The Charlotte News

SUNDAY, JULY 30, 1939


His Sister Knew Tom Wolfe Well

By W. J. Cash

(As originally appearing with article)

Shortly before this interview with the sister of Thomas Wolfe, Cash had visited his fiancee, who was then working in Asheville, and they both made a pilgrimage to Wolfe's grave in Riverside Cemetery. Cash had at first envied Wolfe his success, so striking by comparison with his own obscurity, but eventually came to a just appreciation of Wolfe's stature. Wolfe's early death seems to have shaken Cash, who was well aware that the two of them had been born in the same year, 1900, Wolfe on October 3 and Cash on May 2.

--Note from W.J. Cash: Southern Prophet by Joseph L. Morrison
(This article appeared in the Reader section of Prophet.)

[Site ed. note: According to Mary's "Recollections", contained in Professor Morrison's papers contained in the North Carolina Room of Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina, Cash was so moved at the grave site of Wolfe that he shed tears. (W.J. Cash: A Life, by Bruce Clayton, L.S.U. Press, 1991, p. 154)

For an earlier short elegiac article by Cash on Wolfe, written a month after Wolfe's death, together with a poetic passage from Of Time and the River, see "On Living Forever" - October 16, 1938. For a short biographical tour of the life of Wolfe, including writing excerpts, visit The Thomas Wolfe Web Site at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.

This article was based on an interview Cash had arranged with Mabel Wolfe Wheaton at the old Selwyn Hotel in downtown Charlotte. The article appeared as a rare locally produced feature on the regular editorial page of the paper.]


Sitting in the lobby of the Selwyn Hotel, Mrs. Ralph Wheaton, of 48 Spruce Street, Asheville, told me about the death of Thomas Wolfe.

Mrs. Wheaton is Tom Wolfe's sister Mabel, older than the novelist by ten years. You will remember her if you have read ''Look Homeward, Angel" and "Of Time and the River." Mabel Wheaton looks remarkably like her brother even for a sister. There is a certain softening of the lines in these Wolfe faces, a distribution of the bony structure, a flattening of round surfaces,which strongly suggests the Indians of the Southwest or the peasant types of Central Europe--or Brittany or Provence. I have seen brown-faced women about Arles, where all the strains of the North and the Mediterranean have met and merged, who reminded me a great deal of Mrs.Wheaton--of Thomas Wolfe. Contemplation and force: these are the qualities in those faces that immediately impress you. The brown eyes look at you with a penetrating directness, give you the impression of extraordinary concentration. And there is something else there, too--a feeling of profound kindness and understanding, an eager will to like and be liked, the absence of the mean little hostility and suspicion, the will to impress, with which most of us encounter strangers.

Look Homeward Angel

There was a time back in October, 1929, when life was not pleasant in Asheville for the Wolfes, including Mabel Wheaton."Look Homeward, Angel" had just been published and the town was buzzing with the outrage of little people who had not yet learned that they had been projected into something at least resembling immortality, who retaliated by pointing scornfully to the things Wolfe had revealed about his own family--none of which came to anything but the admission that they were human. But Mabel Wheaton wrote her brother a letter asserting her absolute faith in his intention, her understanding of what he was about. He replied by telegram--or he himself was already troubled by what he knew the inevitable reaction would be, as he afterward revealed in "The Story of a Novel," and besides he was a fellow of impulsive generosity, quick to respond to any warm gesture with another in kind.

Judge Whole

"No novel," that telegram said in effect, "should ever be judged by line and detail but only as a whole. And when you look at it that way, you will see that I have painted all of you, all the Wolfes and all of Asheville, as a great people." Looking at Mabel Wheaton, you know what he meant.

