One night in 1966, Merv Griffin, speaking through the haze of his cigarette smoke, introduced a guest on his television show by declaring:
As is well-known, George Washington is the father of our country, but there is a man here who comes in a close second… The top selling book in the world is the Bible, the second best seller belongs to Dr Spock.
Cue the entrance of a tall, distinguished and kindly looking man in a three-piece sack suit, neat necktie, pinned club collar and white pocket square. Of course, Dr Spock needed no introduction, he was one of the most famous and trusted men in the United States and he had effectively raised many of those who were watching that TV show through the wide-ranging influence of the book that he first published in 1946, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. It served as the definitive child-rearing manual for millions of American parents in the “baby boom” that followed the end of the Second World War.
NHL star, Stan Mikita, pictured in 1964 trying to be a good dad. The buttondown shirt certainly set a good example for children (and adults).
Conventional paediatric wisdom before Spock advised distant and rigid parenting, emphasising unyielding feeding and sleeping schedules for infants and babies and discouraging open displays of affection:
Never hug or kiss (your children), never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning.
Spock was one of the first people to talk about listening to children, famously telling parents, “Trust yourself, you know more than you think you do.” Initially, he was one of the only paediatricians also trained in psychoanalysis and he subtly introduced Freud into American middle-class homes.
Spock was an unlikely revolutionary. For two-thirds of his life, he was a card-carrying member of the “Eastern Establishment”. His baby book, published when he was 43, was arguably his first radical act but, in his 60s, he went down a path that resulted in him becoming a political activist that the US Government strove to have indicted for conspiracy. Towards the end of his long life, Spock became an advocate for what we would now call “new age” ideas including veganism and meditation.
Spock (right) with an Andover friend, Al Lindley, at the Yale boathouse in 1925.
If the young Benjamin McLane Spock was a fictional character, his creator would be criticised for penning such a lazy Ivy League stereotype. He was born just down the road from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1903, the oldest of six children of a distant father, corporate lawyer Benjamin Ives Spock, and an intimidating though loving mother, Mildred. Like his father, young Spock attended the prestigious prep school, Phillips Andover Academy, and then Yale. At Yale, Spock initially studied literature and history, belonged to “Scroll and Key” (the secret society that included future CIA Directors and Secretaries of State) and took up rowing. “I had an awfully good time at college,” he recalled years later. Famously, Spock won an Olympic gold medal rowing in the Yale eight at the 1924 Paris Olympics. It was a life-enhancing win for the 21-year-old.
I enjoyed the fruits of my (Olympic) success. Yet I felt secret embarrassment at how grimly I’d worked for them – not for God, for country or for Yale, as the song goes, but for release from my self-image as a mother’s boy. The way it happened though, I was able to close the ledger of my undergraduate years quite cheerfully… and to turn my mind to medical school and the outside world.
Spock (marked “x”) in the Yale crew that won Olympic Gold in 1924.
In 1972, Spock talked to the New York Times about the forces of the Eastern Establishment shaped him:
I was born a Republican and, right up through Yale, I probably didn’t even know a Democrat… I didn’t become a rebel until I was in my 60s. But I’ve always been by temperament a do‐gooder. I’ve always had a strong New England conscience, which has often been unduly severe but which gave me a sense of duty…
I never succeeded in rebelling as an adolescent… But my behaviour was very conventional. My clothes were always exactly right. My friends were upper‐class WASPs. I was a snob, and I still have trouble overcoming that characteristic. Yet, I always clung to the Yankee belief in the value of the individual and I retained a streak of “cussed New England independence” in me.
Few Ivy Style readers would disagree with Spock’s declaration / admission / confession that his clothes “were always exactly right”. A line from his Wikipedia entry that has been lazily reproduced all over the Internet states: “For most of his life, Spock wore Brooks Brothers suits and shirts with detachable collars…” The part about Brooks Brothers suits is certainly correct and virtually any photograph of Spock in public will confirm this. There may also be written evidence of what a good customer of Brooks Spock was in his archives now held by Syracuse University. In the 485 boxes of papers, Box 164 includes those referring to “Brooks Brothers Clothing”. I am not sure how many were detachable, but Spock certainly had a preference for pinned rounded club collars. In his autobiography, he is pictured wearing one aged six and he kept to this trademark style throughout his life including in his final years. Richard Press has previously stated that Spock bought ties from his family’s firm and it would seem likely that he bought other Press items when he was resident in New Haven. In the 1967 picture below, perhaps Dr Spock and Dr King are both wearing their J. Press ties?
