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The Purple Decades: A Reader

The Purple Decades: A Reader

by Tom Wolfe

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Tom Wolfe's The Purple Decades brings together the author's own selections from his list of critically acclaimed publications, including the complete text of Mau-Mauing and the Flak Catchers, his account of the wild games the poverty program encouraged minority groups to play.


Tom Wolfe's The Purple Decades brings together the author's own selections from his list of critically acclaimed publications, including the complete text of Mau-Mauing and the Flak Catchers, his account of the wild games the poverty program encouraged minority groups to play.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[The Purple Decades] is a sociologist's dream: a time capsule of ideas and idioms, brand names and places, cult heroes and calling cards." -Ellen Wilson, The Wall Street Journal


"The Purple Decades . . . [is] a selection and collection of Tom Wolfe's work from the last 18 or so years, and it's amazing how it holds up . . . Wolfe is just the most perceptive societal journalist we have, and on top of that, though it is often concealed, he endures, or enjoys, real feeling." -Margaret Manning, The Boston Globe


"Gorge in this extravagant selection of [Tom Wolfe's] writing, sprinkled with ultra-contemporary cartoons." -Emily Vincent, Houston Chronicle


"Mr. Wolfe doesn't spatter out these wonderful words for their own sake. He exhibits them because they're the right medium for his satiric and moral vision . . . Reading him is exhilarating." -Paul Fussell, The New York Times Book Review


"A feast for nostalgic trend-watchers."

Kirkus Reviews

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Read an Excerpt

The Purple Decades



Look! She beckons! With those deep high-class black eyes! Here at a dinner party in Alfred Barr's apartment, in a room full of men who get their shirts hand-laundered at 90 cents a shirt by Forziati on East 74th Street and women who start getting ready for dinner with, first off, a little hair action at 4 p.m. by Kenneth on East 54th Street—here in this room she beckons. Liza, Liza Parkinson, Mrs. Bliss Parkinson, president of the Museum of Modern Art, daughter of Cornelius Bliss, niece of Lillie P. Bliss, who was one of the founders of the museum, sister of Anthony Bliss, the president of the Metropolitan Opera Association—Liza, the very embodiment of all that is most social, high class, Protestant tree-of-life and embossed-watermark-writing-paper in this whole art world social thing—Liza beckons to Spike. And Spike catches Bob's eye across the room. And Bob gives Spike the high sign. Go, girl, go. This is the moment—beckoning black eyes!—

Bob and Spike—Spike—when Bob, Robert Scull, America's most famous collector of pop and other avant-garde art, first met his wife, Ethel, Ethel Redner of West 86th Street, on a blind date back in 1943, he said to himself, "Ethel, what a terrible name." So he called her Spike. Spike's family had some dough, but Bob and Spike were so broke that they were living in one room on West 56th Street with a Murphy bed. They got a $12 membership in the Museum of Modern Art, three blocks away, on West 53rd Street, and used the museum, the garden, the restaurant and everything, as their living room, to entertain guests in. Is that irony or isn't it? Bob got very interested inthe art there and started a phantom art collection, writing down the names of pictures he wished he had, on a piece of shirt cardboard in his wallet. In 1947 or 1948 Bob started in the New York taxicab business, which was a very rough business at that time, full of—well, don't ask. Half the guys were rejects from the Mafia shape-up for hotel house dicks. But Bob started making money, and the rest is history. He started actually buying pictures himself. He had to put up with a lot of ridicule and everything, like the time in 1959 when he bought Jasper Johns's beer cans, two cans of Ballantine Ale, as a matter of fact, but everybody called them the beer cans, and the magazines and newspapers came around to take pictures, and he was very proud about buying Jap's beer cans. Would you believe they were only making fun of him? Yeah! Kids used to come to his kids in school and say, "Hey, is your old man the nut who bought the beer cans?" But he kept on collecting, and pretty soon Robert Scull became synonymous with pop art, and Bob and Spike are just getting in tight with the very social Museum of Modern Art crowd and finally here is the big dinner in Alfred's apartment—Alfred Barr is the curator of the Museum of Modern Art—

Here amid the crystal and the silver asparagus holders and the Forziati ironing jobs are people the magnitude of Liza and Philip—that's Philip Johnson, the architect, socialite and art savant—and Bob and Spike are looking great. Bob, who is 49, is just emerging, sartorially, from the 57th Street Biggie phase. The 57th Street Biggie look is the look of the men in New York who are in their 40s or 50s and the money is starting to come in and their hair is thinning in the crown but they comb it straight back like the real studs of the American business world do, like Lyndon Johnson does, as a matter of fact. They are getting an opulent plumpness about them, not fat exactly, and they don't have double chins, just sort of a great smooth tan fullness in the jowls set off by some good Sulka shirt work and a little Countess Mara in the necktie and a suit from Frank Brothers and a wife with apricot-colored hair—they all have wives with apricot-colored hair for some reason—and they take the Christmas cruise on the S.S. France. Only Spike didn't go the apricot-hair route. She has already graduated to the big time in fashion. She is slender and quite pretty. Her hair, which is mostly kind of pineapple blond, is great, and Kenneth does it. Her dresses come from St. Laurent, Dior, Chanel, Courrèges, Mainbocher, Cardin, Ken Scott, you name it. And she didn't like the Christmas cruise on the S.S. France. All the women came to the breakfast table wearing furs and enough diamonds to sink the boat. Spike took to her stateroom and wouldn't come out.

Finally—the moment arrives. Bob and Spike are both eating withthe Continental style they now use, holding the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right. Liza Parkinson beckons, motions to Spike to come aside so she can talk to her. Those deep dark aristocratic eyes—she is the whole thing in the whole social thing of the art world—and Bob gives Spike the high sign, and right away, without having to say a word to each other, Bob and Spike both figure the same thing. This is the moment. Liza is going to say to Spike something like, Could you serve on this board or whatever, or could we get yours and Bob's advice on this or that vital project, or, at the very least, would you come to such-and-such a dinner—you know, something that will symbolize the fact that Robert and Ethel Scull are now in the inner circle of the whole thing—and Liza draws Ethel aside and then Liza—regal eyes!—pops the question—

Afterwards, when Spike comes back, Bob can hardly wait.

