Wolff, Tobias (b. 1945)

  • By Kathrine Beck
  • Posted 7/12/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20812
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Tobias Wolff is a writer and novelist best known for his memoir This Boy's Life, which tells the story of Wolff's adolescence in 1950s Washington State. Thirty years after its 1989 publication, The New York Times included This Boy's Life on its list of the 50 best memoirs of the previous 50 years, describing it as "powerful and impeccably written" and "a classic of the genre." Critics have compared it to Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. It was later made into a 1993 movie of the same name, much of it shot in Concrete, Washington, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the teenaged Wolff, Ellen Barkin as his beautiful, tragic, and spirited mother, and Robert DeNiro as his stepfather from hell. Wolff's writing career also includes such notable books as Old School and In Pharoah's Army. He served on the faculty at Syrcacuse University for 17 years before taking a professorship at Stanford in 1997. 

Chaotic Beginnings for Young Tobias

Wolff was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on July 19, 1945. His mother, born Rosemary Loftus, was a pretty Irish-American girl, growing up in Southern California in the 1920s. As a starstruck teenager, she was one of four girls waving from atop the Beverly Hills float in Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses parade. Loftus was the daughter of a sailor who rose through the ranks to become a naval officer. He beat her almost every day after dinner on the grounds she might have done something wrong that day, telling her as they sat down to dinner that she would be spanked after they ate. He also sexually molested her as a teenager, claiming to be testing her virtue.

Tobias Wolff’s father, Arthur Samuels Wolff a.k.a. Arthur Saunders Ansell-Wolff III, was always known as Duke, a fitting nickname for a lifelong snob. He was the black sheep son of a prosperous Connecticut doctor, and a mother who once signed a letter to him as "Your Mother, Alas." Tobias Wolff and his older brother Geoffrey were adults before they learned their father's family was Jewish, not, as their father always insisted, Episcopalian.

Duke Wolff was bad from the beginning, breaking toys, stealing from his parents, making passes at the neighbors' daughters and maids, and getting expelled. (He cycled through five boarding schools). He falsely claimed to have graduated from Groton and Yale and hinted he'd been tapped for the elite secret society, Skull and Bones. He  sported a gold signet ring with a fake family motto in bad Latin, designed a bogus coat of arms and once impersonated a yacht club commodore. An accomplished thief and deadbeat, he bilked hotels, car dealers, and jewelers. He even left an IOU from the tooth fairy under his son’s pillow.

He bragged about an action-packed military career, including serving as a pilot in the Battle of Britain and with the clandestine Office of Strategic Services Yugoslavia, later parachuting into France to fight with the Resistance right before the Normandy invasion. Actually, the army wouldn't take him because of his bad teeth. He also cobbled together laughably phony résumés that nevertheless managed to land him a series of jobs in the aerospace industry.

Tobias Wolff's parents split up when he was 4. He and Geoffrey, born in 1937, were to lead vastly different childhoods, far apart both geographically and in terms of social class. Tobias led a hardscrabble life with his mother in Sarasota, Florida. She worked as a soda jerk at Dairy Queen by day and attended secretarial school at night. He loved reading from a very early age, and she gave him books about collies that she had loved as a child. Later, he moved on to Jack London books about dogs -- Call of the Wild and White Fang.

At age 12, Geoffrey left his mother and little brother in Florida for Seattle, where his father had scammed his way into an engineering job at Boeing. There, father and son lived in the upscale Laurelhurst neighborhood and Geoffrey went to Nathan Eckstein Junior High School. After Duke married a wealthy woman with a lavish lakefront home who soon tired of Seattle, they all moved back east. Geoffrey eventually attended the tony Choate prep school and went on to Princeton. 

Tobias Wolff's boyhood memoir begins in 1955, when he and his mother fled Florida and her abusive boyfriend in a Nash Rambler that kept overheating. Geoffrey later wrote that his mother always seemed to be attracted to violent men. Tobias wrote that he believed her father’s cruelty had left Rosemary with "a strange docility, almost paralysis, with men of the tyrant breed." Her plan was to go to Utah and get rich by staking a uranium claim. All they needed was a Geiger counter. But after the boyfriend from Florida found them, mother and son bolted once more, ending up in a boarding house in West Seattle, where he wasn't allowed to have other kids over and his mother found a secretarial job.

