The Bonfire of the Vanities

Last updated
The Bonfire of the Vanities
Cover of the first edition
Author Tom Wolfe
Cover artist Fred Marcellino
CountryUnited States
Genre Social criticism
Publisher Farrar Straus Giroux
Publication date
October 1987
Media typePrint (Hardback & Paperback)
ISBN 0-312-42757-3
OCLC 213470814
Followed by A Man in Full  

The Bonfire of the Vanities is a 1987 satirical novel by Tom Wolfe. The story is a drama about ambition, racism, social class, politics, and greed in 1980s New York City and centers on three main characters: WASP bond trader Sherman McCoy, Jewish assistant district attorney Larry Kramer, and British expatriate journalist Peter Fallow.

Tom Wolfe American author and journalist

Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Jr. was an American author and journalist widely known for his association with New Journalism, a style of news writing and journalism developed in the 1960s and 1970s that incorporated literary techniques.

White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) are a social group—of typically wealthy and well-connected white Protestants, usually of British descent—in the United States. The group dominated American society, culture, and the leadership of major political parties until the World War II era. They are well placed in major financial, business, legal, and academic institutions, and had, in the past, close to a monopoly on elite society due to intermarriage and nepotism.


The novel was originally conceived as a serial in the style of Charles Dickens' writings; it ran in 27 installments in Rolling Stone starting in 1984. Wolfe heavily revised it before it was published in book form. The novel was a bestseller and a phenomenal success, even in comparison with Wolfe's other books. It has often been called the quintessential novel of the 1980s. [1]

Serial (literature) publishing format by which a single literary work is presented in contiguous installments

In literature, a serial is a printing format by which a single larger work, often a work of narrative fiction, is published in smaller, sequential installments. The installments are also known as numbers, parts or fascicles, and may be released either as separate publications or within sequential issues of a periodical publication, such as a magazine or newspaper.

Charles Dickens English writer and social critic

Charles John Huffam Dickens was an English writer and social critic. He created some of the world's best-known fictional characters and is regarded by many as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. His works enjoyed unprecedented popularity during his lifetime, and by the 20th century critics and scholars had recognised him as a literary genius. His novels and short stories are still widely read today.

<i>Rolling Stone</i> American magazine focusing on popular culture, based in New York City

Rolling Stone is an American monthly magazine that focuses on popular culture. It was founded in San Francisco, California in 1967 by Jann Wenner, who is still the magazine's publisher, and music critic Ralph J. Gleason, which became famous for its coverage of rock music, and for political reporting by authors such as Hunter S. Thompson. In the 1990s, the magazine broadened and shifted its focus to a younger readership interested in youth-oriented television shows, film actors, and popular music. In recent years, it has resumed its traditional mix of content.


The title is a reference to the historical Bonfire of the Vanities, which happened in 1497 in Florence, Italy, when the city was under the rule of the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola, who ordered the burning of objects that church authorities considered sinful, such as cosmetics, mirrors, books, and art.

Dominican Order Roman Catholic religious order

The Order of Preachers, also known as the Dominican Order, is a mendicant Catholic religious order founded by the Spanish priest Dominic of Caleruega in France, approved by Pope Innocent III via the Papal bull Religiosam vitam on 22 December 1216. Members of the order, who are referred to as Dominicans, generally carry the letters OP after their names, standing for Ordinis Praedicatorum, meaning of the Order of Preachers. Membership in the order includes friars, nuns, active sisters, and affiliated lay or secular Dominicans.

Girolamo Savonarola Italian Dominican reformer (1452–1498)

Girolamo Savonarola was an Italian Dominican friar and preacher active in Renaissance Florence. He was known for his prophecies of civic glory, the destruction of secular art and culture, and his calls for Christian renewal. He denounced clerical corruption, despotic rule and the exploitation of the poor. He prophesied the coming of a biblical flood and a new Cyrus from the north who would reform the Church. In September 1494, when Charles VIII of France invaded Italy, and threatened Florence, such prophecies seemed on the verge of fulfilment. While Savonarola intervened with the French king, the Florentines expelled the ruling Medicis and, at the friar's urging, established a "popular" republic. Declaring that Florence would be the New Jerusalem, the world centre of Christianity and "richer, more powerful, more glorious than ever", he instituted an extreme puritanical campaign, enlisting the active help of Florentine youth.

Historical background

Wolfe intended his novel to capture the essence of New York City in the 1980s. Wall Street in the 1980s was newly resurgent after most of the previous decade had been bad for stocks. The excesses of Wall Street's big players were at the forefront of the popular imagination, captured in films like Oliver Stone's Wall Street , novels like Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho , and in non-fiction books like Liar's Poker , Den of Thieves , and Barbarians at the Gate .

