Bohemian in a Sack Suit: The 1959 Brooks Brothers Novel

For Ivy-Style’s 200th post, I thought I’d break out something special I’ve been sitting on for awhile.

Last year, between Los Angeles and New York, I spent six months in my old environs of the Bay Area, including five weeks staying with a former flame (now married to a Hungarian who lost his baronetcy in the revolution), in Oakland on Lake Merritt.

Out for a stroll one day, I popped into Walden Pond Books, one of those massive used bookstores you can get lost in for hours, and of which so few remain today. In the back were several tables loaded with paperbacks from the ’50s, a mixture of science fiction and detective dime novels and reprints of stuff like DH Lawrence and Ovid’s “Art of Love” with lurid covers.

Of these hundreds of books stacked pell-mell, one caught my eye: a 1959 novel called “Try For Elegance” by David Loovis. The characters were described as “white-collar Beats” and included Teena, “a commuter between Park Avenue and Greenwich Village,” and Paul, “a bohemian in a Brooks Brothers suit.”

I had a feeling I’d stumbled across a real lost artifact, and rushed home with the three-dollar book to do some googling.

I found an article in The New Yorker that profiled Loovis and his debut novel. Turns out the author was an Ivy Leaguer who worked at Brooks Brothers’ Madison Avenue flagship, and “Try For Elegance” was largely based on his experience there.

I can’t describe the serotonin-rush of serendipity that flushed over me because of this fortuitous find. In my six years of style blogging, this was without a doubt the coolest find. Who else would have noticed this book and been in the position to appreciate it, put it in context, and share it with an interested readership? If fate has a hand in blogging — if fate has a hand in anything — this was it.

As for the novel, its quality is about what you’d expect from an author you’ve never heard of who’s prone to describing the weather as “warmish,” “bluish” or “fallish.” But for our purposes here, “Try For Elegance” is a fascinating document for its dramatization of what it was like at Brooks Brothers (which is never mentioned by name) during its heyday.

Like his creator, Paul Dunar is the graduate of “a small Ivy League college.” He is a 29-year-old aspiring painter who’s been working at the store for a year, and who falls for a 19-year-old spoiled rich girl from the Midwest. Paul has a taste for good clothes, is conscious of being well dressed, and delights in the pleasure of being well turned out:

The silk jacket beneath his raincoat felt good, his trousers were perfectly pressed and his linen could not have been whiter. He too liked a handkerchief in his suit coat top pocket and as his raincoat fell open, he saw that it was thrust in at a casual and jaunty angle.

Here’s the first description of the store, which ends on a killer line:

It was with great pride that the Madison Avenue store proclaimed its one hundred and thirty years of continuous service; indeed, only two things appeared on its label: the store name and the year of its establishment. It catered in men’s furnishings and clothing to what is know as the perennial taste; suits designed with a narrow shoulder, made of subdued colored materials woven in England, and cut by the store’s own tailors; furnishings distinguished by flair without ostentation. In its long history, the store numbered among its customers American presidents and European kings, as well as all the people alive in the world during the last century and one-third who agreed that this was the style that mattered.

Here’s a sense of what customer service was like 50 years ago:

Of the twenty-six salesmen on the main floor of the Madison Avenue store, fourteen had worked there over ten years, six were members of the Quarter Century Club, and one man had actually been in the employ of the company for fifty-one years.

The latter gent was “more than an old salesman. To the well-bred of the era, he was a landmark, a reminder of youth and a happy, stable world.”

Quite a contrast to Paul’s floor manager, Mr. Pardee, who wears a gaudy watch and had “come in his teens from a tiny town in one of the far midwestern states.” Here’s Mr. Pardee:

He detested to the point of vehemence the term “Ivy League” although the store was generally considered as the long-time stronghold of that type of apparel. Dunar suspected Pardee’s lack of college background and a secret envy of the well-fed, rangy type of boy and man who mostly patronized the store had something to do with it.

Loovis devotes an entire chapter to dramatizing the feeding frenzy during one of the store’s semi-annual sales, during which Paul is poised to make enough money to move into a new apartment:

Even from a distance of three blocks, Dunar could see that a number of people had gathered and were waiting outside the Madison Avenue store…

He noticed the jam of people in front of the elevators. It was as if the cars were lifeboats, and it was necessary to get into one. But it was not often that the store offered reductions, in almost all its departments. And it was not too much to say that customer response to these private sales, unadvertised in the papers (notices through the mail only), was fanatic.

The store feeds the salesmen milk and sandwiches during the day to keep up their stamina, and at the end of the grueling day, during which the elderly salesman had collapsed from exhaustion, Dunar faces two and a half hours of writing up his sales book.

Here’s what The New Yorker had to say in its profile of July 11, 1959, after dispatching a writer to track down Loovis at Brooks:

We found him deep in wash-and-wear suits, on the second floor, and begged the privilege of an interview. Slender, dark-haired, and dapper, he said he’d be glad to give us a word or two between customers. To break the ice we remarked that he was the best-dressed author we’d encountered in many years.

