Urbanities

Michael Anton
Tom Wolfe’s California
In the Golden State, the great writer first chronicled the social changes that would transform America.
Autumn 2012
Wolfe (right) with the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia (center) and the band's manager, Rock Scully, in 1966 San Francisco
TED STRESHINSKY/CORBIS
Wolfe (right) with the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia (center) and the band’s manager, Rock Scully, in 1966 San Francisco

Tom Wolfe is most identified with New York City, for good reason. He has lived and worked in Manhattan since the early 1960s, and New York dominates his writing the way London looms for Dickens. But Wolfe has never been afraid to venture from his home turf—this fall’s Back to Blood, an exploration of Miami, is a case in point—and his true literary second home is California. Over the course of his career, Wolfe has devoted more pages to the Golden State than to any setting other than Gotham. In his early years, from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s, the ratio was almost one-to-one. More to the point, the core insights on which he built his career—the devolution of style to the masses, status as a replacement for social class, the “happiness explosion” in postwar America—all first came to him in California. Even books in which the state figures not at all are informed by Wolfe’s observations of the West. Without California, there would be no Wolfe as we know him—no Bonfire, no Right Stuff, no Radical Chic or Me Decade, none of the blockbuster titles or era-defining phrases that made him world-famous.

And without Wolfe, we would not understand California—or the California-ized modern world. At the time of his most frequent visits, the state was undergoing a profound change, one that affects it to this day and whose every aspect has been exported throughout the country and the globe. Both have become much more like California over the last 40 years, even as California has drifted away from its old self, and Wolfe has chronicled and explained it all.

It started by accident. Wolfe was working for the New York Herald Tribune, which, along with eight other local papers, shut down for 114 days during the 1962–63 newspaper strike. He had recently written about a custom car show—phoned it in, by his own admission—but he knew there was more to the story. Temporarily without an income, he pitched a story about the custom car scene to Esquire. “Really, I needed to make some money,” Wolfe tells me. “You could draw a per diem from the newspaper writers’ guild, but it was a pittance. I was in bad shape,” he chuckles. Esquire bit and sent the 32-year-old on his first visit to the West—to Southern California, epicenter of the subculture.

Wolfe saw plenty on that trip, from Santa Monica to North Hollywood to Maywood, from the gardens and suburbs of mid-’60s Southern California to its dung heaps. He saw so much that he didn’t know what to make of it all. Returning to New York in despair, he told Esquire that he couldn’t write the piece. Well, they said, we already have the art laid in, so we have to do something; type up your notes and send them over. “Can you imagine anything more humiliating than being told, ‘Type up your notes, we’ll have a real writer do the piece’?” Wolfe asks. He stayed up all night writing a 49-page memo—which Esquire printed nearly verbatim.

It’s a great tale, but, one fears, too cute to be strictly true. I ask him about it point-blank. “Oh, yes, that’s exactly what happened,” he says. “I wrote it like a letter, to an audience of literally one person”—Esquire managing editor Byron Dobell—“with all these block phrases and asides. But at some point in the middle of the night, I started to think it might actually be pretty good.”

That piece—“The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby”—represents the first time that Wolfe truly understood and was able to formulate the big idea that would transform him from an above-average feature writer into the premier cultural chronicler of our age. Those inhabiting the custom car scene were not rich, certainly not upper-class, and not prominent— indeed, they were almost invisible to society at large. Wolfe described his initial attempt to write the story as a cheap dismissal: “Don’t worry, these people are nothing.” He realized in California that he had been wrong. These people were something, and very influential within their own circles, which were far larger than anyone on the outside had hitherto noticed.

“Max Weber,” Wolfe tells me, “was the first to argue that social classes were dying everywhere—except, in his time, in England—and being replaced by what he called ‘status groups.’ ” The term improves in Wolfean English: “Southern California, I found, was a veritable paradise of statuspheres,” he wrote in 1968. Beyond the customizers and drag racers, there were surfers, cruisers, teenyboppers, beboppers, strippers, bikers, beats, heads, and, of course, hippies. Each sphere started off self-contained but increasingly encroached on, and influenced, the wider world.

