Life Tales

A Quasi-Official Yale Man

Mollie Wilson

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During all the time I was at Yale, I never really looked past the windows of the J. Press store on York Street.  I was familiar with J. Press, of course.  In my undergraduate years I had passed the storefront many times, and I knew the company's reputation as purveyors of the "Ivy League Look": expensive essentials for discriminating men, including tailored suits, crisp button-down shirts, and eye-catching, perfectly coordinated neckties, as well as quaint accessories like oar-shaped tie bars, polka-dot bow ties, and brightly-colored suspenders with matching two-tone socks.  The mannequins in the windows of J. Press were not intended to represent me; they modeled the style of clothing that Yale men wore in the days when the phrase "Yale man" was redundant.  For Yalies at the beginning of the twenty-first century the name "J. Press" connotes an old-fashioned look and mindset, a stereotype that no longer reflects the Yale student body.  If J. Press does much business with undergraduates these days it is in costuming the members of the ultra-right-wing Conservative Party, who wear their anachronistic J. Press scarves and bow ties to lectures and football games, where they strike poses and smoke pipes in an effort to evoke the spirit of Old Blue.  Those Yalies who do not want to be perceived as elitist and backward are careful not to be seen lingering in front of J. Press.

The name "J. Press" conjured a specific set of associations for me by the time I graduated from Yale, but I never considered that there might have been an actual person after whom both store and image were named.  I was surprised to find that the "J" is short for "Jacobi," the given name of a nineteenth-century immigrant who founded a clothing store in New Haven in 1902.  I learned this from Jacobi's son Paul, who worked in the family business from 1932, when he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, until 1986, when the company was sold to a Japanese firm.  At ninety-two, the junior Mr. Press still dresses the part of company president: he greeted me at his New Haven apartment clothed head-to-toe in J. Press merchandise very similar to what is still displayed in the windows of the flagship store on York Street.  Even on a warm summer afternoon, alone and dozing in front of his television, Mr. Press is dressed to do business, sporting a blue-and-white seersucker suit that could easily have hung in his closet for decades.  His light-blue dress shirt is monogrammed, but the "P" that stands for "Paul" has worn away, leaving only a shadow next to the initials "R. P."  His tightly-knotted necktie is accented with a tarnished gold tie bar shaped like a tennis racket (still available in the display cases on York Street).  Aside from the tasseled loafers ("These are Gucci," he tells me, "which I bought in Rome"), every item of clothing bears the familiar navy blue "J. Press" label whose white lettering indicates both the manufacturer of the article and the status of the wearer.  

Like the J. Press style, which has the unique ability to appear both antique and timeless, Paul Press seems hardly to have acknowledged the passage of time since his retirement in 1986.  Much younger men would have difficulty keeping up with his schedule: "I keep active," he tells me, beginning every day with twenty-five sit-ups and a quick run.  Over breakfast he scans the papers, paying special attention to the obituaries (which function as society columns for the over-ninety set).  "'Who died?' I want to see.  Nobody I know, I'm happy, but I usually find somebody every time, 'cause I've been here so long."  Then he checks himself in the floor-to-ceiling mirror inside his front door and heads out to Payne-Whitney Gymnasium or the Woodbridge Country Club, where he bikes, swims, and showers before meeting "the fellas" for lunch.  He goes out again for dinner-"I never eat at home," he says.  And through it all he is impeccably dressed, as befits the name of Press.  

The Woodbridge Country Club, one of Paul Press's frequent haunts, is also the setting of a favorite story.  CNBC was blaring from Mr. Press's television when I arrived at his door, and President Bush went on speaking earnestly into the camera even after we had muted the set so that Mr. Press could fulfill his promise: "I'll tell you a story about Prescott Bush."  It seems that in the 1950s, when the recently formed Woodbridge Country Club was looking to establish a dress code, club president Morris Bailey naturally turned to resident haberdashery expert Paul Press for guidance.  Press and Bailey disagreed when it came to the acceptability of shorts-Mr. Press was in favor of allowing them, but the more conservative Bailey felt they were only permissible as swimwear.  The issue was still undecided when Senator Prescott Bush-"The grandfather of this fella," Mr. Press clarifies, meaning President George W.-showed up at the Club for lunch.  Mr. Press paints the picture for me, warming up to the punch line: "I said, 'Where's the Senator?' 'He's downstairs getting dressed.'  Pretty soon, in comes a six-foot three or four, tall-looking guy with walk shorts on: Senator Bush."  Bush's entrance settled the debate: "They wore shorts after that."

