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Tom Wolfe, 2016
Tom Wolfe, 2016 | © Dan Callister/REX/Shutterstock
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12 Things You Didn't Know About Tom Wolfe

Picture of Tim Marklew
Updated: 18 May 2018
Tom Wolfe, the beloved journalist and author of books including The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Right Stuff, passed away on May 14 at the age of 88. Known for his trademark Southern Gentleman look, pioneering journalism style and wildly successful novels, Wolfe had been a fixture of US literature for more than 50 years. Here are 12 things you probably didn’t know about him.

He was a proud Virginian

After growing up Richmond, VA, he turned down a place at Princeton to attend Washington and Lee, a private liberal arts university in Lexington, VA. Why? Because he wanted to remain close to his hometown.

He was a good pitcher

Wolfe was a star baseball player at school and college. As a pitcher, he reached a semi-professional level and even earned a tryout with the New York Giants in 1952. He was cut after three days, and promptly gave up on baseball to enroll in a PhD program at Yale.

He was one of few journalists in Washington not interested in politics

He claimed that he got his first major journalism job at the Washington Post because of his lack of interest in politics. His editor commented he was “amazed that Wolfe preferred cityside to Capitol Hill, the beat every reporter wanted.”

The trademark white suit actually began as a mistake

Wolfe was famous for his impeccable white, three-piece suits. He bought his first such suit in 1962 to wear in summer, when white suits were traditionally worn. However, it was too thick so he wore it in winter, causing a stir and sealing his signature look.

He pioneered a new style of journalism

Wolfe was the main driving force behind what he called “New Journalism”, an experimental form of reporting utilizing uncommon literary techniques. His first notable piece in this style was an article titled ‘There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby’, published in Esquire in 1963.

RIP Mr Right Stuff, #TomWolfe

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His first novel had a number of versions

The Bonfire of the Vanities was a commercial and critical success when it was published in 1987, but that wasn’t the first time it had been available to the public. An early version of the novel was originally serialized in Rolling Stone magazine between 1984 and ’85, an idea Wolfe had in order to emulate Charles Dickens. He was unhappy with the first version though, calling it a “very public first draft”.

He got his first nove’s title from an historical event

The Bonfire of the Vanities took its name from an historical event that happened in Florence, Italy in 1497. The bonfire was a burning of sinful objects like cosmetics, mirrors, books and art, ordered by Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola.

He often feuded with his peers

US literary heavyweights John Updike, Norman Mailer and John Irving all attacked Wolfe’s second novel, A Man in Full, despite its success. Wolfe wasn’t one to back down though, describing Updike and Mailer as “two old piles of bones”, and saying Irving was jealous of the comparisons that had been made between Wolfe and Dickens. He later referred to them as “My Three Stooges”.

RIP Tom Wolfe #tomwolfe #vintage #americanwriter

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He didn’t embrace all his awards

His third novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, won a Bad Sex in Fiction Award from the London-based Literary Review in 2004. Wolfe didn’t take it well, becoming one of the very few authors in the award’s history to decline the invitation.

He was a friend of The Simpsons

He appeared on The Simpsons twice. In one episode, Homer spills chocolate on Wolfe’s suit, which he rips off to reveal an identical one underneath. In the second, he is the organizer of a writers’ convention in Vermont called “Wordloaf”.

His papers are now public property

In 2013, the New York Public Library paid $2.15 million for Wolfe’s personal papers. These included around 190 boxes of material containing drafts, outlines and research materials for his four novels and 12 other books, and over 10,000 letters.

He coined a number of common phrases

Wolfe has been credited with introducing a number of phrases into the English lexicon, such as “good ol’ boy”, “the right stuff” and “radical chic”.