“Practically every style recorded in art history is the result of the same thing—a lot of attention to form plus the money to make monuments to it,” Wolfe wrote in the introduction to his first book. “But throughout history, everywhere this kind of thing took place, China, Egypt, France under the Bourbons, every place, it has been something the aristocracy was responsible for. What has happened in the United States since World War II, however, has broken that pattern. The war created money. It made massive infusions of money into every level of society. Suddenly classes of people whose styles of life had been practically invisible had the money to build monuments to their own styles.” If Wolfe’s oeuvre has an overarching theme, this is it.

After the strike ended, the Herald Tribune created New York, a Sunday magazine to compete with The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. Impressed by the Esquire piece, the new magazine’s editor, Clay Felker, assigned Wolfe a series, The New Life Out There—“out there” meaning California. “There was a real provincialism about the title, like that famous Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover”—the one showing New York City in great detail and the rest of the country as a comically tiny sliver—“as if the West Coast were some exotic frontier,” Wolfe laughs. Between 1963 and 1970, he made frequent trips to California and lived in San Francisco for nearly a year. His visits tapered off after that, but he never stopped going there, both for research trips and for book tours.

His California texts may be sorted into three tranches. The first consists of the early essays, most of them written for New York and later collected into books. Then there are sections of later works not primarily set in California, chiefly The Right Stuff—his 1979 treatment of the first American astronauts—and his Atlanta-set novel A Man in Full (1998). The third tranche and the linchpin of the oeuvre is The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)—Wolfe’s “nonfiction novel” about the counterculture, his longest treatment of California by far, and the most important book about the state since Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona of 1884.

Jackson had set out to do for the mission Indians what Harriet Beecher Stowe had done for the slaves. It didn’t work out that way, but readers were mesmerized by her descriptions of the salubrious climate, bounteous landscape, and relaxed culture. Ramona, which defined California’s image for more than half a century, is at once a romance, a protest tract, and a travel brochure packaged into an enduring myth. The California that Tom Wolfe describes, though, is real, right down to the dirt clods in the unpaved, chain-link-fenced parking lots of windswept, sunbaked, industrial Contra Costa County. That it often seems too fantastical to be true is testament as much to the wacky character of the state as to Wolfe’s choice of particular subjects. Wolfe’s focus in California is almost exclusively on the middle class, from the strip malls of North Hollywood at the low end to the beaches of La Jolla at the upper. But the thing about California’s middle class, especially at the time Wolfe began his investigations, is that it’s weird.

A chicken-or-egg question I have always pondered is: Are celebrities driven by a rare inner weirdness that pushes them to seek fame, or is there something weird in all of us that only fully reveals itself if we become able to indulge ourselves? Think of Michael Jackson, who moved from Gary, Indiana, to Encino in 1970 at 11, built his Neverland Ranch in the Santa Ynez Mountains, and died in the Holmby Hills at 50. Wolfe’s exploration of California’s middle class answers this question.

There is, in California, an inherent strangeness that has always attracted loners, dreamers, and outliers. Hemmed in on all sides by mountains, forests, deserts, and the sea, California is an island in every sense but the literal, with its own distinct climate, air, soil, flora, and fauna. Geographically and culturally, California is a world unto itself.

The first white man to lay eyes on it was the Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who anchored in San Diego Bay on September 28, 1542. It was more than 200 years before a party of religious ascetics finally returned, bent on saving souls. The first settlement they built, Mission San Diego de Alcalá, was 1,500 miles from the colonial capital of Mexico City, a four-month trek on foot through treacherous desert. Over the next 50 years, the Franciscan friars managed to crawl their way north, one mission at a time, 21 in all, each a day’s walk from the next. And walking was necessary, at least northbound. The prevailing winds on the coast blow from the north-northwest, and the California Current streams south virtually every day of the year. Sailing “downhill” is, to this day, a breeze and a blast; north is a miserable business. Rather than beating relentlessly upwind, the Spanish in Mexico would head to their more important possession, the Philippines, all the way across the Pacific, and recross the ocean to visit California on the return trip. Well before the term was invented to describe Australia in the age of sail, California was afflicted by the “tyranny of distance.” Only the mildness of the weather and the abundance of the land mitigated what was, in every other respect, a hard, lonely life. Naturally, it drew a certain kind of man—and they were all men.

