‘Radical Wolfe’ Review: A Documentary Pays Lively Tribute to the Writing, and Daring, of Tom Wolfe

Of all the stories and sides of Leonard Bernstein that Bradley Cooper decided to leave out of “Maestro,” the most infamous is surely the “Radical Chic” episode. In 1970, a New York magazine cover story, written by Tom Wolfe and entitled “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” spent 20,000 words describing, in delectable you-are-there detail, a party thrown by Lenny and his wife, Felicia, at their Park Avenue apartment to raise funds for the Black Panthers. Several of the Panthers were there, mingling with the swells of aristocratic liberal New York, and Wolfe captured the contradictions of that evening in a tone of such scathing perception that it was as if he’d defined the concept of bourgeois political correctness, disemboweled it, and danced on its grave, all in the same moment.

In “Radical Wolfe,” a lively, impeccably chiseled portrait of Tom Wolfe, who died in 2018 (this is the first documentary about him), we hear how Wolfe came to write that essay. He happened to be standing, by himself, in David Halberstam’s office at Harper’s when he noticed an invitation to the Bernsteins’ party for the Panthers on Halberstam’s desk. Wolfe RSVP’d (even though he hadn’t been invited) and crashed the party, hanging out in an unobtrusive chair to observe and write down everything he saw. The piece was hugely controversial, and the documentary presents several viewpoints about it. There are testaments to its brilliance. The journalist Tom Junod, an avid admirer of Wolfe’s, thinks it’s the moment that he edged into “cruelty.” Jamal Joseph, who was one of the Black Panthers released from prison as a result of funds raised by the Bernsteins that could now pay his bail money, says, “It kind of put a derisive label on good work that was happening.”

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I first read “Radical Chic” when I saw 17, and it instantly made me a Wolfe fanatic. But half a century after it was written, I would say that what’s staggering and timeless about the essay, and maybe more dangerous than ever, is that its true subject is the politics of narcissism. In mocking the Bernsteins and their set, Wolfe was really asking a question of daunting relevance: For public figures (and, in our own era, maybe for social-media crusaders who aren’t famous), where do you draw the line between caring about an issue and caring about the image you project in broadcasting how much you care about it? Which “caring” outweighs the other? That was the moral conundrum at the luscious provocative heart of “Radical Chic.” And it’s one that resonates now more than ever.

“Radical Wolfe” is only 76 minutes long, but as directed by Richard Dewey, it’s a highly entertaining movie that manages to pack in more or less every important thing you’d want to know about Tom Wolfe. He was truly a writer who revolutionized journalism, and maybe even how we think about things (the indelible catch phrases alone tell the story of his influence — the Right Stuff, the Me Decade, Masters of the Universe). Clearly, though, he had major company, and the film gives appropriate shoutouts to all the other legendary writers associated with the New Journalism (Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese), leaving out, as these lists perpetually do, a writer I think belongs in that game-changing pantheon: the film critic Pauline Kael. (Her writing was strongly influenced by Wolfe, with some of the same tossed-off-prose-as-psychoanalytic-bebop spirit.) But it was Wolfe, more than anyone, who taught journalism to dance, and in “Radical Wolfe” the story of how he did it, and the heights he rose to, makes for an irresistible watch.

The documentary is full of photographs and film footage of Wolfe, and we see how vital his look was to the Wolfe mystique. I don’t just mean the famous white suit, with its roots in the Richmond, VA, of his youth. The look began with his face — strikingly handsome, all rakish charm and amusement, with those slightly pursed lips set off by a long sweep of light-brown hair that was total Southern gentleman yet edged him, in a funny way, right into the counterculture. That was true, as well, of the suit, the old-fashioned ties, even the white shoes. To say that it was all a uniform, that it made Tom Wolfe into a “character,” is obvious and has been said for 60 years. But it was bigger than that. The look almost made him a superhero — it was as if he’d arrived from another planet. You could say that it expressed his traditional, anachronistic, conservative side, yet the whole thing was: He wasn’t anachronistic. He was hipper than the hipsters. He had feelers that allowed him to see all. And this made him a fantastic paradox.

“He was a contradictory character,” says Talese in the documentary. “You would never know, from being with Tom Wolfe in person, that same guy could write that way. Such a polite person. Such a well-mannered person. With a pen in his hand, he could be a terrorist.” That was my experience of Wolfe in college when I got to spend a couple of hours with him after picking him up at the airport for a speaking engagement. He was so mild and pleasant and upbeat, so much calmer than his writing, that you couldn’t get him to dip into that side of his personality.