"What did she say?"

"Are you all set?" says Spike.


"You sure your heart's O.K.?"


"She said, 'Ethel, would you mind telling me who does your hair?'"

Who does your hair?

"Well—what did you say to that?"

"I told her."

"Then what did she say?"

"She said would I ask him if he could do hers."

"That's all she said?"

"No. She wanted to know how much it was."

Well, there it is. It is just an incident, but it gives an idea of what Bob and Spike are up against in this whole art world thing. Bob does everything right, better than right, in fact. He rises out of the Lower East Side and its psychological affiliates, the Bronx and Long Island, to an eight-room apartment on Fifth Avenue overlooking the park and a summer place in East Hampton. He amasses a collection of pop art and op art and primary art, in fact, everything since abstract expressionism, that is actually better than the Museum of Modern Art's in that area. Like a lot of ambitious guys who had to take the night-school route, he studies his field very thoroughly, talks to the artists themselves for hours on end, until he probably knows more about pop art and post-pop art than anybody in the country except for Leo Castelli, Ivan Karp, Henry Geldzahler and a couple of others. He probably knows a lot more about it than Alfred Barr. Yet what do they want from Bob and Ethel Scull at the Museum of Modern Art? They want $1,000 a year so they can be on the InternationalCouncil and they want Ethel to help organize a party—and where does she get her hair done?

Who needs that? This season Robert and Ethel Scull are transferring their backing from the Museum of Modern Art to the Whitney. All right, the whole art world is not going to flip over backward like Charlie Brown in the comic strip over this, but it's a sign of this whole social thing in the art world that nobody knows anything about. They can talk about modern art and contemporary art all they want. But it's the same old social thing that's been going on in art for a hundred years, the flutey bitones of the Protestant cultural establishment, and—

But then Spike looks at Bob, and Bob looks at Spike and he shrugs and wraps his clavicles up around his head and breaks into a smile, in a primordial gesture of the New York streets, the What Are You Gonna Do Shrug, and he says:

"Spike, you know what my philosophy is? My philosophy is, Enjoy."


Enjoy! So a few things aren't panning out here at the top of the ladder. The main thing is that you're up here. Right? That is one thing nobody ever seems to understand about people who go through something like the Lower East Side—West Bronx route and make it in New York. A few slights, a few disappointments, a little sniggering along the way—you're going to cut your throat over that? The main thing is that Robert and Ethel Scull are one of the great social success stories of New York since World War II.

In eighteen years they have made it all the way, or practically all the way, from point zero—up from the Lower East Side, the West Bronx, up from that point just eighteen years ago when Bob Scull was a nobody, a 31-year-old businessman whose business had gone down the chute and he and Spike woke up every morning in that Murphy bed, to ... Today. Today they have made it to the greatest address in New York, Fifth Avenue across from Central Park, and not just in terms of money, but right into that whole world of opening nights and the parties they write about in the papers, chauffeurs who are practically one of the family, apartments where the lobby and the doorman look so great you feel like you have to dress up to step on the sidewalk or you're letting down the building, esoteric New York day schools for the younger children and boarding schools for the older ones, lunches at La Grenouille where expensive matrons in Chanel suits have two bloody marys and smile—teeth!—at tailored young men with names like Freddy, Ferdi and Tug, petite plaques on the exhibition wall that say "from the collection of Mr. and Mrs.Robert C. Scull," photographs in the women's magazines in court-photographer Shah and Farah Diba poses, fashion stories in which they say that this new madras wool gabardine coat is on the backs of Mrs. William Paley, Mrs. Palmer Dixon, Mrs. Samuel Pryor Reed and Mrs. Robert C. Scull, and a social set in which Chester is Chester Beatty who owns the diamond mines, and Nicole is Nicole Alphand the wife of the former French ambassador, and Bob is Robert Kintner the former chairman of NBC, Susan is Susan Stein the heiress, Alex is Alex Liberman the editorial director of Vogue, Marina is Marina Consort the wife of Prince Michael of Greece, Jap is Jasper Johns the painter, Dean is Dean Acheson, Sammy is Sammy Davis, Ave is Averell Harriman, Andy is Andy Warhol, Lady Bird is Lady Bird—All right! People are getting shot and blown up in Vietnam. China is a restless giant. The black ghettos are brandishing the fist of liberation. God has gone and died. And yet what Bob and Spike have done, made it, is still the only name of the game in New York. What is more, they have made it the way people dream of making it in New York; namely, right now. The hell with just making the money and setting things up for your children and waiting for the reflected glory of it when your daughter at Wellesley, the bird-song genius, gets invited up for a weekend in the country at the Detergent King's in North Egremont.

Make itnow!

That cry, that cry, burning like valvulitis in so many hearts in New York tonight ...

Bob and Spike are the folk heroes of every social climber who ever hit New York. What Juarez was to the Mexican mestizo—what John L. Sullivan was to the Boston Irish—what Garibaldi was to the Sardinian farmers—what the Beatles are to the O-level-dropout £8-a-week office boys of England—what Antonino Rocca is to the Garment Center aviator Puerto Ricans of New York—what Moishe Dayan is to the kibbutzim shock workers of the Shephelah—all these things are Bob and Spike to the social climbers of New York.