The Gold Rush drew a different type of man. (Though this time, 10 percent of the migrants were women, many of them disreputable.) Religious fanaticism gave way to greed, lust, treachery, and vaulting ambition to have it all. The ’49ers were Herculean workers but more interested in enjoying the trappings of civilization than in building one. That task fell to the farmers, grocers, carpenters, merchants, entrepreneurs, and other skilled tradesmen who followed to make a living and build fortunes on the miners’ lucre and on their failures. This combination of eminent practicality and pie-in-the-sky fabulism still shapes the character of the state.

Once the gold was gone, yet another kind of man began to arrive. One might say that these men formed California’s first significant cohort of stable adults: low-church Protestants from the Midwest and Great Plains who started coming even before World War I and mostly settled in the Southland and in the Santa Clara Valley. The next war, the war that “created money,” brought the second, and last, wave of adults to California. They came to build the arsenal of democracy or passed through San Francisco or San Diego on their way to fight in the Pacific. Hundreds of thousands decided to settle in California. Millions more joined them to partake in arguably the greatest and longest economic boom in human history.

These people, now revered as the “greatest generation,” built modern California. Wolfe’s essay “Two Young Men Who Went West,” the finest short history of the early Silicon Valley ever written, details the cultural baggage that Intel cofounder Robert Noyce brought with him to California from Grinnell, Iowa, after the war:

Noyce was like a great many bright young men and women from Dissenting Protestant families in the Middle West after the Second World War. They had been raised as Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, United Brethren, whatever. They had been led through the Church door and prodded toward religion, but it had never come alive for them. Sundays made their skulls feel like dried-out husks. So they slowly walked away from the church and silently, without so much as a growl of rebellion, congratulated themselves on their independence of mind and headed into another way of life. Only decades later, in most cases, would they discover how, absentmindedly, inexplicably, they had brought the old ways along for the journey nonetheless. It was as if . . . through some extraordinary mistake . . . they had been sewn into the linings of their coats!

No single paragraph—written by Wolfe or anyone else—better explains the paradox of modern California. It was built from scratch, overnight, at the farthest reaches of the world, land’s end for Western civilization, on a foundation of virtues cultivated and nourished in Old Europe and the American heartland. But something in the character of the place and of the people who chose it drives them restlessly to seek (or invent) new virtues, new modes of living, to sweep aside all that has come before and start over, unencumbered. Writer Virginia Postrel has commented on the extraordinary sensation of freedom that washed over her when she moved from Boston to Los Angeles. Arnold Schwarzenegger, arriving from Austria in 1968, was struck by how “everyone could come here and have opportunities.” The old rules didn’t apply in California. In his Esquire piece, Wolfe wrote that George Barris, the Giotto of the car customizers, “was making next to nothing at first but he never remembers feeling hard up, nor does any kid out there today I talked to. They have a magic economy or something.” High expectations flow inexorably. And for a while, California had an uncanny knack for meeting those expectations. In hindsight, it’s clear that the virtues sewn into the linings of those coats were at least as instrumental as any quality inherent in the land.

All that money, freedom, and sense of limitless possibility have the same effect on California writ large as they do on people who rocket overnight from steelworker’s son to superstar. Out pours everyone’s inner weird.

And enter Tom Wolfe. The car customizers were just the first revelers he noticed. He soon grew acquainted with their many orbiters, wannabes, hangers-on, and fellow travelers. These various “statuspheres” at first glance seemed distinct, but once investigated proved to be linked. The unifying element was, for lack of a better term, teen culture. In California, he found “a kind of Plato’s Republic for teen-agers,” he wrote.