New York City Largest city in the United States

The City of New York, usually called either New York City (NYC) or simply New York (NY), is the most populous city in the United States. With an estimated 2018 population of 8,398,748 distributed over a land area of about 302.6 square miles (784 km2), New York is also the most densely populated major city in the United States. Located at the southern tip of the state of New York, the city is the center of the New York metropolitan area, the largest metropolitan area in the world by urban landmass and one of the world's most populous megacities, with an estimated 19,979,477 people in its 2018 Metropolitan Statistical Area and 22,679,948 residents in its Combined Statistical Area. A global power city, New York City has been described as the cultural, financial, and media capital of the world, and exerts a significant impact upon commerce, entertainment, research, technology, education, politics, tourism, art, fashion, and sports. The city's fast pace has inspired the term New York minute. Home to the headquarters of the United Nations, New York is an important center for international diplomacy.

Wall Street street in Manhattan

Wall Street is an eight-block-long street running roughly northwest to southeast from Broadway to South Street, at the East River, in the Financial District of Lower Manhattan in New York City. Over time, the term has become a metonym for the financial markets of the United States as a whole, the American financial services industry, or New York–based financial interests.

Oliver Stone American film director, screenwriter, and producer

William Oliver Stone is an American filmmaker, writer and conspiracy theorist.

Beneath Wall Street's success, the city was a hotbed of racial and cultural tension. Homelessness and crime in the city were growing. Several high-profile racial incidents polarized the city, particularly two black men who were murdered in white neighborhoods: Willie Turks, who was murdered in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn in 1982, and Michael Griffith in Howard Beach, Queens, in 1986. In another episode that became a subject of much media attention, Bernhard Goetz became something of a folk-hero in the city for shooting a group of black men who tried to rob him in the subway in 1984.

Homelessness circumstance when people desire a permanent dwelling but do not have one

Homelessness is defined as living in housing that is below the minimum standard or lacks secure tenure. People can be categorized as homeless if they are: living on the streets ; moving between temporary shelters, including houses of friends, family and emergency accommodation ; living in private boarding houses without a private bathroom and/or security of tenure. The legal definition of homeless varies from country to country, or among different jurisdictions in the same country or region. According to the UK homelessness charity Crisis, a home is not just a physical space: it also provides roots, identity, security, a sense of belonging and a place of emotional wellbeing. United States government homeless enumeration studies also include people who sleep in a public or private place not designed for use as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings. People who are homeless are most often unable to acquire and maintain regular, safe, secure and adequate housing due to a lack of, or an unsteady income. Homelessness and poverty are interrelated.

Gravesend, Brooklyn Neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York City

Gravesend is a neighborhood in the south-central section of the New York City borough of Brooklyn, on the southwestern edge of Long Island in the U.S. state of New York. It is bounded on the south by Coney Island, on the west by Bath Beach, on the north by Bensonhurst, and on the east by Homecrest and Sheepshead Bay.

Brooklyn Borough in New York City and county in New York state, United States

Brooklyn is the most populous borough of New York City, with an estimated 2,648,771 residents in 2017. Named after the Dutch village of Breukelen, it borders the borough of Queens at the western end of Long Island. Brooklyn has several bridge and tunnel connections to the borough of Manhattan across the East River, and the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge connects it with Staten Island. Since 1896, Brooklyn has been coterminous with Kings County, the most populous county in the U.S. state of New York and the second-most densely populated county in the United States, after New York County.

Burton B. Roberts, a Bronx judge known for his no-nonsense imperious handling of cases in his courtroom, became the model for the character of Myron Kovitsky in the book. [2]

Burton Bennett Roberts served as Bronx district attorney before his election as a judge, later serving as the chief administrative judge for the New York Supreme Court in the Bronx until his retirement in 1998 after 25 years on the bench. His no-nonsense manner as a prosecutor and in court made him the model for the character Myron Kovitsky in the 1987 book The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe.

Writing and publication

Throughout his early career, Wolfe had planned to write a novel that would capture the wide spectrum of American society. Among his models was William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair , which described the society of 19th century England. Wolfe remained occupied writing nonfiction books on his own and contributing to Harper's until 1981, when he ceased his other projects to work on the novel.

