" . . . He was the prig who had risen at the seance like John Calvin himself . . . . He was the Eddie Attaboy who had gotten up every morning at dawn and done all that ostentatious running and tried to make the rest of them look bad. He was the Harry Hairshirt who lived like an Early Christian martyr in the BOQ. He was the Willie Workadaddy who drove around in a broken-down Prinz, like a lonely beacon of restraint and self-sacrifice in a squall of car crazies."
That paragraph about John Glenn's reputation among his astronaut colleagues is the essence of the Glenn known to book buyers since 1979, when Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff" began running away to best-sellerdom.
It was a reappraisal of the one-dimensional Glenn magazine stories in the early 1960s, and more reappraisals were to come as "The Right Stuff" became a $27 million Hollywood movie and Glenn began campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination. But, though the portrait permutes, Wolfe's image has stuck: Eddie Attaboy, Harry Hairshirt, Willie Workadaddy.
"I was surprised, really, when many reviewers took my account of him as negative," Wolfe said last month in an interview at his summer home in Southampton, Long Island. "In my mind, he was not a negative. He was a moral zealot. That's rare today; they usually cover it up. I felt I understood him. He was a Presbyterian. I was raised as a Presbyterian. In the Presbyterian scheme of things, there's no problem being both moral and extremely ambitious--no problem at all. But many reviewers considered him a prig, a prude, and I must acknowledge that to most readers he does come off that way.
"But he was the only one like that, and he stamped his personality on the whole group, through the TV and the press," Wolfe said.
Once grouped with Glenn in the public eye, Wolfe said, Glenn's fellow astronauts also were seen as "moral paragons and, being military officers, they couldn't just stand up and say, 'Hey, wait, I'm really not that good.' "
Courtly, pale though the beach is only a few blocks away and dressed in the custom-tailored neo-Edwardian garb that mimics the exclamatory counterpoint of his prose style, Wolfe was the picture of detached observation. Here was no frustrated flyboy. Even now, he found space boring, unable to match the imagination of second-rate science-fiction writers. He had been the only kid on his block in Richmond who did not build model airplanes.
No, he grew up to write about people--a socialite or race-car driver or whole schools of painters and architects. His first book title, in 1965, was a spectacle in itself: "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby."
Not until the flight of Apollo 17, in 1972, did Wolfe see Cape Kennedy, as Cape Canaveral was called then, and that was the idea of Jann Wenner, publisher of the hipster journal, Rolling Stone, which was seeking a broader horizon. Wenner urged Wolfe to write about the "spectacle" of the launch.
"He said everybody would be there, a 136-year-old slave there, New York cafe socialites, King Hussein, Gov. Wallace, everybody," Wolfe recalled. "And it was going to be a regular reunion for all the astronauts who'd gone before. When I started thinking about it, what interested me was the men themselves.
"Who were they? What kind of person did it take to sit on top of a 36-story-high rocket filled with liquid oxygen fuel, what was essentially a bomb contained in a skin as thin as a membrane? Even before I went down there, Jann and I were talking about that."
Wolfe's four-part series appeared in Rolling Stone under the headline "Post Orbital Remorse: The Brotherhood of the Right Stuff" between Jan. 4 and March 1, 1973. It was written in what he called the Astronauts' Collective Unspoken, a composite voice of all astronauts through Apollo 17, which not too surprisingly sounded exactly like Wolfe's voice and which addressed one not-very-anonymous "Tom." It began:
not laughing at you, Tom. It's just that the
question you're asking always used to be such
a joke to us."
The question was the one everybody wanted to ask then, the straightforward but unanswerable: "What was it really like?" For the magazine, Wolfe took that question to the Moon, reporting that what astronauts Edgar D. Mitchell and Edwin E. (Buzz) Aldrin had found there was, in essence, "God." The series was later expanded into the book "The Right Stuff," which took six years to complete and never got past Project Mercury and the first seven astronauts.
For the book, Wolfe did some reappraising of himself and dropped the Astronauts' Collective Unspoken.