In 1989, nine years before his death, Spock published his autobiography, “Spock On Spock: A Memoir Of Growing Up With The Century”. Among more important things, it was peppered with references to his clothes and charts his early style influences:
When I was seven… I had my first dark-blue wool suit, which has been a trademark of mine ever since. It made me feel grown-up and rather grand…
A teacher at Spock’s grammar school made a lasting impression. He was always “immaculately groomed” and wore a blue suit with white chalk-stripes.
I thought, “That’s the way I want to look”. And here I am today at eighty-six, still wearing a blue suit with white chalk-stripes.
After the boy had grown “too tall and too square shouldered” to wear children’s ready made suits, Spock’s father took him to his tailor.
This was one of the few matters that my father, not my mother, took charge of.
Spock recalled how things were when he entered Yale in 1921:
At that time, most Yale students were more concerned with athletics, social life, and girlfriends than their courses. You took it for granted that you had to pass them, but only the grinds tried for high grades. Clothes were important too: you wore a suit or else slacks and a tweed jacket, a white shirt with a button-down collar, and a tie. Everyone had to wear a felt hat except seniors…
In 1925, after his first year of medical school, Spock got an unlikely summer job, labouring on a railroad gang for Canadian Pacific. While in Canada, he lost his felt hat and had to buy a replacement.
Not till I got to the East did I realise that… it was a Western type (hat) and much too wide in the brim. I was fascinated that in only three months my judgement in clothes had disappeared.
Spock addresses an anti-draft rally in Boston in 1968.
Spock first moved into the political limelight in 1962, warning of the possible hazards posed to children and nursing mothers by atmospheric nuclear testing. Before then, he was not actively political and his views were conventionally liberal. Initially he had adopted his father’s Republican views but in 1933 he became impressed with President Roosevelt’s “New Deal”. He supported Kennedy when he became President (1961 – 1963) but was soon angered by JFK’s resumption of nuclear testing in the atmosphere. He then supported the Johnson Presidency (1963 – 1969) until the escalation of US military involvement in Vietnam.
Spock became committed to political activism with all its concomitant controversy, opposing nuclear weapons, leading anti-Vietnam War campaigns and supporting civil rights. Time magazine mockingly called the anti-war baby doctor, “The Great Pacifier’’ (it’s a good joke but it only works in the US as in Britain a pacifier is called a “dummy”).
Spock became a regular if unlikely figure at demonstrations, Dwight Gardner noting that, “his genially noble bearing and his familiar blue Brooks Brothers suits bringing a measure of moral gravity to hundreds of protests”. He was a popular and in-demand public speaker for the anti-war movement.
My schedule for a number of years was every other month on the road. I spoke six days a week, sometimes seven… One of the things that preoccupied me on the road was how to keep my clothes looking neat. I always carried an extra suit and managed to jam in four or five shirts, eight or ten detachable collars, shorts, and maybe an extra pair of shoes all in a carry-on bag… Back in the motel I would try to take the worst wrinkles out of my suit by pressing a hot wet washcloth against the elbow and knee wrinkles…
Spock’s audiences of students and faculty always included an FBI agent, “conspicuous… in his camel hair coat and felt hat”. Later, when he was a Presidential candidate, he was given twenty-four Secret Service agents to protect him. He noted that they had “a preference for neat haircuts and clean tweed jackets and tan trousers…”
In 1968, Spock was sentenced to two years in prison for promoting military draft resistance (the decision was later overturned on a technicality). To some, the US government’s indictment of the baby doctor seemed like prosecuting Santa Claus. However, others now would not buy his book and for a time there was a fifty percent drop in sales. Longshoremen refused to load the yacht belonging to “a rich traitor” onto a ship. Vice-President Spiro Agnew declared the permissive society was the fault of the college students who were “raised on Spock” (after Agnew resigned from office in 1973 following allegations of criminal conspiracy, bribery, extortion and tax fraud, Spock was quoted as saying, “I was always glad to say that no one could accuse me of raising Spiro Agnew”).
“The People’s Party”, a loose coalition made up of anti-war hippies, labour unions and black civil rights activists, nominated Spock to run for President in 1972. It called for free medical care and university education, the legalisation of abortion and marijuana, a guaranteed minimum income for families, local political control where possible and the immediate withdrawal of all American troops from foreign countries.
