A writer explores his father's mysterious imprisonment, and accusations that he was spying for the CIA, in revolutionary-era Iran.
“The Bonfire of the Vanities” was Tom Wolfe’s 11th book and first novel. Inspired by Thackeray’s 19th century satire “Vanity Fair,” Wolfe set out to capture the essence of high and low society in 1980s New York. The story centers on Sherman McCoy, a wealthy bond trader and self-regarded “master of the universe.” His life is destroyed when he and his mistress make a wrong turn into the Bronx one night. Critics said Wolfe’s portrayal of urban class and race came as close as fiction could to breaking news. It’s the 25th anniversary of the novel, and this month’s Readers’ Review.
- Kate Lehrer author, most recently of "Confessions of a Bigamist."
- William Cohan contributing editor at Vanity Fair, opinion columnist for Bloomberg View, former investment banker and author of "Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World."
- Juan Williams political analyst, Fox News.
Read An Excerpt
“Prologue: Mutt on Fire” excerpt from The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe. The Bonfire of the Vanities copyright © 1987 by Tom Wolfe. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Picador and Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Twenty-five years ago, Tom Wolfe published his first novel, "The Bonfire of the Vanities," but he drew on the journalistic principles of his previous books. He portrayed 1980s New York as a hot bed of racial and cultural tensions, where Wall Street traders thought of themselves as masters of the universe. For this month's Readers' Review, how the novel has held up.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me Juan Williams, political analyst for Fox News and author of "Muzzle: The Assault on Honest Debate," Kate Lehrer, she's author of "Confessions of a Bigamist," and William Cohan, he's contributing editor at Vanity Fair and author of "Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World." I hope you'll join us. This is one of my favorite novels. Call us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter.
MS. DIANE REHMWell, good morning and welcome to all of you.
MR. JUAN WILLIAMSGood morning, Diane.
MR. WILLIAM COHANGood morning, Diane.
REHMGood to see you all. Juan Williams, in the prologue, Tom Wolfe sets this political landscape of New York City in the 1980s with racial ethnic tensions. Talk about what's going on.
WILLIAMSThis is a wonderful moment in New York, in that Wall Street has come back from the doldrums of the '70s if you will, but Wall Street is bubbling. People are making big money. And the class divisions and the society that is New York City could not be more evident. You've got everything from the squeegee guys who are wiping windows, being told they no longer can wipe the windows and there's tensions there with the mayor, an odd-named character in this novel, "Bonfires."
WILLIAMSBut then you've also got, you know, the kinds of racial tensions, the Al Sharpton type stuff going on. You've got Howard Beach, where a black man was killed and Gravesend, where another black man was killed. And these tensions then are all boiling into headlines and the tabloids. And the tabloids play a key role as well in "Bonfires." And then you have, on top of that, a sense of kind of just, you know, I mean, I think this is captured in some other fiction works of the time.
WILLIAMSI'm thinking back to "Wall Street," the Oliver Stone movie. I'm thinking back to "Liars Poker," and I'm thinking back to "Barbarians At The Gate," which all gives you a sense that, you know, there's this tremendous wealth, but then there's this other group of people out there and they're mostly black, Hispanic, but also working-class people who are resentful, envious, but angry about what's going on Wall Street. And somehow the people on Wall Street consider themselves masters of the universe. They're better than all these people who are so jealous and envious.
REHMAnd, Kate Lehrer, you've got the mayor being heckled and he is furious.
MS. KATE LEHREROh, yes. Because again, what matters to all these people is their power. And he has more power than anybody else or wants to have more power or thinks he still does have more power, though of course he doesn't. And which is wonderful, though. You see those power plays all the way through this novel. He can't stand it that he cannot control all these different things because you're now just going into the whole racial thing that had not really--well, had been there, certainly since the '60s, but really the early '70s when it really broke loose.
MS. KATE LEHRERAnd it's just moving on, moving on. Maybe all that's changed are a few of the players today.
REHMAnd, William, you actually worked on Wall Street for 15 years. You also worked at GE Capital. I mean, what was the feeling like? Did this novel ring true to you?
COHANI mean that's the incredible thing, Diane, how true it does ring, even now, today. Even with Wall Street being taken down a considerable peg after the financial crisis. I mean, back then--because that's exactly when I started on Wall Street. And, you know, the bond traders were really--we can't say it on public radio, but they were really macho and very taken with themselves. And so Sherman McCoy is a perfect embodiment of that.
