Editor’s Note: We are treated again to another amazing post from contributor Daniel D. Covell. You can buy his latest book here. That’s him on the home page 🙂
I’ve done two things in the last few weeks that I haven’t done in years: Read a work of fiction and watched a film at a cinema. The first thing was reading Tobias Wolff’s Old school, his 2003 novel examining a boy’s struggle to find his writing voice and his sense of self during his prep school years in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a period that many fans of this site would identify as the heyday of Ivy Style. While I do read a lot, I traffic mostly in non-fiction titles that focus on intercollegiate athletics along with histories of political and military figures. One of my favorite writers is Ian Frazier – no relation to George Frazier, as far as I know – a nonfiction master originally from Ohio who is especially adept at detailed studies of lonely and expansive stretches of land and space and the people who reside there. In his 2000 book, On the rez, Frazier, a Western Reserve Academy and Harvard alum, expands on his fascination with American Indians (as he calls them) and their culture, and recounts a moment where an American Indian friend in South Dakota greets him with the salutation: “How ya’ doin’, wannabe?” “I kind of resent the term ‘wannabe’,” writes Frazier, “what’s wrong with wanting to be something, anyway?” He then proceeds to list the elements of the American Indian life and culture of which he wants to be a part, and of those he does not, adding, “I think Indians dress better than anyone, but I don’t want to imitate more than a detail or two; I prefer my clothes humdrum and inconspicuous, and a cowboy hat just doesn’t work for me.” The term “wannabe” smacks of someone telling us we are trying to be something we’re not. Who’s to say what we are and what we aren’t? As we know, clothes are always part of the cultural equation, and are an indelible part of telling the world what it is we want to be.
I was drawn to the Wollf book by a reference to it in a work by a former contributor to this site, who cited a specific moment in the book that had Ivy Style import. Wolff’s unnamed protagonist is in his final year at an unnamed all-boys boarding school and is setting his sights on attending Columbia University after graduation because he “liked how the city seethed up against the school, mocking its theoretical seclusion with hustle and noise, the din of people going and getting and making. Things that mattered at Princeton or Yale couldn’t possibly withstand the battering of raw, unironic life. You didn’t go to eating clubs at Columbia.”
But in examining the book fully, the entire work is steeped in Ivy Style substance and nuance. Just a few paragraphs prior to the previous quote, despite his much-anticipated future in the hurly burly of Morningside Heights and beyond, that during his tenure at the unnamed prep school, the unnamed protagonist “made myself the picture of careless gentility, ironically cordial when not distracted, hair precisely unkempt, shoes down at the heel, clothes rumpled and frayed to perfection. This was the sort of figure I’d been drawn to from the beginning; it had somehow suggested sailing expertise, Christmas in St. Anton, inherited box seats, and an easy disregard for all that.” Earlier in the book, Wolff, who’s bio lists that he was born in Alabama and later lived in Washington State and had attended the Hill School in Pennsylvania, and, like his unnamed protagonist at the unnamed school, was (spoiler alert) bounced prior to graduation, clearly writes from experience when the unnamed protagonist explains that “class was a fact. Not just the clothes a boy wore, but how he wore them. How he spent his summers. The sports he knew how to play.”
Midway through the book, the unnamed protagonist at the unnamed prep school becomes obsessed with authoring an essay to be submitted for review to Ernest Hemingway, who was scheduled to visit the school. This visiting author program of which Hemingway’s visit was a part is a core component in driving the book’s plot, and two other literary titans of the age – Ayn Rand and Robert Frost – had also visited the school that year. Frost was a compelling selection by Wolff, as one could argue that with his college matriculations (Dartmouth and Harvard, though a graduate of neither), his work’s deeply intrenched New England-y themes and imagery, teaching posts at Amherst (where the library is named for him) and as a regular lecturer at Dartmouth, and connections to Camelot through reading at John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration, Frost is arguably the most Ivy Style of any writer of his or any other time. The man even had a mountain named after him in Vermont, for Christ’s sake. Not even John Cheever can claim that. The venerable Richard Press relayed this status in his first Threading the needle book, recounting when Press met Frost during Press’s undergrad days at Dartmouth in 1955. Frost had been a long-time patron of the dearly departed J. Press Cambridge store that was located the ground floor of the former D.U. Club near the corner of Mt. Auburn and Dunster streets, and was wearing in Press’s description a “paradigmatic” J. Press black/brown Cheviot tweed suit, “guaranteed to itch, strewn devil-may-care battle worn over his bent frame, as if he were stopping by the woods on a snowy evening.” Richard also could have said something about Frost wearing it while mending a wall, but you get the idea. When Press told Frost that his grandfather’s name was sewed to the label inside the suit, Frost replied, “are you here to question me about my poetry or my clothing?” “Lighten up, Robert,” I thought when I read the recollection. “Why not discuss both?” George Frazier certainly would have, as well as the outcome of that year’s Harvard-Dartmouth football game (a 14-9 Dartmouth win in Hanover, by the way).
