Has Tom Wolfe Blown It?
Friday, December 8, 2006, 12:45:28 p.m.
How can I help you?
What I want from Tom Wolfe is an explanation. Why is Wolfewho for more than four decades has entertained millions of readers with stories about everything from heroic astronauts to whacked-out hippies to knuckle-dragging Wall Street power players now writing at length about historic preservation? The question occurred to me on the Sunday following Thanksgiving, when Wolfe published his latest work, a 3,500-word essay in The New York Times on the state of historic preservation in New York City, declaring it a crisis.
From the lofty heights of Mount Week in Review, Wolfe had summoned up all of his rhetorical powershis vroooom vroooom, kandy-kolored, tangerine-flake streamlined proseto smite an obscure municipal agency, the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The agency's mission: to designate historic landmarks and to vet planned construction projects in the city's historic districts. Wolfe declared the commission "de facto defunct." He called its members pushovers for City Hall, patsies for developersand he said they're more concerned with their own popularity than with protecting the city's historic assets.
"The writer Tom Wolfe and other neighbors have taken to lobbying objections in the direction of the Landmarks Preservation Commission," wrote Wolfe, speaking of himself in the third person. "Today it is a bureau of the walking dead."
For the most part, preservation advocates tend to be sincere traditionalists, who revere the established order and speak earnestly and without irony about the grave importance of such things as safeguarding the fabric of a neighborhood. In short, they are nothing like Wolfea bestselling author who has spent much of his career singling out the establishment's plump sacred cows and then reveling in their subsequent slaughter as he enriches his own life and parades about town in his trademark white suit, top hat, and spats.
Then again, historic preservation tends to attract an older crowd, and that would clearly include the 75-year-old Wolfe. His most recent novel, I Am Charlotte Simmonsabout the softcore adventures of a handful of college undergraduatesexplored the terrain of young Americans and was the least successful book of his long career. And just as aging buildings need preserving, so do the reputations of aging writers. Wolfe's salvo in the Times may say less about the commission's attempts to save old buildings and more about Tom Wolfe's attempt to preserve his own decaying facade.
As it turns out, Wolfe isn't much of an e-mail junkie. Several days passed with no reply to my e-mail. Eventually, I wrote out a letter by hand on Voice stationery, mailed it to Wolfe's home on the Upper East Side, and waited. In the meantime, I began digging back through Wolfe's lifework, hoping to figure out some pattern that might explain his latest obsession.
Looking back, one thing about Wolfe is immediately apparent: He has always loved a good institutional battle, particularly if he gets to throw the first punch. Wolfe originally vaulted to celebrity in 1965 by landing a rhetorical haymaker squarely on the chin of The New Yorker. At the time, Wolfe was a young reporter at the upstart New York magazine, then a supplement to the New York Herald Tribune. Across town, the editors at The New Yorker were celebrating the magazine's 40th anniversary. Somehow, Wolfe sensed a target in the making. So he wrote an unflattering two-part profile of The New Yorker's editor, William Shawn, portraying him as a shy wisp of a man, "unrecognized in his own office," overseeing a crusty labyrinth of fellow recluses.
Its publication caused a media firestorm and elevated Wolfe to instant stardom.
Shawn promptly accused New York of libel. New York magazine then leaked Shawn's complaints to editors at Time and Newsweek, who published stories about the dustup. Soon an outraged group of prominent New Yorker contributors, from J.D. Salinger to E.B. White, fired off rebuttals. Walter Lippmann joined in, calling Wolfe an "incompetent ass." Even the White House got involved, with an aide to President Lyndon Johnson calling up New York to complain.
Wolfe reveled in the notoriety. In the years to come, Wolfe would repeat the pattern and target eminent institutions, launch unexpected rhetorical broadsides, and sit back to enjoy the resulting stir. In The Painted Word (1975), he crushed the modern-art establishment for prizing adherence to esoteric theory over aesthetic innovation. In From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), he eviscerated the leaders of modern architecture for subjecting the American people to an endless procession of hackneyed glass-and-steel and concrete boxes. In Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast (1989), he lambasted modern American novelists for turning their backs on the realistic novel in favor of postmodern gimmickry. And in his essay "In the Land of the Rococo Marxists" (2000), he mocked intellectuals for deconstructing academia into smaller and smaller slivers of cross-disciplinary nonsense.
