Tom Wolfe Attends Tom Wolfe, the Play

The pioneer of new journalism talked writer’s block, Paris Hilton, and white suits at a performance of a play based on his work.

By: Sophie Gilbert

Tom Wolfe caught a showing of WOLFE: The Electric Kool-Aid Ice-Cream-Suited Right Stuff Man-in-Full-On-The-Beat Wednesday night. Photograph courtesy of the writer

Writing, Tom Wolfe says, is a skill he mastered almost by accident. In 1962, having “never written anything longer than a newspaper article,” he was holed up in the Beverly Hills Hotel trying to finish a story on the hot rod and custom car scene in California. There’s a kind of writer’s block, he says, “when you feel like you cannot produce what you claim you can produce.” His editors told him just to type up the notes, and they’d give them to a bona fide writer to use. So he started typing. One page became 12 pages, and 12 became 48. “Without knowing it,” he says, “I had discovered a style.”

Wolfe, pioneer of the new journalism movement and coiner of a term that came to describe some of the most influential writers of the 20th century, was at the Newseum Wednesday evening to witness actor René Auberjonois perform excerpts from a play titled WOLFE: The Electric Kool-Aid Ice-Cream-Suited Right Stuff Man-in-Full-On-The-Beat. Written by Auberjonois’s wife Judith, the one-man show presents Wolfe in his own words, drawing from a number of his most famous works. Tom Wolfe the character recalls his introduction to journalism (“It was always nighttime in my daydreams of the newspaper life”), a meeting with Mick Jagger (his lips “hang off his face like giblets”), and observations on modern culture (such as “this pathetic American business of jogging”).

Judith Auberjonois, who says she first conceived the idea of a Tom Wolfe play in 1970, approached the author’s works by treating them like music. “It’s like jazz,” she says. “Very challenging but just wonderful.” René, who starred in Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid at Shakespeare Theatre in 2008 and is a familiar face from his television roles in Boston Legal and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, is a remarkably convincing Wolfe onstage, with the same slender magnetism of the author, and a compelling manner of storytelling. “I’m trying to create the character within the narrative,” he says. “I don’t want to pretend to be Tom Wolfe.”

Following the performance, Wolfe answered questions from the audience, which included Studio Theatre’s David Muse, Shakespeare Theatre’s Michael Kahn, Washington Examiner editor in chief Stephen Smith, and Washington Post books editor Ron Charles. He talked about his approach to writing fiction, which he described as requiring almost as much reporting as nonfiction, and mentioned Paris Hilton as an example of how truth can be even stranger. “I could have written a story about an heiress who gets caught making a pornographic movie,” he said. “A girl with no acting or singing talent who gets a contract for a reality show. At that time, nobody would have thought the pornographic movie would have been the start.”

Wolfe finished the evening by answering a question about his trademark personal style. “It was all by accident,” he said, describing a white suit he bought that was too heavy to wear in the summertime. “I started wearing a white suit in November. People resented me, they really did. And suddenly, getting dressed in the morning became much more interesting.”