Kicking Cans in West Seattle

At age 11, he soon fell in with a bad crowd of other unsupervised boys who spent their time after school making prank phone calls, wearing their hair in the hoodlum style butch-waxed ducktails of the period and engaging in petty vandalism and theft. Sometimes they took the bus to Pioneer Square, then full of scruffy alcoholics known as winos, and looked at guns in store windows. He also watched "The Mickey Mouse Club" on TV and wrote fan mail to Mouseketeer Annette Funicello. When he and his friends broke windows in the school cafeteria, police came to the school to look for the culprits. Wolff and his friends weren't caught, but they were excited by the interest law enforcement had taken in their vandalism and amped up their bad behavior. They broke more windows and streetlights and released emergency brakes of cars parked on hills. Wolff became a compulsive shoplifter of toy cars and jack knives.

Rosemary began dating a mechanic and single father named Robert Thompson, whom Wolff calls Dwight in his book. Thompson and his three children lived in Newhalem, a small company town in Whatcom County built by the Seattle City Light utility to house its employees. In the book, Newhalem is called Chinook. Rosemary had married Duke Wolff, whom she said she never loved, to get away from her father. She now reluctantly married Thompson, hoping he would provide her son with some male guidance and stability. It was clear her son was becoming, in the nomenclature of the day, a juvenile delinquent. She discussed her decision with Tobias, now calling himself Jack after his favorite author, Jack London. The boy found his potential stepfather annoying, but he really didn’t want to be a bad kid, and he had longed for a more conventional life with siblings and two parents. He gave his mother his consent to her accepting Thompson’s proposal.

His new stepfather was a hard drinking bully who announced that he would cut his stepson down to size, saying, "You're in for a change mister. You got that?" He gave him a paper route and loaded him down with chores. Some of the assigned tasks were pointless, such as spending hours a day husking boxes of chestnuts in spiny husks that slashed his hands and oozed a liquid that turned them orange -- chestnuts that eventually grew moldy and forgotten in the attic. Petty and cruel, Thompson harangued his stepson about his shortcomings, sabotaged his goal to make Eagle Scout, stole his Winchester rifle and traded it for an unsatisfactory hunting dog, and made him play in a basketball tournament in humiliating slippery street shoes. 

Dwight was also verbally abusive to Rosemary, who was a crack shot. He resented her winning lots of medals at the local gun club. He confiscated his wife's pay as a waitress at the company cookhouse as well as his stepson's paper-route money. Near the end of their marriage he held a knife to her throat and made her beg for her life when he learned a man she had met while volunteering for Jack Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign was trying to help her get a job away from Newhalem.

A Familiar Escape Plan

The memoir chronicles Wolff's eventual escape, which involved his contacting the older brother he hadn't seen for six years. Fifteen-year-old Tobias, now in high school in the nearby town of Concrete in Skagit County, was ignoring his studies, getting poor grades, and running with a bad crowd of thuggish, hard drinking boys. He later described himself at this period as "in a lot of trouble" and "known to the police." (Beete) He had contemplated running away to Alaska, stealing a car, and forging a check to visit his brother, but nothing worked out.

Instead, he managed to get a scholarship to the Hill School, a prestigious boarding school in Pennsylvania, as well a complete wardrobe of custom-tailored preppy clothes provided by the Hill School alumnus in Seattle who had written a glowing recommendation for him. He pulled off this escape in part because of kindly encouragement and mentoring from his brother, but it wouldn't have been possible without his own clever duplicity, uncannily like his father's. Using multiple typewriters, he forged transcripts and letters of recommendation on stolen Concrete High School stationary. He put together a picture of the boy he wanted to be, a "gifted upright boy who in his own quiet way had had exhausted the resources of his community." He had applied to Choate, Deerfield, St. Paul's, Andover, and Exeter, as well as Hill.

