months later he had become a cult figure in the publishing world.

Nowadays, Wolfe’s words and his wardrobe are part and parcel of the Tom Wolfe package that comes immaculately finished with a silk tie and a flamboyant printed pocket square. The author – having accidentally stumbled upon a uniform that has now served him for over half a century – no doubt understands the impracticality and virtual ridiculousness of wearing a white suit on a daily basis. As our Online Editor wrote here, ‘Eating in it is a terrifying business, using the dusty, gum-strewn seats on public transport is mental torture and even attending garden parties or the polo will have you perspiring with hyper-tension as you dodge waiter after drinks-tray bearing waiter.’ But Wolfe evidently couldn’t give less of a damn – matching his professional propensity to be unerringly controversial and do things differently.

Equally, his penchant for florid language and somewhat quixotic prose is reflected in the romance of his dress; and, as he puts it, “You never realise how much of your background is sewn into the lining of your clothes.” While this may be true, his New York-based tailor Vincent Nicolisi might have an idea, having been the head and the hands responsible for Wolfe’s habitual dress code for many years. The inscription inside 2004’s I Am Charlotte Simmons (Wolfe’s exploration of college students and their sexual conquests) reads, “To the egregio maestro, the incomparable Vincent Nicolisi, What gives this book LIFE is the suit on the guy on the back cover.” A shining endorsement if ever there was one.

Having just released The Kingdom of Speech, an attack on linguist Noam Chomsky, and the notion that speech is the result of a natural evolution among our species, the 85 year old author is still evidently sauntering through life bedecked in beautiful ivory blazers, to-die-for double-breasted cashmere coats and spats, challenging anything that strikes him as too easy to leave un-argued. As he puts it with an air of finality, “if you are not having a fight with somebody, then you are not sure whether you are alive when you wake up in the morning.”

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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.

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