COHANAnd I remember in 1987 when I first started on Wall Street, there was a guy by the name of David Wittig, who was on the cover of "Fortune Magazine." He was a young guy, probably 31, 32 and he was very handsome, had cuff links, beautiful French cuffs and smoking a big cigar, talking about how making $500,000 a year, which was of course one of the touchstone figures that Sherman McCoy and his bond traders want to make, how that wasn't enough money.
COHANAnd I'm thinking to myself, my goodness, you know, I can't even believe--I cannot believe this. And then along comes, you know, this book and, you know, captures that whole spirit perfectly.
REHMAnd Sherman McCoy is at the center or one of the centers of the novel. He has a wife who is very interested in decorating her apartment and making sure that everything is absolutely perfect. He has a six-year-old daughter whom he adores, but he's not satisfied. He's got a mistress on the side.
WILLIAMSHe's got a mistress. He's got the Park Avenue duplex. He's got this life, but it's dominant. I mean, he is a master of the universe in the sense that he has so much money, but at the same time it's so fragile. And I think the critical moment in this book that everyone will remember is that he's just on the road with the mistress when he takes the wrong turn on an expressway in the South Bronx. And there he encounters people who are not so easily controlled as the very controlled environment on Wall Street.
REHMAnd when he makes that wrong turn, Kate, his life changes completely.
LEHRERYes, it does. He says the wrong turn. In fact, he says the wrong turn and the mistress says, Sherman, it's the wrong turn. You've made the wrong turn. He still won't admit what's happened, but then of course that's just before he goes--there's the kill, which I call it, when he--actually it's Maria who hits--
REHMIt's Maria who's driving, his mistress.
LEHRERIt's Maria, the mistress, who ends up hitting the boy. To Sherman's credit, he does want to--well, a little credit, give him a little, not much. He does want to report it.
LEHRERThis comes out of the way he was brought up. And the mistress says, you have no idea. You don't know how to deal with that world. And of course he did not know how to deal with criminal cases at all. And he would have been in it. She understood. She had come out of the South, but she had made her way by marrying rich men, old men preferably, I think.
REHMShe was in her 30s. She married a much older, richer guy, but the point of the novel being that he does make a wrong turn and whether he's a master of the universe or not doesn't matter anymore.
COHANWell, I'm often fascinated by agendas derailed, if you will. And I think this book really captures that idea very well because, you know, this guy thinks he's in total control of his life. He's the best bond trader at, you know, his firm. You know, he talks about insulate, insulate, insulate. Remember that great phrase which just sticks in your mind? He was in this bubble and he didn't think anything could change that. Yes, he had a big mortgage.
COHANYes, he had a mistress, but he had everything ordered perfectly. And then he goes to the South Bronx, makes the wrong turn, hits they boy and, you know, the whole agenda is derailed. And Wolfe captures so well the feeling of what it was like to be in New York and the south Bronx at that time.
REHMTalk about the South Bronx and how it contrasts with the life that Sherman lives.
WILLIAMSWell, you couldn't imagine the distance, because they're not that far apart if you're just doing geographical measurement, but in fact, in terms of life, Henry Lamb, who's the boy that gets hit, lives in the projects in the South Bronx. And he's barely getting through school and is surrounded by criminality and vermin and all the rest. If you want to just, in your mind, create the image, as Wolfe does, of squalid public housing in New York City versus the kind of luxury that Sherman McCoy enjoys on Park Avenue in his fancy car and his life.
WILLIAMSSo at the time, and I think this is important to remember as well, you have things like Bernard Goetz taking place, where you have this kind of anger at the poor in New York. Bernard Goetz, who shoots some boys on the subway who he thinks were threatening him becomes a hero, kind of representing the idea that, you know, white America is putting up with the threats and intimidation from these poor blacks. But of course, on the other side, is Henry Lamb who's a real person.
WILLIAMSHe's really trying to make his own way in the world. And he, actually like much of working class New York, black, white, Hispanic, whatever, thinks, gee, these guys on Wall Street are a bunch of arrogant asses, you know. I don't know if that's public radio language, but, you know. And they think they're better than everybody else. And, you know, we can talk in terms of the blacks, the Hispanics and the working class in New York versus Wall Street, but you know, it's interesting when you read this novel to see the place of women in this novel, which is that Sherman McCoy is not exactly on equal terms.
WILLIAMSToday, here in 2012, women have so much more power and…
WILLIAMS…but back then in '88, this was like, you are my trophy, play thing. And even his wife, I mean, his wife withdraws her affections and the like after she discovers the mistress.
WILLIAMSBut she, too, is just in charge of a duplex, it's in her place.
REHMAnd the boy, Henry Lamb, is considered a quote "honors student" because he shows up every day.
WILLIAMSThat's all it takes.
