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Far out, Tom Wolfe! Real buttonholes!
on April 7, 2014
When I was in college, the heroes of the journalism department were Vietnam reporters David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, and the so-called "New Journalism" reporters: Hunter Thompson, Gay Talese, and Tom Wolfe. Today, the best known is Tom Wolfe, thanks to books like "The Right Stuff." His first book was "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby" published in 1965. It's an anthology of his first magazine articles, that appeared in Esquire and other periodicals.
The magazine article that first attracted attention was "There goes [Vroom! Vroom!] That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby" about the California custom car culture. At the time, Wolfe didn't know a carburetor from a muffler, being a New Yorker without a car. However, a week in Southern California changed all that. And how. He quickly spotted the best and the brightest of the customizers was a goateed beatnik-type named "Big Daddy" Ed Roth. Roth's cross-town rival George Barris built far more custom cars than Roth, but Roth was the wild visionary--highly-intelligent, articulate, and a little crazy. Wolfe wrote about Roth with insight and understanding that the trade magazines like "Hot Rod," "Car Craft" and "Rod and Custom" apparently lacked.
It was the same thing with "The Last American Hero." Wolfe went down to North Carolina, spent a week with good-old boy NASCAR driver Junior Johnson, and returned with an insight into Johnson and Southern-style stock car racing that completely eluded magazines that covered the sport, among them "Car and Driver," and "Motor Trend."
Wolfe wrote about fashion, too. In "The Secret Vice," he told how Lyndon Johnson woke up one morning and realized that John Kennedy was not only smarter than he, but better dressed ("He dresses like some British ambassador"). Johnson zeroed in on the sleeve of Kennedy's custom-made suits, and realized the button holes on the sleeve were real: they actually buttoned and unbuttoned. The buttons on the sleeve of Johnson's off-the-rack Sears and Roebuck suits, on the other hand, were sewn on top of the fabric, like some decoration. Old Lyndon wanted real buttonholes! He flew to London (where Kennedy's suits were custom-made), walked into the first tailor he could find, and said, "Make me a suit with real buttonholes! I want to look like a British ambassador!"
All the first great magazine articles are here, including "The Fifth Beatle" about brash New York DJ Murray the K, "The Peppermint Lounge" where the Beatles twisted the night away, "Loverboy of the Bourgeoise" about Cary Grant, "The Marvelous Mouth " about Muhammad Ali, "The New Art Gallery Society," "The Nanny Mafia" and on and on. Classics, everyone. And a delight to read--and reread. As one critic put it, "Tom Wolf is a (blankety-blank) joy."