Richard Dewey joins John Tierney to discuss his documentary Radical Wolfe, which examines the life and work of journalist Tom Wolfe. 

Audio Transcript

John Tierney: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is John Tierney. I’m a contributing editor to City Journal, where I’ve just published an article about a new documentary film about Tom Wolfe that’s opening in theaters this weekend in New York City and next weekend in Los Angeles. The documentary, titled Radical Wolfe, is a superbly entertaining and smart film, and I am just delighted to have a chance to discuss it with the director, Richard Dewey, who’s a writer and a filmmaker based in New York. His first film, Burden, was a feature documentary about the art world provocateur Chris Burden. It premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, was a special selection at Art Basel, and it received a global theatrical release in May 2017. His student film, The Leisure Class, was adapted into a feature film produced by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. He also directed the short film, Larry Bell: Artist, narrated by John McEnroe. Rich is also an experienced writer. His articles have appeared in The Economist, Bloomberg, Business Week, Rolling Stone, Ralph Lauren Magazine, Whitewall, and Modern Painters. Rich, thanks very much for joining us,

Richard Dewey: John. Thank you so much for having me.

John Tierney: As I said, Radical Wolfe is such an intelligent and entertaining film, and I think it’s one that will really please both longtime fans of Tom Wolfe, as well as those who’ve never had the good fortune to read his prose. He covered so much of American culture for so long, and you beautifully chronicle that wide-ranging career and the personality that enabled him to take on so many sacred cows of the liberal establishment and the New York intelligentsia. Now, what’s always astonished me, as I write in the City Journal article, is how he just identified this red-blue culture war long before anyone else, but also how he bridged it. Now, how he did that is quite a feat, but before we get to that, let’s talk about how this film came to be. What inspired you to do it?

Richard Dewey: Well, I think I first read Tom Wolfe in high school. I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and it just kind of blew me away and changed my idea about what writing could be and what journalism could be, and he has just always kind of been a north star for me. After I graduated from college, I ended up writing for Rolling Stone, just concert reviews, and Tom was obviously in the DNA of Rolling Stone, so he’d just always sort of been in my mind. And then one day I picked up this Vanity Fair issue, and there was an article by Michael Lewis, and Michael Lewis kind of had a similar experience of reading Tom Wolfe and it being a very inspirational experience to him and kind of set him on his path to be a writer, and that’s when I got thinking that this could be a really interesting documentary.

John Tierney: That was a great piece. Michael, of course, is the author of Moneyball and The Blind Side, The Big Short, and he really dug through Wolfe’s archive. Did he have exclusive access to that archive, or do you know how that worked out?

Richard Dewey: The archive was, at that time when Michael wrote the article, it had just been donated to the New York Public Library, so it’s all available for anyone to go through at the New York Public Library. And Michael may have had some early access before it became available to the public, but that was kind of the peg for his story.

John Tierney: Yeah, and what a rich archive it turned out to be for understanding Wolfe and how he evolved. What was it like for you when you started looking into Wolfe and going through the footage? And I should say, just for listeners, that to really rich montage the film, it’s got footage of Wolfe expounding in his famous white suits. It’s got interviews with his friends and enemies, his editors, his daughter, Alexandra Wolfe, fans like Christopher Buckley, Niall Ferguson, Peter Thiel, Gay Talese, Jon Hamm, the actor of Mad Men fame reads from Wolfe’s prose. Obviously, there’s an enormous amount of work that went into this. What was it like putting this film together?

Richard Dewey: It was an enormous amount of work in that I started the film just after Tom had passed away.

John Tierney: That was in 2018, right? Yeah.

Richard Dewey: Yes, yes. 2018. It had been in the works for about a year before that, but I always prefer, if possible, to have the main character tell their own story. I didn’t want to rely on a narrator, so the first thing we did was build this repository of archival footage of Tom on talk shows and being interviewed on the radio, and thankfully he had given interviews almost since the beginning of his career, and we assembled about 150 hours of archival footage and about 4,000 still photos. And that gave us the confidence that Tom could really tell his own story and how he came up with these ideas and in many cases, persevered and figured out the stories, and we wouldn’t have to rely on a narrator, but it was a lot. 150 hours and 4,000 photos is a lot to sift through to find the nuggets.

