Tom Wolfe: New York City and ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’

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Tom Wolfe helped invent the New Journalism in the 1960s and became the guru of popular culture. His beat ever since has been scrutinizing America’s obsessions, while his books and essays have become icons of our times.

It’s the nature of journalism to occupy itself with the bad news in life, the fires and traffic jams, depressions and wars. It’s the nature of some journalists to turn a sharp eye and a biting pen on the follies and vanities of everyday life. It’s all the more surprising, then, to hear one of those acidic journalists tell us, in this program with Bill Moyers, that there has never been a greater moment to be alive or a greater country to be alive in.



BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Good evening, I’m Bill Moyers. Just about the time you think this is the best of times, something happens to remind you it’s also the worst, or vice versa. So, the opening line of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities has become the cliché of each era: things are never what they seem; on the other hand, they could be. We don’t often know what to make of our times until some writer informs us, and no one has put more labels on more decades than my guest tonight. Join me for a conversation with Tom Wolfe.

[voice-over] Tom Wolfe dresses like a dandy from the 19th century, but his beat is the popular culture of the 20th, the follies of modern times. With The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, his first collection of essays, Wolfe, in the 1960s, helped to invent a new journalism. It snapped, crackled and popped with exclamation marks, word pictures and dialogue that bounced and cavorted like some of the exotic characters Wolfe found growing in liberated America.

Other books followed: Radical Chic, with its unforgettable portrait of piety on Park Avenue; The Right Stuff, and why America’s space-age test pilots had it. For a year now, Tom Wolfe’s novel Bonfire of the Vanities has been on the bestseller list, carrying readers into the depraved, amoral and absurd life of New York City in the age of acquisition. Wolfe has eyes like blotters, soaking up what others look at, but do not see. And like the 19th century novelists who are his literary heroes, he is first and foremost a reporter of the life around him. We talked at his townhouse on the East Side of Manhattan.

[interviewing] The picture you paint in the book is one of utter depravity in our society. The politicians are helpless. The clergy are either charlatans or marginal. The police, the judges, the lawyers arc all cynical or sold out. Everyone’s isolated from everyone else. There’s not a significant likable, sympathetic person in the whole book. You get the picture that this is a society at the end of its period, at the end of its life, about to fall like some giant old building that has long ago lost its foundation.

TOM WOLFE: Well, if I may quote that famous philosopher, Goodman Ace’s wife, Jane, you have to take the bitter with the better. There are two sides to the coin, and the coin glitters. Prosperity and freedom can lead, in the same moment that it shines this brilliant light, to tremendous excesses and to extreme forms of individualism, one form being vanity. Now, the book, The Bonfire of the Vanities, is about New York City in the 1980s in a period of money fever. I mean, there has never been such wealth as that generated in New York chiefly by the investment banking industry.

BILL MOYERS: White young men baying at the —

TOM WOLFE: Baying, yes, baying for money on the bond market. Right now we’re in a postal zone, 10021, in which the annual income is — personal income, I’m not talking about companies — four billion dollars.

BILL MOYERS: I didn’t know your book had done that well.

TOM WOLFE: I just added a drop in the bucket, but —

BILL MOYERS: Four billion?

TOM WOLFE: Four billion, and that’s — I mean, just think of all the countries in the world that don’t have a budget of four billion dollars. What I’m saying is there’s been tremendous, enormous wealth, that’s part of prosperity and freedom. This leads to extreme forms of — to use an old-fashioned word, which I seem to be doing all the time this afternoon, vanity — and I’ve seen it in the ’80s go right from Wall Street, all the way from Wall Street, to the South Bronx where I did a lot of my research. I’ll never forget walking through the South Bronx doing research for this book and seeing these boys, 13, 14 years old, with these necklaces on. And hanging as pendants from the necklaces were steel, or silvery anyway, rings. And in these rings were upside-down “Y”s, which I thought were peace symbols. And I said, “Isn’t it interesting that these boys here in the poorest part of New York are so civic-minded. They’re concerned about the threat of nuclear destruction and so on.” Of course, I looked more closely and they were Mercedes-Benz hood ornaments. They knew what a Mercedes-Benz was. They knew how much it cost because they knew that all hot shots drive them. The drug dealers drive them. And they wanted theirs. And they were taking the only part that they could now get, which was the hood ornament. This was the money fever spreading right down to the bottom rungs of the social ladder. Now, this is New York. This is vanity operating on all sides.

Author Tom Wolfe with Bill Moyers on the set of World of Ideas (Photo credit: Don Perdue)

Author Tom Wolfe with Bill Moyers at his Upper East Side townhouse while taping A World of Ideas in 1988. (Photo credit: Don Perdue)

BILL MOYERS: But it’s more than vanity, and it’s more than money. It’s utter amorality that pervades that picture of New York. Is that true to the way you see the city?

