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HEARD ON CAMPUS

Wolfe on Silicon Valley’s
“Pelicans” and “Beachcombers”

Illustration: Davy Liu

“You could always tell the billionaires when they walked into Il Fornaio,” said Tom Wolfe, referring to a power-breakfast spot he frequented in Silicon Valley during the dot-com bubble of 1999. The author of The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, and other pungent critiques of American phenomena was on campus in April to deliver the 18th annual Dean’s Forum lecture, sponsored by the School of Arts and Sciences.
   
“They would wear either tight-fitting chinos or jeans,” Wolfe continued. “They had on leather boating moccasins —but not socks; an ordinary man’s shirt—but unbuttoned down to the navel, sleeves rolled up. They looked like sort of well-scrubbed beachcombers. You could tell at a glance that there was no way they could be carrying a cell phone or RIM pager or a Blackberry or a beeper. But behind them would come a second- or third-in-command, a guy worth probably no more than $70 or $80 million. And he’d be wearing the same thing, except also a sports jacket. It was so he could carry the cell phone, the RIM pager, the beeper, and all the rest of it.” Carrying those devices in an attachÈ case, Wolfe noted drily, simply would have been too “back East.”
   
One morning while Wolfe—wearing his signature white suit —was waiting to be seated at the same restaurant, a customer came up to him and said, “We need a table for four. We’re in kind of a hurry.”
   
“He thought I was the maitre d’,” explained Wolfe, “because we expect our servitors to wear the finery of years gone by. If you ever take a drive along Park Avenue in New York, you notice that all of the doormen are dressed like Austrian army colonels from the year 1870, and the tenants are all L.L. Bean and The Gap.”
   
Dressing down is a “symbol of what the modern entrepreneur tends to be—a person ‘hanging loose upon society,’” added Wolfe, using a phrase coined by Samuel Johnson. “The person who ‘hangs loose upon society’ is someone who never sinks roots into a community, never becomes involved in public life. Instead he’s like a pelican swooping over the surface. Every now and then he dips down and picks up what he likes and then glides on.”


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Copyright 2001 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 6/28/01