In a blaze of publicity they illuminated the secret route: collecting wacked-out art. It was a tricky business. Art has been a point of entry into New York Society for seventy-five years or more. Duveen, of course, made millions selling cultural immortality to John D. Rockefeller and Henry Clay Frick in the form of Old Masters. After World War I the Protestant elite turned to Recent Masters as well. The Museum of Modern Art, after all, was not founded by intellectual revolutionaries. It was founded in John D. Rockefeller, Jr.'s living room, with Goodyears, Blisses, and Crowinshields in attendance. Theyfounded the museum in order to import to New York the cultural cachet of the European upper classes, who were suddenly excited over the Impressionists and post-Impressionist masters such as Cézanne, Picasso, and Braque. In either case, Old Masters or New, the route was through art that had been certified in Europe.

Bob Scull had started out collecting Renaissance bronzes, but he quickly found out two things: (1) after World War II the prices of certified art, even in an esoteric field like Renaissance bronzes, were rising at a rate that made serious collecting out of the question; (2) the social world of certified art, even modern art, was a closed shop controlled—despite a dazzling aura of cultural liberalism—by the same old Protestant elite.

Then, in the late 1950's, a great thing happened: Pop Art; and pop publicity for Pop Art. In the financial world they speak of the tens of millions a man would be worth today had he invested $10,000 in IBM in 1926. But who ever has the daring or the foresight to do these things at the time? Bob Scull. Socially, Scull achieved a stock coup of IBM magnitude by plunging on the work of a painter, Jasper Johns, in 1959 and 1960. Rather amateurish stuff it was, too, renderings of flags, targets, numbers—and two bronzed ale cans. How they sniggered over that! But Johns became the "axe man for abstract expressionism," as Scull likes to put it. The ten-year-rule of abstract expressionism, which had seemed like the final style, was over, and in came a new movement, with Johns and Robert Rauschenberg as the key figures. Two years later, in 1962, it picked up a name: Pop Art.

Abstract expressionism was so esoteric it had all but defied exploitation by the press. But all the media embraced Pop Art with an outraged, scandalized, priapic delight. Art generally became the focus of social excitement in New York. Art openings began to take over from theater openings as the place where the chic, the ambitious, and the beautiful congregated. Art museum committees replaced charity committees as the place where ambitious newcomers could start scoring socially.

By 1961 the Sculls were being invited everywhere. "It was a whole thing going on," Scull told me, "where we got invitations from important people we didn't even know. You feel a little strange—you know, you go to some famous person's to a party or a dinner and you don't even know them, but you figure some friend of yours asked them to invite you, and then you get there and you find out there's nobody you know there. They just invited you. And everybody is very friendly. It's great. They come up and embrace you like you're the oldest friends in the world.

"I'll never forget once in Washington, at a gallery, Dean Acheson was there and I heard that he wanted to meet me. He came all the way over and shook hands with me very warmly and congratulated me on my collection—the whole thing was just as if we had gone to school together or something. Acheson—he was always practically a god to me, you know? One of the great leaders. And I walked in and here he walks all the way across the room and says he had looked forward to meeting me. And all the time I had always thought there were two worlds, this world full of all these people who did these great things, all these great, faultless people, and then this other world the rest of us were in."

From hoi polloi to haute monde—just so!

The success of Bob's original plunge, investing in twenty of Johns's works at one clip like he did, might be called luck. But the way Bob and Spike traversed that difficult interval from hoi to haute proved they had something else: Fifth Avenue guts, east side of the Park.

Throughout the period of transition—how they sniggered!—Bob and Spike were blessed with that gyroscope a few lucky people get built into them growing up in New York. It is an attitude, a Sat'dy aftuh-noon Weltanschauung, that always keeps them steady somehow. It is the cynicism of the cab driver with his cap over one eye. It is the fatalism of those old guys who sit out in front of the stores in the Lower East Side on Saturday afternoon in old bentwood chairs of the 1930's drugstore variety and just survey the scene with half a smile on, as if to say, look around you, this town is a nuthouse to start with, right? So don't get your bowels in an uproar. Relax. Enjoy.

There was, for example, the ticklish business—how they sniggered—of Bob learning how to dress. As I said, Scull is emerging from the 57th Street Biggie phase. Somebody turned him on to the big time in men's fashion, the English tailor shops on Savile Row, which is in the sort of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue area of London. The Savile Row shops still like to maintain the impression that they are some kind of private clubs and that you have to be recommended by an old customer. O.K., said Bob Scull, enjoy, enjoy, and he had two wealthy English friends, Harry Lawton and Murray Leonard, recommend him. All the same he can't resist it; he has to swing from the heels. So he walks into this place, amid all the linenfold paneling and engraved glass with all the "by appointment" crests, HRH King George, The Prince of Wales, etc., and a man about 55 in a nailhead worsted suit with a step-collared vest comes up and Scull announces that Harry Lawton and Murray Leonard recommended him and he wants ... a sport jacket made of the material they make riding pinks out of.

"I beg your pardon, sir?" says the man, turning his mouth down and putting a cataractic dimness into his eyes as if he hopes to God he didn't hear correctly.

"You know that material they make the riding pinks out of, those coats when they go hunting, riding to the hounds and everything, that material, they call it riding pink."

"I am familiar with that, yes, sir."

"Well, I want a sport jacket made out of that."

"I'm afraid that's impossible, sir."

"You don't have the material?"

"It's not that—"

"I know where I can get you the material," says Scull. "There's this place, Hunt & Winterbotham."

Now the man looks at Scull with his lips tight and tilts his head back and opens his nostrils wide as if his eyes are located somewhere up his nose. Telling a Savile Row tailor that there is this place, Hunt & Winterbotham, is like telling a Seventh Avenue coffee shop that there is this thing called a cheese Danish.

"We are aware of the availability of the material, sir," he says. "It's just that we don't do that sort of thing."

"You can make a sport jacket, can't you?"

"Oh, yes, sir."

"And you can get the riding pink."

"Yes, sir."

"Then why can't you get the riding pink and make a sport jacket out of it?"

"As I said, sir, I'm afraid we don't ..."

" ... do that sort of thing," says Scull, finishing the sentence.