John Tierney: Well, it paid off. It’s really wonderful. One thing that comes through clearly in the documentary is this contradiction or just two different sides of Wolfe, the private Wolfe and the public persona. Talk about that.

Richard Dewey: Yeah, I think Gay Talese has a great quote in the film where he says, “If you know Tom Wolfe and you read Tom Wolfe, they’re just two completely different peoples.” And I think that’s something that people, certainly, I didn’t know. To be honest, as a filmmaker telling a story, in some ways it was challenging in that Tom had virtually no drama in his private life. Very happily married, great relationship with his kids, great relationship with his parents, just a really nice guy. But I think I’ll rely on a Gay Talese quote again, “With a pen in his hand, he could be a terrorist.”

John Tierney: Yeah, exactly. I was lucky enough when I was in college, a friend of mine set up a lunch with Tom Wolfe. It was really one of the thrills of my life because I, like other would-be writers then, we just idolized Wolfe and it was kind of disappointing. He was so polite and so shy, and I remember we asked him if he’d taken acid when he wrote The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and he said, “No.” But he was absolutely charming and polite and extremely likable, but it just wasn’t this crazy person, I don’t mean crazy, but just wild writer who wrote that way, and the documentary really captures that.

He wrote a lot about culture, not politics per se, like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test about the psychedelic scene, the astronauts in The Right Stuff, the world of Wall Street and the Bronx in The Bonfire of the Vanities, of the Atlanta business tycoon in A Man in Full, college campus culture in I Am Charlotte Simmons. But he did also wade into what we now think of as a red-blue culture war in “Radical Chic,” which was just that merciless skewering of Leonard Bernstein having a party for the Black Panthers, and “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” which was about these activists who were basically making out in the war on poverty. And then he wrote those just scathing attacks on the modern art world in “The Painted Word” and on modern architecture in “From Bauhaus to Our House.” So, what were his politics?

Richard Dewey: I still feel as though I really don’t know what Wolfe’s politics were. In the film, there’s a clip where he says that he belongs to the party of the opposition. I think in some cases he’s identified with conservative politics. But then at the same point in time, he wrote for Rolling Stone for three or four decades and published some of his most famous works there. So, I really think Wolfe just enjoyed taking the position that was counter to the prevailing line of thought on many things, whether that was people or ideas or institutions. If everyone sort of believed one thing, Wolfe kind of liked, and I think really thrived in, poking holes in the conventional wisdom.

John Tierney: That gave him such a great outsider’s perspective, as you make clear in the documentary, that he just stayed true to his southern roots in Richmond. He went north to Yale, he got a Ph.D in American Studies. He worked at newspapers in the north, the Washington Post, New York Herald Tribune, but he wasn’t one of the guys from the Hinterland who goes to the big city and changes his values. He just stayed true to those values. And I think that gave him such a great perspective on the craziness there.

And the other thing that has just struck me is he was so fearless. It struck me, in 1965, he’s a young journalist in New York where the pinnacle of the profession for serious writers, for serious nonfiction writers is the New Yorker, this high temple, and he writes this savage attack on them. It’s just hilarious, headline, “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead.” Now, he got savagely attacked in turn. J.D. Salinger came out of seclusion to denounce him and Dwight Macdonald, one of the leading intellectuals, he wrote a two-part thing in the New York Review of books denouncing him. How did Wolfe react to that kind of criticism?

Richard Dewey: I think Wolfe really let that criticism just roll off his back. There’s a clip in the film where Alexandra Wolfe asked her father, she said, “Dad, can you believe how bad, how nasty this review is?” And he said, “Oh, well, yeah, you’re nobody until somebody hates you.” And that was kind of his response to these things.

