THE AUTHOR OF “THE RIGHT STUFF” BLASTS OFF IN THIS 1979 INTERVIEW.
Byline: Mort Sheinman, August 1979
He came striding down the avenue with all the swagger of some high roller off a Mississippi riverboat, a flash of blue pinstripes on a sharp white suit, a skinny white tie with dark blue polkadots, a light blue shirt with gold collar pin, laced-up white shoes and a tall black hat with enough brim to keep the upper half of his body from being assaulted by the sun. He was a snowflake in the dog days of summer, a lily-white Super-Fly. It was vintage Tom Wolfe, and if the look is starting to wear a bit thin, Wolfe is the first to admit it.
“I’m a back number now,” he says softly, settling behind a table in an Italian restaurant. “I’ve got all these white suits, and I’m just wearing them out. I was done in first by ‘The Great Gatsby’ and then by ‘Saturday Night Fever.’ The white suits came pouring out of Sears’ basement. I decided to switch to yellow, and I bought a yellow suit that looked subdued in the shop, but it turned out to be really loud. Now if I wear it in public, dogs bark and small children leave the street, crying.”
Wolfe’s grin was shy and sly, and his eyes danced with amusement. He appeared fully at ease with himself and maybe even had every right to be. In a few days, his latest book would be brought to the stores and if the advance word was right, it would be a biggie. Wolfe, who was 48 in March, has not had a biggie in a long while. It has been nine years since “Radical Chic” came out, and with the exception of “The Painted Word,” a book which caused a furor in the art world, and his essay on the “Me Decade,” Tom Wolfe — journalism’s enfant terrible of the Sixties — has been rather quiet in the Seventies.
Until now. The new book took almost six years to complete, and it just may be the best thing he has ever done. It is entitled “The Right Stuff” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $12.95) and, simply put, it is the story of the early astronauts, the Original Seven who flew the Mercury series from 1961 to 1963, men who, in Wolfe’s words, “were so famous, so revered, so lavishly fussed and worried over at all times that they were without peers in this new branch of the military.” Remember their names? They were regarded as demigods when they were introduced to the public, the seven bravest lads in America, but today there is probably not more than one person in a thousand who could rattle off the names of all seven — Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Wally Schirra, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper and Deke Slayton.
Because they were so well protected and treated with such primness by the press, they remained stereotypes — dull-as-dishwater straight arrows, superannuated Boy Scouts who were married to perfect little ladies. Wolfe’s book changes all that. He reminds us that, above all, these men were pilots, hotshot pilots at that, members of a very special fraternity, Flying Jocks, men with gigantic egos and the ability to stay cool while being propelled through the air like human cannonballs. Wolfe tells us what it’s like to go “shooting straight through the top of the sky,” to be “in a king’s solitude, unique and inviolate, above the dome of the world.” He describes what happens when someone is immolated by airplane fuel, and he talks about the nightmares and hallucinations experienced by the wives. He shows us the groupies and the glad-handers, and the tremendous spirit of competition among the astronauts, and he does it without stooping to petty gossip, without trivializing. It is a dazzling piece of work, something that reveals much about the nature of bravery and celebrity and — yes — patriotism.
“The Right Stuff” (the title comes from what Wolfe describes as that “ineffable quality” which was necessary to succeed in the hazard-ridden world of the test pilot) had its genesis in December 1972, when Wolfe was assigned by Rolling Stone magazine to cover the flight of Apollo 17, America’s last manned moon mission.
“Since it was going to be the last one, there was a great to-do,” said Wolfe, his voice still retaining the softness of his native Richmond. “You didn’t have to know anything about space to be excited about what was going on. It was like a heavyweight championship fight. Even if you know nothing about boxing, you can feel the electricity; you know it’s the place to be. I got to talking with a number of the astronauts and found them very approachable. I got hooked immediately. I was interested in the rather obvious question of the psychological makeup of people willing to sit on top of a rocket. I wrote four pieces for Rolling Stone and thought that if I spent another couple of months doing research, I could whip it all into shape as a book. Well…dream on. That was in 1973. What I learned was how little I knew about the program.
