Wolfe deliberately set out to make The Bonfire of the Vanities capture the essence of New York City in the 1980s. Wall Street in the 1980s was newly resurgent after most of the previous decade had been bad for stocks. The excesses of Wall Street were at the forefront of the popular imagination, captured in films like Oliver Stone's Wall Street and in non-fiction books like Liar's Poker, Den of Thieves, and Barbarians at the Gate.
Beneath Wall Street's success, the city was a hot-bed of racial and cultural tension. Homelessness and crime in the city were growing. Several high-profile racial incidents polarized the city, particularly two black men who were murdered in white neighborhoods: Willie Turks, who was murdered in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn in 1982, and Michael Griffith in Howard Beach, Queens, in 1986. In another episode that became a subject of much media attention, Bernhard Goetz became something of a folk-hero in the city for shooting a group of black men who tried to rob him in the subway in 1984.
Burton B. Roberts, a Bronx judge known for his no-nonsense imperious handling of cases in his courtroom, became the model for the character of Myron Kovitsky in the book.