Golden Years: Went To Yale With Boola Boola

The role of Yale in American popular culture and the sartorial legacy of New Haven together comprise the metaphor of my life.

Ivy Style jogged my memory a few weeks ago when we posted an ad for Macy’s showroom on York Street from a 1941 edition of the Yale Daily News. “Macy’s Knows Its Yale,” the advertisement bragged, unaware that Yale was about to trade in its civilian tweeds for military khakis. Macy’s closed promptly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. After the war, Saks Fifth Avenue opened a sleekly timbered University Shop on the same premises, just two doors from the fabled tables down at Mory’s.

What prompted each of the country’s largest and swankiest department stores to join a cavalcade of stars, including a blackfaced vocalist and America’s top crooner, eager to identify with Yale?

“America’s Crooner” Rudy Vallee, Class of 1926, worked his way through school playing the saxophone and singing at country clubs and proms with the Yale Collegians. Fellow band member and Yale Law School plugger Irving Press, my uncle, shared the stand with him as violinist. Vallee flaunted Yale in vaudeville appearances and Hollywood movies sporting a raccoon coat and warbling “The Whiffenpoof Song” into a megaphone.

Mammy singer Al Jolson appeared in “The Singing Fool,” a 1937 Busby Berkeley spectacle, wearing white tie and tails on a raised platform canting to thousands of tap-dancing chorus boys, “I was born the singing foola… went to Yale with Boola Boola.”

America’s romance with Yale first blossomed in 1901 when senior Alan Hirsch copyrighted his rousing football song, “Boola Boola,” which sold more sheet music the following year than any other song. It became so popular that John Philips Sousa performed it alongside “The Stars And Stripes Forever.” The country’s favorite ragtime duo, Irene and Vernon Castle, performed “Boola Boola” as a Turkey Trot.

“Boola Boola” hit the charts the same time Burt Standish’s frolicsome “Frank Merriwell at Yale” was a raging best-seller dime novel in corner drug stores. It evolved into comic books, ending in the 1940s as a popular NBC  radio show. For the hicks in the sticks, Frank Merriwell was the original All-American Boy from Yale:

Then another roar, louder, wilder, louder, full of unbounded joy. The Yale cheer! The band drowned out by all the uproar. The sight of sturdy lads in blue, delicious with delight, hugging a dust-covered youth, lifting him to their shoulders and bearing him away in triumph. Merriwell had won his own game, and his record was made. It was a glorious finish. Old Yale can’t get along without him.

Merriwelly

Soon Scribner’s on Fifth Avenue upended the dime heroics of Merriwell and stocked the upscale shelves with Owen Johnson’s “Dink Stover at Yale”, a 1912 blockbuster. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously acknowledged it as the textbook of his generation. The book’s dramatic crisis is resolved when Dink was tapped for Skull and Bones:

I am not satisfied with Yale as a magnificent factory on democratic business lines, I dream of something else, something visionary, a great institution not of boys, clean, lovable and honest, but of men of brains, of courage, of leadership, a great center of thought to stir the country.

stover

I grew up 15 minutes from York Street via the Goffe Street bus. Grandpa Press used to take me to Liggett’s for a milkshake after my bar mitzvah lessons nearby. Together with all my schoolmates we attended every Eli sporting event and some of us sold football programs at the Yale Bowl.

Yaleland was my wonderful land of Oz. I met Levi Jackson, the first black Ivy League football captain, when my father took us to Louie’s Lunch, a trolley car joint in downtown New Haven that introduced hamburgers to America. I was so excited I threw up in the men’s room. Jackson wore his his J. Press tweeds well. Jordan Olivar, the varsity coach, also quietly kept an insurance business between seasons. He pocketed the premiums for the policies he sold my father and loyally flaunted a three-button wardrobe.

Dad once took me with Secretary of State Dean Acheson to the railroad station from the store. I sat with Yalies at the Shubert Theatre, joining them hysterically as they laughed and booed alcoholic Yale movie star Sonny Tufts off the stage when he forgot his lines and screwed up dance routines for “Ankles Aweigh,” a dreadful burlesque musical.

In 1954 Henry Luce, class of 1920, OKd the article that appeared in his LIFE Magazine, “The Ivy Look Heads Across US.” which also pointed out that New Haven was the look’s home. “Sometimes regarded more of a club than a clothes shop,” the article goes, “J. Press is delighted that its look is now capturing the country.” The article also credited Brooks Brothers with “perpetuating the Madison Avenue look.”

Brooks Brothers, historic leader of the Ivy pack, never deigned to open a store in New Haven. Brooks offered biweekly retail travel exhibits in the Hotel Taft for half a century. The local merchants — J. Press, Rosenberg, Fenn-Feinstein, White’s, Langrock — faithfully attended to the requirements of a nascent aristocracy that paid for its clothing orders with proceeds from family trust funds.

But a fever broke out in the ’60s that changed Yale forever. Co-education, diversity, Vietnam and civil disorder swept the golden years into the dustbin of history. Throughout the turbulent era Yale remained a citadel of higher education. A. Whitney Griswold, president of the university during the ’50s, was no intellectual slouch. His regime emphasized “learning.” Nevertheless, many of his professors were old-school snobs disenchanted by veterans admitted with the help of financial aid from the GI Bill. A faculty committee demanded that coats and ties be worn in the dining halls, classes, and mandatory chapel services. Griswold was a classics scholar who was beloved on campus as a regular guy. He was candidly quoted encouraging members of his faculty “to emulate Socrates in every classroom and forget all that Dink Stover crap and Bonesy bullshit.”

