To residents of the Upper East Side, where he made his home for half a century, Tom Wolfe, who died on May 15, was immediately identifiable. Thin as a subway rail, often dressed in white, three-piece bespoke suits, he was perhaps the last wearer of spats in the 21st century. Like the Chrysler Building, which the author could see from his 11-room apartment, Wolfe was an ornate, timeless icon of New York City.
Ornate and iconic also describe his writing, which was heavy on exclamation points and wild flourishes. And so! In that way, you could think of him as the first Internet writer!! Starting as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, he went on to create the oft-imitated style of New Journalism for Esquire and New York magazine, in nonfiction books like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff, as well as in novels such as The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Though born in Virginia, Wolfe was a New York original. Vanities, probably his best known work, captured the city during the deeply dysfunctional 1980s, as self-styled “Masters of the Universe” got rich on Wall Street while areas like the Bronx barely crawled back from NYC’s financial collapse in the previous decade. Wolfe’s roving eye and sardonic wit saw all, from the way young men “pimp rolled” menacingly down the street to the “tens of thousands of hemorrhaging dollars’ worth of perfect little details” of a Park Avenue penthouse.
Fans of the writer who want to pay tribute to him in New York this week will have to be a little creative. Elaine’s, the famed East Side watering hole beloved by Wolfe and other writers of his era, closed for good in 2013. But you can still get a bite at Isle of Capri, a classic Upper East Side Italian place Wolfe considered his favorite. (Order the calamari, like he did.)
From there, stroll east to gawk at the beautiful co-op building at 541 East 72nd Street. That’s where Wolfe’s old chum and The Paris Review cofounder George Plimpton threw many of the city’s most epic parties. And if you have a cool $5.3 million lying around, the Plimptons’ five-bedroom, six-and-a-half-bath pad with two wood-burning fireplaces is for sale! There are open houses, in fact, May 19 and 20. Even if you aren’t in the market, seductive real-estate porn is guaranteed.
Next swing by the New York Public Library’s main branch on Fifth Avenue, where his papers are archived. (NYPL shelled out $2 million—supply your own exclamation points here—for 199 boxes of notes, letters, and other effects in 2013.)
Or visit the Strand, just below Union Square, where most of his works can be found in many editions. Finish the day with a bespoke cocktail at the now-hot-again Tribeca bistro The Odeon. Wolfe was known to knock back a drink or two there with younger literary lions like Jay McInerney and Christopher Hitchens. The bartenders know from cold shakers, so do yourself a favor and order what Wolfe would have: a gin martini.
Since Wolfe was known to be a homebody, the place that reflects him best is the apartment he shared with his wife, Sheila (the longtime art director of Harper’s Magazine), and their children, Alexandra, a writer for The Wall Street Journal and author of Valley of the Gods, and Tommy, a sculptor and furniture maker. And as it’s highly unlikely you’ll get invited to the art-and-antiques-filled apartment, take a virtual tour here.
As you explore Wolfe’s version of New York and think about your own experience here, keep the great writer’s words in mind: “There are still so many things I don’t know about the city,” he once told the Associated Press. “And I’d just like to see what’s out there.”