Icon of New Journalismis no more

Tom Wolfe, an innovative journalist whose technicolour, wildly punctuated prose brought to life the worlds of California surfers, car customisers, astronauts and Manhattans moneyed status-seekers in works like The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities, died on Monday in a Manhattan hospital. He was 87.

By Deirdre Carmody and William Grimes
  • Published 16.05.18
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Tom Wolfe

New York: Tom Wolfe, an innovative journalist whose technicolour, wildly punctuated prose brought to life the worlds of California surfers, car customisers, astronauts and Manhattans moneyed status-seekers in works like The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities, died on Monday in a Manhattan hospital. He was 87.

His death was confirmed by his agent, Lynn Nesbit, who said Wolfe had been hospitalised with an infection. He had lived in New York since joining The New York Herald Tribune as a reporter in 1962.

In his use of novelistic techniques in his non-fiction, Wolfe, beginning in the 1960s, helped create the enormously influential hybrid known as the New Journalism.

But as an unabashed contrarian, he was almost as well known for his attire as his satire. He was instantly recognisable as he strolled down Madison Avenue - a tall, slender, blue-eyed, still-boyish-looking man in his spotless three-piece vanilla bespoke suit, pinstriped silk shirt with a starched white high collar, bright handkerchief, watch on a fob, faux spats and white shoes.

Once asked to describe his get-up, Wolfe replied brightly, "Neo-pretentious".

It was a typically wry response from a writer who found delight in lacerating the pretentiousness of others. He had a pitiless eye and a penchant for spotting trends and then giving them names, some of which - like "Radical Chic" and "the Me Decade" - became American idioms.

His talent as a writer and caricaturist was evident from the start in his verbal pyrotechnics and perfect mimicry of speech patterns, his meticulous reporting and his creative use of pop language and explosive punctuation.

"As a titlist of flamboyance he is without peer in the western world," Joseph Epstein wrote in the The New Republic. "His prose style is normally shotgun baroque, sometimes edging over into machine-gun rococo, as in his article on Las Vegas which begins by repeating the word 'hernia' fifty-seven times."

William F. Buckley, Jr, writing in National Review, put it more simply: "He is probably the most skillful writer in America - I mean by that he can do more things with words than anyone else."

New York Times News Service