"Yes, sir."

"Well, all I know is, Harry Lawton and Murray Leonard said you could take care of me."

"Oh, you come very highly recommended, sir, it's just that we ..."

" ... I know ..."

It is at this point, if not before, that Savile Row tailors are used to seeing Americans, 1960's style, at any rate, bow out, shuffling backwards like they are leaving the throne room, thoroughly beaten, cowed, humiliated, hangdog over the terrible gaffe they have committed—a sport jacket out of traditional riding pink—but Bob Scull just starts in again, still exuberant, smiling, happy to be on Savile Row in Harry Lawton and Murray Leonard country, and he says, "All right, let's go over this thing again. You can make a sport jacket and you can get the material ..." They are so amazed to seean American still standing there and talking that they go ahead and agree to do it, and they take his measurements.

A week or so later Scull comes back in for the first fitting, and they bring out the riding pink, with the body of the coat cut and basted up and one arm basted on, the usual first fitting, and they put it on him—and Scull notices a funny thing. Everything has stopped in the shop. There, in the dimness of the woodwork and the bolt racks, the other men are looking up toward him, and in the back, from behind curtains, around door edges, from behind tiers of cloth, are all these eyes, staring.

Scull motions back toward all the eyes and asks his man, Nostrils, "Hey, what are they doing?"

Nostrils leans forward and says, very softly and very sincerely, "They're rooting for you, sir."

Enjoy! Enjoy!

Scull is so pleased with this, he goes back and starts shaking hands with everybody in the place, right down to the Cypriot seamstresses who made buttonholes and can't speak any English.

"I got news for you," says Scull, by way of congratulating those who are happy and consoling those who are desolate over the riding pink sports jacket, "you're going to be very proud of this jacket when we get through."

Later on, as Scull tells it, he saw one of his friends and said, "Well, I went to your tailor, and I want to thank you, because they made me a very nice jacket."

"Oh, that's very nice. I'm very glad."

"You know, it was funny. They didn't want to make it at first. I walked in and I said, 'I want a sport jacket made out of riding pink' and ..."

"You what! Bob—you didn't use my name, did you ..."

Afterwards Bob Scull tells me, "It's funny. The English treat their tailors like they were clergymen. Yeah. And their clergymen like they were tailors."



Spike's parents had money, and, if the truth were known, helped set Bob up in the taxi business in 1948. But as for social cachet—well, Spike had to learn all the subtleties of chic the same way Bob did, namely, the hard way—how they sniggered—but she always showed class, in the New York street sense of that term; moxie. When the going got tough, Spike just bulled it through and made it work. In the midst of the social galas attendant upon the opening of the Venice Biennale in 1966, I saw Ethel Scull stroll at twilight through Venice,heading for Countess Anna Camerana's in a dress of silver gossamer see-through by St. Laurent and silver shoes. The citizens of Venice and the tourists of all nations, including a man whose monocle fell out of his skull, stared bug-eyed at this vision of Scientific Cinderella chic with her head held high and one perfect rose in her hair. She topped this off by standing on one foot and hoisting the other one up and rubbing it and delivering the last word on strolls through Venice at twilight: "I got news for you, this girl's got sore feet."

Bob hasn't lost the common touch, either. Today he has 130 cabs in his fleet, the Super Operating Corporation, which is $2,625,000 worth of medallions alone, and a big taxi insurance business involving a lot of fleets. He goes up there every day to his garage in the Bronx, at 144th Street and Gerard Avenue, in the Mott Haven section, about ten blocks south of Yankee Stadium, and he deals directly with the drivers right there in the garage, guys like Jakey, The Owl, Cream Cheese, Moon and this guy who used to be there, Do-Nut or whatever they called him.

You know what would be funny? It would be funny to pick up Liza or Philip or Nicole or Peggy—that's Mrs. Peggy Guggenheim of New York and Venice, who has one of the world's greatest private art collections—or Chester or Alex or Bob or Dean or any of the other wonderful people who make up the art world set Robert Scull now moves in—it would be funny to pick up some of these people and suddenly sit them down in the grease moss at the Scull garage in the Bronx and let them try to handle a New York taxi operation for about one hulking hour. Never mind the heavy problems. Just imagine Philip or Alex or Ave dealing with a minor problem, like Do-Nut.

Philip! Ave! Do-Nut was a driver, a huge guy, and every morning he started out from the garage with a big brown paper bag full of donuts and pastries on the seat beside him. He kept on eating the day away and getting bigger and bigger and Scull tried everything. He had them push the seat in Do-Nut's cab back so far, to make room for his belly, it got so the only fares he could pick up were infants and midgets. Then they took the padding off the seats so he was back up against the metal plates. And then one day it was all over. He managed to get into the seat, but he couldn't turn the wheel. It would turn about 15 degrees and then just lodge in his belly.

"Bob, I got news for you," says Do-Nut, there behind the wheel. "This don't make it."

"You want to know something?" says Scull. "This is the day I dreaded."

"Wait a minute," says Do-Nut, "look at this. If I hold my breath, I can turn it."

"Yeah," says Scull, "but what about when you let it out."

Do-Nut exhales and the wheel disappears like a strawberry under a gush of whipped cream. Do-Nut looks up at Scull. Scull shrugs, pulling his shoulders up over his ears like a turtle, in a primordial gesture of the New York streets, the Hopeless Shrug, which says, What can I do after I've said I'm sorry. The guy had eaten himself out of the profession.

Scull still has to shake his head over that. Those guys. But the great thing is, the men, Scull says, the men ... "generally speaking they're very proud of my art kick. They're proud that their boss is something special. They want a boss they can look up to. That's class."


