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Awards & Honors: 2006 Jefferson Lecturer

Tom Wolfe Excerpts

The Nanny Mafia

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Humanities Magazine May/June 2006 cover

May/June 2006

Champagne for your little boy's birthday party?

"You're damned right," she says. "For all the nannies. I'm not kidding! If we ever tried to give a party for Bobby and his little friends without champagne for the nannies, we might was well, you know, forget about it.

"Bobby's nanny is mad enough as it is. All she can do is drop what are supposed to be very subtle hints about the V------'s party for little Sarah. Do you know what Van gave each kid as a party favor? An electric truck. I'm talking about a real electric truck. Of course, they're nothing much really. They're smaller than a Jaguar. By a little bit. The kid can get inside of it and drive it! They cost five hundred dollars, five hundred dollars! Can you imagine that? We had to carry the damn thing home. You should have seen us trying to get it in the cab. Of course, Van is absolutely petrified of the nannies.

"Well, I was damned if we were going to do anything like that. Robert had to take the whole afternoon off Tuesday to go to Schwarz. This was precisely the afternoon the Swedes came in with some bond thing, of course. The Swedes wear the worst clothes. They all look like striped cardboard. They think they're very European. Anyway, Robert got some kind of bird with a tape recorder in it, I don't know. The kids can talk into it and it records it and says it back. Something like that. You know. Well, I don't care, I think it's going to be a perfectly cute party favor, but our Mrs. G--- is not going to be happy with it, I'm sure of that.

"She wanted us to have the party in Robert's father's house on 70th Street in the first place. I'm serious! She doesn't like this apartment! It embarrasses her! Do you know what it is? Do you know who runs the East Side of New York? The nanny mafia. There's a nanny mafia!"

The nanny mafia! At this moment, the nannies, the leading nannies, are all gathered down in Central Park, in the playground just over the stone wall next to Fifth Avenue, at the foot of East 77th Street. Down there, through the pin oak, birch, beech and sweetgum leaves, in the sun and dappled shadows, on this green-and-gold, bluebottle-fly afternoon, you can see the nannies sitting on the benches around the oval that the playground fence forms. In the middle of the oval are their charges. All these little boys and girls are either in English Brabingham baby carriages or else they are playing about the swings and the seesaws in Ceruti shorts and jumpers with only the most delightful verandah-in-Newport, Sundays-in-North Egremont sort of gaiety. The oval fence has high and rather graceful spikes and stands as a kind of genteel stockade against the customary terrors of New York life. In fact, the playground at the foot of 77th Street is the kind of place all the New Yorkers who feel like hopeless DPs from the genteel style of life can walk by and look at and recharge their gentility cells and walk on. Down there in the sun and dappled shadows, after all, are the nannies, fillers of these little vessels of the Protestant ethic, angels in starched white, gleaming in God's daylight.

Excerpt from The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. ©1965, renewed 1993 by Tom Wolfe. All excerpts reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, LLC.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

The things he would somehow suddenly remember about the old home town--over here, for example, is the old white clapboard house they used to live in, and behind it, back a ways, is the radio tower of station KORE with a red light blinking on top--and at night he used to get down on his knees to say his prayers and there would be the sky and the light blinking--and he always kind of thought he was praying to that red light. And the old highway used to take a bend right about here, and it seemed like there was always somebody driving through about three or four in the morning, half asleep, and they would see the lights over there in town where it was getting built up and they'd think the road headed straight for the lights and they'd run off the bend and Kesey and his dad would go out to see if they could help the guy draggle himself out of the muck--chasing street lights!--praying to the red beacon light of KORE!--and a little run-in at Gregg's Drive-In, as it used to be called, it is now Speck's, at Franklin Boulevard at the bridge over the river. That was the big high-school drive-in, with the huge streamlined sculpted pastel display sign with streaming streamlined super-slick A-22 italic script, floodlights, clamp-on trays, car-hop girls in floppy blue slacks, hamburgers in some kind of tissuey wax paper steaming with onions pressed down and fried on the grill and mustard and catsup to squirt all over it from out plastic squirt cylinders. Saturday nights when everybody is out cruising--some guy was in his car in the lot at Gregg's going the wrong way, so nobody could move. The more everybody blew the horns, the more determined the guy got. Like this was the test. He rolls up the windows and locks the doors so they can't get at him and keeps boring in. This guy vs. Kesey. So Kesey goes inside and gets a potato they make the french fries with and comes out and jams it over the guy's exhaust pipe, which causes the motor to conk out and you ain't going any which way now, bub. The guy brings charges against Kesey for ruining his engine and Kesey ends up in juvenile court before a judge and tries to tell him how it is at Gregg's Drive-In on a Saturday night: The Life--that feeling--The Life--the late 1940s early 1950s American Teenage Drive-In Life was precisely what it was all about--but how could you tell anyone about it?

