The Bonfire of the Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities Summary and Analysis of Chapter 26 - "Death New York Style" and Chapter 27 - "Hero of the Hive"


In Sir Gerald Steiner's office at The City Light, Peter Fallow and his colleagues discuss the lucky tip that Fallow received about Maria Ruskin. So they know who the Mysterious Brunette is, now what to do about it? Sir Gerald decides to send Fallow to do a profile on Maria's husband, the charter plane magnate Arthur Ruskin. Peter is to disguise his intention of getting information on Maria by interviewing her husband on his career and lavish lifestyle.

Arthur Ruskin, not usually a media hound, is nevertheless willing to have a meeting with Peter. Arthur suggests that they have dinner at La Boue d'Argent (which translated means either "mud money" or "silver mud"). When they arrive, the staff genuflects to Mr. Ruskin; another eminent guest is also arriving, Madame Tacaya, the wife of an Indonesian dictator.

Ruskin, who is 71 and disallowed alcohol by doctor's orders, nonetheless orders a sidecar with VSOP Cognac. He tells of how he rose in fortune, lost it all, and then rose even higher than before with his charter airplane business. Arthur Ruskin is a Jewish man, jokes about he and his fellow "Yids." He notes ironically that he accrued his obscene fortune by ferrying Muslims to the holy city of Mecca. Arthur is in rare (though offensive) form, and he stuffs himself with food and wine.

Suddenly, Arthur has a fit and falls to the floor. Peter helplessly calls for assistance, but the waitstaff is too busy preparing for Madame Tacaya's entrance to heed him. Paramedics arrive and take the body away. The head waiter, without missing a beat, presents Peter with the bill and is about to force Peter to pay despite his protestations when Madame Tacaya arrives, allowing Peter to escape. He runs a piece in The City Light the next day describing the restaurant's disregard for Mr. Ruskin, entitled, "Death New York Style."

In Chapter 27, Sherman is concerned again that he is "hemorrhaging money," as his lawyers and bodyguards cost a fortune and he has no income. Things aren't all bad, however, as a reporter named Flannagan on The Daily News has written an article countering the claims about the Lamb case in The City Light. Judy agrees to attend a party with Sherman at the di Ducci's to "keep up appearances."

At "the hive," Sherman's sobriquet for such society events, the buzzing is about him. Mrs. di Ducci, a particularly beautiful society matron, makes Judy and Sherman feel very welcome, and Sherman relishes the attention. He tells harrowing exaggerations about his time in the holding pen, and he enjoys the reputation that he has in the papers as a financial "boy wonder." The society folks humor him as a sort of curiosity, and Judy, though she stands by him at the party, tells Sherman once they leave that he's too easily pleased.

Meanwhile, the Episcopal Bishop of New York, an African-American man, discusses the fate of a small church building with the Mayor of New York. There has been some controversy over whether or not it's a landmark, but the Bishop assures the Mayor that it is not an important building, and it's in the best interests of the Diocese that it be sold. The Mayor, wanting to curry favor with black voters but as yet unwilling to call for fierce prosecution of the McCoy case, is happy to oblige, as long as the Bishop serves on a "special blue-ribbon commission on crime" in return. The Bishop cannot possibly do so, according to the rules of his Diocese, and so he politely refuses and leaves. The Mayor, in revenge, calls the Landmark Commission and tells them to immediately grant landmark status to the church building in question.


The chapter involving the life-story and the dramatic death of Arthur Ruskin is perhaps the most blackly humorous of the novel. Arthur is drawn in vivid detail. We have learned from Maria that Arthur is verbally abusive, but at dinner he is a charming and interesting character from a pre-politically correct era. He seems very much in love with the material things of life, which adds obvious irony to the colossally unkind wait staff at La Boue d'Argent. Like most things in the novel, their cruelty is a cartoon designed to capture the callousness of capitalism in the 1980s. Arthur exists for them only as a credit card. When he's dead, they have no interest in him any longer. So much for the life Arthur loves.

McCoy & McCoy Associates, as Sherman calls his alliance with Judy to save their social reputation, is hard at work. On one level this attempt to resume life as normal, and to save whatever vestiges of dignity and status that they can, represents Sherman McCoy's newfound resolve to fight. However, one might ask how realistic the attempt is. Sherman's motive is clear, but what about Judy's? Is Judy still hurt that Sherman pursued Maria and lied to her about it? Is she intent on preserving their home? Does she secretly love Sherman? We have no idea, because, as thoughout the novel, Wolfe leaves the inner-lives of his female characters a mystery. Her willingness to "stand by her man" in public is never explained.

We know that the novel is rounding to a close because characters who have been absent for hundreds of pages -- Fiske, for example -- have begun to pop up again. The Mayor is one of these. His portrait in Chapter 27 is no more flattering than our first view of him at the riot. He breathes politics, and has no honest regard for the welfare of the city, only for the security of his office. The meeting with the Bishop is a chilling glimpse at tit-for-tat City politics. The Bishop, as a black man, would have lent a modicum of credibility to his proposed crime commission. Instead, because he can't get any support from a black man, the Mayor feels that he is forced to malign McCoy to regain his credibility with non-white voters.

The offensively humorous "plaques for blacks" discussion with Sheldon, the Mayor's secretary, shows the kind of "for the media only" activities that the City uses for "steam control" -- i.e. to throw the civil rights activists an occasional bone. The Mayor sees his reputation with African-Americans as dependant upon an occassional plaque and photo op. Neither Reverend Bacon nor the Mayor seems to think that real social reform or racial healing is at all possible. Indeed, both of them seem invested in maintaining a status quo of racial divide; their power depends on it. Steam control indeed.