Passage: Tom Wolfe

"I've covered so many things where I didn't fit in," said writer Tom Wolfe.

Tom Wolfe 1986

Author Tom Wolfe in 1986.

Fred Vuich/AP

From hippies to astronauts, from Park Avenue soirees to Wall Street shenanigans, Wolfe somehow always found a way IN, and managed to bring his readers in, too.

Born in 1930 in Richmond, Virginia, the young Tom Wolfe was tempted to pursue a baseball career, but when that fell through settled for a Ph.D. from Yale instead.

He went into journalism, wearing scuba gear for one story for the Springfield Union in Massachusetts.

Next came the Washington Post, followed in 1962 by the New York Herald-Tribune – now long-gone, it was celebrated at the time as THE writers' paper.

From that perch he honed a vivid personal style that flouted traditional rules of reportage and typography, a style that came to be known as the "New Journalism."

He wrote non-fiction books informed by extensive reporting, coining such catch-phrases as "radical chic" ... the "me decade" ... and  "the right stuff."

Along the way he zeroed in on one quality in particular, as he told Harry Smith in a "Sunday Morning" visit back in 2006:

Smith: "In your vision of our American life, is it really just about status?"
Wolfe: "It's not just about status; it's mainly about status."

Beginning in 1987, he pursued questions of wealth and status in best-selling novels, including "The Bonfire of Vanities" and "A Man in Full" – novels that tried to capture a broad sweep of contemporary life.

And let's not forget the SUITS – the bespoke, three-piece white suits with all the trimmings that became his personal trademark:

"I started wearing them by accident," he said. "I had just arrived in New York, I'd always wanted to come here and work on a newspaper, finally got a job. So anyway, I bought a white suit for the summer. All of a sudden in 1965 I had a book coming out."

The book was "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby," which attracted notice and reviews ... and INTERVIEWERS. "And to my amazement, I'd read the article and then essentially it said, 'What a colorful man, he wears white suits.' I realized I had a substitute for a personality!"

Personality substitute or not, the white suit was just as much a part of him as his sharp powers of perception and his inimitable powers of expression.

To borrow that book title of his, he truly was A Man In Full.

Tom Wolfe was 88.

       
Story produced by Justin Hayter.