But of course!--the feeling-out here at night, free, with the motor running and the adrenaline flowing, cruising in the neon glories of the new American night--it was very Heaven to be the first wave of the most extraordinary kids in the history of the world--only 15, 16, 17 years old, dressed in the haute couture of pink Oxford shirts, sharp pants, snaky half-inch belts, fast shoes--with all this Straight-8 and V-8 power underneath and all this neon glamour overhead, which somehow tied in with the technological superheroics of the jet, TV, atomic subs, ultrasonics--Postwar American suburbs--glorious world! and the hell with the intellectual bad-mouthers of America's tailfin civilization . . .

Excerpt from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. ©1968, renewed 1996 by Tom Wolfe.

Radical Chic

Felicia is remarkable. She is beautiful, with that rare burnished beauty that lasts through the years. Her hair is pale blond and set just so. She has a voice that is "theatrical," to use a term from her youth. She greets the Black Panthers with the same bend of the wrist, the same tilt of the head, the same perfect Mary Astor voice with which she greets people like Jason, John and D.D., Adolph, Betty, Gian-Carlo, Schuyler, and Goddard, during those après-concert suppers she and Lenny are so famous for. What evenings! She lights the candles over the dining-room table, and in the Gotham gloaming the little tremulous tips of flame are reflected in the mirrored surface of the table, a bottomless blackness with a thousand stars, and it is that moment that Lenny loves. There seem to be a thousand stars above and a thousand stars below, a room full of stars, a penthouse duplex full of stars, a Manhattan tower full of stars, with marvelous people drifting through the heavens, Jason Robards, John and D.D. Ryan, Gian-Carlo Menotti, Schuyler Chapin, Goddard Lieberson, Mike Nichols, Lillian Hellman, Larry Rivers, Aaron Copland, Richard Avedon, Milton and Amy Greene, Lukas Foss, Jennie Tourel, Samuel Barber, Jerome Robbins, Steve Sondheim, Adolph and Phyllis Green, Betty Comden, and the Patrick O'Neals . . .

. . . and now, in the season of Radical Chic, the Black Panthers. That huge Panther there, the one Felicia is smiling her tango smile at, is Robert Bay, who just forty-one hours ago was arrested in an altercation with the police, supposedly over a .38-caliber revolver that someone had, in a parked car in Queens at Northern Boulevard and 104th Street or some such unbelievable place, and taken to jail on a most unusual charge called "criminal facilitation." And now he is out on bail and walking into Leonard and Felicia Bernstein's thirteen-room penthouse duplex on Park Avenue. Harassment & Hassles, Guns & Pigs, Jail & Bail--they're real, these Black Panthers. The very idea of them, these real revolutionaries, who actually put their lives on the line, runs through Lenny's duplex like a rogue hormone. Everyone casts a glance, or stares, or tries a smile, and then sizes up the house for the somehow delicious counterpoint . . . Deny it if you want to! But one does end up making such sweet furtive comparisons in this season of Radical Chic . . . There's Otto Preminger in the library and Jean vanden Heuvel in the hall, and Peter and Cheray Duchin in the living room, and Frank and Domna Stanton, Gail Lumet, Sheldon Harnick, Cynthia Phipps, Burton Lane, Mrs. August Heckscher, Roger Wilkins, Barbara Walters, Bob Silvers, Mrs. Richard Avedon, Mrs. Arthur Penn, Julie Belafonte, Harold Taylor, and scores more, including Charlotte Curtis, women's news editor of The New York Times, America's foremost chronicler of Society, a lean woman in black, with her notebook out, standing near Felicia and big Robert Bay, and talking to Cheray Duchin.

