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An Example of a Radical Chic

A few years ago whilst we were spending the summer at my daughter’s home in the Hamptons in Long Island, my son in law, Peter Robison,1 and my eldest daughter Edita Maria hosted a dinner in honor of the well-known writer Tom Wolfe, who is an innovator, journalist, and prolific critical writer who did not hesitate in making fun of his literary adversaries and the hypocrisy of upper East Side Manhattan.  His wife Sheila also attended.

The eccentric but brilliant Tom Wolfe showed up in his normal attire, a spotless three piece white suit, a striped silk shirt, a bright handkerchief hanging from his breast pocket and his traditional white shoes.  He made sure of giving the impression of being a “Radical Chic,” a man that formed part of the “Me Decade.”  In every respect, he was a charming man, and, contrary to the first impression one may have of him, he was unpretentious in his conversation and modest at all times.2

The  Man in White, as he was often called, wore in the winter–in addition to his double breasted white suit with a wide damask tie skewed with a fancy cravat pin– a royal blue overcoat that VOGUE magazine considered “just straight flamboyant from lapel to hem.”  As leader of the New Journalism, Tom Wolfe combined drama with flashes of fiction.3 Once in 1966, when asked about the state of contemporary journalism, he replied that “the idea of what is news today – what people in power are doing – is still a 19th century concept.”4 He often described himself as neo-pretentious and certainly mannered, but at the same time also brought ante-bellum dignified elegance to Manhattan.5

This innovative and avid writer, in spite of his close connections with the social and literary circles of New York, was quick to criticize the hypocrisy that prevailed in the inner circle that surrounded him and formed part of his life.  He made many enemies in his life, but at the same time, the admirers of his writing skills were abundant. His books Bonfire of Vanities and the Right Stuff later became popular motion pictures.  

I was greatly impressed with his brief and interesting book The Painted Word. Although I personally don’t agree with all of his criticism of modern art, he did give me many insights which cannot easily be discarded.

In the few hours spent with Tom Wolfe over dinner, I learned so much about Modern Art that made me rethink my approach to Modern Painting, although my wife Edita and I still enjoyed the works we had at homefrom artists such as the Cuban painter Wilfredo Lam who revived the enduring Afro-Cuban spirit and culture; the Chilean Roberto Matta, identified with the Surrealist International Movement; and the Colombian Fernando Botero, well-known for his inflated human and animal forms. We briefly discussed the eccentricities of the Spanish Surrealist painter Salvador Dali.6

In the Edwardian era, it was assumed that any well educated person had to visit, at least once, the major cultural centers of Europe.7 What a wonderful and instructive experience did my parents provide me when they wanted me to be imbued with a classical education8 and took me to the great art galleries of Europe from London and Paris to Madrid and Florence — opportunities that I will never forget!  They provided me with all the means possible to reach this goal.

In later years, I continued the same family tradition with Edita; enjoying the sight of the marvelous masterpieces exhibited in the Winter Palace (The Hermitage) in St. Petersburg and my favorite ones of the Alte Pinakothek ,  the Pinakotheker Moderne in Munich, Bavaria.  However, to widen my educational experience and to get better acquainted with cultures that differ from the ones that form part of our European heritage, we took advantage of the fact that two of our children,  Pedro and Conchita,  were living in Japan in order to visit them and take several trips to China and Australia.  We thoroughly enjoyed these family trips which strengthened our family bonds of love.   

I am extremely grateful to Tom Wolfe for communicating personally to Edita and me his insights into the “bonfire” of social frivolity and his broad knowledge of contemporary art, as analyzed in simple terms easily understood by the layman, in his book The Painted Word.9  Te New York Times claimed that it was “the most successful piece of social criticism to date” (1975).10

Before putting an end to this brief article, I would like to express my thanks to Peter Robinson for having hosted this wonderful dinner in honor of Tom Wolfe. It was a memorable evening which Edita and I thoroughly enjoyed.  It was fascinating for me to meet the leader of the New Journalism in the 1960s. He was able to combine drama with a dash of fiction in Wall Street. He wrote about the LSD crowd in America and the police holding-pens of the Bronx, just as well as of the magnates in Wall Street and the upper levels of high society in Manhattan’s East Side.  His book The Bonfire of the Vanities describes in a real, but not offensive way, the degree of superficiality and lack of real meaning in life that was gradually corrupting large sectors of American society.

On the contrary, his book The Right Stuff describes America’s heroism in the search for truth. It represents the sacrifice and willingness of the astronauts to voluntarily accept the danger of a space flight.  He likens the astronauts to single combat warriors.  In the foreword of a new edition of his book published in 1963, he wrote that his book “grew out of some ordinary curiosity of what makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle and wait for someone to light the fuse.” 

The Founding Fathers of our nation would rejoice with the knowledge that the spirit and heroism of 1776 still exists in the hearts and minds of America. The patriotism characterized by the example of the astronauts who, for the first time in history, walked on the moon will never be forgotten. Thanks, Tom, for having written such an inspiring book and thank you, Peter, for inviting Edita and me to participate in one of the most enjoyable and instructive evenings that I have experienced in recent years. 

1. Peter Robinson was a speech writer for President Reagan.  He was the one who wrote for President Reagan the famous speech in Berlin: “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down this Wall.”

2. Ever since I was an eight year old boy at St. Edmunds College boarding school in Hertfordshire, England, my parents always taught me not to let power, wealth, or social standing go to my head and try to be as humble and modest as humanly possible.

3. See: “Tom Wolfe died on May 14th,” London: The Economist, May 26, 2018.  See also Deirdre Carmody and William Grimes, “Tom Wolfe, 88, ‘New Journalist’ With Electric Style and Acid Pen, Dies,” New York Times, May 15, 2018.

4. Hamish Bowler, “Tom Wolfe:  Remembering the Iconic Style of the ‘Man in the White Suit,'” VOGUE Magazine, May 15, 2018.

5. In the Victorian era, whatever the Prince of Wales (Bertie), later King Edward VII, opined about fashion had the force of law.  His son King George V agreed and never wavered from that law until his death in 1936. The “nouveaute” wasto leave the lower button undone on a waistcoat.  Apparently it served the purpose of assisting his ever-expanding stomach.  

6. It is rumored that sometimes he received journalists and reporters completely naked in the bathtub at his home.  I was not able to confirm the veracity of this eccentricity.

7. “Until a man acquires some knowledge of another culture, he cannot be said to be educated, since the whole outlook is so conditioned by his own social environment that he does not realize its limitations. He is provincial in time if not in place, and he almost inevitably tends to accept the standards and values of his own society as absolute. The widening of the intellectual horizon by initiation into a different world of culture was indeed the most valuable part of the old classical education.”  Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1961. p. 86.

8. See Henry Cardinal Newman, “The Idea of a University” in Newman Reader, Part III, The Mission of Education, New York, Image Books,1964.

9. “Realism does not lack its partisans, but it does rather conspicuously lack a persuasive theory.  And given the nature of our intellectual commerce with works of art, to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial – the means by which our experience of individual works is joined to our understanding of the values they signify.” Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word, New York: Picador, 1975  p.2.

10. The Saint Cure D’Ars when asked which was the first virtue he answered:  “C‘est l’humilté et la deuxième, l’humilité et la troisième l’humilité.” Apparently this virtue was often lacking in many pre-World War II New York social circles: nothing new in the history of mankind.