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.
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.
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
Richard Press, grandson of J. Press founder Jacobi Press, has a new book out entitled “Threading The Needle,” which you can find here.