Cheray tells her: "I've never met a Panther--this is a first for me!" . . . never dreaming that within forty-eight hours her words will be on the desk of the President of the United States . . .

This is a first for me. But she is not alone in her thrill as the Black Panthers come trucking on in, into Lenny's house, Robert Bay, Don Cox the Panthers' Field Marshal from Oakland, Henry Miller the Harlem Panther defense captain, the Panther women--Christ, if the Panthers don't know how to get it all together, as they say, the tight pants, the tight black turtlenecks, the leather coats, Cuban shades, Afros. But real Afros, not the ones that have been shaped and trimmed like a topiary hedge and sprayed until they have a sheen like acrylic wall-to-wall--but like funky, natural, scraggly . . . wild . . .

These are no civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three sizes too big--no more interminable Urban League banquets in hotel ballrooms where they try to alternate the blacks and whites around the tables as if they were stringing Arapaho beads--these are real men!

Shoot-outs, revolutions, pictures in Life magazine of policemen grabbing Black Panthers like they were Vietcong--somehow it all runs together in the head with the whole thing of how beautiful they are. Sharp as a blade. The Panther women--there are three or four of them on hand, wives of the Panther 21 defendants, and they are so lean, so lithe, as they say, with tight pants and Yoruba-style headdresses, almost like turbans, as if they'd stepped out of the pages of Vogue, although no doubt Vogue got it from them. All at once every woman in the room knows what Amanda Burden meant when she said she was now anti-fashion because "the sophistication of the baby blacks made me rethink my attitudes." God knows the Panther women don't spend thirty minutes in front of the mirror in the morning shoring up their eye holes with contact lenses, eyeliner, eye shadow, eyebrow pencil, occipital rim brush, false eyelashes, mascara, Shadow-Ban for undereye and Eterna Creme for the corners . . . And here they are, right in front of you, trucking on into the Bernsteins' Chinese yellow duplex, amid the sconces, silver bowls full of white and lavender anemones, and uniformed servants serving drinks. . .

Excerpt from Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. ©1970 by Tom Wolfe.

The Painted Word

All these years, along with countless kindred souls, I am certain, I had made my way into the galleries of Upper Madison and Lower Soho and the Art Gildo Midway of Fifty-seventh Street, and into the museums, into the Modern, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim, the Bastard Bauhaus, the New Brutalist, and the Fountainhead Baroque, into the lowliest storefront churches and grandest Robber Baronial temples of Modernism. All these years I, like so many others, had stood in front of a thousand, two thousand, God-knows-how-many thousand Pollocks, de Koonings, Newmans, Nolands, Rothkos, Rauschenbergs, Judds, Johnses, Olitskis, Louises, Stills, Franz Klines, Frankenthalers, Kellys, and Frank Stellas, now squinting, now popping the eye sockets open, now drawing back, now moving closer--waiting, waiting, forever waiting for . . . it . . . for it to come into focus, namely, the visual reward (for so much effort) which must be there, which everyone (tout le monde) knew to be there--waiting for something to radiate directly from the paintings on these invariably pure white walls, in this room, in this moment, into my own optic chiasma. All these years, in short, I had assumed that in art, if nowhere else, seeing is believing. Well--how very shortsighted! Now, at last, on April 28, 1974, I could see. I had gotten it backward all along. Not "seeing is believing," you ninny, but "believing is seeing," for Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.

Like most sudden revelations, this one left me dizzy. How could such a thing be? How could Modern Art be literary? As every art-history student is told, the Modern movement began about 1900 with a complete rejection of the literary nature of academic art, meaning the sort of realistic art which originated in the Renaissance and which the various national academies still held up as the last word.