"I had chosen that because it solved the question of point of view in that series," Wolfe said. "But after a few months, rereading it, I found it forced. It was too 'wound up.' And it suggested that the astronauts were all the same, which they were not.
"When I wrote the book, I tried to give it the tone, the point of view, of a pilot. People said to me, 'Ah! you're backing off from your style, you're getting conservative.' But no, I was just trying to fit the voice to the characters."
With that change in viewpoint, Glenn became a character in his own right, important because he was the one who was different. Wolfe had to come to understand Glenn's character, Presbyterian to Presbyterian, writer to pilot, ambition to ambition.
"My approach to the astronauts was basically to look at everything from the point of view of 'status aspirations.' Others tend to write that off as mere social-climbing," Wolfe said.
"But status indicates a position on a scale and . . . potential change. What is the status of this world? That's my fundamental approach. Whatever power 'The Right Stuff' has is in the status structure of military flying. It's invisible to the outside world, and they didn't really want to talk about it, but that's what the book is all about."
Wolfe also had status aspirations. The astronauts had been blanketed by the press, and televised to a literal tear--"I'm afraid . . . we may have . . . lost an astronaut," an emotional Walter Cronkite reported when Scott Carpenter overshot his landing target. So what trick was left to pull off?
Wolfe, after all, was not just some jazzy, trendy writer alliterating his way to fame in the monthly slicks but a Ph.D. in American studies from Yale. The danger was that the astronauts were a cliche, and a writer had to reinvent the world every time.
But where others saw a simple pyramid, a writer would see something much more interesting--a ziggurat, perhaps. A ziggurat is only a terraced pyramid, but Wolfe made it the central metaphor for advancement among military officer-heroes. He also made many readers look it up.
Nobody had written about military officers in a long time. They had been taboo. Under cover of literary darkness, military officers had been able to invent a code that hid their essence from other eyes. The trick was to crack that code. Maybe it would be a big trick indeed, nothing less than the reintroduction to the 20th Century of the military-officer hero.
"It was a vacant lot in literature," Wolfe said. "After World War I, there was a definite block against portraying military men in anything like a heroic role. You just couldn't write "The Charge of the Light Brigade" any more and be taken seriously. The only proper protagonist in a novel was an enlisted man or maybe a second lieutenant, and they had to be seen as as much a victim of war as the civilians.
"The mode was started by Erich Maria Remarque, with "All Quiet on the Western Front" and "Three Soldiers" by John Dos Passos and "Journey to the Edge of Night" by Louis-Ferdinand Celine. The message of World War I was that military officers were either ridiculous martinets or else they were just stupid.
"So aviation grew up all these years without a poet laureate. Since pilots were usually officers, they became part of the blackout on officer-heroes, too. World War II was a very popular war. By even then, no serious literary talent was going to view military officers in a favorable light."
The code Wolfe cracked was the code of "the right stuff."
"The astronauts were perfectly willing to talk to me about anything--don't forget, this was 10 or 15 years after it had all happened--except the idea of death," he said. "It was one of their taboos. I had read this remarkable statistic that, in 20 years, a naval aviator stood a 23 percent chance of accidentally dying and a 56 percent chance of ejection from a jet aircraft, which was itself very dangerous.
"And this statistic, which was taken between 1966 and 1969, during the Vietnam war, excluded combat deaths because they weren't considered accidental.
"I had done a lot of reading about bravery, and one of these best books I came on was called "The Anatomy of Courage" by Lord Moran. He'd been a doctor in World War I and had tried to analyze bravery in the trenches. He predicted that, in the future, the bravest men would be pilots, replacing cavalrymen.
"He even predicted they would have a curious psychology, like sportsmen or the knights of old, the desire to prove themselves personally. Brave men never liked to talk about death, Moran said, because talking about it was to recognize it and, if you recognized it, you might not be so brave."
So Wolfe wrote on, making the story new, trying to see it through pilots' eyes, trying to see Alan Shepard, first American in space, as the others saw him, an inexplicable combination of ice and fire; the test pilot Charles E. (Chuck) Yeager, first man to break the sound barrier, spurring his rocket plane like a palomino, and John Glenn, of course, as Dudley Do-right, a Flying Karamazov of the work ethic in a troupe of devil-may-care Wallendas.
