Bonfire of the e-Vanities

Tom Wolfe gets drowned out by the Latin dot-com hype

“Is it too late on a Friday night to talk about Hegel?” That was the question put by celebrity author Tom Wolfe to the well-heeled crowd of several hundred gathered before him inside Overtown's Ice Palace studios two weeks ago. In certain circles such a quip might have produced a round of chuckles. But here at the launch party for Punto-com (Spanglish for dot-com) -- a new Latin-American e-commerce newsmagazine and accompanying Website -- Wolfe was met only with stony silence. Undeterred, the silver-haired avatar of intellectual Waspdom simply smiled and pressed on. After an anecdote on historical inevitability, he made a second attempt to earn a rim shot: “Is it too late to talk about Mann?”

As the roomful of Miami Internet bizzers exchanged confused looks and murmurs, perhaps asking of their twentysomething wives, “Tell me again who this guy in the white suit is?” Wolfe embarked on a bizarre dissertation that touched on (in order) Karl Marx, the proletariat, American intervention in the Southern Hemisphere, Dr. Samuel Johnson, and -- just for balance -- the Wu-Tang Clan.

It's possible Wolfe's speech accidentally was switched with that of the Nicaraguan ex-Sandinistas testifying on the righteousness of capitalism over at the Full Gospel Business Men's Fellowship, a prayer session-cum-rally being held simultaneously at downtown Miami's Hotel Inter-Continental.

Or maybe he just got confused by the fiery press release from Punto-com's chief executive officer Esteban Piedrahitathat declared: “The Internet is revolutionizing the business world in Latin America, and we are offering a road map to that revolution.” It certainly would have been an honest mistake; in the pre-Net monied demimonde on which Wolfe made his name reporting, when smartly attired Latinos got together at a Miami private function to discuss the Latin-American business world and a looming revolution, it often meant they were planning a coup d'état,not a dot-com venture.

The evening's end result may not have been quite as epiphany-loaded as some of the Wolfe-chronicled tête-a-têtes from that otherrevolutionary period -- Ken Kesey partying with the Hell's Angels or the Black Panthers holding a bail fundraiser in the swanky Park Avenue duplex of conductor Leonard Bernstein -- but it wasn't without its own comic moments.

After several minutes of battling a hissing and loudly squawking PA system, the rattle of silverware sawing into thin cuts of skirt steak, and the low rumble of an audience much more interested in its own conversations, Wolfe gave up. He abruptly stepped back from the podium, dramatically folded up his speech, and then stormed off stage.

After some frantic backstage pleading from a Punto-com-er (and no doubt a reminder that he was receiving a speaking fee in the mid-five figures), Wolfe was coaxed back onstage and given a new microphone. (This isa high-tech company, after all.) Gazing out sternly at the assemblage of Miami's Net elite, he chided them like a kindergarten teacher threatening to cancel recess: “Either you can talk or I can talk, but we both can't talk. And there's a band scheduled to come on next. I love to dance, so we can do that, too.”

The chastened crowd quieted down and got another ten minutes of Wolfe-speak on the battle of the sexes, trophy wives, “the era of the casual insult,” and the time when a stunning young blonde pulled up at a red light alongside Wolfe's car and rebuffed his flirtation with a summary, "Eat shit, you old bastard!" Then, seemingly remembering the night's catered affair had something to do with the Internet, he closed with a bon mot from Michael Lewis's increasingly stale The New New Thing. And that was it. After a round of polite applause, Wolfe headed straight for his waiting car, followed quickly by about half the room, all apparently uninterested in hanging around for legendary Cuban mambo man Cachao's subsequent performance. Then again, they could have been miffed that Punto-com's first choice for the evening's entertainment, the Buena Vista Social Club, was off touring Europe.

So what on earth does Tom Wolfe have to do with Latin-American e-commerce? “Nothing,” replied CEO Piedrahita to Kulchur with a shrug. “We just wanted to have somebody different.”

To Punto-com's largely U.S.-educated and acculturated editorial crew, Wolfe must have seemed not just a novel choice but also some eye-catching window dressing (as well as a way to trump the guest list from Terra.com's Loews shindigback in June). If William Shatner can help Priceline.com sell airline tickets and groceries, then perhaps Wolfe could convince Latin CEOs to begin reading Punto-com.

Wolfe himself seemed less sure. According to one Punto-com staffer, Wolfe originally demanded to be flown down to Miami via private jet before finally acceding to a first-class seat on a commercial flight. Then, during the ride over to the Ice Palace, he changed his mind about being the subject of a Punto-com profile, refusing to answer a single question from one of the magazine's writers sitting in the car's back seat next to him.

Still, whatever Wolfe's misgivings about being associated with Punto-com, he obviously understands one critical feature of today's Internet economy: Forget about stock options; take the money and run.

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