Tom Wolfe, Apostle of 'New Journalism' and Author of 'The Right Stuff,' Dies at 88

Playing Pioneering Author Tom Wolfe Dead at 88

Tom Wolfe, who pioneered "New Journalism" and wrote such literary masterpieces as "The Right Stuff" and "Bonfire of the Vanities," has died at age 88.

He had been hospitalized with pneumonia and passed away Monday, according to his literary agent, Lynn Nesbit. 

Ever the dandy in wide-lapeled, tailored suits replete with a Panama hat, Wolfe started his writing career as a reporter at the Springfield Union in Massachusetts before moving on to The Washington Post.

He moved to New York in 1962 to join the New York Herald-Tribune and would call the city his home for the rest of his life.

He was a trailblazer in the hard-living, neon-lit prose that came to be known as "New Journalism" alongside contemporaries including Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, George Plimpton, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote.

He edited a volume of work by himself and those writers that he titled "The New Journalism." The book became a text for mass media classes across the country.

By then, he had earned wide acclaim for a number of ground-breaking books, including "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," in which he chronicled the psychedelic exploits of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters as they gobbled LSD and rode a bus across the country, cavorting with counterculture luminaries such as the Grateful Dead (known then as The Warlocks), Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady.

In 1979, he penned "The Right Stuff," which documented the 15-year span of America's first space program and highlighted Mercury astronauts, including John Glenn and Alan Shepard. The best-selling book was made into a 1983 Oscar-winning film starring Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Sam Shepard, Fred Ward and The Band drummer Levon Helm.

Wolfe didn't become a novelist until 1987 with the release of "The Bonfire of the Vanities," though it wasn't as popular as "The Right Stuff." It was made into a movie starring Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis, which flopped at the box office.

He was born in Virginia, the grandson of a Confederate soldier, and attended William and Lee University. He received a Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale University.

His journalism career got off to a slow start. He wrote about "dismally" failing The Associated Press test and being chastised for embellishing facts in the written exam, a sin tantamount to treason at the wire service.

His genre-busting journalism introduced terms such as "pushing the envelope," "radical chic," and "The Me Generation" into America's lexicon. 

When writing, to get it right, Wolfe said he first did extensive research, then he made an exhaustive outline — and then he started "having fun."

"I like to use the technique of what I think of as a controlled trance," he explained. "I'll actually sit in front of the typewriter, close my eyes, and then try to imagine myself into the particular scene that I'm going to write about. Once you know what you're going to say — I give myself a quota each day of 10 triple-spaced pages on the typewriter. And that comes out for me anywhere from 1,600 to 1,800 words. That's not all that hard to do," he said. 

He is survived by his wife of 40 years, Sheila, daughter Alexandra Wolfe, 37, a writer for the The Wall Street Journal and son Tommy, 32, a sculptor.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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