But I think it’s remarkable that he would, as a young journalist, trying to cut his way really, I think within the first year or two, attack the New Yorker of all places. But if you back up three or four years when he was at Yale, he wrote a Ph.D thesis attacking all sorts of famous left-wing writers that really left his advisors’ perplexed. They didn’t approve the thesis, he had to go back and redo it.

And then in his very first job working in Springfield, Massachusetts, he gets into a confrontation with John F. Kennedy, who’s a United States Senator at that point in time. And Kennedy asks him to keep remarks off the record, and Wolfe doesn’t back down then and publishes remarks that Kennedy wants to be kept off the record. So I think it was just remarkable courage almost right out of the gate to stick by what he believed was right and adhere to his value system.

John Tierney: Yeah, no, and certainly that value system, in The Right Stuff and another, in Junior Johnson and those, he really extolled that virtue of courage in standing up. And he certainly did it. When you think of just a journalist taking on the whole modern art world and just dismissing it, and the modern architecture, “From Bauhaus to Our House,” and just dismissing it all. They just hated him and denounced him as an ignoramus. But he just went on with it, and as you show in the documentary, he just kind of laughed it off.

Now, what’re really amazed to be though is there are contrarians, there have always been contrarians. There are people who attack the establishment, but what strikes me as so extraordinary about Wolfe is that he got away with it. He had such impact. In the documentary, you show him appearing on Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett, and they’re gushing over him. And even though literary critics would trash his novels and trash him in various ways, he still had this enormous impact, and people had to take him seriously. That was why they attacked him because he had such impact. How did he manage that? Do you think, does someone like that with this red-blue divide we have now could have that kind of impact?

Richard Dewey: It’s hard to imagine someone today having that type of impact. I think partly, it’s really hard to do the type of immersive reporting that Wolfe did where he would spend months and months and in the case of a book like The Right Stuff, seven or eight years reporting it, and I think one of the reasons people had to take him so seriously is because the books were so well reported and so well written and compelling to just a large amount of people that it was hard to dismiss him. And it’s hard to imagine writers having both the determination and the resources to spend a decade of their life chasing down a story today. Particularly in the era of social media and instant gratification and tweets and the story’s changing so quickly. It’s really hard to imagine today.

John Tierney: It’s such a different media landscape, and thinking back on it, back in the sixties and seventies when he was writing, in some ways a liberal establishment was really more dominant than it was today because you didn’t have cable news, you didn’t have the internet, you didn’t have these other outlets for conservatives. But at the same time, the networks and newspapers depended on Republicans for advertising, and hosts like Johnny Carson and Jay Leno, and they strove to at least appear non-partisan. So there was this effort that we’re going to take the other side seriously in some quarters. So I think that explains some of his success. Another thing that you get into in the documentary is that he really created this public persona with his white suits and the other stuff. Do you want to talk about that?

Richard Dewey: Yeah, I think it’s an interesting point people have made in going back earlier to our conversation of how Tom was a very mild-mannered person, but if you look at his contemporaries and his rivals, people like Hunter Thompson and Norman Mailer—huge personalities, and kind of almost living up to their reputation on the page. And so I think the white suit was one way that Wolfe could make himself more interesting. And in some ways it also, he claimed, served a purpose in that people were more likely to talk to him because he just looked like a man from Mars. He didn’t look like a typical journalist, and it sort of was a way that he could make subjects feel a little bit more at ease.

I think there’s probably some truth to that, just I think the evidence is he got so many people who weren’t particularly interested in letting any journalists into their lives, people like Junior Johnson and certainly the astronauts and people like that. At the end of the day, Tom Wolfe kind of got into the lives and was following and shadowing people in some cases for years. So he definitely made people feel comfortable and maybe that white suit was a part of that.

John Tierney: I remember he once talked about hanging out with the Married Pranksters and Ken Kesey and that he just kept the suit on the whole time. He said, you should never try to fit in with the environment. You should always keep your status as an observer and who you are, so you’re not trying to mimic them. And I guess that’s part of his secret.

