'Piercingly funny': Tom Wolfe's years as a Washington Post reporter


Even as a city contributor in a nation’s collateral in 1959, Tom Wolfe was building a character that would assistance change journalism, afterwards make him a best-selling author and novelist. 

On Tuesday, a universe schooled that Wolfe had died May 14 during a Manhattan hospital. He was 88.

In 2006, James Rosen, a former Washington match for Fox News, wrote a reverence to Wolfe’s years as a Washington Post contributor in The Post’s Sunday Outlook section. We are reprinting it here in a entirety:

“At a Washington party,” Tom Wolfe once observed, “it is not adequate that a guest feel drunk; they contingency feel dipsomaniac and important.”

Classic Wolfe! Piercingly humorous and keen . . . now quotable . . . exposing a vanities of a elite. So because is it so . . . unfamiliar? Because we won’t find a line in a informed Wolfe criterion — “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” “The Right Stuff,” “Bonfire of a Vanities.” No, it was detected in a immeasurable unexplored trove: a daily broadcasting Wolfe constructed as a military and facilities contributor for a full decade before he morphed, in a mid-1960s, into . . . Tom Wolfe .

Wolfe’s work as a city table contributor for The Washington Post from 1959 to 1962 has prolonged been expel as a forgettable predecessor to his after accomplishments. In his 1977 story of The Post, “In a Shadow of Power,” former tactful match Chalmers M. Roberts reported that a newspaper’s editors “never unequivocally knew what to do with Wolfe’s offbeat talent.” Biographer William McKeen called a Post newsroom “much too bleak . . . to accept Wolfe’s innovations.” The 32-year-old expert left a capital, McKeen declared, “frustrated like a leashed animal,” and his “stylistic rehearsal . . . waited until after he left a newspaper.”

But in compiling an anthology of Wolfe’s writing, we reviewed all 315 articles filed for The Post underneath a byline “Thomas Wolfe.” And they exhibit accurately a opposite: deadline broadcasting packed with a humorous amicable explanation and stylistic brio that after became, along with a fine white suits, Wolfe’s trademarks.

The immature reporter’s assignments ran a gamut: African envoys and Soviet ping-pong tours, book fairs and high propagandize reunions, transient monkeys and travel muggings, and — a scandal of all reporters — zoning meetings. Yet roughly each story reflected his emotional to enlarge a bounds of a English language.

The kind of Wolfeiana to be found in a vaults of The Post would come, a few years later, to conclude a New Journalism and change American literature.


From a beginning, a Richmond local employed a many colorful Southern similes and metaphors:

Two muggers gave their plant “a black eye large as an eggplant.”

Zeroes in a bill stretched on “like so many eggs in a hatchery.”

A shopkeeper flashed a grin “you could hang a rinse on.”

Neighborhood news ran “free as a back-wash from a pig sight to Secaucus.”

Another indispensable component in a Wolfe arsenal — irascibility — also finished revisit appearances:

Washington was “the city where everybody represents somebody else.”

“Rome now creates half as many cinema as Hollywood, and each other one is about a prostitute.”

A 1959 essay previewed a revisit from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev: “All of striped-pantsdom will wait a impulse with a agonise of a male determining between dual forks during dinner. The doubt is, should Khruschev get a 19-gun salute or a full 21?

“The large blast, theoretically, goes customarily to a bonafide ‘chief of state,’ like Queen Elizabeth. The 19 are for a ‘head of government.’ With Marxist-Leninist modesty, Khrushchev is strictly customarily a latter — though suspect he depends a cannon blasts and doesn’t like it?”

Wolfe shortly began experimenting with other innovative devices. One was antonomasia, a customarily scathing use of describing an particular by a certain characteristic, afterwards creation it into a scold noun.

Thus Wolfe decorated a gunman in a botched wine store spoliation as “slightly built and snappy-talking.” Seven paragraphs later: “Turner retreated though now a lorry pulled up. Snappytalk non-stop fire.”

At a reunion of Vice President Richard M. Nixon’s World War II buddies, Wolfe reported Nixon’s opening punch line, “I’m outranked here,” afterwards remarkable drolly: “Junior Operations Officer Nixon had finished good adequate in a meantime to be a center, for an hour final night, of an continuous turn of handshakes, photographs, autographs, and of course, aged fight stories.”

* * *

Onomatopoeia, a arrangement of difference by imitating healthy sounds, was another favorite:

When Federal Aviation Administration officials denounced a new appurtenance that immediately malfunctioned, Wolfe available a “ta-pocket-ta-pocket-ta-pocket-ta” noise.

The thesis of another square was listened to growl: “kr-r-r-r-r-r-!”