She has had her share of the ups and downs which make up our passage under the sun. In her girlhood, she was a singer in vaudeville for awhile. Then she married Ralph Wheaton, whom Asheville still calls a Yankee though he left Ohio 30 years ago. Ralph sold cash registers, made a lot of money. They lived in Grove Park in those days, the Wheatons were the rich kin of the Wolfes. Then Ralph got caught in the boom spirit which struck Asheville in the Twenties, and which Tom Wolfe has described in "Boom Town" and various chapters of "Of Time and the River"--lost his money. His health gave out about that time, too, and the cash register company dismissed him. (You can read the story of the Wheaton's cash register days in a story "The Company" which Tom Wolfe wrote and Mike Gold published in the New Masses. ) After that, the Wheatons moved to Washington, where Mabel ran a rooming house for several years. Tom Wolfe, home from Guggenheim Fellowship days in Europe, and writing "Of Time and the River" in a Brooklyn lodging house, used to come down to Washington to see them when he got too lonely, which was pretty often. Lately the Wheatons have been living in Florida. One evening Mrs.Wheaton went out to a neighborhood movie, an automobile struck her and broke her leg. She walks on crutches now, her leg in a cast, her foot bare and swollen. At present they are in Asheville. When Mabel Wheaton is well they will go back to Washington, where she will run a book shop.

Talks Like Tom

But if Mabel Wheaton by ordinary looks remarkably like Tom Wolfe, she almost becomes Tom Wolfe over again when she talks--she talks a great deal--and especially when she talks of her brother. The words come with the same torrential rush that you find in his books, and there is a feeling of image piling upon image so rapidly that the tongue is unable to keep up with the brain. The effect is a little incoherent at first, but it all turns out in the end to have its pattern.

She reaches back into the past to dig up a picture of Tom Wolfe as a great lumbering boy with his sleeves halfway up to his elbows, Tom Wolfe debating in the graduating exercises at the North State Fitting School in Asheville, her pride in him as she stood outside the hall and heard Wolfe charging through the crowd to her shouting, "my voice won for me!" He had had the foghorn voice which was his in manhood since he was eleven years old. Tom Wolfe, handed a check for $10,000 by the man from Harper's, turning away to stare out the window of the Chelsea Hotel with tears in his eyes--pouring out his joy in a letter to her that at last somebody had had faith enough in him to give him more money than he had ever seen before, for a book he had not yet written. Oh, he would justify that if it tore the heart out of him. He would write the finest novel he could write--he'd show 'em. Never in his life was he ever to quite get it through his head that he had already arrived. Occasionally his pride rose up and asserted itself, but for the most of the time he remained an humble and wistful boy.

Tom Wolfe's Death

All that, and a thousand things more, as Mabel Wheaton tells you about the death of her brother. She was with Tom Wolfe in his last days.

He had gone out there to Seattle, to the West, to escape--from what he did not quite know, from all the oppressions of all living. "You can't go home," he had written her from New York on the eve of the journey--on that theme had been writing "The Web and the Rock." And now he had been ill for weeks in the Providence Hospital at Seattle. His brother, Fred, who runs the Bluebird Ice Cream Co. in Spartanburg, was out there. But the ice cream business needed Fred, and Tom needed to be looked after during his convalescence from pneumonia. So Mabel Wheaton closed up her rooming house, sent Ralph off to his people in Florida, and went to Seattle.

Tom Wolfe had fallen off--50 pounds. When she got him up from the hospital bed and dressed him, she had to fasten up the slack in his waistband with two safety pins in the back of his pants. But it made him look better. He was handsome now. He put his hands in front of his belly. "I can do without that for good," he grinned. And sickness had done something for his skin. The Viennese Jewish doctor from Vienna came in and showed them some X-rays. The pneumonia shadow which had been big as a hat once was down to the size of a dollar now. Yes, Tom Wolfe could go. There were some other X-rays, but that was just a matter of form. It was all right now. Tom Wolfe sat on the edge of his bed and grinned at his sister. "Everything's going to be all right now, isn't it, Mabel?" She said, "Of course, Tom."

To Live In Luxury

But first she must go out and rent the best apartment in the best hotel in town. She demurred on the score of economy, but he would not hear. "I've got it now," he said. "We never have had it, but we're going to have it now." And then she must buy food according to his loving specifications. Huge steaks, loin lamb chops, French bread, Roquefort cheese, he'd tell her how to make a real salad, so much olive oil, so much vinegar, so much pepper, so much salt. "We've never had it, but we're going to have it now."

When they helped him into the automobile, he climbed into the back seat, lay back among his bags. He cocked his hat on the back of his head. "Well, we're out!" he boomed, grinning.