(The package he pulled together seems to have been better than the one Duke Wolff used to get himself hired on a classified Cold War atomic bomber program at Boeing. That included an aeronautical engineering degree in dubious French from the Sorbonne, a university devoted solely to the humanities. The FBI flagged his paperwork as highly suspicious and agents showed up at the house to question him. But, he somehow wriggled out of trouble.)

After his father told him over the phone that the name Jack was too plebian for a high-class prep school, Wolff registered at Hill as Tobias Jonathan von Ansell-Wolff III. He was already aware of the importance of class markers, having prepared for his escape from Newhalem by reading Vance Packard's The Status Seekers, a critique of American social hierarchy he used as a social-climbing manual.

Rosemary escaped, too. After Tobias went to Hill, she moved to Seattle, where Thompson stalked her and threatened her, and then to Washington, D.C., where she worked for an insurance company. Thompson followed her there, too. He begged her to return to him, and began to strangle her in the lobby of her building. She kneed him in the groin and he ran off with her purse. Tobias later told an interviewer, "That was the last time I saw him. Standing in a snowstorm, with policemen holding his arms. My mother had bruises on her throat for weeks afterwards." (Campbell) Rosemary got a cease-and-desist order, and the police put Thompson on a bus back to Seattle the next day.

Finding His Footing in Literature

Tobias was visiting her in Washington, D.C., in 1963 when he and his brother Geoffrey attended the March on Washington and missed Martin Luther King's speech because they were becoming fast friends and going over their difficult past together. Both brothers remained close and both have had distinguished literary careers.

Wolff was eventually kicked out of the Hill School. He was not properly prepared to live up to the promise indicated by his forged application, and he lost his scholarship because he couldn't pass algebra 2. But he loved the school and it reinforced his love of literature and desire to write. It also inspired a 2003 novel, Old School. At its 1990 graduation ceremony, the Hill School granted him his Class of 1964 diploma, and the headmaster read aloud some of Wolff's phony letters of recommendation to the audience.

In 1965, inspired by Hemingway, William Styron, and Norman Mailer, Wolff joined the army, thinking it would be a good source of literary material. His service in Vietnam would later provide the basis for another memoir, In Pharoah's Army, published in 1994. He left the army as a first lieutenant after four years and went to England, where it is possible to get a university degree without ever having taken algebra. He got a B.A. in English with first-class honors from Oxford, and worked for a while at the Washington Post at what he says was an exciting time during the paper's history. His desk was right next to Carl Bernstein's, who was then covering Watergate.  

Wolff later moved to San Francisco and worked at becoming a writer while taking jobs as a waiter and a night watchman. He taught English at a Catholic boys high school for two years. (Wolff, as was his mother, is a Catholic.) In 1975 he received a writing fellowship from Stanford and married social worker Catherine Spohn. The couple have three children. His fellowship led to a teaching position at Stanford. where he also earned an M.A. Later, he was offered a job as a professor at Syracuse University, where he taught writing and became friends with another writer with Northwest roots, Raymond Carver. Wolff came back to Stanford as a professor in 1997 after 17 years on the Syracuse faculty.

When This Boy's Life was published in 1989 to great acclaim, Robert Thompson, now known to the world as Dwight, was still alive but ill. A granddaughter read the book to him on his deathbed, and he was reportedly very upset. Tobias Wolff's brother Geoffrey had written his own memoir about their father, The Duke of Deception, 10 years before. Their mother Rosemary, featured in both memoirs, joked that if she'd known her sons were to become writers she might have behaved differently. She had gone on to marry Frank Hutchins, an attorney she met in Washington, D.C. The couple later retired to Deltona, Florida, where she served as president of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters and an adult literacy volunteer and gave witty interviews about her sons.

'85 Percent Accurate'

She said This Boy's Life was 85 percent accurate. Tobias Wolff says he did his best to write it just as he remembered it, but with his family history of deception, critics have sometimes raised this issue. There is no doubt it reads like a novel with dialogue in quotes and crystalline, detailed descriptions. No one, however, disputes the emotional authenticity of the work.

