MIAMI—So this time the guy with the white suits and dazzling spats is wading through the cultural intersections of Miami. Already, Tom Wolfe has visited several times as tourist, sponge, anthropologist and journalist. Always journalist.
He has done lunch at Versailles, dinner at The Forge, drinks at the Setai, culture at Art Basel.
At 76, the best-selling author is writing a novel about Miami, peering through his vintage magnifying glass at a place easy to misinterpret, a place at once colorful and mired in grays. Miami is growing, still writing its narrative and permanently changed by immigration. Here, more than half the population is foreign-born.
“A big writer like Tom Wolfe who is interested in big stories with big themes would be attracted to the story of Miami in all its complexity,” Mitchell Kaplan, co-founder of the Miami Book Fair International, offered one recent afternoon as word of Wolfe sightings spreads.
“Back to Blood,” Wolfe’s new work, will explore race and crime, sex and class, plus immigration, a complex issue the author has been hankering to tackle since the 1980s when he pounded out “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” the electrifying saga that skewered New York’s pageant of Wall Street millionaires, street shysters and race warriors.
“I would tell people I was working on a book about immigration,” Wolfe told a Miami audience in October, “and they would say, `That’s fascinating,’ and then their heads would go, pffft. Now, suddenly, it’s a big thing.”
Wolfe has made an astounding career of watching, absorbing, then testifying on the human condition. In best-sellers such as “Bonfire” and “A Man in Full,” he has chronicled intriguing tales from along the great fault lines of race, class and wealth.
“It’s Tom Wolfe writing the kind of novel that only Tom Wolfe, among the living American writers, can do,” Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little, Brown and Co., which bought North American rights for a reported $7 million, told The New York Times. “He’s looking at a society in huge flux and the combinations of ambition and class and all the different human drives that make cities fascinating places.”
Over the years, Wolfe has become famous for parachuting into a city and interpreting its ethos, wonders and flaws. He characteristically writes about people who struggle with their morals, ethics and prejudices. Wolfe carries a reporter’s notebook but takes few notes. At day’s end, he pours his observations and impressions into a journal. A notoriously laborious writer, he worked on “A Man in Full,” set in Atlanta, for more than a decade.
“I think it’s great that he has chosen to focus on Miami. As Andy Warhol said, `Press is press,’” said prominent art collector Mera Rubell.
Last month, Wolfe joined the parade of contemporary art enthusiasts who descended on the city for Art Basel to undertake what was unmistakably “Back to Blood” research.
The art fair clearly made an impression.
“This is the end of capitalism as we know it,” Wolfe told The Art Newspaper as he took in the Basel droves, “waiting for the doors to open like some half-off sale at Macy’s.”
Paul George, historian and Miami Dade College professor, was among the first to witness Wolfe at work during his Basel visit, after the writer “reached out to me and wanted to talk about Miami’s history and its ethnicities.”
George joined Wolfe at the Standard Hotel for breakfast. Wearing his signature white suit, Wolfe ate slowly, cereal with milk along with a cup of coffee.
“He is a gentleman, very low-key, kind. He doesn’t say much,” George said. “But he already knew the basic Miami story, all the demographics. He was looking for the color, looking for someone to fill in the blanks.”
That Saturday, this odd couple—George, the tour guide and consummate talker; Wolfe, the reporter and consummate listener—cruised Biscayne Bay for three hours on the Island Queen. After lunch, George took the writer on a driving tour of ethnic neighborhoods with stops in Coconut Grove, Overtown, Little Haiti, Wynwood, Allapattah and Little Havana. By the day’s end, George said, Wolfe’s interest seemed to have winnowed down to Cubans and Haitians.
“It was clear he wanted to get to the ground zero of immigration,” George said.
Not that Wolfe offered any details. He is mum about the plots of his books.
Mary Rose Taylor, whose airplane conversation decades ago about real-estate developers in Atlanta became “A Man in Full,” didn’t know for sure what that novel was about until she began to read Chapter 1. And they were friends, close since the 1960s.
When Wolfe came to Miami in October to lecture about urban renewal, an announcement promised some mention of the book. It never happened.
“He is a man who plays it close to the vest,” said Miami Police Chief John Timoney, another old-school friend who was on the New York police force when he met Wolfe. “He’s not much of a talker.”