But at the apartment he felt weak, had to go to bed. And then, while Mabel Wheaton was busy with the preparation of the food he had wanted, there came a telegram--from Dr.Watts of the Providence Hospital staff, who was away at Bellingham. They had developed and examined those X-rays. "Abscess or tumor of the brain."

On the phone she talked to Dr. George W. Swift, the celebrated Western neurologist. "So Watts has taken to diagnosing the brain!" he growled and came over. "Tom," said the doctor, a tall and handsome fellow, who was himself to die within five months, "I've read your books. You are a great fellow." Tom said, "I know you, Doctor. You re a great fellow yourself."

"Tom, would you like for me to examine you?"

"Sure," said Tom, grinning. He knew nothing of the telegram. "But I'm all right. I want to get out of here in a few days and go down to Palo Alto." He had some friends down there, Dr. Russell Lee and his wife, Dorothy.

Swift tested Tom's reflexes. "Um, pretty good," he said. Then he went over and looked out the window at the dark waters of Puget Sound.

The End Near

"Tom," he said, fingering his face, "where is your mother?"

Wolfe slowly froze. "Why--why, she's in Asheville, North Carolina. But I don't want to go back home yet, Doctor. I've got to go to Palo Alto."

"Oh, no, you haven't, Tom. You're a very sick man. And you've got to go back East to the Johns Hopkins and the finest brain man there is--now, tonight. They come to me from all over the West to work on their brains, but they don't like me sometimes."

Tom grinned weakly. "That's when you fail, eh, Doctor."

So that night the journey began. Tom sat on the edge of the bed in the drawing room and grinned. "Everything's going to be all right, isn't it, Mabel."

"Of course," she said, "it's going to be all right, Tom."

Day and night the train rolled Eastward across the continent. Whistling through the mighty mountains and over the great plains, past millions of incurious faces. He had written much about trains. Their whistling as she climbed up from the south and east through the hills of old Catawba, and shouted away westward along the French Broad, of the dream of the power and the glory which stirred in a boy as he listened, and the dream of the far splendid places to which they hurried. Of trains sweeping down through the vast reach of the American land, trains in France, Germany, Russia, England, Italy. But he heard and knew little of their passage now. For most of the time the nurse kept him asleep. Once or twice he awakened, grinned at his sister. "Everything's going to be all right, isn't it, Mabel?"

"Of course, Tom," she said.

At Chicago, Tom's mother joined them.

In Baltimore, Dr. Walter Dandy shook his head. One chance in twenty, he reckoned. Mabel Wheaton a little resented that. She thought he was merely trying to increase the miraculousness of the cure. Of course, everything was going to be all right. Tom Wolfe could not die now. He had too many books still to be written.

"Tom," said Dr. Dandy, "I want to cut a little hole in the back of your head, a little wee hole like that. Do you mind?"

Tom grinned. "Of course not, Doctor. Go ahead."

But a moment after he fell to talking of what a fine hotel they had got into.

Mabel Knew

But Mabel Wheaton knew that Tom Wolfe would die, the evening after the operation when she attempted to go into his room. She had a premonition, had come to reassure herself. The nurse shooed her firmly away, closed the door. But she had glimpsed his face. And now she fled down the long corridors of the Hopkins, through the streets to the rooming house where Fred and his mother were staying. The mother was out. Fred she found kneeling.

"Come quick," she panted, "Tom is dying!"

"Mabel!" said Fred, "you've been sounding Tom's requiem for two days. Tom's all right. You better kneel down here with me and pray."

But her vehemence at length infected him with alarm also, and together they hurried back to the hospital. Tom Wolfe had been dead five minutes when they arrived.

Mabel took him, still warm, into her arms, kissed him again and again, turned his head with the self-torture of grief to look at the incision made by the knife. The brother beside himself, implored the doctor to do something. "Bring him back, for ten minutes, five minutes, one minute! I want to talk to him!"

"You do not understand," Mabel told him. "Tom is dead."

So Thomas Wolfe died. Afterward part of him did come home again. Once more the great train climbed up through the old hills of Catawba, and passed on westward along the French Broad, leaving another mound behind in the Asheville cemetery.

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