But rhetorical repetitions aside, this latest Wolfe work doesn't stand up to his earlier successes; his choice of targets has diminished and his pursuit of the zeitgeistso successful in books like The Right Stuff and The Bonfire of the Vanitiesdoesn't dovetail with an attack on something as small as the Landmarks Preservation Commission. And to make matters worse, he's late. The Municipal Art Society and the Women's City Club of New York had already publicly highlighted problems facing the commission before Wolfe got around to it.
So that leaves only self-promotion at the core of Wolfe's latest attacka motive that has helped Wolfe set his agenda for 40 years.
"He is as brilliant a self-promoter as he is a journalist, and I do think he's a brilliant journalist," says Robert S. Boynton, the director of NYU's graduate magazine-writing program and author of The New New Journalism. "He understands that in the magazine world, you've got to be thinking about how these pieces are going to be received. I think he's very aware that it only counts if you're attacking a sacred cow."
Boynton also points out that throughout his career Wolfe has loved to play the role of the outraged populist, the simple Southerner confounded by the elitist shenanigans of some group or other that has lost touch with the people. "The outrage about things he doesn't like always speaks much louder than the earnestness of what he cares about," says Boynton. "He's incapable, maybe genetically, of writing in praise of something without also launching a really caustic attack."
Which explains everything about Wolfe's current campaign against the Landmarks Preservation Commission, except for one thing: why Wolfe chose it as the means for his return to the limelight.
One week after his original e-mail, Wolfe calls me. In a reedy voice, slow and genteel, with a slight Southern drawl, he says that he has received my letter and apologizes for taking so long to get back to me.
"So you read my, shall we say, rather long piece in The New York Times, which I gather you did," says Wolfe.
For the next half-hour, Wolfe shuffles back and forth around the subject of historic preservation, going on the occasional tangent about the history of New York, the end of the city's garment manufacturing, our reliance on Bangladeshi workers, the vacancy of the city's piers, and the reactionary tendencies of young architects. Along the way, he argues that landmarking has done wonders for other aging cities such as Paris, London, and Rome. In Wolfe's opinion, what post-industrial New York has left to offer the world now that its manufacturing days are done is simply its identity as New York. The landmarks commission, according to Wolfe, should be working vigorously to preserve that.
"I'm not even really a preservationist," says Wolfe at one point, "although I applaud the idea."
Wolfe explains to me that his championing of historic preservation has nothing to do with NIMBYism (even though one of the buildings he would like to see protected from development happens to be around the corner from his apartment). It's not about his past work. It's not about his take on the deficiencies of institutional tastemakers.
"My interest in this is the malfunctioning of the Landmarks Preservation Commission," says Wolfe, as understated on the phone as he is overstated in print. "This came to a head for me in the whole business of 2 Columbus Circle."
For a preservationist in New York City to invoke 2 Columbus Circle is like an anti-globalization activist invoking the city of Seattlea once painful battle scar that now serves as a mark of belonging. Wolfe's personal interest in 2 Columbus Circle dates back to 1981, when he published From Bauhaus to Our House, in which he characterized the state of contemporary architecture as a vulgar dance between timid designers and conformist clients. For the most part, Wolfe blamed the mess on the leading practitioners of the International Style of architecturea school of modernist design that originated in Europe and migrated to the United States following World War I. Amid his outrage, Wolfe expressed his admiration for Edward Durell Stone, an American architect who, in mid-career, broke away from the International Style and began creating lush, ornamental buildings. In 1964, Stone completed work on 2 Columbus Circle in midtown Manhattana 10-story white marble building, at once flamboyant and unapologetic.
Not unlike Wolfe himself.
To this day, Wolfe says he loves the building. "I thought that 2 Columbus Circle was a building far, far ahead of its time," says Wolfe. "It was the first building ever built where the facade was a concave curve. It was like a piece of abstract marble sculpture. I love [Stone's] contrarian attitude." In 2002, a dispute over 2 Columbus Circle erupted between the landmarks commission and preservationists when the city announced that it had sold the then empty building, which, after a significant architectural overhaul, would become the new headquarters for the Museum of Arts & Design. Before long, preservationists began lobbying the city to designate the building as a historic landmark, which would protect it from a major renovation. Wolfe joined the protest.
But past studies of 2 Columbus Circle had failed to convince the commission that it deserved such status. In the end, there would be no hearing for the building, no designation as a landmarka slight that, to this day, still rankles Wolfe. "If there was ever a case where there was an overwhelming massing of architectural and city planning authorities demanding a hearing," says Wolfe, "that is just a cardinal case of it, it's not even dysfunctionalism."
