Have White Suit, Will Travel

Tom Wolfe arrives to the Tribeca Film Festival Awards Show at Tribeca Performing Arts Center on April 30, 2005 in New York (Photo by Brad Barket/)
Getty Images/Brad Barket
The guy who comes up with the titles and catch phrases for our times: "good old boy," "radical chic," "me decade," "the right stuff." If the zeitgeist has an author, it's Tom Wolfe.

He's a dandy in a white suit, whose recent novel would make a libertine blush.

Wolfe's "I Am Charlotte Simmons" is the story of naïve, straight-A virgin, who lands a spot in her academic utopia: an elite, fictional university where academics, it turns out, are a mere footnote to partying and promiscuity, CBS Sunday Morning contributor Harry Smith details.

"It all gets down to egotism," Wolfe says. "And as Charlotte is a very egotistical young lady, she may be pure. She may be unsophisticated, but she's highly ambitious. She wants to be a star.

"And so she assumes it's the life of a mind she's looking for. But then she gets to college. And she realizes that this life of a mind doesn't give you any stardom at least not at first. But she finds out that what does make a young woman a star is having a cool boyfriend. And if the cool boyfriend also happens to be a, a famous athlete, for example, that's all the better," Wolfe explains.

Can Charlotte resist temptation? Or is corruption the inevitable reality to which each of us succumbs? President Bush found Charlotte provocative and was said to be recommending it to friends.

Wolfe spent months "researching" Charlotte at universities across the country. Wolfe says he shunned disguises during his probe and wore his usual white suit. He says, "I wasn't going to fit in no matter what. So I would dress like this, but with a navy jacket. I didn't come in -- the whole white rig is showboating I figured."

Asked why at age 75 he took an interest in college life, Wolfe says he was fueled by those who thought his quest for understanding was crazy.

"They said, 'You're not going to get close to, to anybody.' But I -- it didn't bother me all that much. I've covered so many things where I didn't fit in," Wolfe says.

He didn't fit in with the Mercury Seven astronauts of "The Right Stuff" nor with the Wall Street traders in "The Bonfire of the Vanities." Or in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Wolfe, a drug-free tee-totaling 30-something, writing about acid-tripping hippie Ken Kesey and his merry pranksters.

And he was a lone conservative among the wealthy liberals of "Radical Chic."

Wolfe explains his keen, unique writing eye, saying, "I have to switch on -- a switch in my, consciously -- in my brain to do that. When I wrote 'The Bonfire of the Vanities' I decided to have a party scene, a big, you know, a big social party scene. And I'd been to a number of parties like that. So, I think I don't have to do any work. I'll just recall what these things are like and only to discover that I didn't know anything distinctive about them at all.