Today “Where’er upon life’s seas we sail, for God, for Country and for Yale,” is caroled with equal vigor in Battell Chapel as in days of old, although with a changing cast. The colors, sexes and wardrobes sing to the beat of a different drummer. Dining at Mory’s last December, our table was serenaded by “The New Blue,” a women’s singing group. Jeans were mixed with flannels and cords around the room. Mory’s, once a private club, is now a public restaurant that’s opened its doors to hoi polloi.

Boarding school WASPS in crew cuts and Donegal Mist tweed don’t belt acapella to the tables down at Mory’s anymore. Hank Luce’s wartime newsreel banner strikes the right note regarding postmodern Yale: “Time Marches On.” — RICHARD PRESS

14 Comments on "Golden Years: Went To Yale With Boola Boola"

  1. Jeff Jarmuth | April 25, 2013 at 9:12 am |

    What a fantastic essay! Thanks, Mr. Press.

  2. What a charming evocation, Mr. Press. I’m one of the many Elis who was clothed by your family’s store. I wish that at that time I had had a proper appreciation of such things, but I’m afraid the finer points of clothing didn’t interest me in my youth. At least I had a father who knew what I should wear and guided me well. I’m afraid my thoughts were on the hamburger I’d have at Louis Lunch afterwards! I eagerly anticipate your forthcoming book. Keep well and continue to reward us with your thoughts and reminiscences.

  3. One of your best posts, Mr. Press.

  4. Bravo!!! Thank you!

  5. Strangely apropos, Bill Clinton, whom went to Yale, tweeted a picture of one George H. W. Bush’s, whom also went to yale, socks on the occasion of The Bush Center’s opening.
    Here’s a link to the picture:
    http://i.imgur.com/VOJb30x.jpg?1

  6. With each reading of Mr. Press’ (superb) piece, more-yes-more is revealed.

    The “fever” that “broke out” at Yale–it “broke out” elsewhere as well.

    Here’s what I find endlessly curious: a few–okay, not many, but a substantial few–stuck with the Look long after the assassinations, Kent State, and Watergate. I know a few among said few. Related to a few of them.

    Why?

    Here’s where additonal light can be shed, Mr. Press. When Ivy went from being collegiate, youthful, and sporty to stodgy and archaic, who remained an Ivy (Heyday) loyalist. It’s been rediscovered and resurrected by hipsters and tradition-coveting Southerners and OPH-reading everybody’s, but the really interesting question is why the gent wearing narrow lapeled sack suits, OCBDs, repp ties, penny loafers, and tassel mocs continued to demand it well into the 70s and 80s and…okay, granted, by the 90s, they had likely stopped buying clothes.

    The young fellow sporting Ivy in 1965 did so because everybody else did. No big deal. But the members of the class of ’65 who winced at the widening of lapels and scoffed at the addition of front darts while humming the fight song: they stood athwart history, yelling Stop.

    On theory is that, for them, Ivy Heyday togs were more than just fit and fabric. Symbols? Metaphors? Whatever, totems of a world that hadn’t yet gone to hell.

  7. Even though my alma mater is Crimson, I greatly enjoyed this article.

  8. Great post, Mr. Press, a pleasure to read. When I attended Yale in the 1970s there were (still) a few of us (left) who dressed in the old Ivy style, and even then were considered throwbacks. I remember the old Saks (now the site of a pizza parlor), which closed (I think) my sophomore year, as jeans had by then won the battle for Yale’s backsides. But two weekends ago I returned to Mory’s for the fist time since it reopened under its new business model, struck me as more of a TGIF experience than not. Oh well, at east it is still alive, albeit a shadow of its former self. The old model was moribund, broke, and dead. I feel like a dinasaur these days. Reggie Yale 1979

  9. very enjoyable Mr Press.

  10. Don "Kinder" Gordon '56 | April 27, 2013 at 10:30 am |

    Well done, Mr. Press!

    I couldn’t afford to buy any clothes on York Street, but I did find pleasure in getting my Whiff tie there…and the Whiff experience remains a treasure, no question about it. I’m reminded here that the “Whiffs” might never have become so famous if the group had ever copyrighted the song early on. So Rudy Vallee and others have had a field day with it ever since, much to our benefit. For me, the singing tradition at Yale is its greatest bennie, other than the education itself that I received.

    The ’50s may have been a sweet blip on history’s screen, but I’ll always be grateful that I fell in to that moment in time at such a rare place.

    Don Gordon

  11. Boston Bean | April 27, 2013 at 12:15 pm |

    Scott Fitzgerald got it right:

    “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

  12. Roy Kepferle | April 30, 2013 at 7:49 am |

    Military khakis were the norm when the classrooms depleted by the spirit of volunteerism for the war effort were subsidized by the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) and its Reserve component (ASTRP) for language studies. Although our stay was temporary, we too relished the atmosphere induced by the Whiffenpoofs and the motto, “For God, for Country, and for Yale.”

  13. charles barry | June 7, 2013 at 2:57 am |

    Hi Dick-

    Enjoyed your piece on the site. Hope you are well. Enjoyed seeing you in Brentwood CA a few yrs. back at Whole Foods when vistiing your family out here. I still have my J PRESS shirts from 44th Street hanging in my closet here….ones I bought from you and Ken circa 1967

    Best wishes

    Charles Barry

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

*