There was, of course, the music. Record producer Phil Spector, born in the Bronx but raised in Los Angeles, earned millions before his 21st birthday by catering (or pandering) to the tastes of teenagers with money to spare. He wrote and produced the soundtrack not just to an era but to an entirely new way of life—born, developed, and consumed in California, and finally exported to all points on the map in the form of hits by the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers, and Ike and Tina Turner, to name a few. Wolfe profiled Spector in a 1964 story called “The First Tycoon of Teen.” Spector’s own inner weird, by the way, was dark: later in life, he got into the habit of picking up women at West Hollywood nightclubs and limo-ing them back to his Alhambra mansion. Several allege that he held them at gunpoint to prevent their leaving. In 2003, one of them was shot dead in his home, and six years later, a Los Angeles County jury convicted him of second-degree murder. He is currently serving a 19-year sentence in Corcoran State Prison in the Central Valley.

I ask Wolfe, who spent a great deal of time with Spector at the height of his fame in the mid-1960s, if he had followed the trial. “I did, a little, though I had not spoken to him in years. When I knew him, I felt almost affectionate toward him. He had a lot of problems, all stemming from his high school days and being a shrimp. People gave him a hard time everywhere he went. . . . One time, we were having a drink in the Plaza Hotel”—this would have been in 1964—“and in those days his long hair still stood out. A woman kept staring at him and finally came up to him and demanded, ‘What’s your problem?’ He looked at her and said, ‘Premature ejaculation’ without missing a beat.”

Wolfe’s next big idea for The New Life Out There was to examine another type of “tycoon of teen,” the young men getting rich selling the surfing lifestyle. He started hanging around the big kahunas of Newport Beach, Balboa, and Dana Point. One of them suggested that an even better story lay farther south, in ritzy La Jolla, one of America’s top surf spots. “That was the first time I ever heard of teenagers living communally, away from their parents, but in the same town,” Wolfe says.

The result was the classic essay “The Pump House Gang.” The surf tycoons made it into the piece, but Wolfe’s focus was on the middle- and upper-middle-class kids, most of them younger than 20 and all under the “horror dividing line” of 25, whose lives revolved around Windansea Beach in La Jolla. The titular structure is a concrete sewage pump just above the beach. “Did you know there was a monument to me in La Jolla?” Wolfe asks me. “Somebody spray-painted TOM WOLFE IS A DORK on the side of the pump house. But it was cleaned up years ago.”

One theme of “The Pump House Gang” is age segregation—voluntary and otherwise. In Southern California, Wolfe wrote,

there are old people’s housing developments, private developments, in which no one under 50 may buy a home. There are apartment developments for single persons 20 to 30 only. The Sunset Strip in Los Angeles has become the exclusive hangout of the 16 to 25 set. In 1966 they came close to street warfare to keep it that way, against the police who moved in to “clean up.” . . . The Pump House Gang lived as though age segregation were a permanent state, as if it were inconceivable that any of them would ever grow old, i.e., 25. I foresaw the day when the California coastline would be littered with the bodies of aged and abandoned Surferkinder, like so many beached whales.

This refusal to grow up—which Wolfe saw 50 years ago, when the boomers were still children—is another of California’s exports. Replace “Surferkinder” with “hippies,” and you’re describing a problem several orders of magnitude larger.

I didn’t know about the Pranksters when I went out to interview Kesey,” Wolfe says about Acid Test, the book that made him a superstar, and its whimsical cast of characters centered on author Ken Kesey. “All I knew was that this very promising young novelist was in jail on serious drug charges after fleeing to Mexico. It sounded like a good piece for The New Life Out There.”

