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Bohemian in a Sack Suit: The 1959 Brooks Brothers Novel

Wed 10 Mar 2010 - Filed under: 1950s,Lit,Top Drawer — Christian
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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

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JD Salinger, 1919-2010

Thu 28 Jan 2010 - Filed under: Lit — Christian
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Don’t things like this usually come in threes? Click here for The Washington Post‘s coverage.

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Louis Auchincloss, 1917-2010

Thu 28 Jan 2010 - Filed under: Lit — Christian
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Louis Auchincloss, author of prep-school classic “The Rector of Justin,” plus many novels and stories set among New York’s Old Money, died Tuesday night. The New York Times‘ coverage is here.

And from 2008, The Washington Post‘s book critic Jonathan Yardley looks back on “Justin.”

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Where All The Angry Young Men Go

Sun 8 Nov 2009 - Filed under: 1950s,Lit — Christian
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For the Beat Generation, there were only two places to live: New York’s Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s North Beach.

North Beach has been an old stomping ground of mine since my early twenties. I recently paid a visit to the neighborhood after years of exile in Los Angeles.

Broadway is home to San Francisco’s famous strip clubs, such as The Condor Club, where Carol Doda first danced topless in 1964. It’s also where you’ll find famous Beat gathering places like Cafe Vesuvio and City Lights Bookstore.

City Lights, founded by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953, was where I’d go for obscure books in the days before Amazon and Bookfinder.

As for Vesuvio, I’d been planning on nursing an espresso there while reading Kerouac’s “Big Sur.” But by the time I got around to my afternoon in North Beach, I’d already abandoned the book. It was, like, hip for a bit, then I got bored and decided to just read “The Red and the Black” again. Whenever I get bored with books, I just read “The Red and the Black” again.

Kerouac is one of the founding members of the Beat movement in literature and hygiene, whose origins go back to Columbia University in 1944. During the Beat heyday, many of its proponents were natural-shouldered; above is poet Michael McClure in 1957, wearing a patch-pocketed 4/3 herringbone similar to the J. Press version we posted about previously.

While I was away in LA, The Beat Museum opened a few years ago. It has a solid collection of memorabilia and cool trinkets for sale. As I was wearing a sportcoat and tassel loafers, the curator/sales clerk asked where I was from. (Continue)

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In Praise of the Small Wardrobe

Tue 29 Sep 2009 - Filed under: 1950s,Clothes,Lit — Christian
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Perhaps because I scribe for a living, and know that a piece of writing always benefits from cutting,* I’ve always been a ruthless editor of my own wardrobe. There’s always something that can be discarded for being redundant, having fulfilled its use, or not being quite right. The simple test is to look at an item in your closet and gauge your gut reaction to it: If you’re not immediately filled with fondness, get rid of it. Clothes are the perfect means to practice the striving for a state of perfection, even if that state is never reached.

As a result, I’ve never understood the web’s notorious clotheshorses and their compulsive acquiring. Money is not the issue, as some spend lavishly while others are inveterate thrifters. At some point both must reach a stage of surfeit, when it’s impossible for every item in their wardrobe to be fondly cherished. It’s the difference between having a dog and having a kennel. At some point it’s just variety for its own sake, and at that point are your clothes really an extension of you?

And just because an item is already broken in doesn’t mean it will automatically feel second nature to wear it. Whether it’s an old rep tie or a vintage Harris Tweed, an item new to you is still new, and will take time until you’re wholly unaware of wearing it. But before then the item will not feel like a part of you, but a kind of awkward sartorial prosthesis.

Sure, wearing something new can often put a spring in your step, but only one new item should be worn per outfit. Don’t inaugurate a new jacket, tie and shoes all at the same time.

Consider this passage from Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley”:

Evenings looking at his clothes — his clothes and Dickie’s — and feeling Dickie’s rings between his palms, and running his fingers over the antelope suitcase he had bought at Gucci’s. He had polished the suitcase with a special English leather dressing, not that it needed polishing because he took such good are of it, but for its protection. He loved possessions, not masses of them, but a select few that he did not part with. They gave a man self-respect. Not ostentation but quality, and the love that cherished the quality. Possessions reminded him that he existed, and made him enjoy his existence. It was simple as that. And wasn’t that worth something? He existed.

I find this an inspiring argument for fewer, but better. — CC

* This blog post shortened from 1,800 words.

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Club Dues: Geoffrey Wolff’s “The Final Club”

Mon 15 Jun 2009 - Filed under: 1950s,1990-present,Lit — Christian
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I recently wrote a shortie for the blog at RL’s Rugby.com about Geoffrey Wolff’s 1990 novel “The Final Club.” This is the novel set at Princeton in the late ’50s I alluded to in the Bruce Boyer interview, which caused a reader to ask what book I was referring to. It can now be revealed, and I’ve excerpted some sartorial passages below that I think you’ll enjoy.

Wolff is the brother of Tobias Wolff, whose novel “Old School,” another campus tome set in the same era, was the subject of a previous post.

Here’s a New York Times article about their brotherhood and literary rivalry.

Though I enjoyed both books, I preferred the energy and stronger coming-of-age themes in “The Final Club,” which centers around a half-Jewish boy named Nathaniel who attends Princeton, takes in the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, goes sailing and dances outdoors under the stars. Basically the life we’d all like to lead, at least for a day, if we could eliminate the bigotry and disillusion. (Continue)

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