Suiting up Eli frosh in the heyday was do or die for New Haven clothiers.
Salesmen at J. Press were instructed by my dad Paul Press (front right) to memorize the Yale Freshman Blue Book. He quizzed them daily about dorm addresses, hometowns and secondary schools the book provided. Freshmen lived in seven ancient dormitories on the Old Campus. The favored boarding school choice was Durfee Hall, with communal suites designed to house six to nine students. It was mainly populated by St. Grottlesex Gatsbys.
Little Georgie Feen (back left), popularly known to the cognoscenti as The Mayor of York Street, knocked on every door in Durfee Hall, always offering his calling card, sample swatches, booze, and promises of favors. Georgie was not an elitist, hitting on anyone who walked into J. Press whether they looked “white shoe” or were draped in the padded shoulders of Podunk High.
“Goodbye To New Orleans,” a memoir by Peter Wolf, recalls coming to Yale from Exeter. Wolf’s roommate turned out to be Calvin (Bud) Trillin, then a virgin outlander from Kansas City, later in life a celebrated American journalist, food writer, poet, fellow memoirist and novelist. Trillin lamented to Wolf, “We couldn’t find the Ivy-look, Eastern-type clothes Kansas City people wear here, so my folks decided I’d buy some new stuff when I got to Yale. Where do you suggest I go?”
Five minutes later we were inside J.Press, a couple of blocks away on York Street. Under the hovering, appraising eye of George Feen, one of the great haberdashery salesmen of all time, Bud replaced key parts of his wardrobe.
My father’s elder brother, Irving Eli Press (front left), Eli Class of 1926, ran the family business from New York. A mainstay at the Yale Club next door to the company offices on 44th Street, the blood that surged through his arteries was Yale Blue. The Press Brothers utilized their inside track to supply the staff the who’s who and what’s what of Boola Boola.
Back in New Haven, Herman Racow (back right) was veteran elder statesman at 262 York Street. He was constantly combing is immense stack of index cards to identify any incoming offspring of his alumni “see yous.”
Gabe Giaquinto (back row, second from right), with his roots in the Italian-American Wooster Street neighborhood bounded by Sally’s and Frank Pepe’s pizza parlors, cashed in the checks of ethnic possibilities only hinted at in the Freshman Blue Book.
Sam Kroop (back row, second from left) achieved tournament celebrity at the Yale Golf Course ever since caddying as a teenager at Hillhouse High. He picked up country club gossip about incoming Bulldog duffers. He was also the West Coast J. Press road man, and my father made certain he gathered the names of all the sons of his customers heading East to college.
Competitors ran a tight race. Jack Feinstein and his brother Bill Fenn were relentless at Fenn-Feinstein. David Langrock and son-in-law Alan Frank anchored Langrock’s prime location and keystone corner at York and Broadway. Arthur M. Rosenberg sustained its heritage as America’s top-volume bespoke tailor of the Roaring Twenties. Lester Eisenberg directed Gentree as if it were a stage prop in the London Burlington Arcade. Saks Fifth Avenue University Shop, two doors from Mory’s, utilized the financial advantages provided by its department-store parent. Izzy White and son Alan White held the fort at White’s two shops, one on York Street and the other with a vibrant ladies’ department on Chapel Street. The Yale Coop promoted off-price student discounts for faux-Ivy, national-brand merchandise. Brooks Brothers and Chipp had regular exhibits in the Hotel Taft, but their monthly showings were unable to match the depth of inventory and timely alterations available from the local campus shops.
New Haven was Boomtown Ivy from the end of World War II until the conflagrations that erupted in the late 1960s. During the heyday hundreds of tailors, merchant tailors, salesmen, shippers and shleppers ruled the roost. Thousands more Yalies roamed the Elm City byways garbed naturally in three-button suits, Shetland sportcoats, plain-front grey flannel trousers, OCBDs with three-inch ties, Shaggy Dog sweaters, and dirty white bucks — the ephemera of a Golden Age.
The song is ended but the melody lingers on. — RICHARD PRESS
It seems like only yesterday we hoisted our leather botas at the 1959 running of the bulls in Pamplona. It still goes on every July 6th, maiming an occasional drunk, catching a celebrity moment, and every couple of years there’s a fatality.