Much of the 1993 film version was shot in Concrete, a town of about 750 people, which is conflated with Newhalem in the screenplay. A group of huge concrete silos there were painted with the words "Welcome to Concrete" in faux-faded letters for the film, and while Jason Miller, mayor and publisher of the Concrete Herald, says the town occasionally considers covering it over with a colorful mural, this original bit of Hollywood art direction remained in place decades after the crew left town. Wolff was upset that the film contained sex scenes involving his mother that weren't in the book, and insisted that her character's name be changed, so the mother Ellen Barkin plays is called Caroline in the film.

While there was plenty of pleasant excitement about running into Hollywood stars during the filming, many locals were upset when the film came out. Valerie Stafford, president of the Concrete Chamber of Commerce, remembers her mother Kay calling to say, "Oh honey, it’s just awful. It’s depressing and makes our town look awful!" Some oldtimers who knew the Thompson family continued to insist that the entire memoir was all made up, an opinion not shared by Valerie Stafford, who attended high school with the boy she knew as Jack Wolff.

Stafford and her husband also own the Concrete Theatre, built in 1923, which they have restored and where the film is periodically shown. Stafford invited Wolff to return to Concrete for a 2019 screening scheduled for the town’s summer Cascade Days celebration. He replied promptly, but graciously declined, adding that he hoped everyone would have a good time. He also said he wasn't sure he'd be welcome. Stafford says he did appear in the nearby town of Sedro Woolley for a 2014 "Evening with Tobias Wolff" at the high school, raising money for Family Promise, a Skagit Valley charity aiding homeless children.

Besides his two memoirs, and the novel Old School, he has published the novella The Barracks Thief, set partly in Washington State, and many short story collections. His work has appeared regularly in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper's and other magazines and journals, and he has been the recipient of many awards and fellowships. In 2015, as Stanford professor emeritus of English, he was awarded a National Medal of Arts for his work as an author and educator by President Barack Obama.


Paulette Beete, “A Conversation with Tobias Wolff”, Art Works Blog, National Endowment for the Arts, December 4, 2015. Accessed July 1, 2015. (https://www.arts.gov/art-works/2015/conversation-tobias-wolff); Campbell, James, “Brutal Beginnings” The Guardian, July 18, 2008, U.S. online edition accessed July 1, 2019, (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/jul/19/fiction2); Joel Conarroe, “Fugitive Childhoods” New York Times Book Review, p.1, January 15, 1989; Dwight Garner, “The 50 Best Memoirs of the Last 50 Years: This Boy’s Life”, New York Times, June 26, 2019, (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/06/26/books/best-memoirs.html?searchResultPosition=1); Lancaster, Cory Jo, “This Mom’s Life: The Mother from ‘This Boy’s Life’ Would Rather Forget the Time of her Life the Movie is Based On”, Orlando Sentinel, May 8, 1993, accessed July 1, 2019, (https://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/fl-xpm-1993-05-08-9302100578-story.html); Jason Miller, notes from June 3, 2019 personal interview held by author; Blake Morrison, “The Man Who Told Lies: Tobias Wolff Comes from a family of Compulsive Story-Tellers”, The Independent, October 30, 1994; Quyen Nguyen, “An Interview with Tobias Wolff”, Boston Review,August 25, 2014; Prose, Francine, “The Brothers Wolff”, New York Times Magazine, February 5, 1989, p. 006023 in archived edition;  Valerie Stafford, notes from June 11, 2019 personal interview held by author; David Schrieberg,“Interview: Tobias Wolff”, Stanford Today Online, September/October 1998. Accessed July 1, 2019. (https://web.stanford.edu/dept/news/stanfordtoday/ed/9809/9809fea101.shtml); Geoffrey Wolff, The Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father,(Random House, New York, 1979); Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life: A Memoir(Atlantic Monthly Press, New York. 1989).

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