Wolfe began researching the novel by observing cases at the Manhattan Criminal Court and shadowing members of the Bronx homicide squad. To overcome a case of writer's block, Wolfe wrote to Jann Wenner, editor of Rolling Stone, to propose an idea drawn from Charles Dickens and Thackeray. The Victorian writers whom Wolfe viewed as his models had often written their novels in serial installments. Wenner offered Wolfe around $200,000 to serialize his work. [3] The deadline pressure gave him the motivation he had hoped for, and from July 1984 to August 1985 each biweekly issue of Rolling Stone contained a new installment. Wolfe was not happy with his "very public first draft", [4] and thoroughly revised his work. Even Sherman McCoy, the central character of the novel, changed—originally a writer, in the book version he is cast as a bond salesman. (Wolfe came up with the revised occupation after spending a day on the government-bond desk of Salomon Brothers, with many of the traders who later founded the notorious hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management. [5] ) Wolfe researched and revised for two years. The Bonfire of the Vanities appeared in 1987. The book was a commercial and critical success, spending weeks on bestseller lists and earning praise from much of the literary establishment on which Wolfe had long heaped scorn. [6]

Plot summary

The story centers on Sherman McCoy, a successful New York City bond trader. His $3 million Park Avenue co-op, combined with his aristocratic wife's extravagances and other expenses required to keep up appearances are depleting his great income, or as McCoy calls it, a "hemorrhaging of money". McCoy's secure life as a self-regarded "Master of The Universe" on Wall Street is gradually destroyed when he and his mistress, Maria Ruskin, accidentally enter the Bronx at night while they are driving back to Manhattan from Kennedy Airport. Finding the ramp back to the highway blocked by trash cans and a tire, McCoy exits the car to clear the way. Approached by two black men whom they perceive—uncertainly, in McCoy's case—as predators, McCoy and Ruskin flee. After Ruskin takes the wheel of the car to race away, it fishtails, apparently striking one of the two would-be assailants—a "skinny boy".

Peter Fallow, a has-been, alcoholic journalist for the tabloid City Light, is soon given the opportunity of a lifetime when he is persuaded to write a series of articles about Henry Lamb, a black youth who has allegedly been the victim of a hit and run by a wealthy white driver. Fallow cynically tolerates the manipulations of Reverend Bacon, a Harlem religious and political leader who sees the hospitalized youth as a "projects success story gone wrong". Fallow's series of articles on the matter ignites a series of protests and media coverage of the Lamb case.

Up for re-election and accused of foot-dragging in the Lamb case, the media-obsessed Bronx County District Attorney Abe Weiss pushes for McCoy's arrest. The evidence includes McCoy's car (which matches the description of the vehicle involved in the alleged hit and run), plus McCoy's evasive response to police questioning. The arrest all but ruins McCoy; distraction at work causes him to flub on finding an investor for a $600 million bond on which he had pegged all his hopes of retiring the mortgage on his home and covering his family costs. While McCoy is getting a dressing down from his boss for failing to sell the bond, his lawyer, Tommy Killian, calls to tell him of his upcoming arrest, forcing him to admit his legal problems to his boss and being given a leave of absence as a result. McCoy's upper class friends ostracize him, and his wife leaves him and takes their daughter Campbell (McCoy's only source of genuine family love) to live with his parents.

Hoping to impress his boss as well as an attractive former juror, Shelly Thomas, Assistant District Attorney Larry Kramer aggressively prosecutes the case, opening with an unsuccessful bid to set McCoy's bail at $250,000. Released on $10,000 bail, McCoy is besieged by demonstrators who are protesting outside his home.

Fallow hears a rumor that Maria Ruskin was at the wheel of McCoy's car when it allegedly struck Lamb, but has fled the country. Trying to smoke out the truth, on the pretense of interviewing the rich and famous, Fallow meets with her husband, Arthur, at a pricey French restaurant. While recounting his life, Arthur has a fatal seizure, as disturbed patrons and an annoyed maître d'hôtel look on. Ruskin is forced to return to the United States for his funeral, where McCoy confronts her about being "the only witness". Fallow, spying on Maria, overhears that she, not McCoy, was driving.

Fallow's write-up of the association between Sherman McCoy and Maria Ruskin prompts Assistant D.A. Kramer to offer her a deal: corroborate the other witness and receive immunity, or be treated as an accomplice. Ruskin recounts this to McCoy while he is wearing a wire. When a private investigator employed by Killian discovers a recording of a conversation that contradicts Ruskin's statement to the grand jury, the judge assigned to the case declares her testimony "tainted" and dismisses the case.