TOM WOLFE: Oh, sure. But, now, in The Bonfire of the Vanities there is no corruption in the broad sense of people being bribed.

BILL MOYERS: That’s the old-fashioned kind.

TOM WOLFE: It’s corruption from within. You know, Sartre was famous for the statement, in the play, No Exit, “Hell is other people.” To which Claude Levi-Strauss said, “No. Hell is ourselves.” And the inferno that I try to present in The Bonfire of the Vanities is internal. I’ll just cite one example from the book, probably the key example. I present a young assistant district attorney named Larry Kramer. He has gone into public service as a young prosecutor in the Bronx, on purpose. He wanted to go into public service. He wanted to feel he was doing something that was both real and important and good for the city he lived in, as opposed to his classmates at Columbia, who were going to go down to Wall Street and make a ton of money shuffling papers and protecting the interests of perfume franchises and leveraged buy-out kings and the rest of them. And that’s exactly the way it has worked out for him. His classmates have done that, and he’s done exactly what he set out to do. And yet, one morning when he sees one of his classmates he hasn’t seen in years coming out of a terrific apartment house, heading for a car and driver, beautifully dressed, carrying a $500 attaché case, no doubt heading down to Wall Street, he can’t stand it. He can’t stand it. The money fever’s got him. He can’t stand the contrast between his shabby get-up, his $36,000 a year and what his classmates are doing. And that is how the money fever gets to people. But is it bad to have a city or a country in which there is that much money around? I say no. I mean, just look back: over the panorama of human history. They are two sides to the same coin.

BILL MOYERS: It’s certainly not a city that you’d want to leave your mother alone in.

TOM WOLFE: No, I wouldn’t. But I live here, and I intend to continue living here.

BILL MOYERS: With bars on your windows — on my windows? I live across the Park; bars on the windows. I had to warn you a minute ago you’d left the key in the back door.

TOM WOLFE: It’s quite true. You either find New York an exciting place to be. You either enjoy the level of ambition that exists here and the kind of people that that attracts, or you leave. Because it is not a place that ranks very high on the scales of quality of life.

BILL MOYERS: Why do you stay?

TOM WOLFE: Because I love the city. I love the people who are here. I love the people it attracts. You know, when I say people of ambition, it’s not just the perfume franchisers and the leveraged buy-out kings and their lawyers. Think of today, all the Asians who are, by no means, from the top of the heap, who are coming to New York City, who are taking over the small candy stores, the grocery stores — I think particularly of Indians from India and Koreans — out of a sense of ambition. And many of them are making it. And they put up with a lot of the same things that you were alluding to, mainly crime.

BILL MOYERS: I’m alluding to them, but I read about them in Bonfire of the Vanities. One of the notions you strike so hard at in that book is that old American notion that, somewhere down there along the line, there’s a system of justice, there’s a rule of law. The system of justice and the rule of law do not exist in Bonfire of the Vanities. They are gone.

TOM WOLFE: Well, there are certain figures in the novel.

BILL MOYERS: The judge.

TOM WOLFE: Judge Kovitsky.

BILL MOYERS: Well, what happens to him?

TOM WOLFE: He doesn’t prevail. There’s another figure, the head of the homicide bureau in the Bronx, Bernie Fitzgibbon. All the way through he’s the real voice of the law in the book. He keeps saying, “Wait a minute. We have to do this the right way. We have to have sufficient evidence. We can’t cater to the mob,” and so on. The district attorney keeps overruling him. He’s determined to cater to the mob, because he has an election coming up. Now, this is really personal corruption, not the corruption of a system.

BILL MOYERS: But isn’t that the worst corruption? You said a minute ago, it’s the amorality of the spirit.


BILL MOYERS: Buying politicians is an old art form, but this is kind of a terminal corruption.

TOM WOLFE: Well, it may not be terminal, but it’s more an inner thing. It’s more inside the individual responding to the pressures of the money fever. A lot of people, including some critics, said that The Bonfire of the Vanities has no heroes. And I was reminded after that of the — I hadn’t thought about it — but the subtitle of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is “A Novel without a Hero.” And he was writing about a similar period; flush times, there seemed to be no limit to wealth and to indulgence.

BILL MOYERS: Do you really believe, as the book portrays, that the rule of law is finished?

