A Menswear Memoir

The Present and How It Got That Way

 

Teach The Children (Or Grandchildren) Well

Some folks have a show business legacy; some literary, sports, industrial. I come from a clothing family. I can only say it's been bred into me, like singing on key, smiling for the camera, or reading a defense; as much a part of me as if it were in my DNA, and my awareness is in even my earliest memories. As the oldest of five, I was like a foster child to my grandparents, visiting them on weekends and holidays until I started boarding school. If the traits and attitudes of a clothing family were apparent in my parents' generation, for my grandparents it was more like a religion, and my grandfather was high priest.

Alexander Elias Hilton, my father’s father, was an icon of the twentieth century. Kind of a composite character, Damon Runyon meets F. Scott Fitzgerald. A self-styled son of a millionaire (when that meant something) father, and unique in so many ways: Jewish Ivy Leaguer, roaring Tiger in the New York 20s, bon vivant, speakeasy habitué, sportswriters’ boon companion, sophisticated world traveler. “Man About Town” described him perfectly, especially considering the family business, a chain of 10 big men’s clothing stores, the flagship being one in Times Square, at 47th and Broadway. Not your ideal family man, not particularly chummy with his kids, nor especially faithful to his wife, a flawed, smart existentialist. Confident, educated in the classical sense and in the ways of the world, he knew money and knew how to use it, and he was loved by track touts, club waiters and doormen, practically everyone who knew him. 

He grew up in a “no-longer-Jewish” family whose great success in the clothing business afforded them a great house amid the leafy majesty of the Llewellyn Park suburb of Newark. His father, Joseph Hilton, and his uncles, refugees from Ukraine in the early 1880s, had changed their name at Ellis Island, adopting an Anglo-sounding pseudonym and losing at once all traces of their heritage. Alex dropped out of Princeton to marry Lillian Gilbertson, the belle of Scotch-Irish Newark, and went to work – when he worked at all – as the accessories and jewelry buyer at Joseph Hilton and Sons, his father’s chain of retail stores. What really mattered most to him was sports, and in particular, horse racing. “The track.” He followed the New York Racing Association season at Aqueduct, at Belmont and at Saratoga Springs, and at Monmouth Park, while summering at nearby Allenhurst. He and Lil traveled the world in regal style. We still have photographs of them, in the amphitheater above Taormina, by the railing of H.M.S. Queen Mary, on a hotel patio in Majorca, overlooking the Badia de Palma.

In my childhood memories I’m happy on the front porch of their Allenhurst house on a summer afternoon, or in the guest bedroom on a winter morning in their New York apartment, looking down from the 15th floor at the 3rd Avenue El trains rumbling below. I spent a lot of time with Granny and Pop, and this was no hardship, believe me. In fact, looking back, it seems to have been the formative experience of my life – more than school, friends, or even my parents. This was the world of Sinatra LPs, Life magazine, luncheon at Schrafft’s after shopping at Best & Co. or Bonwit Teller, Allenhurst Beach Club, the Central Park Zoo, Four Roses on the rocks, dinner downstairs at Longchamps.

It seemed to me that my grandparents were in charge of manners world-wide. There was, in their book, a correct way to do everything, and they were not above letting anyone who seemed to need advice know about the correct way, which was the only way. Only way to eat soup, address your elders, put your knife and fork on your plate, ask for things, stand when an elder entered a room or came to your table, stand aside and let the other person go through the door ahead of you. Theirs was an orderly, friction-free world, made so by customs we followed without thinking, without questioning. My grandmother said, "Good manner are just common sense.” This was just elemental, like looking both ways before crossing the street. “It’s not hard to know how to act. You just have to pretend I’m there watching you.” I can still do that, imagine her presence, checking, nodding in approval most of the time. Probably the most important thing I learned from her was that good manners are evident in everything you do, like an advertisement for your personality. Like how you dress.

Oh yeah. Did I mention they knew how to dress?

Pop was the best-dressed man on earth. Certainly the best-dressed guy in New York. Imagine: Princeton University Jazz Age New Yorker and world traveler whose company dressed the rich and famous of the day, with ten big retail stores and a fifty-five-thousand-foot factory to supply them.

Mornings in the living room, coffee in Limoges cup, silk paisley robe, striped pajamas, English slippers. Then he got dressed. Ribbed silk socks, striped garters, high-waisted, pleated pants, alligator belt with Tiffany gold clasp buckle. Zephyr-weight broadcloth shirt. Ascot. Cashmere sport jacket. Or a full Winsor knot, solid silk tie, double-breasted striped suit. Always a pochette.  Or for evening, silk voile shirt and black suede pumps, peak-lapel dinner jacket. He once told me that getting dressed was a matter of taking enough time to look like you’d just put it together one, two, three. Work hard to look like it just came naturally.

Thinking back on my grandfather’s way of dressing, I am struck by the fact that when I describe it now it seems extravagant, almost outrageous, the decorum and the insistence on quality of fabric and fit that he maintained. But it didn’t seem so at the time. A. E. Hilton was just a well-heeled gentleman, doing what any well-heeled or, for that matter, any aspiring not-so-well-heeled gentleman, would do. He dressed in a mannerly fashion, not for ostentation or egotistical effect. To him it was as natural to wear a short-sleeved, easy-fitting cotton batiste shirt, crisply creased, fine worsted trousers and a cashmere jacket to the race track as it was to open a door for someone, or to stand when a lady came to his table.

We forgot about this, forgot about our grandparents and their insistence on acting nice, on the common sense of looking nice. And as time went on, as life and attitudes changed over time, gradually these old ways became, like making war, like racism and apartheid, like discrimination, like all the destructive and dehumanizing “traditions” we came to know were wrong, all outdated. My generation’s rejection of old behaviors mistakenly included the decent, humanizing customs and conventions that just made everyday life more pleasant, and somehow at the end of it, while we (thank goodness) forgot that war or racism or gender discrimination was the answer, we also forgot to take off our baseball hats when we came inside, or to stand back and let someone go through a doorway ahead of us.