The Wolfe Man
From Too Old to Die Young (Dredger’s Lane Press, 2015)
When Tom Wolfe visited the University of Florida in 2000, I hosted him. At the time, a number of friends asked me what that was like. So here (below) is the email I sent my friends back then. This was never intended for publication, so excuse the tone and some of the bullshit that goes with it.
The College of Journalism and Communications is celebrating its anniversary this year and so sometime early last year, our dean decided that we should have a big wingding and give people some awards to draw attention to us. She called these things the Millennium Awards.
She called on the departments to nominate people. The Department of Journalism nominated Katherine Graham, Gordon Parks and Tom Wolfe, among others.
The dean wrote them all letters, asking them to come. Wolfe did not answer, and so she came to me. Happened that I had his home address, so she sent the letter there. I needed to write him in order to get his permission to reprint one of his articles in an anthology. Both of these letters arrived in the same day, and so he called Terry Hynes, the dean, and said he would be there, and he asked a favor.
I was involved in the favor, so I called him back. Turns out he’s writing a novel about life in a university … from a 20-year-old’s point of view. One of the characters is a student athlete. During his visit, he wanted to know, could I show him the training rooms the athletes use and other examples of student life. Sure, I said. In return would he speak to a class? Love to, he said. (What a bargain. His speaking fee is pretty high.)
So I was asked to be his host for his days in Gainesville. The day of his arrival, he called from Atlanta to say that he had lost a crown on his tooth while chewing a Gummy Bear-like thing. My colleague Jean Chance got him an emergency appointment with her dentist.
Chance and I met his plane. He had one carry on bag and a briefcase, both leather. He was wearing a blue blazer and canary-yellow pants. His hair reminded me of Ray Bolger’s in “The Wizard of Oz.” As soon as he got in the car, he asked, “So tell me – has your coach been running the press all year?” He and Jean talked basketball all the way into town.
At the dentist’s office, he filled out the new patient form and discussed bowels – Arnold Schwarzenegger’s in particular. He’s concerned with young athletes who take steroids and the effect those evil things have on bowels and heart valves. Ahnold is on borrowed time – you heard it here first.
He came out of the examination room amazed and carrying a pamphlet on teeth grinding. While he paid the bill, the dentist shook Jean’s hand and said, “It was an honor to work on his teeth.” Wolfe said the dentist told him things about his teeth that he never knew.
We drove over to the Swamp to see football practice and to meet up with Gator legend and senior athletic director type guy Norm Carlson. We watched a little practice, then found Carlson, who took us into the magnificent Gator weight room, locker room and training room. He also saw the meeting rooms for each of the assistant coaches and the large theater-like room for press conferences and so forth. Wolfe was blown away.
Both Carlson and the athletic trainer we met were well aware of who Wolfe was and shared a lot of information. We saw the Gator head the players touch before running on to the field, as well as the Heisman Trophy and other awards. Wolfe asked if “Gatorade” was a mere coincidence, and Carlson launched into a series of stories about its development and its inventor, Dr. Robert Cade. He told a hilarious story about Cade’s alcoholic version of Gatorade. After testing it one night, Cade was stopped by the cops on his ride home, charged with being drunk and in charge of a bicycle.
Spurrier’s secretary is a big fan and presented Wolfe with an official custom-made Steve Spurrier visor and a Spurrier Polo shirt. Wolfe put on the visor as he went back on to the field to watch practice and wondered if anyone would mistake him for Coach Steve.
I got [my daughter] Sarah and drove back to the stadium to get Wolfe and Chance. They were Sarah’s guests at Alpha Delta Pi that night for dinner. As we were entering the house, a frat boy was leaving. He looked down at Wolfe’s white and black shoes. “I like your shoes, man,” he said. “I rather like yours,” said Wolfe. The kid was wearing sandals.
The sorority house was more research. I had to go to the student awards banquet. Chance told me that after dinner with the sisters, she and her boyfriend, Nath Doughtie, took Wolfe to the other Swamp, the restaurant by that name.
The next morning, Wolfe joined the Journalism Advisory Council for breakfast in the union. The council was there for its biannual meeting and was pretty star struck. He sat down with Rebecca Brown from the Chicago Tribune, whose brother was the commander of the space shuttle that took John Glenn back into space. She said that her brother had carried The Right Stuff along and gotten Glenn to autograph it in space. He was very interested in hearing about her brother, who had a long career as a test pilot before becoming an astronaut.
Chance took Wolfe over to the stadium again for further tours and an audience with Sir Steve of Spurrier. Alas, I was not along for that, but I did escort him to the Reporting class, where he was to lecture. We had all 300 seats filled and there was silence while he spoke, He was so soft spoken that we had to mike him, but still … he spoke so softly.
On the way down the aisle, I told him that I was aware of his speaking fee and appreciated him doing this for free. “Oh, but I want you to be heavily in my debt,” he said.
I introduced him by saying that we teach students to search public records and search databases, but not to search faces. And so the focus of his talk was observation. To make his point, he talked about what it was like to be 20 years old and on a college campus today. He talked about “the Seven-Minute Seduction,” and the subtle uses of touching and rules of behavior. The students laughed, nodded, and so forth. He had them dead-on. He also talked about the old baseball metaphor of his generation, when getting home meant going all the way. People now go all the way at second base and home base is finding out each other’s names.
