Tom Wolfe looks like a dandified angel but writes like the devil. A killer wit, he has made a career of barbecuing America’s most sacred cows, from the liberal-intellectual establishment (Radical Chic) to the poverty program bureaucrats (Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers). But when Wolfe took aim at America’s “gods for a day”—the astronauts—he suffered severe writer’s block. The ribbon of adjectives, sound effects, brand names and punctuation suddenly stopped. The Tom Wolfe Victims Association whooped it up, thinking he might never return from the moon.
Last September—six years late—he splashed down brilliantly with The Right Stuff. Sen. John Glenn, the “flying monk” who comes off as a prig, sent Wolfe a handwritten note with two minor corrections (one of them: “My car was not a Peugeot; it was a Prinz”). “In a subtle way,” says Wolfe, “it was a very witty letter.” Already his biggest seller ever, Right Stuffs paperback and movie sales total $1.1 million.
A Virginian (unrelated to Thomas), he came to Manhattan seemingly just to unsettle newspaper colleagues with his Yale Ph.D. in American studies, his trademark three-piece white suits and his novel-style narrative technique. Soon it was dubbed the “New Journalism,” and everyone else began employing it (though not as well). “The style isn’t mine anymore,” he notes. “It’s a cliché.”
When he finished off NASA last year, Wolfe, 48, celebrated by turning benedict. After a courtly 12-year liaison, he wed Sheila Berger, 36, the art director of Harper’s, and they moved into a four-story East Side townhouse. Wolfe’s next project? “I am very much tending toward doing a Vanity Fair novel about New York,” he says. “I want to use the money I made to buy time for the next two years for writing, rather than scramble the way I have for the last 20.” Then there’s one other dramatic change in the works: After Saturday Night Fever, he is phasing out the right white stuff in his wardrobe in favor of yellow.