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Memories of Tom Wolfe, an American Icon

Memories of Tom Wolfe, an American Icon
Tom Wolfe attends "Rolling Stone Stories From The Edge" World Premiere at Florence Gould Hall on October 30, 2017, in New York City. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

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Monday, 21 May 2018 03:55 PM Current | Bio | Archive

For over thirty years I had the privilege of calling the dean of America’s School of “New Journalism,” Tom Wolfe, a friend.

We first met in the 1980s when I was in the municipal bond business and Wolfe was working on his finest novel, "The Bonfire of the Vanities."

To make sure he had the right take on his main character, bond salesman Sherman McCoy, Wolfe studied bond trading desks in action and interviewed fixed income industry veterans.

One morning, the editor of The Bond Buyer, Joe Mysak, (Joe and I co-authored "The Guidebook to Municipal Bonds" in 1990) invited me to lunch at the favorite watering hole of bond traders, Harry’s at Hanover Square. When I walked into the restaurant, I almost fell over when I saw the great man in the white suit sitting at Mysak’s regular table.

We had a grand afternoon. Between belts of Dewar’s scotch, Joe and I regaled Wolfe with our best bond market stories.

Wolfe and I hit it off that day and we agreed to stay in touch.

After I became Executive Director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in February 1995, my best day was when Wolfe introduced me as the keynote speaker at the Grant’s Municipal Bond Observer Conference at the Downtown Athletic Club on May 18, 1995.

My January 1995 nomination to the Port Authority was controversial. Manhattan’s liberal establishment was apoplectic over my candidacy because I am a bona fide right-winger. During the confirmation period, Wolfe took an interest in my candidacy calling me for updates.

In his introduction Wolfe said:

I think anyone who had access to a newspaper, television or radio during the whole nomination fight for the executive directorship of the Port Authority is aware of the fact that there is a political dimension to George. He is a registered Republican, in a state that has many kinds of Republicans, George is a real Republican, an unabashed Conservative. He does not temporize. Even after he became a star, he did not move from the borough of Queens where he grew up to Manhattan. In 1993, he ran on the Conservative Party ticket for mayor of New York. And so perhaps you can understand the howls that erupted when Governor Pataki nominated George to head the Port Authority. The New York Times, among other publications, went into orbit over this nomination. For weeks the front page was kind of a Marlin sheet day after day. The picture that you got of George Marlin was a combination of Rasputin, Svengali, Cagliostro and Darth Vader and that was what was going to be taking over the Port Authority.

Wolfe went on to say that I may be the “Darth Vader” of New York City politics but “in a Hart Schaffner Marx suit.”

Afterwards, I gave Wolfe a tour of the Port Authority’s executive offices at One World Trade Center. In my copy of "The Right Stuff," he inscribed, “To George, who raises hell more elegantly than anyone else in public life! With a doff of the hat, Tom Wolfe.”

When leaving my office, Tom noticed a decorative object hanging on the wall that looked like a carpet remnant to me. He mentioned the artist’s name and noted it was a valuable piece of modern art.

Taken aback by his comment, I subsequently made inquiries and learned he was right and that the Agency employed a curator to care for art that donned the office walls of bureaucrats.

Believing the public should not foot the bill for such extravagances, I hired a firm in 1996 to auction off the Port Authority collection. Overburdened taxpayers owe Wolfe a debt of gratitude.

Looking back on Tom’s career, I believe his top achievement was exposing the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of many members of the boomer generation who came of age in the 1970s.

The phrase “Me Decade,” coined by Wolfe, described the “period characterized by an obsessive preoccupation with personal fulfillment and self-gratification.”

“Me Decade” narcissists had a grandiose view of their talents, excessive interests in themselves, a craving for attention and admiration and a consciousness of superiority. They were alienated from the mainstream because they were different; they were special, superior and enlightened. Hence, the old rules of civility and patience did not apply to them; they had to be gratified now. Self-fulfillment had to be immediate.

In “Radical Chic” and other works, Wolfe excoriated these “limousine liberals” and gave urban conservatives, like me, the inspiration and the intellectual fodder to fight these pretentious elites in the public square.

When I heard of Tom’s death, I retrieved from my files the handwritten letters he sent to me. Re-reading them confirmed my belief that he was what my friend Brad Miner in his book, "The Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry," called a “modern knight defending what is true and beautiful.”

Tom Wolfe, Requiescat in Pace.

George J. Marlin, a former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is the author of "The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact," and "Christian Persecutions in the Middle East: A 21st Century Tragedy." He is chairman of Aid to the Church in Need-USA. Mr. Marlin also writes for TheCatholicThing.org and the Long Island Business News. To read more George J. Marlin — Click Here Now.

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For over thirty years I had the privilege of calling the dean of America’s School of “New Journalism,” Tom Wolfe, a friend.
tom wolfe, bond traders, memories
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2018-55-21
Monday, 21 May 2018 03:55 PM
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