So he went on, dissecting the lives of American 20 year olds, entertaining everyone but still … they were wondering, What does this have to do with Reporting? Then he said, I’m 70 years old and look what I know about you, you 20 year olds. That’s Reporting. It’s all in the details.
It was a great speech and he stood around and talked to students for a half hour more.
I have most of the speech on tape and plan to dub several copies.
Rebecca Brown and Sarah and I took him to lunch at the Union. He ate some shit with tofu in it. We talked for two hours and afterward, Rebecca said, “We talked about science and art and literature and history and he was never, for one moment, pretentious.”
He wanted to work out that afternoon and so I arranged it through the faculty wellness center. He went back to his room and the next time we saw him no one recognized him.
There was a reception in the atrium that afternoon. I didn’t know if he was planning to be there or not, but all of the visitors here for the anniversary thing – Celebration 2000 – were eager to get a glimpse of him. So the buzz was, “Where’s Tom Wolfe?” No one saw him, but he was hiding in plain sight.
One of the grad students had seen him but thought he was some crusty homeless dude who heard there was free food in the building. My secretary, Helga, spotted him. He was wearing blue nylon pants and a blue T-shirt and was soaked to the skin – there was a terrible rainstorm. She said, “You could use a towel, Mr. Wolfe” He said, “I believe I need an umbrella.” “Umbrella won’t help you now,” she said. He agreed and jogged off to the Union.
We saw Tom Wolfe out of uniform. He had no necktie.
That night, Sarah and Mike Foley – formerly of the St. Petersburg Times – took Wolfe to Steve’s Café Americain. He loved it. He passed on Steve’s trademark dessert, the chocolate soufflé and had them cut up strawberries and cover them with sambouka. We talked about political correctness, the newspaper business, his spats with Johns Irving and Updike (along with Norman Mailer, they will appear in his new book, Hooking Up, as “my three stooges”).
The next morning, he said, he discovered the weak link in the student union – breakfast. Wendy’s is the only place that serves a breakfast and it, he said, is not fit for human consumption.
For the awards ceremony, he finally put on a white suit.
I picked him up for lunch and walked him over to the Touchdown Terrace, site of the awards luncheon.
He got his Millennium Award – which is a pretty cool, lighted glass sculpture – and made a few remarks about what he was doing there. He discussed the college student of today, the skyboxes in the stadium (“actually, a series of small hotels”) and other things about his visit. He thanked me twice in his speech, so you know I was thrilled to the marrow.
We went back to my office afterward. He read the Times, signed some books (he wrote in mine, “To Bill McKeen, who has made me feel positively historic … as well as fortunate to be his guest in Gainesville. Profound thanks, Tom Wolfe.”) and hung out. The usual parade of students wandered in and did not disappoint me by reacting with classic double takes to see Tom Wolfe, in his white suit, sitting at my table.
He said he intended to wear the Steve Spurrier Polo shirt, but that he would not wear the visor. He gave it to me. I said it would improve my social standing, but no one would believe he had given it to me. They would think I’d somehow snatched it from him. So he signed it over, with a note on the brim.
He had never received a copy of the book I wrote about him, so I gave him one.
He worked out again and then I picked him up for a reception at the president’s house. I got VIP parking – right by the door. He had a long talk with the president and then when we left, I thought he would just want me to take him back to the Union, but he said, “I was hoping you would have dinner with me.” I was again thrilled. Turns out he wanted to go back to Steve’s. On the way there, I told him the students on the Alligator were having a reception and wanted him to drop by. I said I could easily make an excuse for him … perhaps telling them that he had been hit with an attack of diarrhea. “That would certainly change my image,” he said.
We talked about all kinds of things, but settled mostly on computers and their effect on writing, the loss of privacy, the Atkins Diet (his face clouded when I told him I was on it), and children. I told him I didn’t think I knew what love was all about until I had children. Then he said something very sweet. “I didn’t get married until late. I was 48 years old. To think I could have missed all of this…. You love your wife, but it’s different. There’s nothing to compare with loving a child. It opened a door that I didn’t even know was there.” We both got a little misty eyed. I had the dessert with the sambouka and it nearly knocked me on my ass.
He’s just begun to use a computer, and so he was very curious about how other people can tell when you’re online. (I told him about my computer stalker.) He wanted to know all about my wacky life and my crazy drives to Indiana to see the kids and so forth.
He came over for breakfast the next morning and refused half-and-half with his coffee. It’s whole milk or nothing.
He said that he had read the first two chapters of my book. “They’re very good. I learned things about myself that I’d forgotten.”
I had to stay for a ceremony and so a graduate student took him back to the airport.
He was so kind to everybody who approached him. He seemed so courtly in his manners. Of course, we may all feel differently when we read the eventual book. If there’s a pudgy horndog professor in the book, I know that I will drive to New York and kick his white-suited ass, then sue for libel.
(Thank God, my fears were not realized in I am Charlotte Simmons. He did give me a nice acknowledgement in the book.)