In the epilogue, a fictional New York Times article informs us that Fallow has won the Pulitzer Prize and married the daughter of City Light owner Sir Gerald Steiner, while Ruskin has escaped prosecution and remarried. McCoy's first trial ends in a hung jury, split along racial lines. Kramer is removed from the prosecution after it is revealed he was involved with Shelly Thomas in a sexual tryst at the apartment formerly used by Ruskin and McCoy. It is additionally revealed that McCoy has lost a civil trial to the Lamb family and, pending appeal, has a $12 million liability, which has resulted in the freezing of his assets. The all-but-forgotten Henry Lamb succumbs to his injuries from the accident; McCoy, penniless and estranged from his wife and daughter, awaits trial for vehicular manslaughter. In the novel's closing, Tommy Killian holds forth:

If this case was being tried in foro conscientiae [in the court of the conscience], the defendants would be Abe Weiss, Reginald Bacon, and Peter Fallow of The City Light.

Style and content

Bonfire was Wolfe's first novel. Wolfe's prior works were mostly non-fiction journalistic articles and books. His earlier short stories appeared in his collection Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine .

According to Wolfe, the characters are composites of many individuals and cultural observations. However, some characters were based on real people. Wolfe has acknowledged the character of Tommy Killian is based on New York lawyer Edward Hayes, to whom the book is dedicated. [7] The character of the Reverend Bacon is considered by many to be based on the Reverends Al Sharpton and/or Jesse Jackson, who have both campaigned under the banner of eliminating racism.

In 2007, on the book's 20th anniversary of publication, The New York Times published a retrospective on how the city had changed since Wolfe's novel. [8]


The book was a major bestseller, and also received strong reviews. [9] The New York Times praised the book, saying it was "a big, bitter, funny, craftily plotted book that grabs you by the lapels and won't let go", but criticized its sometimes superficial characters, saying when "the book is over, there is an odd aftertaste, not entirely pleasant." [10]


In 1990, Bonfire was adapted into a film starring Tom Hanks as Sherman McCoy, Kim Cattrall as his wife Judy, Melanie Griffith as his mistress Maria, and Bruce Willis as journalist (and narrator of the film) Peter Fallow. The screenplay was written by Michael Cristofer. Wolfe was paid $750,000 for the rights. The film, however, was a commercial and critical flop. [11]

An opera adaptation, with music by Stefania de Kenessey and libretto and direction by Michael Bergmann, premiered in New York on October 9, 2015. [12]

Amazon Studios, in association with Warner Bros. TV, is working on an eight-episode, one-hour drama series based on the book, produced by Chuck Lorre. It will be distributed through Amazon Video. [13]


  1. Hoby, Hermione (10 January 2010). "The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 October 2014.
  2. McFadden, Robert D. "Tom Wolfe’s Model Justice Dies at 88", The New York Times , October 24, 2010. Accessed October 24, 2010.
  3. Ragen 2002 , pp. 31
  4. Ragen 2002 , pp. 32
  5. Taylor, John (21 March 1988) "The Book on Tom Wolfe", New York Magazine . In Scura 1990 , p. 263.
  6. Ragen 2002 , pp. 30–34
  7. David Lat (20 December 2011): An Afternoon With Ed Hayes, Celebrated Litigator and Memoirist Above the Law, retrieved 27 July 2013
  8. Barnard, Anne. "No Longer the City of 'Bonfire' in Flames". The New York Times , December 10, 2007. Retrieved on January 13, 2008.
  9. Sutherland, John (18 February 1988). "Big Bad Wolfe". London Review of Books. 10 (4): 15–16. Retrieved 29 October 2014.
  10. Conroy, Frank (1 November 1987). "Urban Rats in Fashion's Maze". New York Times. Retrieved 29 October 2014.
  11. Ragen 2002 , p. 33
  12. Chow, Andrew R. "'The Bonfire of the Vanities' Gets Opera Adaptation" . Retrieved 2015-09-12.
  13. Schwindt, Oriana. "Chuck Lorre's 'Bonfire of the Vanities' Series in Development at Amazon" . Retrieved 2016-10-14.

Related Research Articles

Bonfire of the vanities Burning of objects

A bonfire of the vanities is a burning of objects condemned by authorities as occasions of sin. The phrase usually refers to the bonfire of 7 February 1497, when supporters of Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola collected and burned thousands of objects such as cosmetics, art, and books in Florence, Italy on the Shrove Tuesday festival. Francesco Guicciardini's The History of Florence gives a first-hand account of the bonfire of the vanities that took place in Florence in 1497. The focus of this destruction was on objects that might tempt one to sin, including vanity items such as mirrors, cosmetics, fine dresses, playing cards, and even musical instruments. Other targets included books that were deemed to be immoral, manuscripts of secular songs, and artworks, including paintings and sculpture.