Forty-two years before he forsaken “otorhinolaryngological” into a sex stage in a novel “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” Wolfe used bewildering medical vernacular to likewise comedic outcome in a story about Chubby Checker’s strike strain “The Twist”:

“The knee movement in this dance breakthrough embodies a coexisting flexion, extension, adducation, circumduction and series of a tellurian joints hitherto different to anatomical science.”

* * *

Wolfe also exploited a comic intensity of sequence commas in a front-page essay on a march that began:

“Twenty-six thousand cart-wheeling, can-canning, cloud-kicking, cadence-counting, kilt-flipping, skirt-flouncing, show-boating, baton-twirling, tall-strutting, crowd-tickling — Take a breather here. We’ve got 10 blocks to go, from 7th Street and Constitution Avenue NW to 17th.

— band-playing, fife-piping, drum-flogging, jazz-blowing, horn-blasting, ear-bombing, eye-popping, boot-shuffling, heel-clicking, banner-bearing — Getting your second wind? This continues for 5 hours and 14 minutes.

— float-pulling, stunt-pulling, leg-pulling, shillelagh-flailing, slogan-flaunting, flashy-drilling, fancy-dancing, rifle-juggling, flag-flourishing and, we competence supplement — safety-patrolling — boys, girls, policemen and poets marched here yesterday in a 25th National School Safety Patrol Parade.”

The ungrammatical use of ellipses to communicate a postponement or . . . center doubt . . . or maybe only an inner aside . . . was a use Wolfe after finished a hallmark. He experimented with this technique for a initial time in 1960, in a story headlined “Canine Exhibitor Finds People ‘Look Like Dogs’ “:

“Mrs. White could have left on . . . about a tweedy, not to contend shaggy, forms who uncover a sheep dogs, for instance . . . though she wanted to indicate out one difference to a rule. ‘You aren’t expected to find someone who looks like his Great Dane,’ she said.”

Eighteen months later, in an essay about record-high temperatures: “Everybody knows a age-old, certain signs of open — a aged male rises his eyes from a Sunday paper and trundles outward to hose down a family automobile . . . a kids coast down off a TV hassocks and out into a weed to listen to their transistors . . . a usual.”


The arrogance of another individual’s indicate of perspective was an constituent underline of a nascent New Journalism. In a square bylined “By Caroline Kennedy/As Told to Thomas Wolfe,” a author available a presidential toddler’s initial opening into a White House in Feb 1961:

“So we unequivocally wish to know how we like my new house?

“Well, a residence is — we know, it’s only a house. The thing that pennyless me adult was this snowman. We all gathering adult — Mother, Daddy and me and my small hermit John and, we know, a usual herd tagging along — we all gathering adult from a airfield and here was this large snowman in a front yard with a pinkish carrot for a nose and a red badge around a neck.

[ . . .] But removing behind to a snowman . . . there was one poetic touch. He was wearing a large floppy Panama hat, like Frank Lloyd Wright A.D. 1920 or somebody. The fun is — if we have to explain it to we — here is this snowman in a center of Jan wearing a pleasant hat.”

Nine months later, Wolfe toyed with point-of-view again, changeable it right in mid-sentence in a devious news on a Army’s disaster gymnasium switch from compartmentalized trays to apart dishes: “No sticklers for theory, Army drain commanders have hold to an movement module for gripping a line moving. And if a brisk chuck here and there imbedded a grapefruit slices and a chipped beef in a oatmeal — well, where did we cruise we were? Vassar?”

* * *

It wasn’t only a Tom Wolfe character that was innate in The Post’s pages; they served as a incubator, too, for many of his memorable themes. And no thesis would browbeat his famous works like that of standing — a perspective that understandable sum about an individual’s home, wardrobe and control will constantly exhibit where he thinks he belongs in a Great Human Pecking Order.

So, stating on a passing of lettered write exchanges, he unprotected a capital’s geographic divides:

“In such select districts as Georgetown and Chevy Chase, a scold write sell (FEderal or OLiver) has been one of a black of status.”

On a lobbyists: “The [trade] associations’ marble-slick buildings are a spill to their new roles. They still send out lobbyists who, in a crisis, can peep on a 150-watt grin or shake hands like a football captain during a reunion. But they cruise that a faintly coarse proviso of their operations. Today they are industry’s standing seekers in a broadest sense.”

* * *

Also there for anyone to see, though strangely unobserved until many years later, was Wolfe’s domestic conservatism. In an differently candid news about a frugal bureaucrat, he bemoaned “the extensive enlargement of a government.”

And in a examination of C. Wright Mills’s book on a Cuban revolution, Wolfe discharged a remarkable sociologist as one of a series of “aging leftwing American intellectuals” who welcomed Fidel Castro’s series “like a large sip of Geritol.”

James Rosen was a Washington match for Fox News when he wrote this story. Lee Ross, a connoisseur tyro during George Washington University, contributed investigate for this article.

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