Tom Wolfe, Author of ‘The Right Stuff,’ Dies at 88

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Author and journalist Tom Wolfe, who wrote such indelible works as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid TestThe Bonfire of the Vanities, and The Right Stuff, died today (May 15) at 88, at a Manhattan hospital. His death was reported by his literary agent, Lynn Nesbit.

Wolfe was a constant presence on the New York social scene, always clad in one of his signature white suits.

It was Wolfe‘s 1979 book about America’s postwar research on rocket-powered aircraft, The Right Stuff, that brought him to the attention of mainstream audiences. The book centered on test pilot Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier, and subsequently on the seven Mercury astronauts chosen by NASA to pilot the nation’s first manned spaceflights. The men selected were Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton and John Glenn.

The Right Stuff was turned into a 1983 feature film starring Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager, Ed Harris as John Glenn, Scott Glenn as Alan Shepard, and Dennis Quaid as Gordon Cooper. Levon Helm also appeared as a test pilot and narrator.

Related: Sam Shepard died on July 27, 2017

Wolfe was born on March 2, 1930 in Richmond, VA. From his official biography: “He was educated at Washington and Lee (B.A., 1951) and Yale (Ph.D., American Studies, 1957) universities. In December 1956, he took a job as a reporter on the Springfield (Massachusetts) Union. In 1962 he became a reporter for the New York Herald-Tribune and, in addition, one of the two staff writers (Jimmy Breslin was the other) of New York magazine, which began as the Herald-Tribune’s Sunday supplement.

“In 1968 he published two bestsellers on the same day: The Pump House Gang, made up of more articles about life in the sixties, and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a nonfiction story of the hippie era.

“In 1979 Wolfe completed a book he had been at work on for more than six years, an account of the rocket airplane experiments of the post World War II era and the early space program focusing upon the psychology of the rocket pilots and the astronauts and the competition between them. The Right Stuff became a bestseller and won the American Book Award for nonfiction, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Harold Vursell Award for prose style, and the Columbia Journalism Award.

“In 1984 and 1985 Wolfe wrote his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, in serial form against a deadline of every two weeks for Rolling Stone magazine. It came out in book form in 1987. A story of the money-feverish 1980s in New York, The Bonfire of the Vanities was number one of the New York Times bestseller list for two months and remained on the list for more than a year, selling over 800,000 copies in hardcover. It also became the number-one bestselling paperback, with sales above two million.”

Watch the official trailer for The Right Stuff

Watch the final scene, narrated by Levon Helm

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  1. Sue Hay
    #1 Sue Hay 17 May, 2018, 08:15

    Close to the holiday season in November of 2009
    I enjoyed listening to the writer Tom Wolfe lecture in Oakland
    It was in the beautiful Music Hall of “the institution” Carnegie Museum
    After the lecture he signed books
    He sat in an oversized wing back chair
    The long table was draped in snow white linen
    Assistants (the elves) opened copies & slid them in front of his hands
    Behind him, a massive fireplace, many kinds of marble, you know the setting, sumptuous
    It did feel very much like waiting in line to see Santa
    I asked him if I could sit on his lap
    Tell him what I wanted for Christmas
    His head shot up & we had a laugh
    It was great fun

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