Richard Nisley

Caught Being Human
History - World Released - Nov 09, 2014

Below are reviews of three books by Tom Wolfe. Wolfe, you may recall, wrote “The Right Stuff” about the original seven Project Mercury astronauts. Among other things, Wolfe introduced the term “Radical Chic" into the English lexicon--the subject of the first review.


What Tom Wolfe did writing “Radical Chic” is what all great writers do--hold up a mirror for society to see itself. In this case, the society was Manhattan’s white liberal elites rubbing shoulders with the Black Panthers. Each time I read “Radical Chic”--and I’ve read it many times--I laugh myself to tears. It’s bizarre, absurd, outrageous, and riotously funny. But is it true? Leonard Bernstein, who comes off as callow and foolish, went to his grave claiming Tom Wolfe’s account in fact was not true. Bernstein was partly justified; after all, who wants to be characterized as a buffoon? In fact, what Wolfe did was catch Lenny in the act of being human, and that of everyone at his party.

The party was held in the privacy of Bernstein’s Park Avenue duplex. A few reporters were there, including Tom Wolfe, reporters presumably sympathetic to the cause, which was to raise money for the Black Panther legal defense fund. If Bernstein was made to look foolish, it was because his defenses were down. He was among friends, in his own house, and spoke his mind freely. That what he said appeared to outsiders as naive and a bit goofy never crossed his mind. How was he to know his words would be immortalized by a brilliant social commentator with a keen ear for the absurd? Did Wolfe capture every word that was said accurately? Probably not; he didn’t have a tape recorder. Did he quote out of context? Of course. Nonetheless, what quotes he did report were essentially accurate, according to several people who were there.

More importantly, Wolfe captured the ambiance of the evening, coupled with colorful descriptions of the participants, what they were wearing, what they said, and how they said it. Wolfe captured it all brilliantly, without having to add comment of his own. Indeed, the event spoke for itself--misguided ultra liberals attempting to find common ground with disadvantaged and radicalized inner-city black Americans who, oh-by-the-way, were advocating the violent overthrow of white capitalist America. That those with the most to lose--should such a revolution actually take place--were the white ultra-rich liberals attending the party, seemed to be lost on everyone there, which is why the party was so ridiculous in the first place. And who should end up as poster boy for this absurdity but the party’s host, Leonard Bernstein.

The world had a good laugh at Bernstein’s expense, and Wolfe had a book on the New York Times bestseller list. But did it hurt Bernstein’s career as a world-class conductor? Not at all. He was still the darling of New York concert goers, and still conducting orchestras in London, Vienna, the Netherlands, Israel, and Japan. Years later, when I began listening to classical music, Leonard Bernstein was by then among the top two or three conductors in the world; no longer the principle conductor of the New York Philharmonic, he was principle guest conductor of the vaunted Vienna Philharmonic and the famed Concertgebouw Orchestra. As important, his concert recordings of the music of Beethoven, Mahler, Gershwin, Schubert, Copland and the like were veritable best sellers. “Radical Chic” hadn’t hurt Bernstein at all, but it still annoyed him. He was human after all.

The second story, "Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers" is equally as outrageious.


When I was in college, the heroes of the journalism department were Vietnam War reporters David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, and the so-called "New Journalism" reporters: Hunter Thompson, Gay Talese, and Tom Wolfe. Today, the best known is Tom Wolfe, thanks to books like "The Right Stuff." His first book was “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” published in 1965. It's an anthology of his first magazine articles that appeared in Esquire and other periodicals.

The very first magazine article that Wolfe wrote--and that first attracted a great deal of attention--was "There goes [Vroom! Vroom!] That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” about the California custom car culture. Being a New Yorker who didn’t own a car, Wolfe didn't know a carburetor from a muffler. A week in Southern California changed all that. And how. He quickly spotted the best and the brightest of the customizers was a goateed beatnik-type named “Big Daddy” Ed Roth. Roth’s cross-town rival George Barris built many more custom cars than Roth, but Roth was the wild visionary--highly-intelligent, articulate, and a little crazy. Roth’s cars were as bold, creative and wildly avant-garde as New York’s Guggenheim Museum. Wolfe wrote about Roth with insight and understanding that the trade magazines like "Hot Rod," "Car Craft" and "Rod and Custom" apparently lacked.

It was the same thing with writing "The Last American Hero." Wolfe went down to North Carolina, spent a week with good-old boy NASCAR driver Junior Johnson, and returned with an insight into Johnson and Southern-style stock car racing that completely eluded magazines that covered the sport, among them “Car and Driver" and "Motor Trend." Wolfe’s writing was as original as it was outrageous. The world couldn’t help taking notice.

Wolfe wrote about fashion, too. In "The Secret Vice," he told how then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson woke up one morning and realized that President John Kennedy was not only smarter than he but better dressed. Kennedy’s suits were crisp, tasteful and perfectly tailored. “He looks like some British ambassador,” Johnson told friends. The Texan zeroed in on the sleeve of Kennedy's custom-made suits, and realized the button holes were real. They actually buttoned and unbuttoned. Real buttonholes! The buttons on the sleeve of Johnson's off-the-rack Sears and Roebuck suits, on the other hand, were sewn on top of the fabric, like some cheap decoration. Lyndon wanted real buttonholes, and by golly he was going to have them! He flew to London (where Kennedy's suits were custom-made), walked into the first tailor’s shop he could find, and said, "Make me look like a British ambassador!"

