Tom Wolfe, Author of ‘The Right Stuff’ and ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities,’ Dies at 87
Tom Wolfe was best known as an author, journalist, and novelist. But in that capacity he also left a huge mark on the world of 1980s (and very early 1990s) cinema, as the writer of the books that inspired one of the most beloved and one of the most reviled films of the period. Sadly, Wolfe died on Monday in New York City. According to The New York Times, Wolfe’s death was confirmed by his agent, who said the writer had been in the hospital battling an infection. He was 87 years old.
After a stint as a newspaper reporter, Wolfe became internationally recognized as a writer of nonfiction books like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. As the Times puts it, “his use of novelistic techniques in his nonfiction, Mr. Wolfe, beginning in the 1960s, helped create the enormously influential hybrid known as the New Journalism.”
Among his most celebrated works of New Journalism was The Right Stuff, an epic 436-page chronicle of the Mercury Seven astronauts who helped launch the NASA space program. The book, first published as a serial in Rolling Stone, was later adapted to the 1983 film of the same name written and directed by Philip Kaufman. The movie was a critical and commercial success in its day, winning four Academy Awards, and its reputation has only grown over the years.
A few years later Wolfe published his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, a satire of 1980s New York City in all of its greed, racism, and excess. The book was a smash, and the film rights became one of the hottest commodities of its day. Eventually the movie was made by Brian De Palma with an all-star cast of Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith, and Bruce Willis. It was an enormous flop, and got terrible reviews. The troubled production became the subject of one of the greatest books ever written about Hollywood moviemaking, The Devil’s Candy by Julie Salamon. (A TV adaptation of Bonfire is supposedly in the works at Amazon.)
A Wolfe essay was turned into a third film (1973’s The Last American Hero), but Wolfe’s legacy will obviously be his books and articles. Still, movie fans (or at least The Right Stuff fans, and there are many of us) must acknowledge his passing today.