REHMAnd that's all it takes. And we're going to take a short break here. I do invite you to be part of this Readers' Review, as we talk about Tom Wolfe's wonderful, fabulous novel, now 25 years old--what's the title?
WILLIAMS"The Bonfire of the Vanities."
REHMAnd we're talking about Tom Wolfe's novel "Bonfire of the Vanities," now 25 years old but still as relevant today as it ever was 25 years ago. I have a story to tell you about Tom Wolfe when he was on this program several years ago. And of course he came in in his beautiful white suit. We had advised him of course to please turn off his cell phone. Rather than doing so he left it on and during the program the phone rang.
REHMAnd Tom Wolfe answered the phone and began talking on the air to whoever was on the other end of the phone. He said, oh I'm on "The Diane Rehm Show." I'll have to talk to you a little later. I mean, he was so in the moment. He was so himself always. And I wondered about phrases like masters of the universe and the X-ray female, his wife who is so thin you can see right through her.
LEHRERYes. Well, she exercises all the time. And he -- the social X-rays not only starve themselves, they exercise all the time. Great for a man, too, but not these women. And of course he's looking for ways to justify the affair, therefore his wife who is all of 40 years old, or going to be 40 is over the top. And why can't she understand? Why could he not just come out and say, well I am a master of the universe and deserve to have a young lush thing in my life, which he does as he's struggling with the dog in that first scene.
REHMOh, that first scene.
LEHRERThat he's got to look for an excuse, you know, for taking the dog for a walk so he can go around the corner and be with his mistress.
REHMAnd he goes out in the pouring rain. He wants to call his mistress and what does he do? He makes a mistake and he calls his own wife.
COHANRight. He calls his own wife and of course he thinks well, he can talk his way out of it...
REHMBecause he's the master of the universe.
COHAN...because he's the master of the universe. And by the way, I just have to say, can you imagine though how different it would be -- I mean, this is a time before cell phones, right, before iPhones. And he had to go to a payphone on the street and fumble with coins and put it in and then he dials his number by mistake. Now he -- you know, I suppose now there'd be even a more complete and more detailed record that the FBI would probably want to look at.
COHANAnd maybe it was a little harder when it was a payphone. But then, you know, he--then he calls his mistress and he goes over there and tries to explain to her how he's made this mistake of calling his own home and asking for her. And she's completely uninterested in any of that. And then since he's there, of course, he might as well, you know, go through with what he came to do anyway. And, you know, 45 minutes returns home and tries to talk his way out of it.
REHMAnd his wife does now believe him. Talk about the Reverend Bacon, William, because he is another huge figure in this book.
COHANYeah, he -- and this prompts me to have a little story about Tom Wolfe, if I may. I mean, I was trying to, in my mind, remember the sequence of when -- but I ran into Tom Wolfe on the street. I think it was probably '87, '88. And so this book had come out and I'm trying to remember when exactly, you know, Al Sharpton and the whole Tawana Brawley thing was. I mean, by the way it's amazing to think that now the Reverend Al Sharpton has his own cable TV show, but had come from being a Reverend.
COHANAnd I remember bumping into Tom Wolfe on Madison Avenue, resplendent in his white suit and his hat. And I just--and of course I couldn't -- you know, he was an idol. I mean, this guy of course was an incredible journalist.
COHANAnd an incredible writer and he made this transition to a novelist. And I said to him, I cannot believe how prescient you were in writing this about, you know, the Reverend and the -- you know, I think it must've been around Tawana Brawley or something like that was going on. And he looked at me and he said, yes I do seem to have captured something, didn't I?
COHANAnd I thought that was so wonderful. And, you're right, he was living in that moment and so of himself that, you know, he understood that he had accomplished something quite magical.
REHMSo what does the Reverend Bacon do, Juan?
WILLIAMSWell, the Reverend Bacon seeks to exploit the moment and seeks to make money off of it. He's a guy who has a lot of -- what would you call them -- phony organizations and groups that are all about extorting money out of big white corporations, out of a Sherman McCoy type people who will write it off and say that they are so generous to the -- those in need. But of course Reverend Bacon -- I think the name Bacon of course suggests pork, right. And what you see here is kind of pork barrel, this is the way that the minority Reverend is going to make his way in the world, not exactly a man of God but a man who is very aware of his own bank account.
WILLIAMSEverybody's got their hand in the trough. And that's the way he makes his way in the world.
LEHRERWell, I think it all speaks to whoever these characters are. The only really good character is Campbell, the little girl. And she's beautifully drawn too. But all these others on the whole, they're after either fame or money, preferably both. And it all goes back to power. And each person has his or her own way to get to that power, to get to that ultimate aphrodisiac.
