CREATIVE NON-FICTION: Personal Essay>Still Wardrobes Run Deep

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Lenny Bruce

Still Wardrobes Run Deep

JAMES RARUS’ DAD WASN’T A TOUGH LOOKING GUY, BUT HE THOUGHT TOUGH WHEN IT CAME TO CLOTHING

In 1999, my dad died. He was seventy-nine. After forty-seven years of marriage to an Ivy League dandy, my mom didn’t want to see her husband’s wardrobe of pristine clothing carried away to the Salvation Army in plastic bags. She asked if I’d consider becoming his sartorial executor. I agreed. It was a curious role and, in it, I learned that the expression “clothes make the man,” is true, even when the clothes belong to a dead man.

A couple months after my father’s passing, my mother shipped my father’s wardrobe from Sarasota to New York City, where I searched for a consignment shop that specialized in, or at least appreciated, Ivy League clothing. I knew I’d find the clothes, all too big or too small for me, a good home. There was a 38-regular guy out there somewhere, I knew, who smiled when he told his tailor, “no break,” who’d be going to end up with some pretty fine threads. That guy, I thought, would be worthy of my father’s memory, his near-compulsive wardrobe maintenance, and my mother’s trust.

Although it didn’t fit me, I kept my dad’s blue and white seersucker suit with the carnation pink lining and canary piping. I also kept his ivory colored Rodex summer trench coat. I sold him that coat in 1984, when I worked in a clothing store called Louis, Boston.

He never wore it. He used to tell me he couldn’t screw up the nerve. “That coat’s too heavy,” he’d say, with a smile. “Heavy” was his 1950’s hipster word for cool. My dad wasn’t a tough looking guy, but he thought tough, especially when it came to clothing. He knew cool. That’s why I also held on to—in their original boxes—his Knox felt hats, with the labels sewn inside that read: “Like hell it’s yours!” His hats came from a time when there was a job called ‘hatcheck girl.’ Hat Check Girl worked in nightclubs and restaurants.

He’d recall how, during the 1950’s, he courted my mother in midtown Manhattan nightclubs, where from ring-side tables, they’d watch comedians Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory, and jazz musicians Joe Jones and George Shearing. One night, he and Joe Jones swapped ties after the drummer shot a comment about my dad’s neckwear from the limelight. They talked segregation and New York nightlife over scotch and sodas and at the end the evening, each man went home wearing the other’s tie. That’s cool.

Two weeks before he checked into the hospital in ’99, my dad wrote a letter to Simon Doonan, then the VP of Creative Services at Barneys New York. “…your article in the New York Observer regarding Ralph Lauren’s Ivy League style elicited a favorable response from several of my associates and me. Thank you for defending classic styles. What goes around comes around.”  His letter read like he dressed: eloquent, specific, sharp.

My father left me with an extra large appreciation for menswear and I’m happy to share a story about a guy who really knew how to get dressed. My dad’s name is Julius. Julius Anthony Richard. He had a pretty cool name, too.