Bob's art kick, as I say, was tricky business. The economics of collecting the latest thing in art, as Bob has been doing, are irrational. A collector can count on the latest work by almost any of the current avant-garde artists to depreciate more drastically than a new car; it will lose one third to one half its value the moment it is bought. The explanation gets at the heart of the whole business of collecting the latest, the most avant-garde, the most wacked-out in painting. The price of, say, a new Lichtenstein or a new Johns or a new Stella is not determined by market demand in the usual sense (i.e., a mass of undifferentiated consumers). Aside from museums, the market is, in effect, some ten or twenty collectors, most of whom are striving to become Bobs and Spikes, although they would bridle if it were ever put to them just that way. The game, when one is collecting the latest thing—as opposed to certified Old or Recent Masters—is to get one's hands on just that: the latest thing by a promising avant-garde artist and, preferably, to be publicized for purchasing it. One has ... the new Lichtenstein! the new Poons! the new Rauschenberg! the new Dine! the new Oldenburg! The competition to buy it hot from the studio is what drives the price up in the galleries. Once that little game is played out, the re-sale value may be but a fraction. The galleries dealing in the hottest avant-garde artists are driven to frantic juggling to make sure each of the handful of players wins a bout every now and then and remains interested. Collector X got the first shot at the last hot one—so Y gets first shot at the next one; and so on.

So Bob Scull got an idea. Why not get to the artists before their work reaches the gallery even? Why not do even better than that—why not discover them?

One evening a friend of Bob's, a psychiatrist, said to him: "Bob, did it ever occur to you that when you commission young artists to create works of art, you may be influencing the course of art history?"

Patron. Shaper of history. If the truth be known, it had already crossed Bob's mind that he had influenced art history by buying twenty works by Johns in 1959 and 1960. Before that, Johns was justsome kind of odd man out in the art world, some guy from South Carolina trying to bug the establishment with his fey, representational rendition of banal objects. The fact that he was actually being collected —well, that's what started Pop Art. Yes, that thought had crossed Bob's mind. But why not go even one step further—discover the greats of tomorrow yourself and commission the future of art history. Stalk their very studios. That was how Bob ran into Walter De Maria.


It was a Saturday. Another Culture Sabbath. Bob Scull was walking down Madison Avenue, and you know, it's funny on Saturday in New York, especially on one of those Indian summer days—God, somehow Culture just seems to be in the air, like part of the weather, all of the antique shops on Madison Avenue, with a little blaze of golden ormolu here and a little oxblood-red leathery marquetry there, and the rugs hung up in the second-floor display windows—rich!—a Bakhtiari with a little pale yellow setting off the red—and the galleries, God, gallery after gallery, with the pristine white walls of Culture, the black wooden floors, and the Culture buds, a little Renoirish softness in the autumn faces.

Through the window of this particular gallery, Scull can see two girls who are tending the place, and one is sitting with her legs crossed, a short skirt on, great pre-Raphaelite hair, the perfect Culture bud, and it is not that he wants to make a pass or anything, it is just part of this beautiful atmosphere of Culture in New York, Indian summer, Culture Sabbath, all the rest—so he goes in. It is just a pleasure to go on in there and let the whole thing just sort of seep through you like hot coffee.

But what a freaking show. Here is some wooden sculpture of some sort, two very tall pillars of wood—and then there is a bunch of drawings. Except that there doesn't seem to be anything on the paper, just a lot of framed blank paper on the wall. What the hell is this? Scull goes up very close to a drawing and then he can see there is a hard little design on the paper done with a hard pencil, a No. 8 or something, so you can hardly see it. Then down at the bottom, also in this hard pencil, are these poverty-stricken little words: "Water, water, water."

So Scull turns to the girl and he says, "I've seen a lot of things, but how does this guy think he's going to sell these?"

"Well ..."

"I mean, I don't know what this whole art thing is coming to. You can't even see what's on the paper."

He looks back at it again and it still says "Water, water, water." That's all that's up there. Well, the girl says, it's by a young artist,they never handled him before. She shrugs. Scull is really bugged by this whole thing.

"All right," he says, finally, "how much is this drawing?"

She gives him a look—what the hell, this girl never even thought about the price before. Nobody ever asked. Finally she says, "It's $110."

"All right," says Scull, "I tell you what. This whole thing bugs me. I'll buy this drawing for $110 if you'll give me the artist's name, address and telephone number. I want to see what he has to say about this."


So she says all right, and it's Walter De Maria. So the following week Scull calls up the number. The thing is, the whole thing disturbs him, and so this guy may have something he ought to know about. The telephone conversation disturbs him some more. This Walter De Maria comes to the phone and Scull says, "This is Robert Scull."

"Yes." That's all he says.

"Do you know who I am?"

There's this long pause. Then this hesitant voice: "Yes. You're the man who bought my drawing."

"That's right," Scull says. "I'd like to come to your studio and see some more of your work."

There's a big silence. Scull starts saying, Hello, hello. He thinks the guy must have hung up.

"I don't know," the guy says. "I won't be available."

"Look," says Scull, "I bought your drawing and I want to see some more of your work. Can't I even come and look at it?"

"I don't know. I'm glad you bought the drawing, but you bought the drawing from the gallery, not from me, and I'm not available."

Scull is really rocked by this, but he keeps arguing and finally De Maria gives in and says O.K., come on down to his studio. The studio is downtown up in a loft building, about five flights up, and Scull climbs up there. His heart is banging away from the freaking stairs. There's a small room and then a bigger room beyond, and in the small room here are these two pale, slender figures, Walter De Maria and his wife. Mrs. De Maria is kind of backed off into a corner. She doesn't say anything.

"Well," says Scull to De Maria, "I'd like to see some more of your drawings."

So he shows him one and this time Scull has to put on his glasses to see if there's anything on paper. He looks up, and by this time De Maria is pacing around the room and running his hands through his hair in a terrible state of agitation.

