Tom Wolfe in the Words of Gay Talese, First Rivals Then Lifelong Friends

The two giants of literary journalism first bonded when reporting for rival papers on the JFK assassination. Now, Gay Talese bids farewell to his friend Tom Wolfe, who died Tuesday at 88

Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese.
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Tom Wolfe I knew him for more than a half-century. I was on The New York Times as a general assignment reporter in 1962 when he had that same assignment with the rival New York Herald Tribune.

Sometimes we were assigned to the same stories – and I was not only aware that I had strong competition from him, but I was also impressed that he knew (and used) shorthand in taking notes. I never knew before (or since) a reporter equipped with shorthand.

When JFK was assassinated, we were both assigned by our newspapers to cover the street reaction in NY. I met Wolfe at the 42nd Street subway, and, after he told me he was doing a “reaction” story – as I was also, for The Times – I suggested we share a taxi cab, which we did for the next five or six hours. We were driven to Chinatown, Little Italy, Wall Street, the upper East Side, Harlem and we made a remarkable discovery: There was an absence of emotion (or weeping) from the pedestrians we saw. Indeed, we saw very little overt signs of lamentation, or a sense of loss, or rage at the murder of our president.

There was something very strange about this, since one would expect to see a city in mourning, a city in anger ... but no, people in New York went about their business as usual ...yes, the news that was coming over the radio, and on TV, had a funeral-like tone, very reverential, deeply disturbing, etc. – in Dallas, the president had died – but truly, on the sidewalks and byways of New York City, you’d never know it. Or so we two reporters saw and reported in our notebooks.

So both Wolfe and I returned to our respective city editors later in the early evening, in time for the first edition, to report what we had seen ... or rather, what we had NOT seen. Both of our editors – mine at The Times, his at the Herald Tribune – were almost offended that we did not report what they had expected and wanted ... i.e., what was “appropriate” to the situation.

Tom Wolfe, left, and Gay Talese in 2017.
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So, neither Wolfe nor Talese had a story in our newspapers on the occasion of Kennedy’s death. Our editors did not want us to write what we saw ... therefore, we both wrote nothing ... Strange, no?

We became friends for life and continued to work together for Esquire and later wrote books and always attended one another’s book parties. He came to a big party for me, by Taschen at the Pierre Hotel, when “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” came out in an illustrated edition a year or so ago. We dined together in restaurants regularly, most recently this year when (with our wives) I brought along Don DeLillo and his wife Barbara. DeLillo is a reclusive man, but came out of himself to the degree of joining us at this East Side restaurant, and seemed to enjoy meeting Tom and Sheila

What a great career Wolfe had, and without question his work will live on, and on surely so.

Tom Wolfe.
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Gay Talese, left, with Tom Wolfe in the living room of the former's apartment in New York, 2017.
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