Patrick Bateman fictional character, the antihero and narrator of the novel American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, and its film adaptation

Patrick Bateman is a fictional character, protagonist and narrator of the novel American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, and its film adaptation. He is a wealthy, materialistic Wall Street investment banker who leads a double life as a serial killer. Bateman has also briefly appeared in other Ellis novels and their film and theater adaptations.

<i>A Man in Full</i> 1998 novel by Tom Wolfe

A Man in Full is the second novel by Tom Wolfe, published on November 12, 1998, by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. It is set primarily in Atlanta, with a significant portion of the story also transpiring in the East Bay region of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Salomon Brothers was an American investment bank founded in 1910 by Arthur, Herbert and Percy Salomon and a clerk named Ben Levy, remaining a partnership until the early 1980s. It was acquired by the commodity trading firm Phibro Corporation and became Salomon Inc. Eventually, Salomon (NYSE:SB) was acquired by Travelers Group in 1998; and, following the latter's merger with Citicorp that same year, Salomon became part of Citigroup. Although the Salomon name carried on as Salomon Smith Barney, which were the investment banking operations of Citigroup, the name was abandoned in October 2003 after a series of financial scandals that tarnished the bank's reputation.

<i>I Am Charlotte Simmons</i> novel by Tom Wolfe

I am Charlotte Simmons is a 2004 novel by Tom Wolfe, concerning sexual and status relationships at the fictional Dupont University. Wolfe researched the novel by talking to students at North Carolina, Florida, Penn, Duke, Stanford, and Michigan. Wolfe suggested it depicts the American university today at a fictional college that is "Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Duke, and a few other places all rolled into one."

<i>The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby</i> book

The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby is the title of Tom Wolfe's first collected book of essays, published in 1965. The book is named for one of the stories in the collection that was originally published in Esquire magazine in 1963 under the title "There Goes That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmm)…" Wolfe's essay for Esquire and this, his first book, are frequently heralded as early examples of New Journalism.

Edward Walter Hayes is an American lawyer, journalist, and memoirist. He is known for his role in settling the estate of Andy Warhol and representing several organized crime figures. Tom Wolfe's character Tommy Killian in The Bonfire of the Vanities is based on Hayes. Hayes is often regularly featured on different radio stations, in both Ireland and the USA. Most recently, Hayes was portrayed as a character in the Broadway hit, Lucky Guy, starring Tom Hanks.

<i>The Bonfire of the Vanities</i> (film) 1990 film by Brian De Palma

The Bonfire of the Vanities is a 1990 American satirical black comedy film directed by Brian De Palma. The screenplay, written by Michael Cristofer, was adapted from the best-selling novel of the same name by Tom Wolfe. The film, which was a critical and commercial flop, stars Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith, and Kim Cattrall. The original music score was composed by Dave Grusin.

Michael Ivan Cristofer is an American playwright, filmmaker and actor. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play for The Shadow Box in 1977.

"Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast" is an essay by Tom Wolfe that appeared in the November 1989 issue of Harper's Magazine criticizing the American literary establishment for retreating from realism.

Fred C. Caruso is an American film producer known for his work on such films as Network and Blue Velvet.

<i>The Painted Word</i> book by Tom Wolfe

The Painted Word is a 1975 book of art criticism by Tom Wolfe.

<i>From Bauhaus to Our House</i> book by Tom Wolfe

From Bauhaus to Our House is a 1981 narrative of Modern architecture, written by Tom Wolfe.

<i>Back to Blood</i> novel by Tom Wolfe

Back to Blood is Tom Wolfe's fourth and final novel, published by Little, Brown. The novel, set in Miami, Florida, focuses on the subject of Cuban immigrants there.

<i>The Right Stuff</i> (book) book by Tom Wolfe

The Right Stuff is a 1979 book by Tom Wolfe about the pilots engaged in U.S. postwar research with experimental rocket-powered, high-speed aircraft as well as documenting the stories of the first Project Mercury astronauts selected for the NASA space program. The Right Stuff is based on extensive research by Wolfe, who interviewed test pilots, the astronauts and their wives, among others. The story contrasts the "Mercury Seven" and their families with test pilots such as Chuck Yeager, who was considered by many contemporaries as the best of them all, but who was never selected as an astronaut.

Anthony Haden-Guest is a British-American writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published.

Byron Dobell was an American editor and artist. He is considered "one of the most respected and accomplished editors in New York magazine publishing history," the editor of several popular American magazines, including American Heritage and Esquire. He is credited with helping the early careers of many writers such as Tom Wolfe, David Halberstam and Mario Puzo. In 1998, Dobell was inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors Hall of Fame.