Ultimately, Spock’s name went on the ballot in ten states and he received 80,000 votes. Some may have concluded that, while many Americans were willing to trust Dr Spock with their children, they were not willing to trust him with their country.
The New York Times followed Spock on his 1972 Presidential Campaign trail. The piece began with the journalist observing a strike by African-American garbage collectors in a small Southern town and asking the rhetorical question:
But who is that incongruous figure… a very tall, distinguished‐looking white man, wearing a fine blue suit with a vest, a tie, a pocket handkerchief and a gold watch chain? Who is this gentleman with thinning white hair and horn rimmed glasses, chanting, “Black and white together” with such obvious pleasure? Who is this patrician, suntanned and fit, who clearly doesn’t belong in the Louisiana bayous?
Speaking to the Times on working with the dissident groups that made up the People’s Party, Spock was frank:
Of course, I was put off by these young people at first… Being a very neat dresser myself, I resented and misunderstood their long hair and messy clothes and unwashed bodies. Temperamentally, I found myself antagonised by many aspects of the hippie way of life. But… if they could extend their friendship to me, I could at least make a conscious effort to overcome my prejudices toward them. I didn’t come by it naturally….
Spock was probably the only person over 30 that many of the young trusted, and certainly the only one in a Brooks Brothers suit. In his autobiography he wrote:
I wear a suit when I’m arrested (at demonstrations). I think it helps to remind people that this isn’t a rowdy act but a carefully considered demonstration that I deem worthy of great respect.
In later life, Spock was accused of the double crime of being the architect of the permissive society and then of trying, too late, to reverse himself. These were charges that he denied, saying that some hated him for his political activism, not for his child psychology, and others had simply misunderstood his basic philosophy.
I didn’t want to encourage permissiveness, but rather to relax rigidity… Right from the start, the book said give your children firm, clear leadership… Respect your children, but ask them for respect also. There was nothing in it about giving children anything they want.
Those who claimed that the “Baby Boomer” generation was “Spock-marked” perhaps did not consider that the degradation of succeeding generations is nothing new. The Latin phrase, “O tempora, o mores!” has an idiomatic translation which is “Shame on this age and on its lost principles!”. It was written by Cicero – who was born in 106 BC.
In later life, Spock was not only accused of abandoning his earlier ideas on raising children, there were also suggestions that, in his 70s, the personification of the eastern establishment had given up the style of dress that he had unconsciously absorbed from birth and that had been perpetuated by Andover and Yale. Wikipedia claims that Spock’s influential second wife (who he married in 1976 and who was 40 years his junior) “for the first time in his life… got him to try blue jeans”. His LA Times obituary was not entirely accurate when it stated “He was looser and happier in his later years — Spock had long since given up three-piece suits for blue jeans and sport shirts”.
The facts are that, between 1967 and 1991, Spock lived largely on his sailboat in Maine or the Virgin Islands and his adoption of casual dress when afloat or in rural retirement was entirely appropriate. However, the image produced is one of all the Brooks clothing going to a thrift store and a local mall providing its dull rubbish in their place. Fortunately, photographic evidence seems to refute this and, in his 1989 autobiography, the 86-year-old Spock explained that his attitude to clothes had changed very little over the years:
Though I’m politically as radical as ever, I continue to be concerned about my appearance. I’m against clothes that are too informal for the occasion, on me or anyone else. I could never give a talk with my shirt open at the collar and no tie. I have relaxed enough to wear a blazer and a pair of slacks when I speak in California. But I’ll wear a three-piece suit if I’m speaking in New York, Boston or Washington. I would lose conviction in my talk if I thought I was improperly dressed.
Thus, Spock did dress more casually when relaxing from the mid-1970s onwards, but he kept to his old Ivy standards for public appearances – and for being arrested. Even when he did wear denim, Spock’s natural elegance came through.
Spock, in a blue chalk stripe three-piece suit, is arrested (again) during a demonstration outside the White House in 1984.
Anyone who attempts radical reform of something as personal and ubiquitous as bringing up children will attract controversy. If that person then challenges those in power over many of their long held beliefs and practices, opinions will be further polarised. Ultimately however, Dr Spock’s ideas influenced millions. Unfortunately, his splendid dress sense did not. — TIM KOCH
This was written in the UK so my apologies for the strange mixture of British spelling (my words) and American spelling (quotes). I confess that I am a little embarrassed about giving as much emphasis to the clothes as to the ideas of one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. However, I trust that readers of Ivy Style will be sympathetic.