LEHRERBut money's huge in that world.
REHM...and that includes both Larry Cramer who's the assistant district attorney and Sherman McCoy. In a sense they...
LEHRERYeah, they all are bound...
LEHRER...they're all different sides of the very -- they both -- they all refract from the same stone and the same stone is power.
REHMDo you agree?
COHANWell, I do agree and, you know, it's -- again, he's -- talk about prescient. I mean, this idea of the ambitious -- you know, in this case he was an assistant D.A. but, I mean, you know, I mean, it could've been tightly drawn from Giuliani who was the U.S. Attorney in the southern district at that time when there were all sorts of talk about, you know, now we're reliving insider trading yet again with Preet Bharara in the southern district of New York. But 25 years ago of course Rudy Giuliani was doing the same thing, this ambitious U.S. Attorney, politically ambitious, trying to take advantage of the situation. The same thing was going on in the novel.
COHANAnd just one thing Kate said about Campbell. You know, I was struck in that scene early on where he's taking her to school and he's of course feeling very good about himself being a father, which is of course ridiculous. But maybe, you know, typical of the time. And she look up to him and said, you know, something like, what if god doesn't exist? And it was such, again just sort of this harbinger because you knew that she was the only one asking the real question here. Because clearly it was going to be the case that Sherman McCoy -- you know, his whole world was going to fall apart. And so there was no god, you know, for him, or no god looking out for him, that's for sure.
WILLIAMSYou know what struck me -- if I have a moment, Diane...
WILLIAMS...is the reporter because that's what I do for a living. And the reporter is Peter Fallow.
WILLIAMSAnd Fallow may be a key word here for our audience. But, you know, the--this is an interesting moment because Peter Fallow's just out for a story and he's just -- he's totally into the kind of sensationalism that you see in the New York tabloids. The owner of the paper, Sir Gerald Stein -- and again, there's a lot of anti-Semitism that plays through this novel, a lot of anger at Jews. And he is Jewish and British and he is, you know, seen as a dummy by Peter Fallow. That he's just out there making money but he's a know nothing. He doesn't understand what -- and they're all just in it, you know, for what they can get.
WILLIAMSSo the thing that strikes me is I don't know -- I hear from Bill that, you know, Tom Wolfe thought he was prescient. But, you know, I think what it is is that he was just a good journalist. And I think that's the problem with Tom Wolfe is that people who are actual novelists don't like Tom Wolfe, not to this day 25 years later. That if you were talking, you know, to the -- you know, the great novelist of our time, Updike if you're talking to Norman Mailer. They really deride Tom Wolfe.
WILLIAMSThey can't stand him. And then Tom Wolfe in response -- because they didn't like some of his subsequent novels even more than they didn't like Bonfires, then he wrote a letter called "My Three Stooges" which was about -- yeah. And so, I mean -- but, you know, I think -- and Wolfe thinks of himself in the tradition of Steinbeck or Balzac with the human comedy and kind of recreating -- or capturing -- more than prescience -- capturing the excesses and realities of the time.
WILLIAMSAnd if you look at this novel, what's great to me about it is the details. It takes you back into the '80s and you can see specific details in telling moments that capture that time. For me, it feels like, gee, the '80s weren't that long ago, but I'm an old man at this point.
LEHRERWell, I think, too, yeah, and his scenes are so -- they stay with you so well. They're so brilliantly drawn. Some of them you could say yes, they're set pieces. I mean, you could write that and link it or not link it to the novel. But the fact is they're gorgeous to the point that having not read the book in 25 years, when I picked it up before I opened it I thought, okay what do I remember. What are the most vivid scenes?
LEHRERWell, that first one the wrong turn. Right there you can never forget that. Another one was that -- a dinner party where he's nobody because all he does is make money and he's with the glitzy names who are in the arts and have other--other things to recommend them. Not his old New York crowd, the more sedate crowd. And then that last when he's going to jail and in the jail. Fortunately I couldn't remember the end and I thought that was really good. I could remember all these things up -- but the way he describes that I -- you know, I know that -- how they feel about him.
LEHRERAnd I was once at one of the dinners in New York, you know, one of the literary dinners right after he had won whatever he had. And then he was getting up and giving the speech that night in front of all the literary lines. Nobody would shut up. He spoke and everybody kept talking, which was such a sign of...
WILLIAMSOh, yeah, you know, John...
WILLIAMS...John Irving says if he just yaks, that he's a bad writer. It's like reading a bad magazine article, that he can't create characters, that he can't create situations.
