Tom Wolfe, Author of 'The Right Stuff,' Dies at 88

'The Right Stuff'
Cover of "The Right Stuff," the famous 1979 book by Tom Wolfe. (Image credit: Macmillan)

Tom Wolfe, who wrote "The Right Stuff" and a number of other iconic books, died yesterday (May 14) in New York City at age 88.

Wolfe had been in the hospital battling an infection, according to The New York Times, which published a detailed obituary of the flamboyant and innovative journalist-turned-novelist today (May 15).

"In his use of novelistic techniques in his nonfiction, Mr. Wolfe, beginning in the 1960s, helped create the enormously influential hybrid known as the New Journalism," The New York Times wrote. "But as an unabashed contrarian, he was almost as well known for his attire as his satire. He was instantly recognizable as he strolled down Madison Avenue — a tall, slender, blue-eyed, still boyish-looking man in his spotless three-piece vanilla bespoke suit, pinstriped silk shirt with a starched white high collar, bright handkerchief peeking from his breast pocket, watch on a fob, faux spats and white shoes. Once asked to describe his get-up, Mr. Wolfe replied brightly, 'Neo-pretentious.'" [Best Spaceflight and Space History Books]

In "The Right Stuff," Tom Wolfe chronicled the lives and missions of NASA's original "Mercury Seven" astronauts. (Image credit: NASA)

Wolfe's most famous nonfiction works are "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," a 1968 book that put readers on the bus with counterculture legend Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters, and 1979's "The Right Stuff," which chronicled the early days of the United States' human-spaceflight program.

"The Right Stuff" profiled NASA's first astronaut class, known as the Mercury Seven, as well as some test pilots who never made it to space — most famously, Chuck Yeager, who in 1947 became the first pilot to break the sound barrier. The best-selling book was made into a 1983 movie, which won four Academy Awards and has become a cultural touchstone in its own right. 

"I'm saddened to hear of the passing of legendary author Tom Wolfe. "The Right Stuff" was an inspiration to me and millions of others. He will be missed," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted today.

Wolfe was a prolific essayist who published many pieces in prominent magazines such as Esquire and Harper's. He became a successful novelist relatively late in life, publishing "The Bonfire of the Vanities" in 1987 (though the book first appeared in serial form in the magazine Rolling Stone in 1984 and 1985) and "A Man in Full" in 1998.

Wolfe was born in Richmond, Virginia, on March 2, 1930. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from Virginia's Washington and Lee University in 1951 and a doctorate in American studies from Yale in 1957. Wolfe was also a talented baseball player, earning a tryout as a pitcher with the New York Giants shortly after graduating from college, according to The New York Times. (He didn't make the team.)

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.