The name James M. Brown III may not be familiar to you, but every trad web surfer knows his face, the face of an undergraduate of 60 years ago. Brown is pictured above in a shot from LIFE Magazine’s 1954 article “The Ivy Look Heads Across US,” which was much seen when the LIFE archives were put on the web several years ago.
James Brown may have been destined to be the poster boy for J. Press and the new collegiate look that would sweep America in 1954. He was born in New Rochelle, New York, and raised in Mamaroneck and Darien, Connecticut. Brown was in the Kent school class of 1952. While at Kent he played football and hockey and rowed crew. Brown was in the Yale Class of 1956, where he was a member of Fence and Haunt (America’s oldest drinking club). He majored in American Studies and minored in visiting the prominent girl’s schools.
Ivy Style caught up with Brown via his yacht club. The octogenarian, who still possesses a warm smile and bright eyes, was interested in revisiting the article again and graciously shared with us his memories of how he became the face of Ivy (in profile, at least).
It was the fall of 1954 when a simple errand put him on a collision course with Ivy style history. “J. Press, or J. Squeeze as we called it, was the New Haven substitute for Brooks Brothers,” says Brown. “Best I can remember was that I had walked in to check on tails they were making for me.” When Brown entered the shop he was initially unaware that LIFE was shooting the New Haven portion of the article. “Somebody asked if I would change and then come back for some pictures. My residential College, Davenport, was next to J. Press, so it was easy.”
The photographer was Nina Leen, a Russian-born, self-taught vagabond who emigrated from Germany in 1939. She became one of LIFE’s first female photographers with more than 50 covers to her credit. Her photograph shows Brown being fitted for a sportcoat by a veteran J. Press salesman Herman Racow. This was a little bit of artistic license, Brown explains: “My salesman was George Feen, a short fellow, and you stuck with one salesman. George was the go-t0 guy for fixing parking tickets.”
Many Ivy devotees have mooned over the jacket he is wearing in the photo. “I don’t think I bought that jacket,” Brown recalls. “As I remember, they wanted to feature it and it fit.”
The tailcoat he’d commissioned was another matter. It saw plenty of action during the debutante season. “There were a lot of great coming-out parties with lots of alcohol, legal then,” he recalls. “I remember rolling down the hill of John Nicholas Brown’s daughter’s coming-out in those tails, to the breakfast tent at 2 AM. That house is now Harbour Court, the New York Yacht club station in Newport.”
Being featured in LIFE was a footnote in what has been a full life. After college, Brown served two years as an officer in the navy before heading to Wall Street. “The floor was very white shoe/old school tie while I was there. There were some incredibly unsharp members, sons of partners and guys who had the money to buy a seat. Going rate was $165K at the time. I have to admit, many of the clerks I worked with were sharper than I. Eventually firms got smart and bought seats for many clerks. They made great brokers.” Brown spent 11 years as a member of the New York Stock Exchange and a partner at Goodbody and Co. “It was a good life and I was lucky for the opportunity,” he says. “I hung in there until things got untenable.”
As far as hobbies go, Brown’s first love was actually being on the other side of the camera. “My grandfather introduced me to photography when I was 12. His dark room, where I learned, was featured in the 1928 Leica manual. While in the navy I won a couple of international awards for my photos.” Brown eventually became a commercial photographer. “I shot everything from fashion to candy,” he says. “I had a natural bent for marine photography after a lifelong love affair with boats.” That’s a bit of an understatement, considering Brown has captained or crewed in most of the major Eastern Seaboard races over the years. “What I loved about commercial photography was the challenge of lighting and solving problems,” he continues, “even to the extent of making some of my own gear. There was no Photoshop back then. It was film and you had to get it right the first time.”
Now happily retired in Florida, Brown still enjoys photography and sailing. — CHRISTOPHER SHARP