LEHRERWell, in his dreams, John Irving.
WILLIAMSYeah, but he says that basically what Wolfe does is create -- Wolfe doesn't get into the internal drama in the way that most novelists do. He's talking about the larger social picture and that's -- but Diane, I think that's to Tom Wolfe's credit.
COHANI agree with that completely. I mean, his journalistic eye is exquisite. I mean, and it was in his earlier nonfiction "The Right Stuff," "The Painted Word." I mean, those novels -- or those nonfiction books were fabulous. But as somebody who worked on Wall Street during this time...
REHMHe got it.
COHAN...he so captured what it was all about. It's extraordinary.
REHMI want to read you this from our website. Someone writes, "I'll never forget the scene where Sherman is attending a child's birthday party. The children start asking what the parents sitting around the table do for work. He tries to explain how he acquired a fortune by getting tiny commissions on multimillion dollar financial trades using the analogy of crumbs falling off a piece of cake to symbolize his earnings. It suddenly sounds ridiculous to the children and everyone else, and an activity that obviously provided nothing of use to the larger society. His child is envious of one of the other fathers who simply builds furniture." Boy, does that capture it.
LEHRERAnd an indictment of today.
COHANI believe that does, just going to say.
REHMAnd you're listening to The Diane Rehm Show." Let's take calls now. Other people want to be part of the program, 800-433-8850. First to Rochester, N.Y. Good morning, Maggie.
MAGGIEGood morning, Diane. How are you?
REHMI'm fine, thanks.
MAGGIEYou know, I loved this book too, one of my favorites. I didn't get around to reading it until about three years ago but it was so realistic of how New York City was back in the late '70s, early '80s. I had occasion to travel there to visit a lot in those days. And you always felt like the place was on a precipice, ready to go into the abyss or something. And he so captured that. And also the way he depicts these masters of the universe I just think he nailed them to it. It's still true today. They're just like that so...
REHMDo you agree that the same holds true?
COHANI mean, Diane, I've written three books about Wall Street. I worked on Wall Street for 17 years. When I got to college campuses, you know, after what we have been through you would think the students there would sort of be willing to step back and rethink a career on Wall Street. But, you know, all of the drama and the excitement of being on Wall Street that he captures in this book 25 years later, despite what we've been through, people still come up to me and they say, can you help me get a shop at Goldman Sachs. Can you help me get a job there? It still has an allure that Wolfe captures so beautifully.
REHMTo Richmond, Va. Good morning, Patrick.
PATRICKI have a quick comment and I'll take my response off the air. But I actually just finished this book a few weeks ago. I bought it at a thrift store for a quarter and one of the best quarters I ever spent. But -- so I look on the back cover, you know, so many of the reviews talked about it's so funny and it's a real riot. And for me I didn't really see that much humor. I thought the overall tone was very depressing. And for me it was right there with like "Lie Down in Darkness" or like a Richard Yates novel. I mean, the picture it paints of New York in the '80s, it's just overall very depressing.
REHMWhat do you think, Kate?
LEHRERWell, I see the humor in it because I guess I like very dark humor. So I could -- as long as I -- you know, I saw it that way. And I saw what he was doing. And when you see people that care so -- who are just totally consumed by hubris, by pride and their sense of themselves. And making fools of themselves finally because they're so caught up in their own elusions. Most of these men in this novel are very delusional about themselves. They just simply are that way. So I could see the humor.
LEHRERI think the thing is it's like any good humor, that you see the darkness and you get that. And then suddenly you have to stop laughing and thinking you're called and it's horrible.
REHMWow. Yeah, exactly. What about you, Juan? Do you think it was more funny or more tragic?
WILLIAMSWell, when I first read it I thought -- because I don't know masters of the universe. They're not in my Washington political world and it's not to say...
REHMBut surely there are masters of the universe...
WILLIAMSOh no, I was going to say, I know some jerks. But I think that's of a difference -- I mean, remember the people here in Washington, they kowtow to the guys on Wall Street. The guys on Wall Street have the money, they fund the campaigns. So in my world they are -- the Wall Street guys do have a different level of status. And status is very important in this book.
WILLIAMSBut I was thinking, as I was listening to the caller, about the tradition -- the literary tradition that Wolfe occupies because I mentioned earlier Balzac. But you think then of more contemporary people like Jack Kerouac, if you will. And when you read those novels you always come away thinking, this is kind of sad.
REHMPolitical Analyst Juan Williams. Short break, right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Just before the break, Juan, we were talking about the tragedy versus the comedy.
