Honoring Tom Wolfe at the 2011 ASME Awards Ceremony
Jann S. Wenner introduces Wolfe as he is bestowed with the Creative Excellence Award by the American Society of Magazine Editors.
If there were ever a writer who deserved recognition by the magazine business for a lifetime of creative excellence, it would be Tom Wolfe. For 48 years, Tom has made his home in magazines and through his craft elevated them to new heights of excellence, creativity and importance. He has lifted us all up, and we are all in his debt.
Before starting Rolling Stone, I was awed by the anthology of articles in The Kandy-Colored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby and that masterwork of cultural investigation, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. With those two treasuries of incandescent writing, reporting, style, wit, observation, understanding – wide-eyed dispatches from what was then the edge of American culture – I began to form my understanding of what writing and reporting could be, and it began to shape my vision for a magazine.
I was a nervous young pup when I first met Tom. He was living in San Francisco and researching Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, a hilarious take on the young black and Samoan communities in the Bay Area and how they browbeat the local bureaucrats. As an initiate, or, if you will, an illuminati in the ways of Ken Kesey and the Acid Test, I was shocked, and frankly I thought he was probably lying, when he told me that he had not taken acid during his adventures with the Merry Pranksters. There was no possible way he could have so deeply understood the mysteries of LSD without having tried acid himself.
It took me years to realize that his ear was that good, his eye was that sharp and his imagination was that open, with whatever subject and scene, that of course he could penetrate the world of acidheads – just like
Chinatown, surfers, real estate barons, Wall Street, architecture, art, auto racing, brain science, Park Avenue socialites, test pilots and astronauts, auto racers . . . and most recently the world of dewy-eyed college coeds. Why not? College coeds . . . for a man in his early seventies . . . it seems just the thing to do.
Tom's ability to inhabit Charlotte Simmons circa 2004 was no less astonishing and riveting and pitch-perfect as what he had done 40 years earlier with the Merry Pranksters.
Working with Tom, starting with his first Rolling Stone assignment, in 1970, to this day, has been a pleasure of the highest order. His meticulousness as a writer, his obsession with factual accuracy and his reportorial skills are by far the finest that I have ever experienced, and whatever the term "new journalism" may mean, Tom has set the highest standards I can imagine for journalism in our times, old or new.
This all comes in as an always modest, self-effacing, charming, unfailingly polite gentleman dressed in white, sometimes off-white, sometimes a dark cream. I would never not pinch myself, walking into our offices after we moved to New York, to find Tom at work, jacket off in a collared and buttoned vest, a gold tie tack, sitting with one of our researchers or copy editors. He was writing The Bonfire of the Vanities, which we were publishing as a serial novel, a new chapter in every issue, written on deadline, the way Charles Dickens used to do it . . . way back in the day.
(We published The Bonfire of the Vanities in 1984; that year the ASME award for fiction went to Seventeen magazine. Tom wasn't even nominated.)
The first time I ever actually edited Tom was in the first installment of Brotherhood of the Right Stuff, a series on the last of the Apollo moon shots, which we assigned Tom and Annie Leibovitz. I was so nervous about suggesting he rewrite a few paragraphs. I kept hemming and hedging and barely making my point. Finally Tom benevolently saved me: "Come on, Jann, you can just say it's shit."
Editing Tom is easy: he is his own best editor, turns in finely honed, lovingly punctuated and fully fact-checked copy. He enjoys every aspect of the process, and we have never had a cross word. Tom loves talking it all through both before and as he writes. The editor's role with Tom is to gently, consistently nudge and then reach Buddha-like levels of patience as deadline draws near.
Tom, I guess, defined the New Journalism, became its most celebrated and renowned figure, and canonized it with an anthology that has become a standard J-school text. From the beginning of Rolling Stone, we aspired to be a part of that genre – long reportorial sagas, as first-person and writerly as necessary, intense in their sense of place and personality, and as I said, sagas. We followed in the footsteps of Esquire and New York magazine, and soon enough Rolling Stone became Tom's home in the early Seventies, starting with The Right Stuff.
I don't think it's possible to present this award without acknowledging the role Clay Felker played in Tom's work at the start of his career, shepherding Tom through his stylish early reporting and triumphs like Radical Chic.
Tom's subject and his study has been America. He has defined and described this country in all its wacky glory in the last part of the 20th century, and now into this new one. Seen as a whole, it's a towering cultural achievement – possibly the richest record of our times from any writer – and a body of work of incredible historical significance.
I am proud that Tom has called Rolling Stone his home for so long, that we have been privileged to work with him, and I am enormously proud tonight to present him with this honor from the American Society of Magazine Editors.