Loovis later tells the magazine:

“The ‘elegance’ of the title doesn’t refer solely to physical surroundings, by the way. An elegant person is a gentleman, one who knows how to handle himself. He cares for his life, and intends to live it in association with others who care and with things that are beautiful and fine. In my novel, I deal sympathetically with a middle-class hero who wishes to play the game but is ill-equipped to do so.”

You’ll dig the vintage Brooks lingo here:

Mr. Loovis was called away to wait on somebody, and upon returning he told us that Brooks Brothers salesmen take customers in rotation and that, by bad luck, the customer who just had fallen to him had proved an egg, which is a BB term for a customer who takes a lot of time and then doesn’t buy anything. The opposite of an egg, Mr. Loovis told us, is a wrapup — a customer who knows exactly what he’s after and wastes no time getting it — while a sea bass is a big buyer, and a huckleberry is a pleasant fellow who moseys around the store for an hour or so, making no trouble, and eventually buys a necktie or some other small article.

Loovis closes by telling the New Yorker:

“The job gives me a good income and I believe in what I’m selling; there’s an undeniable integrity, a psychological validity, here at Brooks that I mightn’t find anywhere else.”

— CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

22 Comments on "Bohemian in a Sack Suit: The 1959 Brooks Brothers Novel"

  1. NaturalShoulder | March 10, 2010 at 2:59 pm |

    Great find Christian and congratulations on the 200th post. This site has a wealth of great information.

  2. I am a devout believer in hating everything an ex is involved with and stands for but….

    the Hungarians are a great people. My grandfather made it through the revolution and lives in Cleveland in Bay Village.

  3. Congratulations Christian. I have just ordered a copy of the book from my Public Library

    Always Bumby

  4. EffortlesslyTrad (FT) | March 10, 2010 at 3:57 pm |

    Really a great post, Christian. Congrats on your 200th post.

    I assume you tried to track down Mr. Loovis. His later works seem much less inhibited.

  5. Thanks.

    That last quote made me feel better about my night job at the local wine and cheese shop.

  6. Thank for posting this.

    The book seems like a treasure trove of interesting information about the Ivy style of the late 50s but also, from the excerpts you posted, a painful read. I appreciate the tidbits you’ve offered, and since you have already suffered through it for the rest of us, please post more of the good stuff.

  7. Christian, this is about my favorite post here.

    Max, is Loomis your grandfather?

  8. I do not believe Mr. Loovis became anyone’s grandfather before passing away in Hialeah, Fla. in Aug of 08′ at the age of 82.

  9. DaveStPaul | March 11, 2010 at 7:14 pm |

    What a find; thanks for the clips.

    And now I have a name for the kind of customer I am; it’s painfully clear I’m a huckleberry.

  10. Thanks as always to Valet for plugging the post:

    http://www.valetmag.com/the-edit/the-find/031210.php?index1_top_lead

  11. oh, how i wish i could quickly get my hands on a copy of this to read during spring break. great post.

  12. Old School | March 13, 2010 at 6:55 am |

    Try for Elegance was dedicated to Gore Vidal!

    Obituary from the Colgate University on-line alumni magazine:

    http://www.colgatealumni.org/s/801/scene_inside.aspx?sid=801&gid=1&pgid=1260

    David MacTavish Loovis ’47, August 28, 2008. Pi Delta Epsilon, Banter, Zymurgist Writers Club, Christian Association, debate team. US Navy. His first writing job was as a reporter for the New York Daily Item. Thereafter, he traveled Europe, establishing lasting relationships with Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal, who encouraged his writing. He dedicated his first novel, Try for Elegance, to Vidal, who contributed the flap copy. After a variety of jobs, including advertising copywriter at J. Walter Thompson and almoner of St. George’s Society of New York, he moved to Key West. There, he was inspired to write his second novel, in which Tennessee Williams appeared as a character. An advocate for gay rights, he wrote 2 books about homosexuality in the ’70s. He also wrote articles for national magazines and newspapers.

  13. Well done, Old School.

  14. Old School | March 13, 2010 at 8:07 am |

    Another Loovis obituary, with more details:

    http://keysnews.com/node/6267

    David McTavish Loovis

    April 4, 1926 – Aug. 28, 2008

    David Loovis, long-term resident of Key West, passed away

    at the age of 82 in Hialeah, Fla.

    Mr. Loovis was born in New York City, attended New York City schools and was a gradu-

    ate of Colgate University. After a hitch in the Navy, he went directly to his first writing job as general reporter for the Port Chester, New York Daily Item. Thereafter, via motor-bicycle, he traveled in Europe for 16 months, en route establishing lasting relationships with Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal.

    Over a long period, Vidal and Williams encouraged Loovis’ writing. Loovis dedicated his first Scribner novel, “Try for Elegance” to Gore, who contributed the flap copy blurb. Loovis held the requisite number of jobs expected of an American writer, including Broadway hotel desk clerk; art gallery salesperson in Nantucket; New England representative of textbook publisher McGraw-Hill; a decadelong stint as a salesperson on the main floor of Brooks Brothers’ Madison Avenue Store; and at J. Walter Thompson for five years as an advertising copywriter on major accounts (Pan Am, Ford, Reader’s Digest).