“In the meantime, I wrote three books. Sometimes I think the reason I wrote them was to keep from writing one. I would go and have suits made and convince myself that that was a worthwhile way to pass the time. Anything to keep from writing. Writing, to me, is like having arthritis. It hurts every day. These people who talk about the bliss of creation are experiencing something I’ve never felt. The only thing that keeps you going is the imagined applause somewhere down the line.”
Two factors kept getting in Wolfe’s way. He was uncertain about how to structure the book, and he was doing enough research for a book twice as long as this one turned out to be.
“Finally,” he said, “I relaxed and said I would use the ‘new journalism’ devices where I felt like they were right and go to more conventional forms — the essay, for example — where they felt right. As for all the research, I originally thought the book would take in the entire space program right through Sky Lab. Some day, I may yet write a second part to it.”
A lot of material was made available by the National Aeronautics & Space Administration, and Wolfe says the agency “could not have been more helpful.”
“They even made the debriefings available,” he said, “and this was the way I was able to reconstruct the flights themselves. As soon as the astronauts came back, they were just pumped for everything, how they felt at every moment during the flight, what they saw, and so on. All of this was so new. It had never been done before, and NASA wanted to know everything that went on inside their heads. They were declassifying it just at the time I was researching the book. I was lucky.”
Wolfe was also fortunate in being able to interview dozens of the astronauts. His respect for them is profound.
“Mostly, they were very open,” he said. “Either that, or they said they just didn’t wish to talk. There was no waffling. Neil Armstrong would not be interviewed. I approached him many times, but he said it was a policy he had set for himself and he saw no reason to change it on my account. I also think he’s a genuinely shy man. Buzz Aldrin was another who declined to be interviewed, but he said it was because he had his own book out.”
One is curious about Wolfe’s reaction to John Glenn, who of all the astronauts described in “The Right Stuff” comes across as the most puritanical. There is a chapter, for example, in which Wolfe writes of an incredible lecture given by Glenn on the subject of…groupies. It happened during the training period prior to the first flight, when Cape Canaveral was flooded with “young juicy girls with stand-up jugs and full-sprung thighs and conformations so taut and silky that the very sight of them practically pulled a man into the delta of priapic delirium.” Many of these nubiles vowed to bed each of the Original Seven, and there is a distinct possibility they might have even made it were it not for Glenn, who told his brothers in no uncertain terms that there had been enough monkey business, that too much was at stake to risk compromising the program.
“I think John Glenn is a good man, a really good man,” Wolfe said. “I’m glad to see him in the Senate. He says what he means. He’s very sincere in his religious feelings and he’s also very ambitious. I don’t object to that combination. I really don’t dislike any of the astronauts. It’s hard to dislike straightforward people, and they are very straightforward.
“Most people admire astronauts as a type. People don’t know them as individuals because, being in the military, they never became individuals. They knew by instinct they could not become ‘characters.’ All military men know it’s not too wise to be too colorful. Patton tried it and so did MacArthur. They’re remembered, but they might have been presidents. The first astronaut to be the Joe Namath of astronauts would have been remembered, but he wouldn’t have flown again.”
In the end, what it finally came down to, of course, was the matter of bravery.
“What I was interested in,” said Wolfe, “was the psychology of the test pilot — the makeup of the flying fraternity and the question of what bravery is. Bravery is usually defined in a negative way — the absence of those neuroses that would prevent a brave act.
“In ‘The Anatomy of Courage’ by Lord Moran, who was Churchill’s physician and a doctor in the trenches during World War I, he said he finally came to the conclusion that without a social sphere, or special milieu, there could be no bravery; he says that if men are given an honorable alternative to being brave, they will choose the honorable alternative. I conclude that the whole function of a flying fraternity is to draw men into a world where there is no honorable alternative to bravery, to showing the right stuff.
“It’s not just astronauts,” he said. “There are construction workers and longshoreman and you can see the right stuff in those areas too. Police and firemen have it. But only in flying is continual death such a part of it. The Navy has a study showing that 20 years’ worth of flying — not combat, but test flying — yields a 23 percent chance of getting killed. There’s nothing I know that comes close to that.”