What we do know: “Back to Blood” characters include a young nurse of Cuban ancestry married to a famous French-emigre sex doctor; a freshman journalist on the trail of a Russian-mob-comes-to-Miami story; his wary editor; a second-generation Cuban police officer; a woman of Haitian descent who passes for Anglo.
A bit more: Wolfe has been here at least three times, and he has been hosted by some of the city’s top players.
In March, Timoney, a friend for more than 25 years, ushered him around town. During that visit, Wolfe met Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, who stoked his curiosity about immigrant experiences.
“I started talking to him about Miami and how we do what we do,” Diaz said. “And I started to see a twinkle. Like, wow, if you’re going to write a book whose theme is immigration, how can you do it anywhere else but Miami? The more he has come down, the more excited he has become about Miami. But, he doesn’t get into details with me.”
Wolfe returned in October to speak at an invitation-only affair that included a talk about art and real estate at the Freedom Tower and a tour of Wynwood, a neighborhood under reinvention as an art enclave of studios, galleries and private collection spaces.
Developer Joey Goldman, who with his father Tony Goldman (credited with helping revive SoHo and South Beach) is working to regentrify Wynwood, took Wolfe on a tour of the up-and-coming area’s art galleries during Art Basel.
“We spent time together over four days,” said Goldman, an art collector and chairman of the city of Miami’s Arts and Entertainment Council. “I took him to an opening-night Basel dinner at The Forge, where there were a lot of people, local celebrities, ball players. We had drinks at the Setai.”
Goldman said he is confident that Wolfe will get Miami right and that his book will be more of a love letter than a slam.
Still, Wolfe missed some marquee names.
Sometime during his visit, Wolfe stopped by The Rubell Collection in Wynwood, but it was closed for installation.
“I am told he popped in, but we were preparing for Basel,” Mera Rubell said. “I wish I had had a chance to talk to him. I would love to give him some insights into Miami and share what a wonderful city this is.”
Miami has been down this road before, of course—and not always fared well. In movies, television and other books, the city is often painted, perhaps tainted, as steamy, glossy and unrestrained.
So far, these Miami visits are not unlike Wolfe’s dance with Atlanta before “A Man in Full,” an ambitious and unsparing Southern Gothic portrait of the city’s real-estate world.
There, his tutor was Mary Rose Taylor. They had met in the 1960s, she a college student and he an emerging literary voice.
It was Taylor who told Wolfe about the developers in Atlanta. Seduced by the idea of a swaggering real-estate mogul’s romp through the New South, cakewalking racial politics, and—of all things—quail-hunting, Wolfe called Taylor and her husband, developer Charles McKenzie “Mack” Taylor.
Mack Taylor, who always denied that he had been the inspiration for Wolfe’s Charlie Croker, died this month. Wolfe attended his funeral.
Before the 742-page best-seller was finished, the Taylors would host three dinner parties to introduce Wolfe to Atlanta’s image makers, escort him around South Georgia’s hunting plantations, and match him up with the city planner.
“Through the creative process, he discovers the reality,” Mary Rose Taylor said. She paused, as if rewinding the whole sordid Tom-Wolfe-does-Atlanta matter through her head. “And you know, he can hit too close to home. Truths are sometimes uncomfortable.”
Wolfe’s relationship with Atlanta was awkward, complicated. Here was a city just two years beyond its Centennial Olympics-hosting duties, a city that stood tall under the banner “Too Busy to Hate,” that suddenly found itself challenged on matters of race and class and money.
“The book was controversial in all sectors of the community,” Taylor said. “No one was spared.”
Tempers erupted, and Wolfe was snubbed by some of Atlanta’s elite. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution launched “Wolfe Watch,” an obsessive daily report paired with a caricature of the author.
Still, much of the city was happy for the ink.
“Atlanta is one of those cities that is sort of flattered by attention, even the kind that is tongue in cheek,” said Rick Beard, then head of the Atlanta History Center. “Atlantans are less concerned about what is said about them than they are worried that no one will be saying anything at all or that their names will be misspelled.”
With “A Man in Full” a decade-plus deep in the rear view, Taylor offered this advice to Miami:
“Don’t be scared. Just let it flow,” she said. “People look back at the book and the situation and laugh at it now. It’s like getting burned or cut. At first it stings, and then you are OK.”
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