Glenn a prig? It depended on the ever-shifting point of view, the milieu and the eye of the beholder. It depended on the storyteller and the story to be told. Reality was never the subject of the true writer. Reality was merely the writer. The only reality was sitting here: a man in strange-looking clothes who lived near a beach but did not have a tan.
Wolfe spent a day following Glenn during a 1974 U.S. Senate campaign sweep through Ohio. He found him "a little amateurish, which only worked in his favor. Sometimes he'd get sort of tied up trying to say something, and he'd just stop and say, 'Oh, I guess that's just a concept with no bottom to it.' It was very appealing, really.
"People say my portrait was negative, but all I know is that he ran for the Senate in 1980, the year after the book came out, and he crushed the opposition," Wolfe said.
The story passed on to a new viewpoint, that of screenwriter William Goldman. His credits included "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "Harper," "All the President's Men," "A Bridge Too Far" and "Marathon Man," the last based on one of his 12 novels.
He had read the Wolfe book for pleasure and found it exciting but oddly constructed. The astronauts, for example, did not enter the story until page 80. The central figure seemed to be Yeager, on whom Wolfe lavished wonder as the true purveyor of "the Right Stuff," and whose West Virginian drawl had influenced a generation of commercial airline pilots.
Yeager's terrifying plummet from a spinning rocket plane concluded the book. Yet, the story was basically about astronauts, and Yeager had never been an astronaut. Goldman had no idea how to make a movie of such a tale. When producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff called him to a meeting at a New York hotel, he told them as much.
"Then Winkler gave me the answer," Goldman said in a recent interview. "It was really just a spitball, but it solved the problem. 'Forget Yeager,' Winkler said. 'Go with the astronauts.'
"A film is structure," Goldman said. "And all screen writing is a search for that structure"--a backbone, a dramatic sequence, a linear pathway down which characters and incidents can proceed. "From Winkler, I got my structure."
The producers had seen the movie possibilities of Wolfe's book even before publication. Both New Yorkers, they had been partners for 30 years and, with "Rocky" in 1976, had risen to the top of their field. Universal Studios was the only other bidder for screen rights to "The Right Stuff."
"We wound up paying $350,000," Chartoff said. "It would've been less, but Universal kept bidding us up. We never knew why for sure, but they had just had a big success with 'Animal House,' and the word was that they wanted John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd to make a sort of 'Animal House Goes to Outer Space.' "
Goldman set out to write a special movie. As he said in his book, "Adventures in the Screen Trade": " . . . For the first time in my career, I wanted to write a movie that had a message . . . . I wanted to 'say' something positive about America. Not patriotic in the John Wayne sense, but patriotic nonetheless." Depressed over the taking of American hostages in Iran, disaffected by President Carter, Goldman wrote a script that he hoped would get America cheering again.
But when Chartoff and Winkler brought in Philip Kaufman as director, still another viewpoint appeared. Goldman had concentrated on the astronauts, but Kaufman wanted to tell the story as Wolfe had, requiring an entirely different political and dramatic structure. When Goldman said 'patriotic,' he said Kaufman replied: "Reagan is patriotic. Who wants that?"
Kaufman said: "When I first read Bill's script, there was no Yeager in it. I didn't even want to make a movie of it. I felt, really, that Goldman wanted to recreate the Life magazine stories. We argued it; we discussed it. I don't know if my perspective was negative or positive. You'll have to see the movie to decide that. But I went off and wrote my own screenplay in eight weeks, right off the top of those arguments with Bill."
Kaufman's view prevailed; Goldman left the picture.
United Artists, stung by the failure of the $40 million "Heaven's Gate," dropped "The Right Stuff" as a project.
Kaufman wrote the new script, and Chartoff and Winkler went back to the drawing board. So far, $900,000 had been spent, two scripts written, three directors brought in for close talks and all branches of the armed services engaged for cooperation, and Glenn had called the movie "Laurel and Hardy Go to Space."
NEXT: The Pentagon has its say