Literary became a code word for all that seemed hopelessly retrograde about realistic art. It probably referred originally to the way nineteenth-century painters liked to paint scenes straight from literature, such as Sir John Everett Millais's rendition of Hamlet's intended, Ophelia, floating dead (on her back) with a bouquet of wildflowers in her death grip. In time, literary came to refer to realistic painting in general. The idea was that half the power of a realistic painting comes not from the artist but from the sentiments the viewer hauls along to it, like so much mental baggage. According to this theory, the museum-going public's love of, say, Jean François Millet's The Sower has little to do with Millet's talent and everything to do with people's sentimental notions about The Sturdy Yeoman. They make up a little story about him.

What was the opposite of literary painting? Why, l'art pour l'art, form for the sake of form, color for the sake of color. In Europe before 1914, artists invented Modern styles with fanatic energy--Fauvism, Futurism, Cubism, Expressionism, Orphism, Supermatism, Vorticism--but everybody shared the same premise: henceforth, one doesn't paint "about anything, my dear aunt," to borrow a line from a famous Punch cartoon. One just paints. Art should no longer be a mirror held up to man or nature. A painting should compel the viewer to see it for what it is: a certain arrangement of colors and forms on a canvas.

Excerpt from The Painted Word. ©1975 by Tom Wolfe.

The Right Stuff

A young man might go into military flight training believing that he was entering some sort of technical school in which he was simply going to acquire a certain set of skills. Instead, he found himself all at once enclosed in a fraternity. And in this fraternity, even though it was military, men were not rated by their outward rank as ensigns, lieutenants, commanders, or whatever. No, herein the world was divided into those who had it and those who did not. This quality, this it, was never named, however, nor was it talked about in any way.

As to just what this ineffable quality was . . . well, it obviously involved bravery. But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life. The idea seemed to be that any fool could do that, if that was all that was required, just as any fool could throw away his life in the process. No, the idea here (in the all-enclosing fraternity) seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment--and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite--and, ultimately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God.

Nor was there a test to show whether or not a pilot had this righteous quality. There was, instead, a seemingly infinite series of tests. A career in flying was like climbing one of those ancient Babylonian pyramids made up of a dizzy progression of steps and ledges, a ziggurat, a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were on of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even--ultimately, God willing, one day--that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men's eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself.

None of this was to be mentioned, and yet it was acted out in a way that a young man could not fail to understand. When a new flight (i.e., a class) of trainees arrived at Pensacola, they were brought into an auditorium for a little lecture. An officer would tell them: "Take a look at the man on either side of you." Quite a few actually swiveled their heads this way and that, in the interest of appearing diligent. Then the officer would say: "One of the three of you is not going to make it!"--meaning, not get his wings. That was the opening theme, the motif of primary training. We already know that one-third of you do not have the right stuff--it only remains to find out who.

Excerpt from The Right Stuff. ©1979 by Tom Wolfe.

From Bauhaus to Our House

Here we come upon one of the ironies of American life in the twentieth century. After all, this has been the American century, in the same way that the seventeenth might be regarded as the British century. This is the century in which America, the young giant, became the mightiest nation on earth, devising the means to obliterate the planet with a single device but also the means to escape to the stars and explore the rest of the universe. This is the century in which she became the richest nation in all of history, with a wealth that reached down to every level of the population. The energies and animal appetites and idle pleasures of even the working classes--the very term now seemed antique--became enormous, lurid, creamy, preposterous. The American family car was a 425-horsepower, twenty-two-foot-long Buick Electra with tail fins in back and two black rubber breasts on the bumper in front. The American liquor-store deliveryman's or cargo humper's vacation was two weeks in Barbados with his third wife or his new cookie. The American industrial convention was a gin-blind rout at a municipal coliseum the size of all Rome, featuring vans in the parking lot stocked with hookers on flokati rugs for the exclusive use of registered members of the association. The way Americans lived made the rest of mankind stare with envy or disgust but always with awe. In short, this has been America's period of full-blooded, go-to-hell, belly-rubbing wahoo-yahoo rampage--and what architecture has she to show for it? An architecture whose tenets prohibit every manifestation of exuberance, power, empire, grandeur, or even high spirits and playfulness, as the height of bad taste.

We brace for a barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world--and hear a cough at a concert.