I remember he also once said that he’d bought that white suit because he didn’t have much money, and he bought a suit because what they wore in the South in the summer, and it turned out to be too warm a suit to wear in the summer because it was wool, so he just wore it in the winter, he then said, and it really annoyed people, and he liked that, so he just kept wearing it because it annoyed people so much that he was breaking the after-Labor Day rule that you can’t wear white, which is certainly a part of his personality that enabled him to just go after all those sacred cows.

But I think when it comes to understanding how he did it, I think it’s partly that it was a different era. It’s partly that he did create this personality, but I think ultimately what you say is that he was just so good. Nobody could write like him, and you read him, and it was just he saw things with such a great perspective and just put it in that prose. It was just astonishing.

Richard Dewey: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think maybe another thing, an advantage he had that allowed him to do it is he really kind of zigged where others zagged in thinking about what topics to cover. So I think a good example of that is The Right Stuff and the astronauts. In the late sixties, early seventies, a lot of people were writing about Vietnam, and particularly in the wake of Watergate and everything that had happened, to write a book that’s looking at the military and celebrating in some ways these fighter pilots and astronauts was a really out-of-consensus choice. Certainly no one else was doing it. So when it came onto the scene, not only was it phenomenally written and phenomenally well reported, but in some ways it seemed really, really fresh. And there weren’t other books competing with it on that topic.

John Tierney: I remember being surprised, who would want to write about the astronauts, because the whole space program was kind of out of favor anyway with the establishment and partly because, well, it was the military industrial complex or the technological complex, and also just because they seem so boring. Life Magazine had that had the exclusive contract with the astronauts, and they would just produce these profiles of the guys that were so boring and so all-American, and they just seemed the most unlikely candidates to be interesting guys. And yet Wolfe, he looked for that and he found it, and he really celebrated those American, manly virtues that were so out of fashion. That’s a great point about him, zigging where others zagged. And is this going to be opening in other places you hope too, Rich? In other cities?

Richard Dewey: Yes. It will be opening on September 22nd in Los Angeles, and also in Toronto. And then there’s a whole host of other screenings that are set up as well, and hopefully it’ll open up wider in the U.S.

John Tierney: I was looking, there wasn’t a website for it, right? Or I couldn’t find one anyway.

Richard Dewey: No, there’s not a website right now, but there will be probably in a couple of days. But the main place to find information is on Kino Lorber.

John Tierney: One of the ways that Wolfe zigged when others zagged that I always admired was that there was so much doom and gloom in the sixties and seventies, and there’s always doom and gloom in the media. And Wolfe was at a conference as part of a panel discussing the state of the world, and everyone else was saying fascism is descending on America, the environmental degradation so forth. And Wolfe just kind of perked up when his time came, he goes, “Can’t you see? We’re in the middle of a happiness explosion?” And that’s something I think that really explains his enduring appeal, that he was skeptical of the establishments, of their dogmas, of their pretensions and of their pessimism about America. That he really celebrated traditional virtues and traditional morality, and he was optimistic as he looked ahead.

Richard Dewey: I think that’s exactly right, and I think those qualities are what’s really missing today and why we don’t have anyone like Tom Wolf, and I think someone that can challenge, just as you said, the pretensions and the dogmas of the establishment is sorely needed today.

John Tierney: Well, fortunately we have your documentary to show us someone who did it like nobody else. Where can people see this documentary?

Richard Dewey: It’s in theaters in New York. It opens this Friday, September 15th, and then September 22nd, the following Friday, it will open in Toronto and Los Angeles, and then there’ll be a wider rollout after.

John Tierney: Well, that’s great. I hope a lot of people see this, and I hope lots of people rediscover Tom Wolfe’s writing. Thanks very much for joining me, Rich, and congratulations on the documentary. You can find a little more information about it in my article at the City Journal website, I hope you see the movie. Thank you.

Richard Dewey: Thank you so much for having me, John. I really appreciate it. It was a fun conversation.

Photo by Janet Fries/Getty Images

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