The Purple Decades: A Reader

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9780425062661: The Purple Decades: A Reader

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.

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About 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.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Purple Decades
BOB & SPIKE a 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. "Yeah--" "You sure your heart's O.K.?" "Yeah--" "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 it-- now! 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...

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