In short, the reigning architectural style in this, the very Babylon of capitalism, became worker housing. Worker housing, as developed by a handful of architects, inside the compounds, amid the rubble of Europe in the early 1920s, was now pitched up high and wide, in the form of Ivy League art-gallery annexes, museums for art patrons, apartments for the rich, corporate headquarters, city halls, country estates. It was made to serve every purpose, in fact, except housing for workers.

Excerpt from From Bauhaus to Our House. ©1981 by Tom Wolfe.

Bonfire of the Vanities

The familiar 1920s Gothic palisades of New York Hospital were just up ahead. White Manhattan! They took the Seventy-first Street exit off the drive.

Maria parked across the street from the town house and her fourth-floor hideaway. Sherman got out and immediately scrutinized the right rear fender. To his great relief-no dent; no sign of anything, at least not here in the dark. Since Maria had told her husband she wouldn't be returning from Italy until the next day, she wanted to take the luggage up to the little apartment, too. Three times Sherman climbed up the creaking staircase, in the miserable gloaming of the Landlord's Halos, hauling up the luggage.

Maria took off her royal-blue jacket with the Paris shoulders and put it on the bed. Sherman took off his jacket. It was badly ripped in the back, in the side seams. Huntsman, Savile Row, London. Cost a goddamned fortune. He threw it on the bed. His shirt was wringing wet. Maria kicked off her shoes and sat down in one of the bentwood chairs by the oak pedestal table and put one elbow on the table and let her head keel over against her forearm. The old table sagged in its sad way. Then she straightened up and looked at Sherman.

"I want a drink," she said. "You want one?"

"Yeah. You want me to fix them?"

"Unh-hunh. I want a lot of vodka and a little orange juice and some ice. The vodka's up in the cabinet."

He went in the mean little kitchen and turned on the light. A cockroach was sitting on the rim of a dirty frying pan on the stove. Well, the hell with it. He made Maria her vodka-and-orange juice and then poured himself an Old Fashioned glass full of scotch and put in some ice and a little water. He sat in one of the bentwood chairs across the table from her. He found that he wanted the drink very badly. He longed for each ice-cold burning jolt in his stomach. The car fishtailed. Thok. The tall delicate one wasn't standing there any longer.

Maria had already drunk half the big tumbler he had brought her. She closed her eyes and threw her head back and then looked at Sherman and smiled in a tired fashion. "I swear," she said, "I thought that was gonna be . . . it."

"Well, what do we do now?" said Sherman.

"What do you mean?"

"I guess we oughta--I guess we oughta report it to the police."

"That's what you said. Okay. Tell me what for."

"Well, they tried to rob us--and I think maybe you--I think it's possible you hit one of them."

She just looked at him.

"It was when you really gunned it, and we skidded."

"Well, you wanna know something? I hope I did. But if I did, I sure didn't hit him very hard. I just barely heard something."

"It was just a little thok. And then he wasn't standing there anymore."

Maria shrugged her shoulders.

"Well--I'm just thinking out loud," said Sherman. "I think we ought to report it. That way we protect ourselves."

Maria expelled air through her lips, the way you do when you're at your wit's end, and looked away.

"Well, just suppose the guy is hurt."

She looked at him and laughed softly. "Frankly, I couldn't care less."

"But just suppose--"

"Look, we got outta there. How we did it doesn't matter."

Excerpt from The Bonfire of the Vanities. ©1987 by Tom Wolfe.

A Man in Full

RAM YO' BOOTY! RAM YO' BOOTY!--sang the chorus, which sounded like a group of sex-crazed crack fiends. It took a Roger Too White to imagine that sex-crazed crack fiends could get together and cooperate long enough to sing a chorus, although he did correctly identify Doctor Rammer Doc Doc, who was so popular that even a forty-two-year-old lawyer like himself couldn't completely shut him out of his waking life. His own tastes ran to Mahler and Stravinsky, and he would have gladly majored in music history at Morehouse, except that music history hadn't been considered too great a major for a black undergraduate who wanted to get into the University of Georgia law school. All of that, compressed into a millisecond, blipped through his mind in this moment, too.

