Sunday, November 13, 2011

You Must Raise Your Hat'

Thanks to Frank Wilson and Dave Lull for alerting me to a wonderful conversation with Jacques Barzun about his arrival in New York City in 1920. Barzun, who celebrates his 104th birthday on Nov. 30, embodies civilization. He seems to have read everything and his memory for detail is phenomenal. He recalls that wristwatches were for “sissies” until American soldiers returning from Europe after the Armistice were seen wearing them. Spaghetti was an “exotic dish” until almost overnight it became thoroughly Americanized. Barzun moves on to hats:

“Men always wore hats. There was a famous businessman who was interviewed as he landed back from a trip to Europe and he was asked what the great movements were that he was apprehensive about. He said, `Communism and hatlessness!’”

President Kennedy forty years later is often credited with pushing the nation, at least the male portion, into hatlessness. In photos of my father taken after World War II, in which he’s dressed up for some formal occasion (wedding, funeral), he’s usually wearing a variation on the homburg, along with a brown pin-stripe suit and a wide, garish tie that barely reaches his navel. In the preface to his Collected Stories (1977), John Cheever’s remembrance of New York City in the nineteen-thirties, when he was starting out as a writer, includes this:

“These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationary store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.”

Here is A.J. Liebling on the denizens of Izzy Yereshevsky’s cigar store at Forty-ninth Street and Seventh Avenue in the nineteen-thirties:

“Most of Izzy’s evening guests – their purchases are so infrequent it would be misleading to call them customers – wear white felt hats and overcoats of a style known to them as English Drape. Short men peer up from between the wide-flung shoulders of these coats as if they had been lowered into the garments on a rope and were now trying to climb out.”

Yes, this is civilization. As Barzun says:

This is a very strange thing, isn’t it, to have given up hats altogether? I remember hats on the streets. Certainly when I first came, everybody wore a hat. I wore a hat in college. What would you do if you met a lady of your acquaintance or of your family’s acquaintance? You must raise your hat.”


elberry said...

no doubt you've read the original post by TD.

George said...

The dubious status of wristwatches appears in Katherine Anne Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider, set in Denver in WW I; the soldier boyfriend is not quite used to his.

The Sanity Inspector said...

Barzun's amazing. In his book From Dawn to Decadence, in the passage on World War I, he inserts a first-hand childhood memory of being hurried down to the cellar, when the Germans shelled Paris.