WILLIAMSWell, I think, you know, the human condition can be very comic. But when you get into human motivations and you start to see how prosaic and just at times greedy and awful people can be in their primary motivations, that's when it gets sad because then, I think, the psychology occurs, the psychological answer occurs to you.
WILLIAMSThese people are foul, these people are kind of in a wasteland, you know, and so it's comic to see them act out. you know, the Reverend Bacon, as this kind of greedy guy who has, he's supposed to be representing the great civil rights movement tradition and he's a minister and in fact he's acting out of pure greed and malice at times.
WILLIAMSAnd you just think, what the, how is this possible? But the point I was making to you was, you know, in the great literary tradition that, I think, that Tom Wolfe really captures in "Bonfire of the Vanities" you go back over time and you start to see some darkness, Diane. I mean, there's...
WILLIAMS...Edgar Allen Poe, I think, also is a guy who wanted to model himself on bowls, like, certainly Steinbeck, "Grapes of Wrath." That's a pretty dark, you know, pretty dark piece. I think of Dickens, you know, you can read Dickens and you can say, this is really London at that time, this is society and poverty but it's pretty grim and if, you know, you can laugh at moments but at other times you're just appalled.
REHMI personally cannot say I know anyone who fits this kind of mold. Truly, I mean, of a Sherman McCoy. But you meet them?
COHANWell, I'm looking at you, you know, with three eyes because of course in New York, even to this day, there are people like this and my second book which was about the collapse of Wall Street, the subtitle was "A Tale of Retched Excess and Hubris on Wall Street." And, you know, hubris is very much, which is the, you know, if any word captures Sherman McCoy its hubris.
COHANAnd that is such a fundamental trait of human nature and Wall Street because it is such a Darwinian environment, you know. For you, we used to have an expression on Wall Street, it's not enough for you to win, others have to fail...
COHAN...others have to lose. And so it's such a zero sum game and Sherman was, of course, always thinking that way.
REHMI'm feeling very naïve right now. Let's go to Indianapolis, hi Jack, you're on the air.
JACKHey there, it's a great show.
JACKI wanted to comment, I was thinking of another tension that old Sherman had to deal with all the time and that was his father-in-law, I believe it was, who was the lion of something, he was an old-time Wall Street guy that fought Sherman as a bond trader or whatever, was just kind of a hustler and a grifter and wasn't really legitimate either.
JACKSo he had to deal with that in his own family, which is something...
REHMWas it his father or father-in-law?
JACKFather, was it his father-in-law I thought?
REHMNo, it was his father actually.
JACKOkay, right. But he was the...
REHMThat makes it even worse.
JACKThe lion of something or other.
COHANRight. And, you know, let me just say, Diane, I think this was very, I mean, again Tom Wolfe did his homework incredibly well. because this was a whole generational shift on Wall Street from the 40's and 50's and 60's and 70's when the banker, the investment banker, was the revered figure, like his father.
COHANAnd then in the '80s and the '90s and even today, although a little less today, because of what we just went through, but even today it's the trader who makes huge sums of money. Like, you know, a golden Saks, you know, I know how they make 10 percent of their money and this is a firm I've studied.
COHANBut I don't know how they make 90 percent of their money because they make it from trading and this black box. And these traders became extremely powerful on Wall Street and Wolfe just captured it, that moment when the shift was taking place and you see it between the father and the son. It's beautiful.
WILLIAMSYou know what it's interesting to me, again, watching, having just gone through this political campaign, is in the 80's Mitt Romney was a master of the universe. Barack Obama was the community organizer at the time. They could fit into "Bonfire of the Vanities."
REHMWow. To Thetford Center, Vt. Good morning Mora.
MORADiane, I am so excited. I literally had to lie down on my couch because I thought I was going to faint. I just (unintelligible) getting on your show. You are one of my idols.
REHMAw, thank you.
MORASo is Juan Williams and everyone else you have on your show.
REHMGood, I'm glad.
MORAI'm just going out of my mind here. I recently read "Bonfire of the Vanities" lying in a bed. When it first came out, I was in (unintelligible) Mass. I was suffering from my first MS attack, which we didn't know it was MS at the time, but I was just in very sciatic pain and I had to take my mind off it somehow and Tom Wolfe did that service for me. So I'm grateful to him for that then.
MORAThen I married my husband who was nice at that time. He stuck with me through the MS attack and we actually did get married, but then he kind of became a mini-master of the universe in the medical research world and we're no longer married obviously.
MORABut, you know, and then Kathy, I think, is your book reviewer who's on today. She mentioned the scene in the book where they, he tries to explain what he does to the children and it sounds absurd, right. And that's why I went from trying to dabble in those circles myself, I wrote cases at Harvard Business School and then when we moved to Missouri I worked for a medical publishing company and tried to be in the world of these mini-masters of the universe.