The girl swung her hips in an exaggerated arc each time the fiends hit the BOO of BOOTY. She was gorgeous. Her jeans were down so low on her hips, and her tube top was up so high on her chest, he could see lots of her lovely light-caramel-colored flesh, punctuated by her belly button, which looked like an eager little eye. Her skin was the same light color as his, and he knew her type at a glance. Despite her funky clothes, she was a blueblood. She had Black Deb written all over her. Her parents were no doubt the classic Black Professional Couple of the 1990s, in Charlotte or Raleigh or Washington or Baltimore. Look at the gold bangles on her wrists; must have cost hundreds of dollars. Look at the soft waves in her relaxed hair, a 'do known as a Bout en Train; French, baby, for "life of the party"; cost a fortune; his own wife had the same thing done to her hair. Little cutie, shaking her booty, probably went to Howard or maybe Chapel Hill or the University of Virginia; belonged to Theta Psi. Oh, these black boys and girls came to Atlanta from colleges all over the place for Freaknic every April, at spring break, thousands of them, and here they were on Piedmont Avenue, in the heart of the northern third of Atlanta, the white third, flooding the streets, the parks, the malls, taking over Midtown and Downtown and the commercial strips of Buckhead, tying up traffic, even on Highways 75 and 85, baying at the moon, which turns chocolate during Freaknic, freaking out White Atlanta, scaring them indoors, where they cower for three days, giving them a snootful of the future.

Excerpt from A Man in Full. ©1998 by Tom Wolfe.

I Am Charlotte Simmons

When she next woke up, the first thing she noticed was the light coming in between the bottoms of the shades and the windowsills. It was alarmingly bright. My French class!

The little windup clock by the bed: 10:35! Forgot to set it! The class was already over! Couldn't happen! A scalding feeling at the base of her skull . . . The long night wasted babysitting Beverly . . . Beverly--not in her bed--hadn't touched it since she last staggered out. Must have finally sobbed, whined, wheedled her way back into the bed of her lacrosse player. Slut! Her crawling, drooling, sobbing, slobbering slut of a roommate had done this to her. And into the adrenal panic over heedlessly, pointlessly cutting a class came an ashy resentment.

Charlotte got out of bed and walked toward the windows. She was so groggy. She got down on her knees before she raised the shade about a foot. Brilliant sunlight. Gothic Dupont rose up almighty.

On a walkway out in the middle of the courtyard, near the statue of Charles Dupont, a girl was teetering along on high heels. From up here, five floors above, Charlotte was looking down at a disheveled rick of straight, flat streaked-blond hair on a head hung over toward the ground . . . the bony processes of her breastbone were showing from the way she had left her cerise shirt unbuttoned way down . . . a pair of tight black pants--then the sway and staccato of the gait, click teeter click teeter click teeter. Oh God . . . Her heart misfired--a premature ventricular contraction--Beverly. It couldn't have been more obvious that she was wearing clothes from last night and was just now returning home, still intoxicated.

From a window across the way a boy yelled out, "You're money, baby, and you don't even know it!"

Laughter from another window somewhere.

Beverly started walking faster--clickteeterclickteeterclickteeterclickteeterclickteeterclickteeter--and broke into a run for the entryway to Edgerton, sprinting on the pointed toes of her shoes. She had gone no more than a few yards when one of her high heels struck the walkway. She pitched forward, fell, rolled over the walkway's border of green-and-white liriope and onto the lawn, where she wound up on her back. She put a forearm up in front of her face to shield her eyes from the sun. Not a sound from the windows now. She rolled over onto her abdomen and struggled up into a crawling position. Her pumps were still on. One high heel had almost completely torn away from the sole and hung at a crippled angle. On all fours now, she lifted one leg and tried to kick the pump off. No luck. A couple of students down in the courtyard just stood there, absorbed in the spectacle. After a clumsy struggle, Beverly managed to stand upright. She looked about in an abstract, unseeing way and began limping the rest of the way to Edgerton, one heel high, one heel dragging lengthwise on the walkway.

Excerpt from I Am Charlotte Simmons. ©2004 by Tom Wolfe.