My best friend and Loomis prep-school roommate Gene Mercy and I celebrated our Lehigh and Dartmouth graduations on the cheap for a razzmatazz heyday on the continent when Europe cost barely five dollars a day. After hitting the roulette tables in the vintage casino of a faded Biarritz resort, we headed across the border to find out if the sun still rose in Spain the way it did for Ernest Hemingway in the Roaring Twenties. Leaving our battered Simca rental car in a designated lot outside town, for a couple of pesetas per night we garnered a feral dormitory room with a puke-and-dystentary, stand-up water closet down the hall.
Adios to seersucker. We garbed at the local mercado with a white cotton pullover collared shirt and bolero pants of the same material tied at the waist by a bright red cravat we turned into a belt secured under three inch wide belt loops at the sides and back. A rancid kitchen towel plus ashtray remains lent the formerly snow white outfit an artfully peasant chic. A signature pañuelo (neck scarf) knotted as an ascot across our open shirt collar and a fire engine red Basque beret completed the masquerade. We were fit as a fiddle and ready for action.
The festival started the day before we arrived. It was 1924 again. The town belonged to Hemingway. Here’s his take via his fictional lead Jake Barnes:
The fiesta was really started. It kept up day and night for seven days. The dancing kept up, the noise went on. The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences. It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta. All during the fiesta had the feeling even when it was quiet, that you had to shout any remark to make it heard. It was the same feeling about any action. It was a fiesta and it went on for seven days.
We thought the place would be overnun by Babbitt American tourists and fellow collegians, but we were the only virgins in the whorehouse. Hemingway was back in his old Room 217 at the Hotel La Perla Hotel in the northeast corner of the Plaza del Castillo. He came with a large party from Madrid: the bullfighter Antonio Ordonez, Dr. Vernon Lord, TV writer Aaròn Hotchner, Irish journalist Valerie Danby-Smith, and the photographer Julio Obina for Life Magazine. In 1959 Hemingway was corpulent, bearded, and drank at the teeming boisterous Bar Txoko on the plaza across from his hotel.
All the Hemingway action was at the Txoko. Hemingway with wife Mary always by his side was seated at their roisterous table on the plaza. Among the group was humorist Art Buchwald, who wrote for The Washington Post. Debonair Melvin Douglas, a suave actor and leading man on stage and screen, was next to Buchwald. I had an inside track to both — the chutzpah of J. Press entitlement. Buchwald was an occasional customer and had chatted with my uncle, Irving Press, at the New York store. Melvin Douglas was already cast for the leading role in Gore Vidal’s play “The Best Man,” slated for a Broadway opening months ahead, with J. Press tailoring his stage wardrobe.
They bought our act and took us to the throne. Hemingway broke up at our boozed up arrogance. He told us to call him “Papa,” gregariously toasting “the table’s new college mascots.” Three sheets to the wind, biding our time, always looking for ass before serving Uncle Sam. Papa Hemingway filled the bowl with plenty more toasts:
This wine is too good for toast-drinking, my dear. You don’t want to mix emotions up with a wine like that. You lose the taste.
Yesterday the New York Times reported that a new edition of “The Sun Also Rises” will appear for the first time containing Hemingway’s own account of the festival. A discarded first chapter, along with other deletions, earlier drafts, and alternate titles, is included in a new edition which Scribner will release later this month.
Six degrees of separation once again. Gertrude Stein told Hemingway he was part of a lost generation. How about all of us kids who wore gray flannel suits? — RICHARD PRESS
We continue our exploration of the double-breasted jacket’s place in the Ivy genre with these recollections from King Richard XLIV.
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The best-selling blazer in J. Press history was gathered by its roots from Aunt Florence.
Irving Press’s spouse was a lady who lunched at the fringes of La Cote Basque and other spots alongside Babe Paley, the Duchess d’Uzes, and other paradigms of ’60s New York Society. The reefer twill luncheon suit she wore on several occasions prompted a suggestion of versatiltiy she imparted to her husband: her suit might just be just the right material to make into a men’s blazer. Irving retrieved a swatch of the cloth from the dressmaker for Seymour Landsman, a principal at Linett, prime clothing provider to both Chipp and J. Press. “Get a hold of this material,” he commanded Landsman, “make it into a blazer, and confine it to J. Press.”
Adhering to the times, J. Press got high in the ’60s on Reefer Twill (the catalog image above is from 1969). The maritime history of the fabric was peacoat British, but the version J. Press devised featured distinctly rough-hewn, steep-ribbed twill, a startling departure from the soft hand of the flannel blazer classic. My personal favorite was a double-breasted forest green that flaunted two rows of Dartmouth buttons, but the preference of most Squeeze customers was the traditional single-breasted in navy.
