• Mary A. Dempsey

Tom Wolfe’s Checkered Past

Tom Wolfe was most famous for his writing, but his sense of style was not far behind. The stories about Wolfe’s élan were legendary, and the one that crossed my path mixed fashion with, appropriately, wordplay.

In late 2002, I was copyediting a book of previously unseen JFK photos taken by Jacques Lowe, whose iconic images of the young president and his family remain engrained in the memories of two generations of Americans. The book project carried both a tragic-amazing photography twist and an appearance by Wolfe.

Work onRemembering Jack: Intimate and Unseen Photos of the Kennedys had started not long after Lowe’s death as a tribute to the photographer who helped create President John F. Kennedy’s Camelot legend. The idea had been to identify standout images that had never been published. What wasn’t known at the time, however, is that the negatives were stored in a vault that was destroyed by the 9/11 terrorism attacks. Lowe had died four months before the attacks.

The negatives may have been gone, but the contact sheets from the years Lowe followed Kennedy were safely stashed in the photographer’s Tribeca loft in New York City. Tech advances allowed previously unseen images to be reproduced directly from the contact sheets. Each looked as if it had been printed from negatives.

Where was Tom Wolfe in all this?

The author of The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities was writing the book’s afterword—and I was to edit it. I remember feeling rather intimidated by my contact with the literary giant. Dare I suggest changes in his text? How would he respond if I did?

As it turned out, the afterword was based on remarks Wolfe delivered at Lowe’s memorial service. My edits were light—nothing more was needed—and Wolfe was gracious beyond words.

During the work, Bob Adelman, the LIFE photographer and book publisher who engineered the JFK project, told me about his own experiences with Wolfe, whom he considered a friend. (Adelman's civil rights photos became part of the Library of Congress after his death in 2016.) Adelman told me that Wolfe once assembled his wife and their two then-young children for a family photo. They all wore checkered clothing.

The photo’s title? The Czech Family.

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