Wolff’s works should place him near Frost’s amongst the have-read-or-should-have read pantheon of prep-aligned, Ivy Style bookshelves these days. In her 1981 seminal send-up/homage, The Official Preppy Handbook, editor and prep ethnographer Lisa Birnbaum codified these key titles as “Prep I: The basic reading list,” which included, among others, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, A Separate Peace by John Knowles, The Headmaster by John McPhee, anything by Cheever, John Irving, William F. Buckley, Jr. and George Plimpton, and of course, as discussed in this space a few months back, Love Story by Erich Segal. By the way, Birnbach gives credence to the observations of the unnamed protagonist by ranking Columbia the top least-preppy school in the country, ahead of MIT, NYU, the University of Chicago and UC-Berkeley. “Even English majors are concerned about (their) future” at Columbia, impugns the book.
In Old School’s final chapter, Wolff’s narrative switches from the tale of the unnamed protagonist student to one of the teachers at the school, Arch Makepeace, who had for years allowed the campus community to believe he was friends with Hemingway. I won’t again spoil the plot, but suffice it to say that Makepeace leaves the school over the canard, but later returns just before the start of a new academic year. Upon his return Makepeace is fraught with anxiety at the moment he approaches the school’s entrance. “He did not drive away,” writes Wolff. “He adjusted the rearview mirror and coaxed his tie into a perfect knot.” When the teacher comes upon the faculty gathering over drinks before the opening meeting, he is greeted by the head of school. “Though the headmaster was the younger man, and much shorter, and though Arch was lame and had white hair coming out of his ears and white stubble all over his face, he felt no more than a boy again – but a very well-versed boy who couldn’t help thinking of the scene described by these old words, surely the most beautiful word ever written or said: His father, when he saw him coming, ran to meet him.” See, every big moment requires the proper dress.
Wolff leaves us with this line from of the Parable of the Lost Son from the Gospel of Luke as a worthy New Testament segue into the other thing I hadn’t done in over three years. My spouse and I took in the Ivy Style-influenced film, “The Holdovers,” starring Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Dominic Sessa, at a local cinema. This lengthy hiatus was not covid-induced, as I’ve attended a myriad of concerts, plays and sporting events since those dark days of 2020. I guess it’s been more about the fact that every wide-release theater these days seems to feature only films conceived from either the Marvel or DC Comics universes, and let’s just say I’m not the target market for that. I was drawn to see “The Holdovers” after I learned some of it had been shot at my alma mater, the Northfield Mount Hermon School (NMH), along with several other schools around Massachusetts. I came to NMH for a post-grad year in the Fall of 1981 after my college admissions picture didn’t turn out the way I had hoped. NMH was the product of the merging of two schools five miles apart – the Northfield School for Girls, and the all-boys Mount Hermon School, but in 2005 the school chose to spin off the Northfield campus and coalesce operations solely at Mount Hermon. The film’s NMH scenes focused on the Mount Hermon campus’s dining hall and chapel, the latter of which stood on a steep hill overlooking the football field. I played football at NMH, and to my mind there was no better, more picturesque a setting for the sport, where on those classically winsome autumn Saturday afternoons, one could watch the game from the stands that laid into the side of a hill to the west, and during lulls in the action, allow one’s gaze to run eastward across the field to the impossibly beautiful orange-red-and-yellow-dappled hills sheltering the valley carved out by the Connecticut River. Unfortunately, several years ago the school’s powers-that-were felt football was no longer sufficiently preppy, I guess, for they in their wisdom chose to drop the sport. In one scene from the film, Giamatti’s character, the curmudgeonly ancient civilizations teacher Paul Hunham, walks along a road above the football field, picks up a football that had been discarded by rambunctious students, and in as awkward a throw imaginable, flings it toward the field, the ball travelling all of eight feet. I gather only a few disgruntled NMH football alums would see the irony.
