Tom Wolfe, 1931-2018

Not long after Tom Wolfe discovered his voice at Esquire, Harold Hayes hired a new editor, Bob Sherrill, his old friend from Wake Forest college. A North Carolina mountain man, Sherrill talked like Tom Wolfe wrote, his words skittering around in an energetic collage.  He was a man alive to the world – antennae out, picking up strange vibrations. If there was a censoring mechanism anywhere in Sherrill, it operated weakly; he seemed utterly open. He had the journalist’s obsession: to find out things that hadn’t been told and tell them, not just tell them but tell them – grab the listener by the lapels and tell the story.

One day he and Wolfe and Hayes were sitting in Hayes’s dim office talking about story ideas. What about dirt-track racers? Sherrill suggested. Wolfe had done customized cars as folk art. Why not dirt-track racing as folk sport? Wolfe didn’t seem all that interested in North Carolina mountain guys who raced Fords and Chevrolets around dirt tracks. Sherrill began naming some of the drivers, and when he got to Junior Johnson, Wolfe’s interest picked up. Was that his real name? Junior? Junior Johnson?

In the spring of 1964, Wolfe went down to Wilkes County, North Carolina, the ancestral home of the Hayes family, to meet Junior Johnson and watch him race. Junior was a burly man who had made a reputation as a whiskey runner, outdriving federal agents around mountain roads, before he made his name as a racer. He had a big following, and they watched curiously as Wolfe, a southerner, too, although not their kind of southerner, stood around in a green tweed suit (he favored white suits but he was trying to look casual), baking in the hot southern spring sun. Wolfe made several trips to North Carolina because he could never stay long; he had to get back to his job at the New York Herald Tribune.

Still no story appeared.

Finally, Hayes called him up. “Tom, when are we going to get that piece?”

“Harold, I’m working on it very hard.”

“You’ve told us that before. This is not right.”

Not that it was unprofessional, or not fair to Esquire, or that he wouldn’t get paid. “This is not right.” Wolfe was crushed, and worked day and night to get the piece finished: “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!”

It was one of his best—Wolfe floated comfortably along, dropping into hill country accents with no big to-do, falling back into his own repertoire of voices that ranged from rhapsody to sociological chat to straight-talking journalist, just telling a story. Again finding artistry in an unlikely place, he never balanced better on the line between enthusiasm and ridicule. Reading “Junior,” reporters in North Carolina who had watched Wolfe come in and snatch the story right out from under them were amazed: “What does this guy know? What are all these sentences?” Remembering how they felt, one of them, John Baskin, a young newspaper reporter who had watched Wolfe work around the pit crew, said, “I just got quiet and started figuring out how to do it.”

This passage is an excerpt from my book, It Wasn’t Pretty, Folks, But Didn’t We Have Fun? Esquire in the Sixties (W.W. Norton, 1995).