Double-breasted suits and blazers at J. Press were tailored in the natural-shoulder style of our three-button model that departed from the single breasted version only via deep side vents. Reefer twill blazers were lined throughout in strident regimental striped Bemberg. Double-breasted suits and blazers never gained more than 10% advocacy at J. Press, but allowed us a response to detractors who called us stodgy and unbending.
In 1962, J. Press even attempted a foray into womenswear in our newly enlarged downstairs quarters on Forty-Fourth Street. The effort achieved scant success and quietly disappeared the following year.
Six degrees of separation, the merchandising and design savvy of a woman, the boss’s wife, inspired the greatest J. Press hit of the decade. — RICHARD PRESS
The walls are slated to come tumbling down on the J. Press building in New Haven at 262 York Street. The structurally unsound building is scheduled to be razed next month.
The J. Press story began the turn of the century, serendipitously around the corner from the current J. Press quarters, on College Street. JC Goldbaum was a bespoke tailor on Chapel Street who had sold to Yale students since the Civil War. Grandfather Jacobi Press learned both tailoring and the English language as an intern in Goldbaum’s second-floor quarters. Two years after arriving in New Haven an immigrant from the Pale of Russia, he knocked on doors showing swatches to students in the Yale dorms at the same time while he was running Goldbaum’s tailor shop.
My grandfather was a dapper man, carefully decked out in three-piece English woolens, garnering his wardrobe as if to-the-manner born of Professor William Lyon Phelps, Coach Walter Camp, and other notables on the Yale campus. He adopted the gift of gab and a quick sense of humor, and soon was regularly invited to serve the tweed-clad elites on bended knee. He also drummed up most of Goldbaum’s business. The older gentleman obliged Grandpa’s acumen, selling him what had become Goldbaum & Press in 1902, which then became J. Press
In the half decade since its founding, the enterprise bearing his name expanded geometrically in capital and prestige. The narrow confines of the old shop were bursting at the seams with multitudes of garments stuffed from every corner. Seizing the moment, in 1907 Grandpa Press bought the fashionable French Second Empire-styled building directly across from Pierson College at 262 York Street. Originally built circa 1860, the gregarious urban townhouse was the home of Cornelius Pierpont, a prominent merchant grocer, manufacturer and street railway man. Mr. Pierpont’s trophy occupied 30,000 square feet on three floors over a warehouse-sized basement, and featured multiple front and back entrances that over the course of its history were able to accommodate Barrie Ltd. Shoe Store, Klingerman’s Luncheonette, Stonehill Rare Books, Valentine’s Barber Shop, and, during the administration of President George W. Bush, half the second floor to accommodate the Secret Service guarding the President’s daughter during her undergraduate years at Yale.
When I entered the family business in 1959, the building employed seven clothing sales associates, two fitters, a patternmaker, cloth cutter, cloth marker, merchandise manager, office staff of 12, three shipping clerks, truck driver, house cleaning attendant, window-dresser, and 14 tailors on the third floor above the executive office of my father, Paul, who was chief financial officer. Twenty-five tailors occupied a separate custom shop on Broadway.
The New Haven Preservation Trust is actively lobbying J. Press owners to respect historical precedents in their plans to rejuvenate the property. With York Street genes coursing through my veins, but no longer part of J. Press, I may only bray to the moon the World War I requiem of 1st Viscount Gray of Fallodon: “The lights are going out all over York Street and we shall never see them lit again in our time.” — RICHARD PRESS
Top photo by Mark Alden Branch for the Yale Alumni Magazine.
Last week I spoke at “the dear old Temple Bar we love so well.”
Mory’s, founded in 1863, moved from “the place where Louis dwelled” of “Whiffenpoof Song” fame to its currently shabby chic colonial quarters on York Street in 1912. Originally a private club, townies were never allowed on the premises unless they were employees. One of them, Carl, was a famously surly waiter for whom my dad provided gratis wardrobes to steer his Mory’s clientele to J. Press.
Here’s a fable from the heyday: Bill DeVane, venerable dean at Yale, was at a booth when Carl approached the table, threw a menu down and stood glaring. DeVane noticed Carl was scratching his behind. “Do you have hemorrhoids, Carl?” the dean asked. “If it ain’t on the menu,” Carl snapped, “we ain’t got it.”
Growing up in a college town is priceless, whether it’s Berkeley, Charlottesville, South Bend or Princeton. You can never say, “Goodbye Columbus.” (Continue)