Tom Wolfe, who immortalised the phrase “Master of the Universe” in Bonfire of the Vanities 30 years ago, lives in exactly the sort of apartment owned by the book’s bond-trader protagonist Sherman McCoy: “One of those apartments the mere thought of which ignites flames of greed and covetousness under people all over New York, and for that matter, the world.”

The moment, in 1998, when I stepped inside the curiously dark lobby of Wolfe’s apartment co-op, I was interrogated by a doorman who was wearing a Prussian-looking green uniform with gold epaulettes. He scowled disdainfully at the ripped shopping bag clutched under my right arm. Inside were the 742-page galleys of Wolfe’s second novel, A Man in Full, which I’d read in 26 hours flat – an experience I hadn’t repeated since I was an undergraduate at Cambridge in 1987 and first got my hands on Bonfire, which I had read through the night fuelled by takeaway pizza and dreams of one day working in America.

After reading Wolfe’s tale of the money-crazed world of 1980s New York, and then all his other “New Journalism” books, I wrote a 15,000-word thesis as part of my English finals on his satire, full of obtuse references to Swift and Juvenal. I brazenly sent Wolfe a copy, asking to interview him. He politely wrote back in a typed letter, signed with a florid 18th-century signature, thanking me for the thesis on his work:

I might add that since you mention me in the same breath with Evelyn Waugh, Thackeray and Wyndham Lewis – you’ll notice I say the same breath and not the same league – I now feel positively historic. But alas, I have been forced to put my feet in the stocks to compel myself to complete a book against a ferocious deadline. Once that’s out of the way, you’re on.

The letter (with triple-spaced hyphens) had been sent to the old Times offices in Wapping, where I worked, and was dated January 31, 1991 – more than seven years before we finally met. That’s how long it took him to write his follow-up novel.

As the mahogany-panelled elevator jerked to a stop on the 14th floor, I was greeted by a distinguished dandy, with lank, greying Eton Flop hair, standing in the polished marble hallway. Wolfe was decked out in an Edwardian three-piece, double-breasted, off-white suit. Beneath that he wore a starched white shirt with dark claret stripes, fitted with a dangerous-looking high-rise stiff white collar.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection