Golden Years: J. Press’ Employee Of The Year — For 50 Years

Earlier this month was Holocaust Remembrance Day, which inspired Richard Press to pen this new column.

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Felix Samelson often remarked to me, “I survived the camps because I was lucky, and I was also lucky your grandfather was in New York, not in his New Haven store the day I came for a job asking to see the boss.”

Soon as he got off the elevator on the second-floor clothing emporium of the shop on Madison and 44th Street, my grandfather immediately spotted him, knowing he had before him a greenhorn off the boat. Felix didn’t speak a word of English. Right away began animated Yiddish dialogue. Felix rolled up his shirt sleeve showing Grandpa the B-1996 tattooed on his arm as my grandfather led him to the “marking table,” tossing a basted suit on the table telling him to take it apart and put it back together. Felix received the order as if it were one he regularly received from the SS at Auschwitz. He quickly ripped it apart pinning it back together as if a stopwatch was timing the procedure. 

Soon as it was finished my grandfather hugged him, knowing he and his family would have been in the death pits had he stayed in the shtetl. Jacobi Press hired him the minute he hugged him, sending him straight to union headquarters to pick up the green membership book ensconced for years in a draw with pins, chalk and measuring tapes under his fitter’s table in the back room at J.Press. He showed it to decades of J.Press customers. The first page in faded blue ink and union stamp certifies: Felix Samelson, Tailor, October 17, 1947.

I met Felix a couple of months after my Bar Mitzvah, Spring, 1951. He accompanied J.Press New York manager Walter Napoleon, paying respects to my stricken grandfather confined to wheelchair and/or bed for the six months he survived a debilitating stroke until his death on June 13, 1951. Felix sported wafts of robust dark hair, contrasting the grey pallor I later figured out was a souvenir of his wartime incarceration. He was a tightly packed 37 Regular. Walter Napoleon, his companion, was a roustabout celebrity in the Mad Men Era of 1950s Madison Avenue, a double of the popular national TV comedian Milton Berle. Walter had no boundaries with either women or whiskey, but he opened a door for me with Felix that lasted until the day he died. “Show the kid your tattoo and tell him how you got it,” he egged Felix, engaging at age 13 my unrelenting Holocaust obsession, paired with a half-century’s devotion to Felix.

Intergenerational multitudes of J.Press customers were Felix aficionados. Stage and screen actor Walter Matthau was part of the coterie of Broadway/Hollywood hangers-on at J.Press. Felix was fitting Matthau prior to the opening ot The Odd Couple. “Felix, I’m leaving tickets for you and your wife at the box office at the opening. Got a special reason.” At the event Matthau brought Felix to Art Carney who played opposite Matthau with the role of Felix Ungar, the Matthau character’s mismatched roommate.

“Art,” Matthau said, “I want you to meet the Real Felix.”

Peter Rossetti, rotund panda bear who maintained his own coterie of fans at the J.Press haberdashery department for 40 years, manned counters at the front of the store. A master of extracting personal disclosures from his customers, he approached me in the late 1970s urging me to meet his newly established confidante with the historic monicker Count, General, West German or UN Ambassador (I don’t recall which) Von Stauffenberg. He was either the son or nephew of Claus Von Stauffenberg, principal in the July 20,1944 failed plot to kill Hitler. A picture of elegance and dignity, I introduced him to Felix, explaining circumstances of Felix’s Holocaust survival. Von Stauffenberg asked, “Mr. Press, would you mind if Felix and I had a chat in your office?”

Their summit lasted nearly an hour. “A fine gentleman,” Felix remarked. “I told him German Social Democrat Kapo prisoners in the camps treated me better than than the Ukrainians, Volkdeutschers, or even the Jewish Police.” Von Stauffenberg sent Felix a long note lost to history appreciating their time together.

It is a delicate balance to call an employee a friend. The responsibilities of commerce can so easily destroy a personal relationship, except Felix ennobled my time in the family business and as much as I valued his talent with tape measure, pins and needles. I will forever remember and celebrate the pleasure of his company and his gift for life. He died December 17, 2007, five years after his retirement from J.Press. — RICHARD PRESS

20 Comments on "Golden Years: J. Press’ Employee Of The Year — For 50 Years"

  1. Fantastic tribute and remarkable personal essay. Once again thank you from the bottom of my heart. This place wouldn’t be the same without you.

  2. I remember him fitting his last customer, George Gould, when he wandered by the old shop post-retirement. Gould was trying on a jacket. “Break the tape!” he shouted. And he was always right.

