Born in Richmond, Virginia, Wolfe took his first newspaper job in 1956 and eventually worked for the Washington Post and the New York Herald Tribune among others. While there he had experimented with using fictional techniques in feature stories.
During the New York newspaper strike, he approached Esquire Magazine about an article on the hot rod and custom car culture of southern California. He struggled with writing the article and editor Byron Dobell suggested that Wolfe send his notes to him so they could work together on the article. Wolfe sat down and wrote Dobell a letter saying everything he wanted to say about the subject, ignoring all conventions of journalism.
Dobell removed the salutation "Dear Byron" from the top of the letter and published the notes as the article. This was the birth of the New Journalism, in which reporters were cut loose from journalistic conventions of the past and allowed to use all sorts of literary techniques, including free association, italics, exclamation marks (even multiple exclamation marks).
In 1965 a collection of his articles in this style was published under the title The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby and Wolfe was on his way. He wrote on popular culture, architecture, and politics, whatever interested him. His defining work from this era is The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, which epomitised the decade for many. Although a conservative in many ways and certainly not a hippie, he became one of the notable figures of the 1960s.
In 1979 Wolfe published The Right Stuff, an account of the pilots who became America's first astronauts. Famously following their training and unofficial, even foolhardy, exploits, he likened these heroes to 'single combat champions' of an earlier era, going forth to battle on behalf of their country. The book became a movie in 1983.
Several other books followed before Wolfe's first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, was published in 1987, having previously been serialised in Rolling Stone magazine. In 1998 his novel A Man in Full was published.