MORAAnd you know what, now I live in Thetford Center, Vt., got my, I went back to school and got my teaching certificate to teach preschool and you don't even have to pay me to do that on a daily basis because children see right through everything and, you know, I can just laugh about my ex-husband and his attempts to be a mini-Sherman because I just go into the preschool and, you know, I just speak their language and I (unintelligible) .
REHMAll right, Mora. I'm so glad you called. I hope you stay well and stay centered with those kids, but that's exactly the point. Those kids see right through you.
LEHRERThey see right through and they see right through all that pompousness, which all of these characters have to a great degree or most all of these characters. They're simply pompousness creatures, pompous beings and they don't, that's what's funny. That's because you're pricking, Wolfe does it all the way through, pricks the bubble, pricks the bubble in them all and finally gets them. And they're bullies, that's what you usually are if you're pompous, you're a bully too.
REHMLet's go to Vicki, here in Washington D.C. Good morning, you're on the air.
VICKIGood morning, thank you for taking my call.
VICKII'd just like to preface my comments. I worked as a corporate lawyer during the 80's and then decided to do something different so I became a public defender in Los Angeles County also during the 80's. And when I read the book which was while I working at the public defender's office. I was just struck, first of all of course, about the corporate world and how well Tom Wolfe captured that.
VICKIBut the parts of the books that really stood out for me had to do with the interaction of the protagonists with the criminal justice system. And I was wondering if your guests could address that because I've really found from working in the courts in Los Angeles that Tom Wolfe had just captured the drama but also the futility of the whole system and kind of with making the protagonists going in and out of the system.
VICKII thought that was also quite indicative of, you know, how things never really get resolved, people don't get rehabilitated. You know, a lot of money is wasted and things just kind of go around in circles. But also just the circus nature of what goes on in the criminal courts. Thank you.
REHMWell, I want you to know that when you said you had gone out to Los Angeles to work in the criminal justice system, William Cohan was applauding. What do you think of this?
COHANWell, I think again, it is another extraordinarily well drawn portrait. The new book that I'm working on is about the criminal justice system and the flaws in it and the circus nature of it. And again, you know, I am writing, you know, 25 years later and 25 years earlier he sort of captures that hysteria, the futility of it.
COHANThe fact that, you know, you never really know what happens or what can happen or what truth is or what justice is. And the ability of wealth to manipulate the system and people, you know, again that idea of district attorney's doing things for political gain. It's just, it's just remarkable.
REHMDoes Tom Wolfe know men better than he knows women?
LEHRERI think he knows them much better. At the same time, just much better, but they don't have the power back then. I think as Juan was saying earlier, they were something else back then on the whole.
LEHRERThey were appendages, yet, he can do it. I mean, he's got them having some of the very few insights at all. For instance, Larry Cramer, the guy, the wanna-be prosecutor, the wanna-be rich man, power and wants also to be the lover of this woman juror...
REHMWith brown lipstick.
LEHRERWith brown lipstick, the lover of the woman with brown lipstick who's a juror and he takes her to dinner. This is huge for him, he doesn't have any place to take her after dinner but he takes, and he's married and he's got a brand-new baby at home. Still he goes, he finally gets up the nerve, they sit and they talk and he talks and talks and this woman has one of the funniest best lines in the whole thing.
LEHRERShe says, "I sit there and it always take them, you know, I go and it's my career first for two or three hours." And then they get -- she is out, she didn't want to marry the man. I mean, she is out there, she would like to go to bed with him and all he can do is talk about, and he thinks he's so important, he could just talk, talk, talk, my career.
LEHRERWhich is what he does and what they care about most. But also the wife, Judy, of Sherman McCoy, when they're coming home from the second dinner party where he's sees himself as a social lion because people, because he's been jailed, because they all, you know...
REHMThey're fascinated, he's gone to jail.
LEHRER...they love him and they're hanging on his every word and that's all, since the first time he was so shunned he loves it. And he's going home and he tells her, well, you know, they're fine. These are fine people. And she says, it takes so little to please you. You're so easy.
LEHRERYou're so easy. And the women are kind of the only ones that really cut through.
REHMCan nail. Let's go to Chris in Raleigh, NC. Good morning.
CHRISGood morning. I've been a big fan of Tom Wolfe's ever since I read "The Right Stuff." I live in North Carolina, I knew pilots, fighter pilots where I was growing up. Fighter pilots were fathers of friends of mine so I could see a lot of that. I actually saw a little bit of that in "The Great Santini" by Pat Conroy.
