Peter Wolf authors new N.O. memoir
By ALAN SMASON
Peter M. Wolf has established himself as a noted scholar in his many architectural history and art studies and as a preservationist in many of his civic endeavors. But the 77-year-old New Orleans native was scarcely prepared for his most recent literary effort,”My New Orleans Gone Away: A Memoir of Loss and Renewal,” a 336-page memoir that more than touches on his early life in New Orleans, his schooling in New England and his eventual determination to seek his fame and fortune outside the city of his birth.
“A memoir is not a biography,” he explained in an exclusive interview with the CCJN. “It’s a snippet – a part of a life. It can be sort of a fragment of a life.” Wolf said. As much of the story is dealt in a series of flashbacks, Wolf described the book as a coming-of-age work. “It has almost a theatrical structure,” he mused.
Wolf is a highly respected art and architectural historian, who graduated from Yale University, received his master’s degree at Tulane University and earned his doctorate degree from New York University. He has received national recognition in the fields of urban policy, land planning and assets management and has published six previous books on scholarly subjects related to those fields.
Curiously, the memoir which grew into “My New Orleans, Gone Away” started out as a series of reminisces by the author. “I never intended to write a memoir,” Wolf admitted. He began writing for his own pleasure, to find meaning in his own life, he elaborated. “I wanted to investigate the short story form, not just for stories, but for facts. These things accumulated over years,” he said.
The retired New York Times book editor Christopher Lehmann-Haupt came across this collection and, as Wolf recounted, remarked to him: “‘Peter, what you’ve written is a book. It’s a story of your generation and it’s a story about America.'”
Through his position as editorial director of Delphinium Books, a small literary publishing company that specializes in works of fiction, Lehmann-Haupt persuaded the publisher to make Wolf an offer to publish the work.
Eventually, the work was transformed into a manuscript that involved an enormous amount of give and take between the principals. Wolf had his own ideas about what he wanted to say. The publisher had strong opinions about the memoir as did several of the copy editors who weighed in their opinions on various parts of the work. “This is a crafted thing that’s been through a lot,” Wolf continued. “I stood my ground on quite a few things. There was a very fruitful back and forth and I think it’s better because of it.”
Wolf is a sixth-generation member of one of the oldest established Jewish families in the region with former holdings that included the Godchaux Sugar Company and Godchaux’s Department Store on Canal Street.
Yet, as Wolf relates in the course of the book, his family was full of incongruities. Although they attempted to maintain propriety in their private lives, his parents spent much of their time at night gambling and drinking. Although ancestors had helped found Temple Sinai, the Wolf family had very little adherence to Jewish observance. In fact, Wolf notes in his book, his family was especially noted for throwing spectacular annual Chirstmas parties at which Rabbi Julian Feibelman was always an honored guest.
The memoir recounts Wolf’s early life in Old Metairie where he felt isolated from family members. He remembers driving to Pass Christian to bask in the sun there at a house owned by his grandfather. Wolf’s father was a major player in the then still thriving cotton business, having had expertise in computers that allowed him to keep track of government surplus cotton supplies. Yet, the business was destined to fail as fewer and fewer customers traded in futures.
Wolf touches on his decision to follow in his father’s steps in many ways. Like his father, he was schooled at Phillips Exeter Academy and later was accepted to Yale University. But, even while working at his father’s business and attending Tulane University at night to work on his master’s degree, he knew deep down that he was not happy. The memoir reveals much of Wolf’s inner turmoil to please his father and to please himself.
Also of interest is how Wolf receives much of his appreciation for Jewish faith and practice from fellow Yale classmates, who give him his most in-depth study of the religion and expose him to Hebrew and cultural points of interest.
There are references to several important romantic influences in his life, but out of respect for them, Wolf paints them largely as two-dimensional characters. There is implied passion that exists between him and his ladies, but it is hidden in an attempt to honor their reputations. The narrative ends just as he is about to be married to his wife and prior to his leaving New Orleans to embark on his academic career.
One of the prevailing themes in the book is that of risk. There is risk, he pointed out, in his leaving New Orleans to begin his life in New York. There was even risk in his testing the academic waters to determine if medicine would have been a rewarding field for him. His associations with women were also full of risks. Some of the risks worked out, while others didn’t. But if Wolf had regrets, he never expressed them.
“It’s been a fascinating experience,” Wolf added. “I like to write from my own visualization. I see the scenes and I see the situations and I enjoy translating that into language.” Because his previous works has been scholarly in scope, he was not exposed to this style of writing.
“This kind of writing is very exciting,” he concluded. It requires a certain kind of style and restraint, but it also brings back a lot of memories.
Wolf talked about his book and signed copies of “My New Orleans, Gone Away” at two events this week. First, he was at Octavia Books, 513 Octavia Street in New Orleans on Wednesday, July 10 at 6:00 p.m. He also spoke at the Jefferson Parish Public Library, 4747 West Esplanade Avenue in Metairie at 7:00 p.m.
Wolf can be seen on Friday night’s “Steppin’ Out” program on WYES-TV, Channel 12 at 6:30, 8:00 and 11:00 p.m. Shomer Shabbat observers are advised to record the program on their DVR players.
Wolf returns for two signings in November. The first will be on November 2 in Baton Rouge for the Louisiana Book Festival. The following Monday, November 4, Wolf will be speaking to the members of the Greater New Orleans Chapter of Hadassah.