Before it was all over, Wolfe began dabbling in the genre of preservation advocacy, writing two pieces for The New York Times in defense of 2 Columbus Circle and another one for New York. Along the way, Wolfe says that he met several influential sources, including Anthony M. Tung, a former landmarks commissioner and author of Preserving the World's Great Cities, who happened to sit next to Wolfe before one event and struck up a conversation about the astronauts from The Right Stuff. Wolfe also got to know Kate Wood, the head of the preservation group Landmarks West.
"She's young," says Wolfe. "She represents a whole new generation. It's not just the old ladies with nine-cubic-inch heels on their shoes any longer. Although they should not be underestimated."
All the while, Wolfe says, he was keeping an eye on the landmarks commission, sizing up its weaknesses and waiting for the opportunity to let loose. The right moment, says Wolfe, finally arrived back in October when news began circulating around town that a developer was proposing a mixed-use development in the Upper East Side Historic District. Wolfe saw in the unfolding saga all the makings for a Tom Wolfe polemic.
"For me," says Wolfe, "in a way, 980 Madison Avenue presented an opportunity to give the little history of the commission that I gave."
Tom Wolfe lives in an apartment building on East 79th Street, a half-block from Central Park and alongside Mayor Bloomberg's townhouse on the north side of the street. If you were to walk out his front door, pass the line of black town cars idling outside, turn the corner onto Madison Avenue, head south past La Maison du Chocolat and Alex Gordon Jewelers, you would arrive roughly three minutes later at 980 Madison Avenue.
There, a five-story building stretches out on the west side of the block all the way from the corner of 76th Street up to the corner of 77th. Above the building's entrance, midblock, hangs a sculpture of two bare-chested reclining figuresa woman with a torch and a man in a loincloth. Nearby, an American flag reaches out over the sidewalk. Rows of square windows run across the pale-limestone front. A mix of art galleries and commercial spacesa Citibank, an Alain Mikli boutique, a Prudential Douglas Elliman officeoccupy the first floor.
Wolfe professes no particular love for the structure. Until I mention their names, Wolfe says he was unaware of the architects who designed 980 Madison Avenue as an art auction house in 1949.
"I have no great feelings about that building," Wolfe insists. "It's by no means a remarkable building."
Despite its seemingly tranquil appearance, 980 Madison Avenue is at the center of a heated battle that continues to divide neighbors across the Upper East Side. And despite Wolfe's ambivalence, the building played a central role in his decision to add one more chapter to his oeuvre.
Along with many other New Yorkers, Wolfe first took an interest in 980 Madison Avenue back in October. At the time, the New York developer Aby Rosen had just recently announced that he was working with the British architect Norman Foster on plans to redevelop the building.
On a Tuesday toward the end of October, Rosen and Foster appeared before the 11 members of the Landmarks Preservation Commission to present their plans. Along the way, they explained to the commission that they would like to restore the base of the building to its original design, replant a long-since-vanished rooftop garden, and build on top of the existing structure a nuzzling pair of roughly 30-story elliptical glass towers reaching into the sky. The base would serve as some sort of public art space, and the towers would house a multitude of swank apartments.
The building, however, falls within the boundaries of the Upper East Side Historic District. And so before they can move forward, Rosen and Foster must first gain the approval of the commissionan arduous, nail-biting experience, if you ask developers; a foregone conclusion, if you ask Wolfe.
Throughout the course of the night, various preservation groups testified against the proposal, arguing that it created an undesirable precedent for glass-tower developments in the area, thus undermining the sanctity of the historic district. Alternately, various famous friends of the developer, including the artist Jeff Koons and billionaire executive Ron Perelman, spoke on behalf of the proposed building, comparing it to Foster's much lauded redevelopment of the Hearst Building at Eighth Avenue and West 57th Street.
By the end of November, hundreds of letters were piling up in the commission's mailbox from neighbors on both sides of the projectopponents who saw it as a potential outsize eyesore and supporters intrigued by the idea of adding a singular architectural icon to the neighborhood's skyline.
"My wife, Betty, and I reside at 21 East 79th Street looking straight south," wrote one of Wolfe's upstairs neighbors, William S. Beinecke, former president and chairman of the Sperry & Hutchinson Company. "Actually our apartment has the best view, for we live in the penthouse. We have long enjoyed the uninterrupted view in that southerly direction. . . . This proposal is completely out of line with the area."
Supporters include the sort of boldface names that one associates with Wolfe but who were siding with Rosen's plan because of their admiration for his work as a developer and Foster's work as an architect.
