Tom Wolfe: The Rolling Stone Interview

Chet Flippo, Rolling Stone, August 21, 1980.

Thomas K. Wolfe Jr., now forty-nine, was an extremely unlikely candidate to be the writer who would happen along in the Sixties and propel American journalism into a new realism that would become known and worshiped and vilified as the New Journalism. Wolfe grew up in Richmond, Virginia—he still retains the careful inflection of aristocratic Southern speech—where his father was editor of the Southern Planter. Tom decided to be a Writer and went to Washington and Lee University, where he was surprised to find there was no such thing as a major in writing. He studied English literature instead, was sports editor of the school newspaper and distinguished himself by wearing a hat and carrying an umbrella, rain or shine. A course in American studies led him to pursue a doctorate in it at Yale. In 1957, as he finished his Ph.D. and still yearned to write, he took a ”prole” job as a truck loader to try to get Insights and become a Writer. All he got was drunk after work every day.

He decided that a newspaper job would let him write, and he applied at all the New York City papers. The Daily News offered him a post as copy boy for forty-two dollars a week. He was ready to take it, until he heard laughter behind him during his job interview: an editor told him, ”We never had a Ph.D. copy boy here before; the Times has them all the time.” Wolfe foresaw a future of fetching coffee for reporters and decided to rethink things. He bought a job-hunting book, from which he learned how to prepare a résumé, and he wrote to 100 newspapers around the country. He got three replies. TheBuffalo Courier-Express and the Worcester, Massachusetts, Telegram said no, but the Springfield, Massachusetts, Union invited him for an interview and hired him as a reporter. He remembers that his most important assignment was tallying the number of empty stores on Main Street. Wolfe moved to the Washington Post. He thinks he got the job because he was totally disinterested in politics: the city editor was amazed that Wolfe preferred cityside to Capitol Hill, the beat every reporter wanted. Wolfe’s apartment overlooked the DuPont Theater, which had Never on Sunday for an extended run. Every morning he could see the marquee, which read ‘Never On Sunday’—Tenth Big Week or whatever week it was. When the movie reached its forty-fourth big week, that marquee was a big reminder to Wolfe that he was having no big weeks, and he saw that marquee as a big clock ticking his life away. Tom still wanted New York City, so he made the rounds of the newspapers again…

Rolling Stone