Unlike some of our rivals – Andover, Exeter, Choate, to name a few – Northfield and Mount Hermon were founded as an opportunity school by 19th century Christian evangelist Dwight Lyman Moody. Part of that legacy meant that each student had an assigned, redundantly labeled “work job,” a daily or weekly task of import to the functioning of the school, the performance of which was graded by a staff supervisor. My jobs were kitchen detail for two terms and dorm custodial for the third. That legacy also meant that while there were certainly preppy kids at NMH, it was by no means an overly preppy place (even though one could spot iconic prep author John Irving at wrestling matches cheering on his son, who was a couple years younger than I and lived in my dorm). Ivy Style was not the prevailing style there, and although there was no daily dress code for class, there were certain times and places where an Ivy Style-ish dress code (for males, anyway) was de riguere. In that sense, NMH was the perfect entrée for me into the world of Ivy Style: It was there if one looked for it, but it wasn’t forced upon one; one could make one’s way to it in one’s own time.
“The Holdovers” is set during the holiday season of 1970, smack dab in the same general era as “Love Story” and “The Paper Chase,” two other films recently discussed here. Much like in “The Paper Chase,” the key plot dynamic is between teacher (Giamatti – a Choate/Yale product whose dad Bart was Yale president and later commissioner of Major League Baseball) and student (Sassa). I won’t delve too deeply into the plot so no more spoiler alerts, but I’d say the Hollywood pitch meeting was probably something like: “Think ‘Dead Poets Society’ meets ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’” I will say that Giamatti’s character does the down-at-the heels prep school teacher look as well as John Housman did his well-to-do Harvard law prof’s. Giamatti sports a grey Harris Tweed grouse (or fishing) hat and a hooded black toggle coat in every outdoor scene, and a tan corduroy odd jacket, green v-neck sweater and dark bow tie in the classroom shots. The all-male student boys dons cords, khakis, blazers and poorly knotted repp ties in class and a sit-down meals, crew necks and OCBDs in their down time. However, the sartorial star of the film for me was an item worn by one of Giamatti’s faculty peers – what I swear was a J. Press Magee odd jacket, beige with blue stripe, 100 percent Donegal Mist fabric, woven in Ireland. I’ve had my eye on it at the store a few times but haven’t yet acquired it.
The common themes in our era’s boarding school films and literature are those of soul-damaging displacement and sadness, usually ending in some degree of calamity. This was not my experience at NMH. I had come to the school for the chance to better my college prospects, but what also happened was, thanks to my teachers, advisors, coaches and friends, that I started to grow up. There were, as Frost wrote, still miles to go on that score, but NMH was a place where I could ease into a bigger, wider life, as well as to ease into the future embrace of Ivy Style. My time at NMH coincided with an interregnum of sorts for Ivy Style – undercut as it was by the bell bottoms and love beads of the ‘60s and further buffeted by the polyester and leisure suits of the ‘70s. Though I had as a teen had made many late-night sojourns to the old three-story clapboard L.L. Bean flagship store in Freeport from my hometown in Maine (it was open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year back then – there were no locks on the doors, even) and bought there the wool Royal Stewart tartan tie I wore for my high school graduation picture (and yes, I still have it), it took a more than a bit of a boost a repackaging from Ralph Lauren and J. Crew to introduce me to the wonders of Ivy Style, and a few miles further down the road to discover more at J. Press, the Andover Shop and others.
I still recall the first time I walked into the dearly departed J. Press Cambridge store. I had passed it many times without really noticing it during the year I worked in the Harvard athletics department in the mid-1990s, but a few years later, once I realized that it was and what kinds of goods it sold, I ventured in. I wasn’t yet ready for an odd jacket or a full suit, so I eased into the current, and, admiring the table brimming with neckties of a multitude of patterns, colors and fabrics, picked out a black-and-crimson silk tie with emblematic thistles, as I thought it was something I could wear as I worked as a PA announcer at Harvard men’s basketball games. And, yes, I still have it.
Luke’s Parable of the Lost Son ends with these lines: “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” In our time, as we struggle against an ever-rising tide of flip-flops, athleisure wear and quarter-zip pullovers masquerading as professionally appropriate attire, we Ivy Style acolytes can sometime feel that our beliefs are dated, somehow a part of us but more connected to some other time and place. Thanks to the thoughtful works of Wolff, Frost, “The Holdovers” and, yes, Erich Segal, our beliefs in the power of Ivy Style can be renewed again. As we enter the holiday season, let us celebrate and be glad, and maybe Santa will leave that J. Press Magee sport coat under my tree. P.S.: Santa, if you’re reading this, size 44 Regular.
Daniel D. Covell