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In Memoriam: Tom Wolfe (1930 – 2018)

The journalist and writer Tom Wolfe died on 14 May aged 88. He is survived by his wife Sheila (Berger) Wolfe, a graphic designer and former art director of Harper’s Magazine, and their two children, Alexandra Wolfe, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, and Tommy Wolfe, a sculptor and furniture designer.

The New York Times reports Tom Wolfe’s least-forgiven and most-wounding foray. In 1970 he mocked what he termed New York’s “radical-chic”. This had been prompted by a fund-raising party given for the Black Panthers by Leonard Bernstein, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and his wife, the Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre, in their 13-room Park Avenue penthouse. The guests were the Bernstein’s rich liberal and mostly famous friends. How very remarkably on-target that attack was – and how infectiously well and fast that chic travelled. At that period, across the pond in London, well-meaning pre-eminent thespians like Vanessa Redgrave rattled the revolutionists’ tin under the noses of artists like R. B. Kitaj. As the designer of UK New Left publications – first The Black Dwarf and then Idiot International – we, along with Jean Genet and a Parisian Leftist called Castro, attended a dinner given in the marble-floored, art-rich (Mondrians, Bellmers…) Paris apartment of the novelist, polemicist and publisher of L’Idiot International, Jean-Edern Hallier and his Italian heiress wife, Anna. The guests of honour were a group of visiting Black Panthers, lead by (the beautiful) Connie Matthews, who would later be killed in a police shoot-out in the United States. The books in the Halliers apartment had been rebound in white leather, with gold-tooled lettering and they were displayed on shelves made of polished black lignum vitae, the hardest, densest wood that makes the best truncheons, the most wind-resistant cricket balls and that is used as bearings for ships propeller shafts. This apartment, with its live-in servants was not, however, where “the real” Jean-Edern Hallier lived. He once told me that his true self was to be found in a small, occasionally used bed-sit furnished only with a single bed and a Che poster.

Above, Tom Wolfe as photographed in New York in 1968 by Sam Falk for The New York Times

Best known for his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe blew the whistle on pretentious ideas-led, art critics-sanctione