  3. CanadianTrad | April 21, 2018 at 2:57 pm | Reply

    A beautiful column, Mr. Press. Thank you.

  4. Mark Williams | April 21, 2018 at 3:03 pm | Reply

    Mr Press, I love reading your contributions to these pages. It doesn’t need me to affirm once again what a natural born storyteller and fine writer you are.

    However, this one is really special and truly heartfelt.

    Best wishes to you.

  5. EvanEverhart | April 21, 2018 at 4:21 pm | Reply

    Your reminiscence really speaks to me, as it reflects so much of my own family story upon so many points. Thank you for sharing this Sir. It is very heart-warming, and heart-felt. The Lord bless you and keep you, Sir.

  6. Ezra Cornell | April 21, 2018 at 4:43 pm | Reply

    A wonderful tribute. And it should remind us, again (and again) that Jews are central to a style so many commenters on this site call WASP style, the acronym erasing men like Mr. Samelson and so many others. Thank you.

  7. Great tribute,Mr Press.
    Thanks,thanks,thanks for your memories.

  8. This is what a true “family business” is all about.

  9. Hunter Hartford | April 22, 2018 at 1:49 am | Reply

    Reading the comments so far, it pleases me that many readers of this blog share more than an interest in Ivy clothing, but a concern for their fellow human beings.

  10. The son (or nephew) of the man who tried to assassinate Hitler meets a survivor of the camps at J Press in New York. What a story! Richard Press, I know there are more, please keep them coming.

  11. Rene Lebenthal | April 22, 2018 at 11:16 am | Reply

    A wonderful, warm and human story that only Richard Press can tell.
    Please share more of your memories with us…..
    @CHristian: Wouldn’t it a great thing to bring all these stories together in a book?

  12. G. Bruce Boyer | April 22, 2018 at 12:39 pm | Reply

    I agree with Ms. Lebenthal, the trouble of course is in finding a publisher interested in authentic history and fine writing. The writing Mr. Press has done for this site is an important contribution to Modern American History, and putting these pieces together in book form would be a joy and of great value.

  13. Thank you, Mr. Press, for that most thoughtful, sensitive, and beautifully written tribute. And thank you, Mr. Chensvold, for this wonderful website. I am the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Tsarist Russia who worked in the garment industry. I’ve also had benefit of an Ivy education and career. Thank you for your generous spirit and for frequently recognizing this particular melding of Jewish and WASP cultures.

    Olav a Sholem – Rest In Peace – Mr. Samuelson.

  14. Judy Kratchman | April 22, 2018 at 5:56 pm | Reply

    What a wonderful tribute to my mother’s brother, my Uncle Felix. I got goosebumps reading it. My uncle was a true hero to his family and friends throughout the war and after. He is truly missed.
    Judy Kratchman

  15. Giacomo Bruno | April 22, 2018 at 11:48 pm | Reply

    Mr. Boyer,

    In the interest of accuracy, allow me to point out that it’s Mr. (or M.) Rene Lebenthal, not Ms.Renee Lebenthal.

  16. That’s one hefty iron!

  17. First, I’m going to get on the bandwagon here to say that, while we all enjoy Ivy Style, Richard’s stories legitimize our little round-table in a way almost nobody else could. He is – literally – The Man Who Was Actually There. Thank you, Richard.

    Second, I’ll mention the time I met a camp survivor in New York City in the late 90s, who kept his shirtsleeve rolled up and was not shy about his tattoo. To see that, first hand, was profound.

    Third, was Walter Matthau kidding, or was J Press’ Felix actually the model for the stage & screen character?

    Finally, re: Von Stauffenberg, I highly recommend a 2007 novel about his life and death called “The Song Before It Is Sung”.

  18. Charlottesville | April 23, 2018 at 10:07 am | Reply

    What a beautiful recollection. Than you, Mr. Press, for sharing this with us.

  19. This is splendid, all around. The skill and care with which the author writes, and, of course, the subject. Since trad wonks like yours truly want details aplenty about the nuts-and-bolts of the look, it’s a blessing indeed that such cravings are quelled by stories about the personalities–the real, living human beings–who breathed life into the operation. Thank you. (That said, any seemingly trivial specs vis a vis Gordon, Linett, and/or Hickey would be most welcome).

  20. On a lighter note, it looks like Walther Matthau, noted in the essay as being a J. Press customer, wore a J. Press sport jacket in “The Taking of Pelham One-Two-Three”:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pcyg0H7EU3c&index=4&list=PLZbXA4lyCtqp_dayBM3htOw8ETmxiTKNe

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