All the first great magazine articles are here, including "The Fifth Beatle" about brash New York DJ Murray the K, "The Peppermint Lounge" where the Beatles twisted the night away, "Loverboy of the Bourgeoise" about Cary Grant, "The Marvelous Mouth " about Muhammad Ali, "The New Art Gallery Society," "The Nanny Mafia" and on and on. Classics, everyone. And a flat-out joy to read--and reread.


Before Tom Wolfe turned to writing novels, he was a story-teller using facts as his medium, insightful, irreverent, and funny. Take the following, about a meeting between architects Walter Gropius and Frank Lloyd Wright, as recounted in “From Bauhaus to Our House.”

Walter Gropius was from the new school of the “International Style,” unadorned glass-and-steel buildings, while Frank Lloyd Wright was from the Chicago School of Louis Sullivan and the traditional Beaux-Arts style. Gropius was new to America, teaching at Harvard, while Wright’s career had been slumping for the better part of a decade. Gropius was in Wisconsin to lecture at the University and anxious to see some of Wright’s work, in this case the first of his “Usonian” houses under construction. Gropius went to the job site and who should arrive in his red Lincoln Zephyr but Frank Lloyd Wright. Gropius walked to his car, put his head in the car window and said, “Mr. Wright, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I have always admired your work.”

Wright didn’t smile or offer his hand or even get out of the car. He merely turned his head ever so slightly toward the face at the window and said out of the side of his mouth, “Herr Gropius, you’re a guest of the university here. I just want to tell you that they’re as snobbish here as thy are at Harvard, only they don’t have a New England accent.” That said, he turned to his driver and said, “Well, we have to get on, Edgar.” Wright settled back, and the red Zephyr sped off, leaving Gropius in a cloud of dust.

Wright, obviously, was not impressed with Walter Gropius and his kind: Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Josef Albers, and Jacobus Oud, who were invading his territory. What were they but famous architects who did little or no building, other than government work? Wright, on the other hand, was a working stiff with bills to pay and a family to feed, who had been building structures since before the turn of the century. The guiding philosophy behind the International was “less is more.” But to Wright, “less is a bore.” Wright wanted “more”--more cornices, pilasters, spindles, stained glass, carved glass, custom iron work, carved woodwork, carved stone work, arches, chandeliers, sconces, and recessed ceilings. The International Style, on the other hand, was about straight lines, right angles, and simple materials (concrete, aluminum, glass, stucco), with nothing handcrafted; everything was machine made. The attraction of the “International Style” in America was that it was cheap, easily reproduced, and always within budget. Wright’s architecture, on the other hand, was costly, difficult to build and impossible to budget because price overruns were common.

Wolfe's book is about the International Style that dominated American architecture after World War II, but it's the stories (like the preceding) that makes this short book rich and a joy to read. It isn't so much that Wolfe makes fun of architects as expose many of their ideas as idiotic. Take the International Style. It was "anti-bourgeoisie." The bourgeoisie were, of course, the middle-class, and anything middle-class was to be avoided like the plague. Why? Because the middle-class were purveyors of capitalism, and capitalism was the enemy of socialism, which at the time was in favor with the artistic and academic elite. Since pitched roofs and cornices represented "crowns" of the old nobility, which the bourgeoisie imitated, they had to go. Therefore, flat roofs were the new style, making clean right angles with the building facades. Indeed, the International Style was about "functionalism," the code word for anti-bourgeoisie. Never mind that flat roofs were impractical in Germany where overnight snowfall could be a foot or more, making water leaks inevitable. How about the furniture they designed for these buildings? The furniture was such that it cut off circulation to the legs and would pitch you face forward onto the floor if sat on improperly. Sure, it was uncomfortable and a little hazardous, but, hey, it was NOT bourgeoisie!

After World War I, young architects with this mind-set gathered in compounds across Europe, like Gropius's Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany. Cut-off from the outside world, they lived like medieval monks while developing new habitats they called "worker housing”: plain, simple, relatively inexpensive, impersonal. Ugly, you bet, but easy to price and inexpensive to build. The problem was nobody liked it, and commissions were. Were these architects discouraged? Not at all. They lectured, designed buildings that were rarely built, and wrote books that become required reading in universities.

When Hitler took power, architects like Gropius were persona-non-grata and made a beeline for the safety of the United States. And wouldn’t you know it? In the U.S. they found work immediately. Gropius was made head of the school of architecture at Harvard. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy opened the New Bauhaus, which evolved into the Chicago Institute of Design. Josef Albers opened a rural Bauhaus in the hills of North Carolina, at Black Mountain College. And Mies van der Rohe was installed as dean of architecture at the Armour Institute in Chicago.

Within three years, the International Style changed the course of American architecture. It was not so much the design of the buildings as the system employed to build them: erecting buildings the way Henry Ford built the Model T, with everything standardized and prefitted. It was after all, "worker housing" they were constructing, thrown up 30, 40 and 50 stories high, in the heart of Manhattan and in major cities across America. And where was Frank Lloyd Wright while the Germans were filling the landscape with cookie-cutter box buildings? Designing buildings the way he always had--tastefully and expensively. In fact, Wright's best years coincided with the emergence of the International Style, as possibly a reaction to it. The Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan and Johnson Wax Building in Wisconsin are prime example. For more, read Wolfe's engaging little book.

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