The leaves are falling non-stop, like names dropped in Hollywood, and it has suddenly turned colder than the look I got from a very pretty girl at a downtown restaurant. I was dining with the writer Gay Talese and had gone outside for a cigarette. Two men and a lady came out looking for a cab. The scene was straight out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald story: ‘I love you, I’ll take you home,’ said one of the young men. ‘I love you more, let me take you home,’ said the other. Both were well dressed and spoke proper English. There was nothing else to do but to butt in, and I did. ‘I love you the most, and I’ve got a car and driver waiting,’ I said to her. That’s when I got the cold stare, although to their credit the two preppies laughed. The three of them wandered off into the cold night looking for a taxi. I went back in and had a very good evening with the writer and a beautiful African-American model. Such are the joys of the Big Bagel. Anything can happen at any moment.
Speaking of Fitzgerald, a new musical adaptation of his 1920 novel This Side of Paradise has opened on 42nd Street, one I plan to see if I could only find the girl that gave me the cold look on that freezing night in Soho. She looked like an upper-class flapper, a perfect companion to share a pre-jazz age cocktail and then hit the Great White Way and enjoy Scott’s autobiographical novel set to music. The review I read said that the musical takes place in Princeton’s ivied halls, and if memory serves I read the novel when I was at prep school. Amory Blaine, the hero, is in hot pursuit of a New York debutante called Rosalind.
Fitzgerald called himself ‘a romantic egotist’ in the novel, one that put him on the map at an age when his contemporary Papa Hemingway was a starving unknown living in a cold flat in Paris. We tend to forget how unbearably young and attractive those writers were back before the booze got to them. And how well dressed! And what perfect manners they affected. Today’s scribes tend to equate slovenly dress and boorish manners with talent. The aforementioned Gay Talese is an exception, but he is 82 years of age. Gay is a dandy, and during dinner he recounted how his father was an Italian immigrant who became a tailor but who never managed to save any money because he insisted on tailoring beautiful suits with very expensive material few people could afford. (His mother kept the family afloat.) I have never seen Talese in the 30 or more years I’ve known him without a perfectly cut suit and waistcoat, and he always wears a hat, the way men used to do when manners were still more important than money. One thing I’ve noticed recently, on some more or less ugly types, is pork-pie hats, which they never tip or remove indoors or in the presence of ladies.
That’s something Joe Alsop would not have been caught dead doing. Alsop was an American aristo and a very powerful columnist of my political persuasion. He was a relation of Teddy Roosevelt and his Sunday night dinners in Washington were more sought after than a White House invite. I met Joe in Greece on a couple of occasions when he covered the Colonels coup d’état, and he was as charming a cosmopolite as ever there was on this side of the pond. He was also a closet gay who, when honey-trapped by the Soviets in Moscow, immediately went to the CIA and told the truth. A sharp dresser, he was obviously envied by lesser hacks on account of his background and good connections, and although he’s been dead a long time, here’s a review by one Louis Menand of a book about the Cold War period when Joe and his brother Stewart reigned supreme in Georgetown: ‘When he showed up for work at the Herald Tribune in the middle of the Depression, he was “wearing a bespoke suit, silk shirt, and hand-sewn shoes from Peal in London.”’ Sticking the knife in without getting blood on one’s hands, I call it. What’s wrong with wearing a bespoke suit or silk shirt, as the hack intimates? He also writes about the ostentatious air of upper-class refinement that Alsop affected. Well, not with me. Joe liked me and thought I was cute 45 years ago. He once drank quite a bit in an Athenian taverna and started to look me up and down. I said to him, now, now, Mr Alsop, no funny business, it wouldn’t be fair to Greek girls, and he burst out laughing and bade me goodnight.
Once upon a time, when a poor farmer came to the big city he put on his only suit and his best foot forward. As Tom Fleming wrote, it was only criminals, hooligans and wasters who went out in public dressed like slobs, in order to make spectacles of themselves. Back then it was also considered unmanly to display too much emotion. Now the opposite is true. People dress as badly as possible — I call it contrived dishevelment — and cry at the drop of a name. Modern man looks like a homeless bum, lets it all hang out and openly reveals things one wouldn’t tell a shrink. In the meantime, human decency, which in reality comes down to good manners, has gone the way of the dodo, whatever that is.
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