It is really annoying the way celebrities whom one has never met are constantly dropping dead and inflicting unwanted reminders of mortality on all of us.
It’s different when friends or family dies. When someone you know dies, there’s grief and anguish to deal with. When it’s someone you only know of, there’s no grief to stave off the self-absorption and blind you to the fact that all humans die. It’s what we do and there’s nothing to be done about it, but total strangers should stop rubbing our noses in it.
This dreary reverie was brought on by the current dead celebrity of the week, Tom Wolfe. I hadn’t been a fan of his early journalistic work — slipped under my youthful radar, I suppose — but I loved his novels, especially the first one. “Bonfire of the Vanities” was an incredible story, and the first real hint that the ’80s had spun completely out of control, a hint driven home by 1987’s Black Monday stock market crash, which happened more or less simultaneously with the book’s publication.
If you’ve only seen the horrendous movie made from the book, you missed out. A book whose primary distinction is that there is not one likable character in it was, of course, made into a movie starring Tom Hanks, the most likable man on the planet. Understandably, it sucked.
After reading the book, I was never able to walk down Park Avenue after leaving work without laughing at the overdressed toffs exiting town cars, because now I knew the car was probably rented, and they had only traveled in it for a couple of blocks from their own Park Avenue apartment in order to impress the doorman at another Park Avenue apartment building. Wolfe knew how to skewer the powerful, or as he called them, “Masters of the Universe.”
And due to his adeptness at giving names to things, I knew that the young blonde trophy wives riding in those town cars were called “Lemon Tarts” and the painfully thin first wives were called “Social X-rays.” That was one of Wolfe’s great talents, giving a name to a phenomenon you knew existed, but didn’t yet know what it was called. All the obituaries have mentioned “Radical Chic” and “The Me-Generation” as prime examples of his legendary naming skills, but “Lemon Tart” has always been my personal favorite.
By the time he published “I am Charlotte Simmons” in 2004, which everyone in Elkin called “The Girl from Sparta” because it’s about a girl from Sparta, North Carolina, I decided he was stalking me because I had recently made my home just down the mountain from the setting of his new book.
But I never met him, never even saw him that I know of, which is kind of odd if you think about it. He lived on the Upper East Side of New York since 1962, and I worked on the UES through most of the ’80s and all of the ’90s.
New York is a big city, but the Upper East Side is small, cliquish and rather incestuous. By which I mean, it’s a limited cast of characters which one encounters over and over, and how could I miss a man who walked around dressed like Colonel Sanders in a time and place where every other human being in the city walked around wearing more black than the widow at a Sicilian funeral. By all accounts, he stood out like a sore thumb, so I’m sure I would have noticed him.
I would love to have chatted with him for a moment, at a crosswalk or something. Everyone says he was as unfailingly polite and charming in person as he was acerbic and ruthless in his writing. I admire both of those qualities, and would liked to have told him so.
But now that he’s gone and that’s not going to happen, I’m going to instead commandeer his own description of his eccentric appearance. “Neo-pretentious” is just too good a word to let it die with him, and I feel I can successfully pick up that mantle without resorting to white three-piece suits.
Why just this morning, my four-pound chihuahua Tango — see how easy that was, a chihuahua is a neo-pretentious pooch if ever there was one — was giving me my morning hug, and I must have been harping on the whole mortality thing, because it struck me that not only am I 60 years old, but Tango is pushing 10. What do I do when the inevitable happens, and he has terrorized the mail lady for the last time? I don’t want to live out my twilight years without a canine companion, but I don’t want to leave a poor dog to fend for himself after I’m gone.
I recently heard that Queen Elizabeth stopped breeding her beloved Corgis when she was about 95 for that very reason. I have to say that’s some royal optimism there.
I wonder what Tom Wolfe would say about such a solid example of neo-pretension. I imagine it would be very clever.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.