The original Wolfe of Wall Street

Tom Wolfe © Getty images
Tom Wolfe: “a distinguished dandy”

The great novelist of finance has died. His craft is the poorer for his demise.

Just as cricket was never the same when they started replacing “gentlemen” with “players”, so journalism has been ruined by an influx of teeny-boppers with smartphones. There are still some true practitioners of the journalistic craft alive, though sadly one fewer following the recent death of Tom Wolfe. Not merely an outstanding journalist, historian or writer, he was “a superstar in all three”, as Mark Lawson says in The Guardian.

In fact, he “united the belts by freely importing moves and punches from one discipline into the others” as “his fiction was reportorial, his factual writing novelistic, and his journalism cinematic and theatrical”.

Wolfe had “the ad man’s gift for the pregnant phrase”, says Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, and a knack for “the kind of unforgettable slogan that every Mad Man dreamed of creating”. He “took the potent phrase, the loaded short sentence, the startling intervention, even the wild punctuation, of Sixties advertising copy, and turned it into a kind of art”.

Arguably Wolfe’s greatest achievement, however, was that “he was a great novelist of finance – the only one that this frenzied era of moneymaking has produced”, says John Micklethwait on Bloomberg.

“Many eminent American writers have looked at the victims of Wall Street”, but Wolfe “was the first American one to look at the victors”, or the “Masters of the Universe” as Wolfe called them. His book The Bonfire of the Vanities drilled “into their lives, their hang ups and petty ambitions, enumerating their virtues and vices often literally (saying how much their clothes, apartments, and lunches cost)”. He took delight in skewering their insecurities over “going broke on $1m a year”.

The origin of that white suit

But Wolfe himself was no hair-shirted puritan, says William Cash in The Catholic Herald. When Cash met Wolfe he “was greeted by a distinguished dandy, with lank, greying Eton Flop hair, standing in the polished marble hallway”.

He “was decked out in an Edwardian three-piece, double-breasted, off-white suit. Beneath that he wore a starched white shirt with dark claret stripes, fitted with a dangerous-looking high-rise stiff white collar”. Wolfe admitted to Cash that the main reason it took him nine years to write the sequel to The Bonfire of the Vanities was the pressure of the $7.5m advance he had received.

Ironically, Wolfe’s dandyish style was originally inspired by thrift. He bought a white tweed suit to wear one summer, and spent so much money on it that he decided to just keep wearing it, says Guy Trebay in The New York Times.

Realising that the “outlandish figure he cut in meticulously fitted bespoke suits worn at the height of the free-love 1960s” made him stand out “from the journalistic pack”, he decided to make it a permanent feature. The effect of this high-wire bravura was in many ways like that of his prose. “Regardless of whether you liked it or loathed it, you have to concede it was executed perfectly.”

Tabloid money… Richard Branson meets his Waterloo

• “I’m glad the East Coast [rail] route is temporarily back in public hands,” says former Labour deputy prime minister John Prescott in the Daily Mirror. But by allowing the operators, Stagecoach and Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains, to walk away, we’re losing £2bn. By contrast, when Labour nationalised the East Coast in 2009, £1bn was returned to the taxpayer.

“Now, Transport Secretary Chris ‘Failing’ Grayling may nationalise more routes because private operators can’t run a bath let alone a buffet car.” The only way to fix this mess is to look to France, where the publicly owned SNCF runs a great service, and take back the trains. “So, au revoir, Branson. You’ve finally met your Waterloo.”

• The two Conservative policies most aired recently have been to apply national-insurance charges to working pensioners and to swipe a chunk of their wealth and redistribute it in the form of a windfall of £10,000 to every 25-year-old, says former Conservative shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe in the Daily Express. “Whoever came up with these ideas must be bone from ear to ear.”

Would the government rather have pensioners sit at home, drawing their pensions, than contribute through working? As for the second idea, it is no very great disaster if millennials can’t afford to buy a house in their 20s. “Home ownership is very desirable, but it is a long way from essential at a young age.”

• The economy is looking in rather good shape, says Rod Liddle in The Sun. “Surprisingly good shape if you’re one of those Remainer banshees who said the entire country would be worth about two bob by now — no investment, no jobs, swarms of killer bees and plagues of locusts.”

Employment is healthy, earnings are rising, inflation is down and investment is up. We are experiencing the kind of export boom we haven’t seen for a long time. And, assuming the government doesn’t “bugger it up” by keeping us in a customs union, we’ll have an entire world to trade with, free of restraint, after Brexit. “So, contrary to what you are often told, the news is all rather good for the UK.”