TOM WOLFE: No, and I didn’t intend to make that point. As a matter of fact, when I was writing that book, it was with a spirit of wonderment. I was saying, “Look at these people. Look at what they’re doing. Look at that one. Look at that one.” It was only after I finished I’d read it over that I see that there is a cumulative effect that leads to the kind of conclusion you mention. The rule of law hasn’t broken down, it’s in a place, a borough like the Bronx, it’s swamped. There aren’t enough courtrooms to deal with the level of crime. And this is a problem all over New York City, and I think a lot of major cities. So, it isn’t the system of justice; it’s a) the sheer volume of crime, and b) the vanity of certain sorts of figures who, as I suppose is natural up to a point, are looking out for their own political careers.

BILL MOYERS: You said somewhere else that there are principled people in New York, people who act out of principle, but they don’t dominate. Why don’t they dominate?

TOM WOLFE: I think that’s part of the other side of a period of great prosperity, and you have to keep telling yourself — I mean, look at the history of humanity — prosperity is great. It’s great, but there is hell to pay now and again. And, I think, part of that is, if you’ve got this much ambition geared to financial success, geared to fame, to the things of this sort, it exerts a pressure so intense that self-abnegating, heroic figures tend to be shoved aside. I think it’s a well-known fact in the realm of sociology that levels of crime — street crime, personal crime, muggings, this sort of thing — go down in bad times. The Depression was a rather peaceable time in terms of street crime. It’s when times are good like they are now that the passion to get more is inflamed. There’s a motto among the so-called “Wolf Packs” who come in from — not only from Brooklyn but that’s the most famous — from Brooklyn into Manhattan to prey on people, pedestrians on the street. The motto is “Manhattan makes; Brooklyn takes.” That’s an awareness of the age we’re in. These are mostly youngsters and they’re saying, “Those people in Manhattan are making a lot of money. Times are flush–”

BILL MOYERS: Let’s cross the bridge.

TOM WOLFE: “Let’s cross the bridge.” I think that’s what goes on rather than any breakdown of a system, or justice.

BILL MOYERS: What surprised you the most? You’ve been around a long time, been around this city a long time, but there’s a sense of wonderment in your reporting which becomes the fiction of Bonfire of the Vanities. What surprised you most?

TOM WOLFE: Well, one of the things is what I would call “media ricochet,” which is the way real life and life as portrayed by television, by journalists like myself and others, begin ricocheting off of one another. That’s why, to me, in The Bonfire of the Vanities, it was so important to show exactly how this occurs when television and newspaper coverage become a factor in something like racial politics. And a good bit of the book has to do with this curious phenomenon of how demonstrations, which are a great part of racial and ethnic politics, exist only for the media. In the last days when I was working on The New York Herald Tribune, I’ll never forget the number of demonstrations I went to and announced to all the people with the placards, “I’m from The New York Herald-Tribune,” and the attitude was really a yawn, and then, “Get lost. ” They were waiting for Channel 2 and Channel 4 and Channel 5, and suddenly the truck would appear and these people would become galvanized. On one occasion I even saw a group of demonstrators down in Union Square, marching across the Square, and Channel 2 arrived, a couple of vans, and the head of the demonstration walked up to what looked like the head man of the TV crew and said, “What do you want us to do?” He says, “Golly, I don’t know. What were you gonna do?” He says, “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, you tell us.”

BILL MOYERS: I was astonished. I read Bonfire before the Tawana Brawley case broke, and then it broke. And I thought, “Wait a minute. They set this up to confirm his book.” You anticipated that. It was right out of the book.

TOM WOLFE: I was called prophetic after that. Although if you think about it, the real-life story made my story look rather tame by comparison. I didn’t dare go that far. But I think, in fact, it’s not in the matter of being prophetic. I think if you’re willing to go out as a reporter, whether you’re writing in fiction or non-fiction, and try to understand the mechanisms of the particular society we are in, and look at them without a hypothesis. Particularly without an ideological hypothesis, which is the great bane of writing in our period. If there were some way that you could remove ideology from writers for about a five-year period, it would be the best thing that ever happened. Then they’d just look. You know, they’d see.

BILL MOYERS: But this is another trembling venture that one takes in reading Bonfire of the Vanities, particularly if one comes out of a liberal background as I do. Many conservatives have praised the book for speaking frankly about the failure of liberal pieties toward race. But I was one who argued in the ’60s for integration, because the other side of integration is disintegration. And reading your book confirms me in that. The book is about disintegration, and that’s the opposite side of integration.

TOM WOLFE: I would agree with you.

BILL MOYERS: Has it come to this? Are we a disintegrating society racially?