What the hell is this? Scull says to himself. You could get a heart attack walking up these freaking stairs, and after you get up here, what's going on? He's sorry he even came up. But as a last gesture, he asks De Maria to show him what he had been doing before he did the drawings. Here, says De Maria, that's what I've done. What's that? says Scull. That's a sculpture, says De Maria. Here is this Skee-Ball, like in the amusement arcades, on a wooden board, and it says on there, "Place ball in upper hole," and so Scull dutifully places it in the upper hole and pow! it falls down into a hole at the bottom. Scull stares at the ball. And De Maria, like, he's watching Scull this whole time, waiting for a reaction, but Scull can't come up with any, except that he's still bugged.

"How long have you been a sculptor?" he says.

"Six years."

"Well, can I see some of your earlier work?"

"It's in the other room."

The other room is bigger, a studio room, with all white walls and a white floor—and nothing else. It's empty. Yeah, well, where is it? Scull says. Over here, says De Maria. Over here? De Maria is pointing to a little filing cabinet. He's done a lot of successful sculptures, he says. The only thing is, he never made them. He never made them? No. He couldn't afford the materials. Well, yeah, says Scull, then he says, What's in the file? De Maria riffles through and here are more of these sheets of paper with something on there you can't even see, a few lines and more "Water, water, water" and so forth.

The whole thing now has Scull so bugged he says, "Look—if I commission you to do one for me and I get you the materials, will you make one?"

De Maria says O.K. A couple of months go by and finally De Maria says he has completed a design and he'll need a large plate of silver. Silver? says Scull. Why can't he use stainless steel. It's got to be silver, says De Maria. So Scull gets him the silver. Through all this Bob and Spike get to know De Maria a little better, but it's an unusual relationship. Sometimes one of them says something and there is no response, nothing at all. Other times, they're all out on the street and De Maria walks way ahead, as if he didn't know them. Who are these people following him? Bob says to himself: Ah, he's been through a lot of excitement because of all this. That's all it is.

Then three and a half or four more months go by, and—nothing. Bob is on the verge of going back there and getting his silver back. But then one day De Maria calls up and says the sculpture is ready. He brings it up in a truck, and they bring it up into the apartment; it's the big moment and everything, and here is this big object witha velvet drapery over it. Bob pulls a string and opens up the drapes—and there it is, the piece of silver, the original plate of silver, with nothing on it. Bob stares at the piece of silver. De Maria is watching him just like he did the first day with the Skee-Ball.

"What is it?" says Scull.

"Look on the back."

On the back is a little piece of chrome inscribed "Nov. 5, 1965, made for Mr. and Mrs. Robert C. Scull." There are also instructions to photograph the plate of silver every three months and keep the pictures in a photograph album. The sculpture is entitled The Portrait of Dorian Gray. The thing is, says De Maria, the silver will tarnish, and the plate will get blacker and more and more corroded and the film will record the whole process. Every three months until 1975, presumably, Bob or Spike will pull the velvet drapes and take a picture of this piece of corroded metal and then paste it in the scrapbook. The Portrait of Dorian Gray! But of course!

"I was overwhelmed by it," Scull told me later. "It's impossible to describe what happens to a collector when he commissions something and it turns out right.


Bob and Spike went out to New Jersey to the studio of George Segal. Segal is famous for his plaster-cast sculptures. Bob and Spike commissioned him to make one of them. So Segal started encasing them in the plaster. It was kind of a wild time. Sometimes the plaster starts sticking to the skin when it dries. Spike lost one of her Courrèges boots in the struggle to get out, and Bob—they had to pull his Levi's off him to keep him from being a permanent living cast. The shape of history, all right. Bob and Spike decided to unveil the sculpture at a party for a couple of hundred celebrities, artists, columnists, and editors. They didn't even know half of them—but they would come, they would come.

The afternoon before the party, Jasper Johns's latest show opened at the Leo Castelli gallery, 4 East 77th Street. There were four huge paintings in the show and Bob wasn't going to get any of them. For a variety of reasons. For one thing, three of them had been spoken for, by museums. Nevertheless, Bob was in a good mood. Spike didn't even show up, but Bob was in a good mood. Castelli's, especially at an opening like this, was where it was at. You could tell that at a glance. Not by the paintings, but by the Culture buds. They were all there, all these gorgeous little Culture buds, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 years old, along in there, their little montes Veneris in the sweet honey grip of Jax slax that finger into every fissure, their serious little Culture pouts hooded in Sassoon thrusts and black Egypt eyes—their lubricouspresence, like that of the whalebird, indicating where the biggest fish in the sea is.

Out in the middle of the bud coveys Bob is talking to Leo Castelli. Castelli, New York's number-one dealer in avant-garde art, is a small, trim man in his late fifties. Bob is Leo's number-one customer. Leo is the eternal Continental diplomat, with a Louis-salon accent that is no longer Italian; rather, Continental. Every word he utters slips through a small velvet Mediterranean smile. His voice is soft, suave, and slightly humid, like a cross between Peter Lorre and the first secretary of a French embassy.

"Leo," says Bob, "you remember what you told me at Jap's last show?"


"You told me—I was vulgar!"—only Bob says it with his eyes turned up bright, as if Leo should agree and they can have a marvelous laugh over it.

"Noooooo, Bob"

"Listen, Leo! I got news—"

"Nooooooo, Bob, I didn't—"

"I got news for you, Leo

"Nooooooooooo, Bob, I merely said—" Nobody says No like Leo Castelli. He utters it as if no word in the entire language could be more pleasing to the listener. His lips purse into a small lubricated O, and the Nooooooo comes out like a strand of tiny, perfect satinywhite pearls ...

"Leo, I got news for you—"

"Nooooooooo, Bob, I merely said that at that stage of Johns's career, it would be wrong—"

"Vulgar you said, Leo—"

"—would be wrong for one collector to buy up the whole show—"

"You said it was vulgar, Leo, and you know what?"

"What, Bob?"