    For over 10 years, (1984-1994) he held the position as Almoner — dispenser of alms — of St. George’s Society of New York, the oldest private charity in America (est. 1770). He also managed the office and arranged the Society’s events. In December of 1994, he resigned his position with honor and moved permanently to Key West.

    Mr. Loovis came to the island for longer or shorter stays almost every season since 1953. That year he worked as a waiter at the Trade Winds Restaurant (corner of Duval and Caroline streets). In 1961, his waiter’s job provided him with material for his second Scribner novel, “The Last of the Southern Winds,” a story of passion and conflict set entirely in Key West. Tennessee Williams appeared as a character in that novel.

    Mr. Loovis was a strong, articulate standard-bearer for gay advocacy. Toward that end, he wrote two important books, “Gay Spirit” (1975) — the first American, nationally published and advertised, nonfiction, author-acknowledged book about the gay lifestyle — and “Straight Answers About Homosexuality for Straight Readers” (1977). He also wrote articles for national magazines and newspapers, as well as stories for the Key West paper Celebrate.

    He is remembered for his urbane grace, charm and wit.

  15. I just got back to Chicago from San Francisco where I spent a preposterous amount of money on hats at Cable Car Clothiers. Just my way of ensuring that there will always be an England.

  16. almost had a copy on Amazon but was beaten to it. sure would be nice if the copyright has expired if the book could be republished or photocopied and posted for downloading

  17. David Loovis – a hero of mine since whenever. ‘Gay Spirit’ is one of the three books that changed my life for the happier and more enlightened. Thank you and sleep well.

  18. W. Vernon Trotter | May 21, 2010 at 10:03 am |

    I remember Loovis. I took a year off from college and worked at Brooks from fall to spring in 1959-60. I worked for the tie, belt and glove buyer, Stan Birdsey. A former Royal Marine, he and Mr. Loovis were exact opposites, as you might imagine.

    There were only four stores then, two in NY, one in Boston and one in Chicago; there were partial stores in SF and LA. Three salesman traveled the country by train, setting up showrooms in the best hotels. Old Mr. Brooks lived in the Yale club, his daughter had married Julius Garfinkle, owner of Garfinkle’s in Washington DC; Garfinkle’s then owned Brooks Brothers.

    The president of Brooks was an Irish-American named Reilly as I recall. He wore the exact same gray/grey suit, solid navy tie, black cap toes and white button down every day! Of course they were not the same, just identical.

    The merchandise quality back then was far, far superior! Golden days.

  19. I stumbled on the comments about Davis Loovis when some sixty years later I was suddenly moved to look him up on Google. I knew David at Colgate. I was in the Navy V-12 program; he was a civilian student. On graduation, he lived with a well-known New York City minister. and we corresponded when he worked for the Port Chester newspaper and I was working for the New Brunswick (NJ) daily). When I was working nights David sometiims entertained the woman I would marry. I remember once, perhaps it was in Barnes and Noble, where David asked if they had copies of his book, the Gay Spirit, and a very embarrassed clerk produced one from a hiding place where he was storing it and reading it.David was touring Manhattan book stores and pretending to be a customer for his own book, to get them to carry it Bill Luce and his wife, he also Colgate Navy, were close friends of David, and Bill, a copy editor on the NY Times, helped him with editing Gay Spirit but gently suggested that he didn’t want the book dedicated to him since he thought David suggested some practices that Bill thought were dangerous. We lost touch after he had gone to work with Brooks Brothers and I moved west. . I doubt that David ever was in the Navy as the posted notices indicate.

  20. Actually, David Loovis was my uncle. My mother, Claire Joyce Loovis- Cabral, is the daughter of David’s older brother, Karl Loovis. I can tell you that my uncle never married. In fact, when I first met David in New york in the early 80s, he was living with a much younger man named Michael. I also know that my uncle never had any children, so I don’t think “Max” is talking about the same David Loovis. If you would like, I would be happy to put you in contact with my mother and aunt who both could tell you more about David. Thanks for blogging about my uncle.

  21. I remember Loovis. I took a time rancid from college and worked by Brooks from fall to spring in 1959-60. I worked pro the relation, belt and glove buyer, Stan Birdsey. A ex- Royal sea, he and Mr. Loovis were exact opposites, as you might imagine.

    There were single four supplies at that time, two in NY, lone in Boston and lone in Chicago; here were partial supplies in SF and LA. Three salesman traveled the people by train, setting up showrooms in the preeminent hotels. Old Mr. Brooks lived in the Yale bash, his daughter had married Julius Garfinkle, title-holder of Garfinkle’s in Washington DC; Garfinkle’s at that time owned Brooks Brothers.

    The president of Brooks was an Irish-American named Reilly as I recall. He wore the exact same gray/grey suit, solid navy relation, black cap toes and white button down each time! Of way they were not the same, solely identical.

    The merchandise quality back at that time was far, far superior! Golden days.

  22. Please see OHaraSociety.blogspot.com for post regarding Loovis on O;Hara at Brooks Brothers. Richard, The Philadelphia Junto

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