Yesterday fashion luminary Oscar de la Renta died at age 82 at his home in Kent, Connecticut. The Ivy Style team had been preparing a series of posts on the concept of elegance, and when news broke of de la Renta’s death, Richard Press quickly revised his latest column, once again showing that King Richard The Forty-Fourth has a connection to damn near every person of note from the past 60 years. And so, on an otherwise dolorous day in the world of glamor and style, Ivy Style herein commences Elegance Week.
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Yesterday saw the passing of of Oscar de La Renta, who happens to be connected to the subject of the column I was working on. His widow Annette is daughter of the late Charles Engelhard, Jr., who established the gold standard of elegance at J. Press.
Engelhard’s wardrobe alliance with J. Press began in the mid-’30s at St. Paul’s School, where he patronized the regular J. Press travel exhibits, continued at the Princeton shop on Nassau Street, nearly coming to a woeful end in 1957 at the J. Press second-floor store on the corner of Madison Avenue and 44th Street. Charles Engelhard, Jr. graduated from Princeton in 1939, joined the Army Air Corps in 1941, earning the rank of captain as bomber pilot during World War II. Upon the death of his father in 1950, he inherited the family business and substantially expanded operations in South Africa, South America and Europe, becoming one of the world’s leading refiners of precious metals.
In a 1969 feature, Sports Illustrated called him The Platinum King, mogul of a vast economic empire, who pleasured himself with Cokes, Hershey’s Kisses, and the operation of a multimillion-dollar stable that competes on three continents. Here’s a quote:
That morning in the Aiken, South Carolina stable Engelhard was sockless, his fleece dipped in fleece-lined hide boots. He wore two sweaters, a bulky scarlet and a blue which rolled and bunched over mustard slacks— disordered clothing that would hardly fit the image of an international tycoon.
Whenever Mr. Engelhard got off the elevator on 44th Street, Walter Napoleon made certain there were plenty of iced Coca-Colas and a bowl of Hershey Kisses next to the swatches.
One day, however, he had an experience much less sweet. Mr. Engelhard (as he was always called) was in the midst of his annual winter visit when a worker crashed through a fake ceiling with the air conditioning unit he was installing, both landing between Engelhard and Walter Napoleon, star salesman and manager of the New York store. Bolts of woolens together with piles of swatch books were strewn around the wreckage between the two, yet miraculously nobody was hurt. Walter kept his pad and pencil out and, not missing a beat, Charlie continued to mark and select swatches.
The 1964 James Bond movie “Goldfinger,” adapted from Ian Fleming’s spy thriller of the same name, brought Engelhard unwanted celebrity. A man for all seasons, Fleming was author, journalist and a former British investigator in World War II. He was also a longtime Engelhard pal familiar with Engelhard’s intricate mineral and financial machinations, and modeled arch-fiend Auric Goldfinger on Mr. Engelhard.
Naming the Engelhard Library at the JFK School of Public Affairs failed to amuse the Harvard Crimson, which alleged that Engelhard’s Goldfinger-like machinations had beat restrictions on the export of newly mined gold by manufacturing solid gold art items, such as pulpit tops, dishe and bracelets. Once legally exported, they could be melted down into bullion again. London tabloids one-upped The Crimson, disclosing that Engelhard partied in an orange Goldfinger sweatshirt and called the stewardess of his private plane Pussy Galore.
Engelhard’s forays at J. Press occurred every January, with final try-ons slated for the middle of March. During that time, legions of tailors in the shops of New York and New Haven devoted their energies to finishing the extensive order, with extra cloth available to meet the demanding requirements of his President Taft proportions.
Engelhard’s annual order — in equal quantity of overcoats, topcoats, suits, sportcoats, blazers and trousers with all the trappings of furnishings and haberdashery — was shipped to wherever he happened to be, be it Cragwood Stables, his estate in Far Hills, New Jersey, The Waldorf Towers in New York, apartments in London and Rome, the Dolder Grand Hotel in Zurich, the mansion in Johannesburg, lodge in the lion country of the Eastern Transvaal, salmon camp in Gaspé, Quebec, and his beach house in Boca Grande, Florida. Additional sport and warm weather gear went to the horse farms, fishing camps, hunting lodges, and whatever other venue required special treatment.
Every detail was carefully supervised by his wife Jane, a brilliant “10 Best Dressed Woman” whom the New York society pages affectionately called, “Our Mother Superior.” Her daughter Annette de la Renta is the only child of German banker Fritz Mannheimer who died before her birth. In 1947, her mother moved to the United States and remarried. She was adopted by her stepfather, Charlie Engelhard, becoming Annette Engelhard. On December 26, 1989, in La Romana, Dominican Republic, she became the second wife of fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, whose obituary appeared on the news as I was preparing this column. It was truly a case of “stop the Press-es.”
Mrs. Engelhard once brought a men’s size 52 mink coat, directing me to attach it to the lining of a Burberry trench coat, a birthday gift for her husband. She ordered several custom suits every Christmas for Derek, her husband’s valet. I received an emergency call from her in 1967, informing me that she and her husband were leaving on Air Force One, with President Johnson, to attend the state funeral for Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt, tragically drowned that morning. Her husband had gained weight since he last wore funeral garments, and Derek would deliver them to the store pronto. She was confident Felix Samelson, our fitter, would understand what alterations would be required sight-unseen, and Derek would leave the following morning on the Engelhard private plane to deliver on time for the event.
When her husband died March 17, 1971 at their house in Boca Grande, Mrs. Engelhard called to tell me she would be honored, if Felix, my Uncle Irving, and I would be her guests at the funeral. Irving was traveling in Europe, but we were seated in the pews of St. Mary’s Abbey Church in Morris Township, New Jersey, alongside former President Lyndon Johnson, former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Senator Ted Kennedy, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield.
Goldfinger was the man with the Midas Touch, but Charlie Engelhard brought home the bacon with a touch of Ivy class. — RICHARD PRESS