The first thing Wolfe noticed when he got to the jail in San Mateo County was Kesey’s “following of the faithful. They were hanging around the jail, all wearing white jumpsuits, like mechanics wear, with American flags sewn on them, and talking about Kesey with this . . . reverence.” The sheriff gave Wolfe a paltry ten minutes with the author, so Wolfe stayed in California until Kesey was out on bail and then “went with him and his followers back to this garage in skid row”—Harriet Street, south of Market, in San Francisco—“that they called ‘the Warehouse,’ where they lived communally. He sat in the middle of this big open space and they all gathered ’round. He started speaking in parables that made no sense to me but which they treated as the most profound things they had ever heard. That’s when I realized they were a band of believers, this was a religion.”

What Wolfe witnessed was a kind of modern-day preaching of Jesus to the Apostles. The Pranksters were dissolute and frivolous, of course, but they had an enormous influence. The mainstreaming of “alternative lifestyles”—the drug culture, communalism, environmentalism, localism, Eastern spiritualism, the “Yoga-Industrial Complex,” experimental art—flowed out from Kesey’s compound to the rest of California, then to the country, and finally throughout the Western world.

At its best, the hippie Great Awakening gave birth to a heightened appreciation of nature, philosophy, and fine living that sanded some of the hard edges off mid-century California’s rigid pragmatism and restored a sense of grace and ease to the land, or at least the coast. Most of those who lived it, though not all, settled down after waking from their post–Acid Test stupor. David Brooks, who has learned much from Wolfe, gently mocks the institutionalization of hippie culture as “boboism” even as he shows how it has done much good.

But there was a dark side. Wolfe mentions whole towns where “stranded hippies” who refuse or are unable to move on “make money by doing yard work.” For every Alice Waters—the local-foods restaurateur who’s managed to parlay the spirit of that age into a beneficent movement and successful business—hundreds more end up as burned-out wrecks. The Hensley family in A Man in Full are, in effect, Wolfe’s second epilogue to Acid Test, like the captions at the end of movies that tell you what happened to the characters afterward. Conrad—the straitlaced, hardworking son of two Haight-Ashbury wastrels—is a reactionary in the precise sense, rebelling against the disorder of his parents’ lives by becoming everything they are not.

In The Right Stuff, similarly, the test pilots of Muroc Field—later Edwards Air Force Base—in California’s high desert are the Pranksters’ mirror image. The military culture that Wolfe describes suffused California before the end of the Cold War, when base closings and the decimation of the aerospace industry bled it white. Here, the old Protestant virtues thrived, sewn into the linings of the soldiers’ uniforms.

Wolfe’s next book after Acid Test was the great tour de force Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970). The titular radicals were the Black Panthers, founded in Oakland, California, four years earlier. That this anti-American group was welcomed into the bosom of the American establishment that it wanted to destroy was naturally treated by Wolfe as a farcical fad.

Wolfe’s friend Harvey Mans- field once remarked that you haven’t understood any paragraph in Machiavelli until you have found something funny in it. It’s unnecessary to look for the comedy in Wolfe; it will find you, quickly, and never let up. However, you haven’t understood any passage in Wolfe until you have found the seriousness beneath the surface. In the course of his research, Wolfe discovered that the Black Panther Party’s vaunted “ten-point program” had been drawn up in the North Oakland Poverty Center—that is, in an office established, operated, and funded by the government. These offices, he wrote later, constituted “official invitations from the government to people in the slums to improve their lot by rising up and rebelling against the establishment, including the government itself.” The comedic action of Mau-Mauing—tough-looking, angry-sounding ghetto warriors marching to downtown San Francisco to scare the bejesus out of a hapless white civil-service lifer so that he’d award their group a grant from the poverty program—would soon be institutionalized through the infamous Acorn and similar organizations. The rebels became a kind of parallel establishment and, eventually, the establishment itself.

I inform Wolfe that, as far as my research has discovered, Mau-Mauing contains the first publicly printed appearance of the now-ubiquitous term “community organizing.” (It occurs twice, in fact.) “Really?” he says. “I didn’t realize that.” Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, the profession’s manifesto, was published one year later. It’s common, for someone charged with introducing Wolfe to a public gathering, to note how often he predicts coming headlines. Three months after the publication of The Bonfire of the Vanities, for example, the Tawana Brawley case exploded. Such feats of reportage are so routine for Wolfe that we have come to expect them. But it’s hard to see how he can ever top having explained the rise of Barack Obama when the future president was only nine years old.