"I got news for you—you were right! It was vulgar!" Bob's eyes now shine like two megawatt beacons of truth; triumphant, for the truth now shines in the land. For one of the few times in his life, Castelli stares back blank; in velvet stupefaction.


That night, the big party—it was freezing. For a start, Spike was very icy on the subject of Jasper Johns; another of their personal tiffs, and Johns wasn't coming to the party. But enjoy! Who else is even in a position to have tiffs with the great of the avant garde? It was also cold as hell outside, about 17 degrees, and all these people in tuxedosand mini-evening dresses came up into the Sculls' apartment at 1010 Fifth Avenue with frozen heads and—kheeew!—right inside the door is a dark velvet settee with a slightly larger than life plaster cast of Ethel Scull sitting on it, legs crossed, and Bob standing behind it. Standing next to it, here in the foyer, are the real Bob and Spike, beaming, laughing, greeting everybody—Gong—the apartment has been turned into a gallery of Bob's most spectacular acquisitions.

Everywhere, on these great smooth white walls, are de Koonings, Newmans, Jasper Johns's targets and flags, John Chamberlain's sculpture of crushed automobile parts, Andy Warhol's portrait of Spike made of thirty-five blown-up photos from the Photo-Matic machine in the pinball arcade at 52nd Street and Broadway, op art by Larry Poons with color spots that vibrate so hard you can turn your head and still, literally, see spots in front of your eyes. That is on the dining room walls. There used to be a Rosenquist billboard-style painting in there with huge automobile tire treads showing. Tonight there is a painting by James Rosenquist on the ceiling, a painting of a floor plan, the original idea being that the Sculls could wake up in the morning and look over their bed and see the floor plan and orient themselves for the day. Over the headboard of their king-size bed is an "American nude" by Tom Wesselmann with two erect nipples sitting up like hot cherries.

Many prominent people are moving about in the hubbub, talking, drinking, staring: George Segal the movie actor, George Segal the sculptor, Leonard Lyons the columnist, Aileen Mehle, who is Suzy Knickerbocker the columnist; Alex Liberman; Mrs. Jacob Javits; Robert Kintner. Larry Poons comes in with his great curly head hung solemnly, wearing a terry cloth Hawaiian shirt with a picture of a shark on it. Poonsy! Spike calls him Poonsy. Her voice penetrates. It goes right through this boilup of heads, throats, tuxedoes. She says this is a big concession for Poonsy. She is talking about the Hawaiian shirt. This is formal for Poonsy. To some parties he wears a T-shirt and a pair of clodhoppers with Kelly green paint sloshed on them. Awash. People are pouring through all the rooms. Gong—the World's Fair. Everybody leaves the apartment and goes downstairs to where they have three Campus Coach Line buses out on Fifth Avenue to take everybody out to the World's Fair, out in Flushing.


The World's Fair is over, but the Top o' the Fair restaurant is still going, up in the top of a big mushroom tower. The wreckage of the fair, the half-demolished buildings, are all hulking around it in silhouette, like some gigantic magnified city dump. The restaurant itself, upthere at the top, turns out to be a great piece of 1930's Mo-dren elegance, great slabs of glass, curved wood, wall-to-wall, and, everywhere, huge plate-glass views of the borough of Queens at night.

Scull has taken over half the big complex at the top of the tower, including a whole bandstand and dance floor with tables around it, sort of like the old Tropicana night club in Havana, Cuba.

After dinner a rock 'n' roll band starts playing and people start dancing. Mrs. Claes Oldenburg, a pretty, petite girl in a silver minidress, does a dance, the newest boogaloo, with Robert Rauschenberg, the artist. The band plays "Hang on, Sloopy." Rauschenberg has had an outrageous smile on all evening and he ululates to himself from time to time—Ooooooooooo—Gong—the dancing stops and everybody is shepherded into a convention hall.


There is a movie screen in here and rows of seats. The lights go out. The first movie is called Camp, by Andy Warhol. A group of men and women in evening clothes are sitting in a very formal pose in a loft. One of them is Jane Holzer. A fat boy in some kind of Wagnerian opera costume comes out in front of them and does some ballet leaps, sagging and flopping about. The men and women in the evening clothes watch very stiffly and respectfully. Another fat boy comes out with a yo-yo act. A man in drag, looking like a faded Argentinian torch singer, comes out and does a crazy dance. The basic idea is pretty funny, all these people in evening clothes watching stiffly and respectfully while the performers come out and go into insane acts. It is also exquisitely boring. People start drifting out of the convention hall in the darkness at the Top o' the Fair. So they stop that film, and the lights go on and a young man named Robert Whitman comes up and puts on his film, which has no title.

This one is more elaborate. It involves three screens and three projectors. The lights go out. On the left screen, in color, a slender, good-looking girl, kind of a nude Culture bud, with long pre-Raphaelite hair and good beach skin, is taking a shower, turning this way and that. At first water comes out of the nozzle, and then something black, like oil, and then something red, like wine. She keeps waffling around. On the righthand screen, also in color, some nice-looking buds are lying on the floor with their mouths open. You're looking down at their faces. Food and liquid start falling, cascading down, into their mouths, onto their faces, onto their noses, their eyes, all this stuff, something soft and mushy like pancake mix, then a thin liquid like pineapple juice, then chopped meat, chopped liver or something, raw liver, red and runny, all hitting the old bud face there or going straight down the gullet. Only they keep smiling. Then the whole thing goes inreverse and all the stuff comes back up out of their mouths, like they're vomiting, only they're smiling out of these pretty faces the whole time.

