‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ author Tom Wolfe dies aged 88

Writer dies in Manhattan hospital after infection, his agent Lynn Nesbit confirms

 Writer Tom Wolfe arrives at Time magazine’s 100 most influential people dinner in New York, US, April  2005. File photograph: Jeff Christensen/Reuters

Writer Tom Wolfe arrives at Time magazine’s 100 most influential people dinner in New York, US, April 2005. File photograph: Jeff Christensen/Reuters


Tom Wolfe, the essayist, journalist and author of bestselling books including The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities, has died at the age of 88.

Wolfe died in a Manhattan hospital on Monday, his agent Lynn Nesbit confirmed. He had been hospitalised with an unspecified infection.

With his literary flair and habit of placing himself as a character in his non-fiction writing, Wolfe was regarded as one of the pioneers of New Journalism – even helping to shape the current definition of the term with his publication of a 1973 essay collection of the same name, which placed his own writing alongside the likes of Truman Capote, Joan Didion and Hunter S Thompson.

‘Saturation reporting’

He championed what he called “saturation reporting”: where a journalist shadows their subject over a long period of time, recording their observations in often minute detail.

“To pull it off,” Wolfe wrote in 1970, “you casually have to stay with the people you are writing about for long stretches ... long enough so that you are actually there when revealing scenes take place in their lives.”

Born in Virginia in 1931, Wolfe went straight into reportage out of university, beginning at the Springfield Union in Massachusetts. He later left for Washington, then New York, arriving there in 1962 to work for The New York Herald Tribune. He made a permanent home there with his wife Sheila and their two children.

Wolfe’s works – fiction and non-fiction alike – looked at realms ranging from the art world to Wall Street to 1960s hippie culture, and touched on issues of class, power, race, corruption and sex.

“I think every living moment of a human being’s life, unless the person is starving or in immediate danger of death in some other way, is controlled by a concern for status,” Wolfe said in a Wall Street Journal interview.

‘Radical chic’

Wolfe created lasting catchphrases such as “radical chic” to brand pretentious liberals, the “me decade” to sum up the self-indulgence of the 1970s and the “right stuff” to quantify intangible characteristics of the first US astronauts and their test pilot predecessors.

He was never deterred by the fact that he often did not fit in with his research subjects, partly because he was such a sartorial dandy, known for his white suits.

Wolfe was in his mid-70s while hanging out with college kids and working on the novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, and was a fairly conservative drug-free observer in a coat and tie while travelling with Ken Kesey and his LSD-dropping hippie tribe, known as The Merry Pranksters, for The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in the 1960s.

By looking so out of place, he figured people would be more prone to explain things to him. – Guardian/Reuters