TOM WOLFE: I think what has happened is that we’ve reached a particular crossover point politically in which, finally, a lot of the have-nots, a lot of people who are not of white European background, are coming into their own politically, out of sheer numbers if nothing else. And this inevitably heightens the tensions that have been there all along. And now, you can see it in New York every day. I mean, politicians all over the city are beginning to think about the racial component of anything that they say. And actually, that’s not all bad, at all. But it’s a very tense period because the crossover is beginning. New York has always had waves of immigration, and the most famous waves were white and European; first, the Germans and the Irish, then Italians and Jews. And these groups all came to power. The heads, politically, in this city today are Italian and Jewish politicians. Their constituency, though, is leaving them. And the waves that have come in since then — which is mainly the wave of black immigration from the South, waves of immigration from the Caribbean, from South America, and now from Asia and, for that matter, North Africa — are coming into their own. Does this lead to an absolute disintegration? Not at all. New York has been marvelous in accommodating these shifts. It’s a little tougher when the shift involves a change in skin color. That makes it tougher. But you’ll notice, you know, there’s no pattern of bloodshed in the streets. It has never come to that. And I don’t think it ever will.

BILL MOYERS: Conservatives have claimed you. They have claimed you for a long time because, in part, you find a lot of liberal pieties insufferable, and in part because your own journey has led you to some conclusions that, politically, they embrace. But are there conservative pieties that you found as insufferable as you do some liberal pieties?

TOM WOLFE: You know, I really haven’t been thinking in those terms. I really haven’t. I hear myself called a conservative, both by conservatives and by liberals. It doesn’t bother me. It usually means that I’ve been unorthodox in some way. I haven’t gone along with the reigning intellectual line. My own politics, incidentally, since you’ve brought this up, are right here in this block. I happen to be president of my block association. This is not a hotly contested job. Nevertheless, I’m in my second term as president of the block association, and to me, this is real politics. I go down to City Hall and testify and meet with city councilmen. I go to community board meetings and that’s the politics that really engages me. I’m interested, the way everybody is interested, in national politics, but I don’t have any national agenda. I have a terrific agenda about developers coming into the East 60s. If you want to hear about that I can go on about that.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I’m interested to hear you say that, because the greatest joy I’ve had in politics, and I’ve been in and around it for 25 years now, was getting involved on my side of Manhattan in a quasi-successful effort to slow down the development of Columbus Circle. And testifying at the Board of Estimates, and organizing people in the blocks, and taking part in those activities was the real joy of politics to me.

TOM WOLFE: I think that’s where political ideas should begin, and I wish — I’m going to say something I shouldn’t say — I wish my fellow writers would approach politics that way. I’m tired of hearing from writers whose knowledge of the world, and for that matter the political world, consists of what they see in their apartments and the taxicab that they take to work — they don’t go on the subway — and the magazine office. You know, for God’s sake, fellas, let’s get out and look at something for a change and stop breathing the same ideas.

BILL MOYERS: You think the City could, this city, be turned around from the blocks up?

TOM WOLFE: I mean, nothing’s going to happen soon, but, you know, all this talk about the system, for example, and the masters. Block politics do work, and I’ll give you a gigantic example. I had never seen such a coalition of forces — talk about the system and masters and the establishment — as came together in the City for the Westway project. Everybody from the revered, much-respected Senator Jacob Javitts to all the leading banks in this city, to all the leading labor unions, down to the small ones. Every financial interest you can think of was behind Westway. This colossal project to, not only rebuild the West Side Highway, but to build gigantic real estate complexes down through half of Manhattan, down to the Battery. I mean, gigantic — billions and billions of dollars at stake, and a lot of it already committed. It was stopped. It was stopped rather easily by a coalition of neighborhood groups who were against gigantism in their neighborhoods, with a little help from the Army Corps of Engineers.

BILL MOYERS: And the snail darter —

TOM WOLFE: And the snail, and —

BILL MOYERS: Or some little fish.

TOM WOLFE: We were concerned about the fish in the Hudson. Stopped it absolutely cold. Where was the juggernaut in that case? That was democracy.

BILL MOYERS: You’ll be reporting on it, perhaps. Nat Hentoff says reporting is the highest form of journalism. I think it’s become the highest form of fiction, as well.

TOM WOLFE: I just think it’s indispensable now, in a period like this. This is a period of thresholds, of tremendous changes as we come to the end of certain experiments and as new people come to this country from all over the place. This is an amazing, wonderful period to be a writer in. And I don’t see how a writer can operate without going out as a reporter. I don’t care if you’re writing plays, movies or even if you’re a poet. I don’t see any other way to do it. And yet so many writers are, at this moment, turning inward. I don’t get it. Think of the feast that’s out there.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] From New York City, this has been a conversation with Tom Wolfe. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on June 24, 2015.

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