The story of how Wolfe’s celebrated style — the exclamation points!! The spontaneous but knowing word salad!! — came to exist is really one for the ages, and “Radical Wolfe” tells it better than I’ve ever heard. In 1962, he was working for the New York Herald Tribune when a newspaper strike happened, leaving him out of work. He needed money, so he went to Esquire magazine and sold them on the idea of a story about the new California culture of customized hot rods. Checking himself into the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where he stayed for four weeks (running up an enormous bill), he found himself in the middle of this amazing world of “automobile expression” that he knew next to nothing about.

By the time he was done reporting it, he was still struggling to get a handle on the subject. Esquire needed to print the color pages of the article in advance (the custom-car photographs were beautiful), and Wolfe says, “I came back to New York and found myself utterly blocked. I could not write this story.” He wanted to drop the assignment, but the story was locked in; it would have cost $5,000 to $10,000 to pull it. So Byron Dobell, the editor of Esquire, said to Wolfe, “You give us your notes, and we’ll get some competent writer to put them together.”

Wolfe started typing up his notes at top speed for eight or nine hours and wound up with 50 typewritten stream-of-consciousness pages. He sent them in, and Dobell called him and said, “It’s a masterpiece.” They ran the story as is. The magazine ran Wolfe’s notes, and “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” became the paradigm for a new day in American letters.

The article “made him famous,” recalls Dobell in the documentary. And rightly so. There was a joy in Wolfe’s writing that was singular, an electric kool-aid zest that made you feel: The person who wrote this is having the time of his life. And that connected to how Wolfe presented an image of peerless confidence, as if he’d transcended the knots of neurosis that so many writers have.

The truth was more complicated. He spent most of the 1970s working on “The Right Stuff,” figuring out how to write it, how to capture the heroism of the astronauts and, at the same time, touch something more humane and dimensional beneath. In this section, Wolfe compares being a writer to having arthritis — waking up, each day, with a small pain, and that pain is the question nagging at the back of your mind, about whether you’ll be able to do it again: not just write but write well. “Radical Wolfe” is based on Michael Lewis’s 2015 Vanity Fair article “How Tom Wolfe Became…Tom Wolfe,” and Lewis, interviewed throughout the film, says that “Wolfe, when he wrote, was a bundle of anxiety. He was capable of thinking, ‘I’ll never write another good word again,’ and just suffering, by himself.”

There was a side of him that wanted to slash and burn. According to the film, this was highly influenced by his years at Yale in the late ’40s and early ’50s, where the East Coast preppies looked down on anything from the South, and he cultivated a matching contempt for their establishment elitism. You feel that spirit at work in “Radical Chic,” and in “The Painted Word,” his attack on modern art (an essay you can love even if you don’t agree with it), and in “Tiny Mummies,” his inside skewering of the culture of The New Yorker.

Those pieces would have made Mark Twain smile, but Wolfe became a richer, deeper writer with “The Right Stuff.” And in “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (1987), where he took the leap to fiction with a success as dizzying as the book itself, he sought a kind of vengeance against the establishment that was larger than any institution. He was going to show the literary world that a novel, when reported, could beat the highbrow writers at their own game. With “Bonfire,” he dared to write an ambitious novel that was great fun, and I would say in more ways than not he proved his point. He did it even more with his fantastic follow-up, “A Man in Full” (1998), at which point a trio from the old guard (Mailer, John Updike, and John Irving) came after him with swords. But their attack looked like the sour grapes it was.

“Radical Wolfe” has good chapters on Wolfe’s marriage to Sheila Berger (“a nice Jewish girl from Long Island” who worked in the art department of Esquire) and the heart attack he suffered at the age of 66, which sunk him into a depression (says Wolfe, “After the bypass operation, you’re thinking, ‘My God, I’m so mortal it’s not funny any longer'”). And while several of the commentators, like Lewis and Junod, suggest that fame, and having to keep playing the “Tom Wolfe character,” took its toll on Wolfe and impacted his work in a negative way, the movie never quite demonstrates that that’s true ­— though maybe that’s because I profoundly disagree with the collective derision that greeted his 2004 novel “I Am Charlotte Simmons.”

That book was mocked for being Wolfe slumming his way into capturing the contemporary college experience. In truth, it had a subject more profound than that of any other piece of writing Wolfe ever did. The book is about how his heroine, a small-town Southern girl who enters an elite Northern college, ends up finding herself by losing who she is — letting her own identity melt away so she can meld with the values (or lack of them) she finds. It’s a haunting parable of the 21st century, of everything that was about to arrive. In one talk-show clip we see, Wolfe says, “If you’re going to be a writer, you’ve got to stand in the middle of the track to see how fast the train goes.” That’s where he stood for more than 50 years, always seeing the train that was coming, but more than that seeing where it was going.

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