"This city is home to some of the most iconic buildings in the world, to which 980 Madison would surely be an excellent addition," wrote Vogue magazine editor Anna Wintour. "I reside at the Carlyle Hotel, directly across the street. . . . From what I've seen of Lord Foster's plan it will be a fine and reinvigorating addition to the Upper East Side," wrote media titan Barry Diller. "I feel compelled to urge you to take into consideration the brilliance of this development and the positive effect it will have on the Upper East Side residential and commercial community," wrote Richard Meier, the architect.
Wolfe watched intently as various power players lined up to support their friend Aby Rosen, himself a figure in the New York social world; he recently married socialite- psychiatrist Samantha Boardman. Wolfe must have felt a shudder of joy, a twitch of youthful nostalgia, as the muse of instigation once again fluttered into his mind.
To wit: If the city's elite were lining up behind the development, then Wolfe would line up against the city's elite. He would take on the powerful developer and his celebrity machine. He would expose how its seductive hum influenced the landmarks commission. He would shake his fist at the power players in City Hall. It would be a return to his homespun Southern populism. Wolfe versus Goliath all over again!
On November 4, he wrote a letter to the commission. "On the face of it, sticking a gigantic glass box in the middle of the Upper East Side Historic District at 980 Madison Avenue is a flagrant violation of the principles upon which the New York City landmarks preservation process was founded in 1965," wrote Wolfe. "But this is a new century with new money, new politics, and bungee principles. Who is to say that your office should have to keep looking backward and not go with the flow?"
Three weeks later his diatribe against the commission appeared in the Times. In the end, Wolfe might not think too highly of 980 Madison Avenue. But the building had served a higher purpose. What else could Wolfe possibly want from 980 Madison Avenue? I ask Wolfe, if he had his druthers, what he would do with the building in the future? "Well," says Wolfe, "nothing."
Toward the end of our interview, I ask Wolfe about the feedback he's received from the Times tirade. "If you write a piece about land- marking, you don't sit by the telephone waiting for reactions," says Wolfe. "It's not considered the most sexy subject in the world."
If nothing else, Wolfe's critique of the landmarks commission has succeeded in getting Wolfe's name back in the limelight. Once again, he is basking in the glow of public admonition. Compared to the fervent protests that have met his other work, the outcry over his attack on the commission has been mild. Perhaps not a perfect storm. But at least a perfect drizzle.
In subsequent weeks, the New York Observer responded with a piece called "Preservationists Cry Wolfe; We've Got Their Numbers," which essentially argued that Wolfe was exaggerating the ineffectiveness of the commission. In the pages of The New York Sun, Edward Glaeser, an economics professor at Harvard University, argued that the disruption of 980 Madison Avenue would end up further limiting the housing supply and thus help keep real estate prices astronomical.
Not surprisingly, Wolfe is more than happy to rebut his rebutters.
"Unfortunately the demand for places to live in Manhattan is overwhelming because New York right now is the capital of the Western world in the way that Rome was once the capital of the Western world, and Paris and, to a lesser extent, London," says Wolfe. "Right now this is the place. That development certainly isn't going to help the housing situation. Just more people who have the money will be able to move in."
"To take [Glaeser's] theory to its logical conclusion would be to develop Central Park," adds Wolfe. "When you consider the thousands and thousands of people who could be housed in Central Park if they would only allow them to build it up, boy, the problem is on the way to being solved!"
In the week following Wolfe's attack, Robert Tierney, the chairman of the commission, eventually responded by writing a gentle letter to the editor at the Times pointing out that the commission "has protected more than 7,000 historically, architecturally and culturally significant buildings and structures in the last 20 years alone."
One member of the landmarks commission, who asked to remain anonymous because the case of 980 Madison Avenue remains open, notes that Wolfedespite his supposedly detailed reporting on the motivations of the commissionershas not attended any hearings in recent history. Which might help explain some things. "He is definitely a good writer of fiction," says the commission member, "definitely over-the-top. The references to all these fabulous parties and all these fabulous people who are at the door wanting to shake our hands and air-kiss us are preposterous."
"I don't think he's in the trenches much," adds the commissioner. "He's like a deus ex machina."
But is he like a theatrical Greek god, lowering himself onto the stage to extricate the protagonist from a difficult situation? Or is this more a case of Tom Wolfe returning to the public stage yet again to rescue Tom Wolfe from the maw of obscurity?
"If you judge simply by people sending me e-mails or stopping me on the street or at the gymI meet more different people at the gym than anywhere elsethen, yes, anecdotally I think I got a lot of response," says Wolfe. "The layout in the Times was so big. A lot of people read it and said, 'Wow, what's going on?'"
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.