What Wolfe called the “New Journalism”—a style created by himself, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, and others—was characterized by four literary devices: extensive dialogue, scene-by-scene construction, a personal point of view instead of omniscient narration, and heavy inclusion of status details. But Wolfe’s signature literary device is not, in the final analysis, any of these. It is rather to combine the big and the small, using the latter as a gateway into the former. “Great journalism is distinguished by the telling detail,” Wolfe says, remembering the Samoans in Mau-Mauing who participate in the visit to intimidate the bureaucrat. They pound their carved tiki sticks on the floor to make a great ruckus, the better to strike fear into the heart of the Man, “although some of them press one end of the stick onto the sole of their sandal between their first two toes and raise their foot up and down with the stick to cushion the blow to the floor. They don’t want to scuff up the Tiki cane.” Forty-two years later, this “little thing” still makes Wolfe smile. That’s what Machiavelli called such details—the cose piccolo through which the intentions of the gods can be discerned.

A writer can get such details only through on-scene reporting, “getting out of the house,” Wolfe insists. His California is so richly realized because he has seen it and lived in it. It is no secret that he was stung by the critical reception of his 2004 book, the campus novel I Am Charlotte Simmons. Not by the intellectuals’ sniggering at his supposed prudery and moralism, which he expected, but by the charge that the book was inaccurate. Wolfe says that he visited eight universities to do research (Stanford was the first). Bobo parents are desperate to believe that the campus bacchanalia that Wolfe describes can’t be real—or that if they are, please God let them be confined to the lower orders. Wolfe makes us uncomfortable by showing that the boozing and especially the sex are not merely present at our elite institutions but happen even more there.

Should we be surprised? Nearly 30 years earlier, in the bravura essay “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening” (1976), which opens with a scene in the Los Angeles hotel ballroom where Robert Kennedy gave his last speech, Wolfe had explained the justifications offered for the “sexual revolution.” That revolution had no Bastille or Winter Palace—it’s impossible to say where it started—but it certainly had its Jacobins and Red Guards, of which California contributed more than its fair share:

In Los Angeles it is not uncommon to see fifteen coin-operated newspaper racks in a row on the sidewalk. One will be for the Los Angeles Times, a second for the Herald- Examiner, and the other thirteen for the sex papers. . . . Sex had now become a religion, [with] a theology in which the orgasm had become a form of spiritual ecstasy. . . . At the Sandstone sex farm in the Santa Monica Mountains, people of all class levels gather for weekends in the nude, and copulate in the living room, on the lawn, out by the pool, on the tennis courts, with the same open, free, liberated spirit as dogs in the park or baboons in a tree. In conversation, however, the atmosphere is quite different. The air becomes humid with solemnity. Close your eyes and you think you’re at a nineteenth-century Wesleyan summer encampment and tent-meeting lecture series. It’s the soul that gets a workout here, brethren.

The religious language was neither an accident nor intentionally ironic. The children of the adults who built California long ago spent down the stock of genuine virtue sewn into the linings of their ancestors’ coats. But the words remained, ready to be twisted into rationales for whatever they wanted to do in the moment. Things have calmed down since. But that self-serving self-justification, like so much radioactive waste, will outlast us all, continuing to corrupt everything it touches, which is everything. So, for instance, the state—conservatively estimated to be at least $617 billion in debt—congratulates itself on spending $68 billion it doesn’t have to build a train that no one will ride. That is but one of California’s problems, but it’s emblematic of a rot that Wolfe saw coming and that might have been avoided, had his analysis been heeded and understood.

Tom Wolfe’s California is a literary continent scarcely explored by the scholars, historians, sociologists, theorists, cultural critics, and politicians who could most benefit from an extended sojourn. Much remains to be discovered. He has more to teach us. Or, more precisely, we have more to learn.

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