On the center screen, all this time, in black and white—nobody can tell what the hell is going on at first. There are these sort of, well, abstract shapes, some fissures, folds, creases, apertures, some kind of rim, and some liquid that comes from somewhere. But it doesn't add up to anything. Of course, it could be some of the abstract forms that Stan Brakhage uses in his films, or—but then, after about fifteen minutes, while Black-haired Beauty on the left waffles in the shower and the Open-jawed Beauties on the right grin into eternal ingestion, it adds up—the girl who was sitting on the rim gets up, and then some large testicles lower into view, and then the organism begins to defecate. The film has somehow been made by slicing off the bottom of a toilet bowl and putting a glass shield in place and photographing straight up from inside the bowl. Black-haired Beauty pivots in the shower, luxuriating in oil, Strawberry Beauty smiles and luxuriates in chopped liver.

And here, descending head-on into the faces of the 200 celebrities, artists, columnists, editors ... is an enormous human turd.

Marvelous! The lights go on. All these illuminati are sitting here in their tuxedos and mini-evening dresses at the Top o' the Fair above grand old Nighttime City Lights New York City, above the frozen city-dump silhouette of the New York World's Fair, like an assembly of poleaxed lambs.


Walter De Maria! Walter De Maria is on the drums, high up on the Tropicana bandstand, snares, brushes, blond wood, those sturdy five-story loft walkup arms going like hell—Walter De Maria is on the rise. Bob Scull patronized him, helped him out, and De Maria is now among the rising young sculptors. Blam! He beats the hell out of the drums. On the dance floor they've seized all the equipment at the Top o' the Fair, the artists. The band looks on from the side. Walter De Maria has the drums, Claes Oldenburg has a tambourine, his wife Pat, in the silver dress, has a microphone, and Rauschenberg has a microphone. Rauschenberg's friend Steve Paxton, the dancer, is dancing, waffling, by himself. Rauschenberg and Pat Oldenburg are both ululating into the microphones, wild loon wails—Sloopy!—filling up this whole mushroom-head glass building overlooking frozen Queens. Where are the poleaxed lambs? They have been drifting off. The Campus Coach Line buses have been leaving every half hour, like a bus route. The pop artists, the op artists, the primary artists, have the place: De Maria, Rauschenberg, Rosenquist, Segal, Poons, Oldenburg,they have the Top o' the Fair. Larry Poons pulls off his shark terry cloth Hawaiian shirt and strips down to his Ford Motor Company Cobra T-shirt, with the word COBRA stacked up the front about eight times. Poons waffles about on the edge of the dance floor, with his head down but grinning.

Bob Scull beams. Spike is delighted. Her voice penetrates—yes!

"Look at Poonsy! When I see that boy smile, I really enjoy it, I'm telling you!"


Bob Scull sits at a table on the edge of the dance floor, beaming. Rauschenberg and Pat Oldenburg go into ululation, mimicking rock 'n' roll singers, and then somebody there says, "Sing the dirty song!" Just as if she knows what he means, Pat Oldenburg starts singing the Dirty Song. She has the microphone in that Show Biz grip and her legs roil around in her silver mini-gown and she sings.

"You got a dirty ceiling, you got a dirty floor, you got a dirty window, you got a dirty door, oh dirty dirty, dirty dirty dirty, oh dirty dirty, dirty dirty dirty—"

Scull just beams and gets up from the table and takes his chair practically out onto the dance floor in front of her and sits down—

"—oh dirty dirty, dirty dirty dirty, dirty dirty, oh, you got dirty hair, you got dirty shoes, you got dirty ears, you got dirty booze, dirty dirty, dirty dirty dirty, oh you got a dirty face you got a dirty shirt, you got dirty hands—"

Rauschenberg ululates in the background, De Maria explodes all over the drums in some secret my-own-bag fury, Oldenburg beats the tambourine, Poons waffles and grins, everybody looks at Scull to see what he's going to do. Scull seems to sense this as some sort of test. Enjoy!

"I like it!" he says to Pat Oldenburg.

"—oh dirty dirty, dirty dirty dirty, dirty dirty—"

"That's very good! I like it!"


He beams, Rauschenberg ululates, blam bong—Gong2:30 a.m., out, out of here, Poons, De Maria, Segal, Rauschenberg, Rosenquist, they're off, down the elevator, they disappear. Bob and Spike take the last elevator down, with Jonathan and Stephen. They get to the bottom, and it is cold as hell, 2:30 a.m., 17 degrees, in the middle of Flushing, Queens, frozen Flushing with the troglodyte ruins of the World's Fair, frozen-dump garbage, sticking up in the black—and suddenly the artists are gone—and so is the last bus. It's unbelievable—Bob and Spike—deserted—abandoned—in the middle of Queens. There must have been some stupid mistake! Either that or somebody told the last bus, and the last bus driver, "This is it, we're all here,take off," and he took off, all those Campus Coach Line buses. A station wagon pulls out. It has a few remaining magazine editors in it, the Time and Life crowd. It disappears. Suddenly it is all quiet as hell here, and cold. Bob Scull stares out into the galactal Tastee-Freeze darkness of Queens and watches his breath turn white in front of him.

Mens Sana in Corpore Sano

"We'll give you a full scholarship, and you won't have to take but one class a week during basketball season, and you'll have your own apartment, rent-free, and eighteen hundred dollars a month for books, and a Corvette for yourself and a Caprice Classic for your folks and when you graduate you'll be able to read the newspaper and the stereo ads and add and subtract on a portable calculator and direct-dial anywhere in the world."

Introduction © 1982 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.

Meet the Author

Tom Wolfe is the author of a dozen books, among them such contemporary classics as the bestselling The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, and The Bonfire of the Vanities. A native of Richmond, Virginia, he lives in New York City.
Tom Wolfe is one of the founders of the new journalism movement and author of such contemporary classics as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full and I Am Charlotte Simmons. A native of Richmond, Virginia, he earned his B.A. at Washington and Lee University and a Ph.D. in American studies at Yale. He lives in New York City.

Brief Biography

New York, New York
Date of Birth:
March 2, 1931
Place of Birth:
Richmond, Virginia
B.A. (cum laude), Washington and Lee University, 1951; Ph.D. in American Studies, Yale University, 1957

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