Most modern novelists seek and strive to reflect the zeitgeist. But with the 1987 novel “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” writer Tom Wolfe defined it.
The author died of pneumonia Monday at a New York hospital. He was 88 years old.
Phrases coined by “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” about a Wall Street bond trader who falls from grace after accidentally running over a black teenager while driving in Harlem, rapidly became part of public conversation. Two examples of this were “Masters of the Universe,” describing a Wall Street heavy-hitter, and “social X-ray,” outlining the ladies who lunch on New York’s Upper East Side.
The book had an unusual beginning, serialized in 27 installments in Rolling Stone magazine starting in 1984. “I knew that if I had to make a deadline, I could make a deadline,” Wolfe was quoted as saying in Joe Hagan’s recent biography “Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine.”
Wolfe revised “The Bonfire of the Vanities” when it was published as a novel by Farrar Straus Giroux in November 1987, changing the ending and, crucially, switching the occupation of protagonist Sherman McCoy from writer to bond trader, in order to better reflect the go-go spirit of the ‘80s.
By the time “Bonfire” was published, Wolfe had already become a renowned author and journalist, but his profile during the first half of the 1980s had been relatively low. That immediately changed upon the publication of the 690-page novel. The success of “Bonfire” elevated his celebrity to another level.
The book swiftly became required reading on Wall Street, with financiers and investors believing Wolfe accurately depicted their world, as opposed to producing a polemic or an excessive defense of investment banking.
“It’s one of my favorite books of all time and I recall reading it during my days working at Salomon Brothers,” said Robert Wolf, former president and chief operating officer of UBS, who now serves as founder & CEO of 32 Advisors. “I found it so intriguing.”
Wolfe researched the book by spending a day on the government-bond desk of Salomon Brothers, then one of New York’s pre-eminent investment banks.
“There were always rumors that some of it came from Tom Wolfe’s time on the famous fishbowl Solly trading floor with some of his conversations with the [real-life] ‘Masters of the Universe,’” added Wolf.
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“Bonfire” not only captured the resurgence of Wall Street. The backdrop of tense race relations and the excesses of the criminal justice system were also exhaustively fictionalized within its pages. Wolfe loosely based characters on prominent New York-based characters including lawyer Ed Hayes, civil-rights activist Jesse Jackson and journalist Anthony Haden-Guest.
Wolfe made millions from the book’s success. According to Hagan’s biography of publisher Jan Wenner, Wolfe was paid $150,000 by Rolling Stone for the initial serialization of “Bonfire.” Later, 725,000 copies of “Bonfire” hardcover books were sold between 1987 and 1991, generating around $15 million in gross sales.
The paperback rights were sold for $1.5 million to Bantam. The paperback contained an essay, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” originally published in Harper’s Magazine in 1989, in which Wolfe took his fellow novelists to task for forsaking realism in fiction.
The movie rights to “Bonfire” were snapped up by Warner Bros
¼for $750,000. The film starred Tom Hanks as Sherman McCoy, Melanie Griffith as his mistress Maria Ruskin, and Bruce Willis as journalist Peter Fallow.
But the movie version of “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” which was released in December 1990, was widely panned by critics and shunned by audiences, grossing $16 million off a budget of $47 million. The making of the film did however spawn a successful tell-all book, “The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood,” by Julie Salamon, then a film critic at the Wall Street Journal.
Reinforcing his status as a literary gentleman, Wolfe resisted numerous media invitations to slam the movie himself, arguing that cashing the check for the film rights obligated him to keep his true feelings on the movie to himself.
“It was miscast — I should have made it like “The Sweet Smell of Success,” director De Palma said in 2008. “It should have been cynical and tough, which is what the book was. But I couldn’t have made it with that budget in Hollywood. They wouldn’t have made that movie.”
More than a decade later, Wolfe returned with his second novel, “A Man in Full,” another literary blockbuster. Critics couldn’t help comparing the book’s protagonist business mogul, Charlie Croker, with the real-life media magnate Conrad Black.
In 2016, Amazon Studios snapped up the rights to make a new eight-episode adaptation of “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” produced by Chuck Lorre of “Two and a Half Men” fame, which is currently in development.
Commenting to The Daily Beast about the legacy of “The Bonfire of the Vanities” in 2013, Wolfe said: “I keep thinking if my character Sherman McCoy were to have the same thing happen to him today, nothing would happen…nobody would go to the trouble of launching a huge protest such as affected him.”
“He would be a toothless tiger anyhow. It’s just astonishing what has happened to that great center of machismo — being a trader or a salesman on Wall Street shouting at your fellow workers as if you were part of the special forces,” he said.
“That world has so diminished in strength and vitality today — I’m talking about investment banking— that the subject probably wouldn’t appeal to me or anybody else.”