CHRISI lived in New York and worked as both a photographer and as a currier during the whole "Bonfire" period time and I would run into Wall Street trading firms, I run into law firms, occasionally even go to police precincts. So I've ran into a lot of people who were like that and you could kind of like, you know, if you're a good observer of society you can kind of, like, look at a person, maybe size them up I think in a couple of minutes.
CHRISI loved how Wolfe was able to do that with a lot of the characters, some of which he would go into depth with and then the more you spent time with those folks, as I did occasionally going out and drinking with them and stuff like that, which is actually how I met a person who is not in the Wolfe books but in books written by Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis, who surfaced years later in the whole John Edwards drama.
CHRISI met Lisa Druck in New York and obviously she just, you know, I mean, she was a tragic figure even in real life, read the books, it was wild. And years later at about December 30th 2006 when John Edwards was doing his whole thing in North Carolina. He was, you know, we knew he was going to run for president.
CHRISWhen I saw Lisa Druck, now Rielle Hunter, as a videographer, as a blogger, and as when I saw Edwards campaign staff treating her like she was the cheerleader girlfriend of the high school quarterback, I bailed. I got the hell out there. I wouldn't want nothing to do with this, this thing, this train was going to go off the tracks. The bus was going to head off the cliff.
REHMSo you were present as well, Juan, you were covering the whole thing?
WILLIAMSYou know, you do see, you know, it's different incarnations of sort of the master of the universe theme, male ego run unbounded. You know, and I must say, in honor to Tom, well if you know he's tried to do this now over subsequent books. He did "Bonfire" in the 80's. Then he did Atlanta real estate with a book called "A Man in Full" back in the 90's. Then he did "I Am Charlotte Simmons" which is about, kind of hook up sex on college campuses and the new thoughts there.
REHMThat's the book he came through here on.
WILLIAMSAnd now he's got a book out about kind of, Kate and I are talking about this, the art world. But also...
WILLIAMS...and also the immigration and the assimilation experience in Miami and I'm trying to remember the name of that book. I think its "Back to Blood" which is a phrase actually, back to blood, that you find in "Bonfire of the Vanities."
REHMBut you know what's fascinating, everybody in this book seems to be prejudiced?
REHMPrejudiced against blacks, against Jews, Irish, Italian. I mean, it's just all over the place.
LEHRERThe only people actually that Wolfe seems to like and have less prejudice towards...
REHMWere the children.
LEHRERWell, the children certainly but the Irish. He, the only guys that come out even halfway good are these Irish guys. And the word that's used is that they're brave to a fault, that they're loyal and brave. And that everybody wants to be Irish, that the Italian cops become Irish if they're good enough. The Jewish cops become, want to be Irish and the prosecutors, I mean, everybody in that criminal system and I thought, well this is the only ones that he doesn't just totally, totally hate.
REHMSo this book, we all agree, carries over to this day and enriches us, informs us, helps us.
COHANAnd has a message to tell us still.
WILLIAMSYes, gosh if you hear about the 47 percent you can't help but think "Bonfire of the Vanities."
LEHRERExactly. But this is also just, one more quick thing on how it goes back the other way. Think of Dominique Strauss-Kahn went through everything McCoy did after this woman, who was working in the hotel, this is not to say he didn't do a million other things even worse. However it was just her word against this man who had had everything and he was slapped in jail instantly with, when we found later that maybe it was a little bit more involved.
REHMAnd the book we've been talking about in this hour, "The Bonfire of the Vanities" by Tom Wolfe. We will not be doing a "Reader's Review" for December since we'll take a short break over the holidays. Juan Williams, Kate Lehrer, William Cohan, thank you all so much.
WILLIAMSAlways good to be with you, Diane.
REHMThank you and thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
Most Recent Shows
A lame duck, with diminished power to get anything done: This is how many had expected to describe President Barack Obama in his final two years in office. But Obama has had a string of recent victories, and now, he’s setting his sights on other issues. We look at the president's evolution and his political priorities for the remainder of his term.
Turkish jets attack Islamic State positions in Syria for the first time. Negotiations begin in Athens on a third bailout for Greece. And President Barack Obama visits Kenya and Ethiopia. A panel of journalists joins guest host Susan Page of USA Today for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
Secretary of State John Kerry defends the Iran nuclear deal in Congress. Republican candidates scramble for a spot in the upcoming GOP debate. And a dash-cam video of Sandra Bland’s arrest in Texas fuels debate over her death. A panel of journalists joins guest host Susan Page for analysis of the week's top national news stories.