This brush with fame is by no means an isolated event in Paul Press's life: he rubbed elbows with scores of important men who passed through the Ivy League during the fifty-odd years he peddled suits.  According to the company's Web site, J. Press has spent a century serving "the most dignified clients a clothier has known," including "Presidents, business executives, members of the entertainment industry, and those still climbing the ladder of success."  At the time Paul Press first met the movers and shakers who loom large in his memories, most fell into this last category, just starting out on that ladder as well-dressed undergraduates at Yale, Harvard or Princeton.  J. Press was a formidable presence in those college towns and throughout the country by the time Paul joined his father in running the business in 1932.  Along the way he also met Prescott Bush's son, George-"Very nice man"-and in the forties, when both he and Barbara Bush were working on York Street, he ran into her so often that she teased him, "Mr. Press, you never invite me to lunch." 

For authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Michener, who often endowed their fictional characters with Ivy League pedigrees, dressing a young man in J. Press clothing indelibly marked him as belonging to elite society.  Mr. Press is very proud of this reputation, and very happy to share stories of his brushes with the rich and famous.  Most of these anecdotes conform to a basic pattern: Paul Press introduces himself to the luminary in question, opening with a humble "You don't know me, but." and upon hearing his surname, the addressee almost always exclaims, "Press, as in J. Press?  Of course I know you!" 

Mr. Press particularly enjoys telling one of the few stories that deviates from this pattern-the tale of his encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr.  The two men met for the second time when Paul took a trip to Puerto Rico in 1964: he was headed down a flight of stairs with his wife, and King was coming toward them up the stairs.  Their first meeting, four or five years earlier, was more official.  The left-leaning Rabbi Goldberg, of New Haven's Mishkan Israel, had been imprisoned with King in 1959 after a demonstration, and as a result King had accepted his invitation to speak in New Haven at the temple where Paul Press happened to be president.  After the talk, Dr. King needed a ride to the train station, and the temple president was nominated to be his chauffeur-Paul even took King to a 24-hour restaurant so he could grab a quick meal of scrambled eggs before heading home.  So when they ran into each other again in Puerto Rico, Paul introduced himself: "Dr. King, I don't know whether you remember me, but we met in New Haven."  To which King replied, "Rabbi Goldberg!  Of course I remember you!"

Paul Press still has the black-and-white photo of himself shaking hands with a youthful-looking Dr. King, and he recounts their brief conversation with relish, aware that its humor derives from its unexpected finish.  It stands to reason that the man who led the fight against racial injustice would be unfamiliar with the clothing company that epitomized the "Ivy League Look," and Mr. Press certainly does not hold it against him.  "Martin Luther King was a damn fine fellow," he declares.  Indeed, Paul Press has a good word for just about every person he has met, which may be why he is so highly regarded in return.  He claims to have known all of Yale's recent presidents, reporting that "Kingman Brewster was a hell of a fine fellow, and so was Whitney Griswold," and describing Benno Schmidt's father as a young entrepreneur making lucrative deals for J. H. Whitney in post-war orange juice sales.  He reserves special praise, however, for A. Bartlett Giamatti, whom he counts as a close friend.  Valentine Giamatti, Bart's father, was one of Paul's high school classmates, and Paul Press was invited to Bart's inauguration as president of Yale in 1978.  When Yale purchased the Jewish Community Center on Chapel Street, Press chastised the younger Giamatti, "You have deprived me of my fitness center!" 

"Don't worry about it," the future Commissioner of Baseball said. "You'll belong to the Yale Gym." 

"I'm not a graduate of Yale," Press reminded his friend, but Giamatti waved away the protest, and before long Press received a letter that he now recites from memory: "You're a quasi-official part of Yale, and we're delighted to give you a membership in the Yale Gym."

 Mr. Press still works out and pays his dues at Payne-Whitney, and when he finishes the story he proudly displays the membership card that identifies his status as "special."  "See?  I'm special," he grins.

No Bulldog would dispute the "quasi-official" status of J. Press in the Yale experience, but modern undergraduates are more likely to show up to a seminar wearing jeans than custom-tailored pinstriped slacks, and the "Ivy League Look," like the varsity sweater, is a relic of the past.  Paul Press remembers the days before Yale's residential colleges dominated York Street, when J. Press was located on the "Gold Coast" of desirable apartments for undergraduates and the store's neighbors included future celebrities like Cole Porter and Sinclair Lewis.  In those days he often met Yale students when they were still in high school, buying uniforms for exclusive boarding schools like Groton and St. Mark's, and they remained J. Press customers when they matriculated at Yale or Harvard.  The old Yale had "a lot of romance it doesn't have today," he recalls, but for a man who made his livelihood dressing the privileged sons of Eli he is surprisingly positive about the modernization of the university.  He describes Yale's current admission process as "more civilized. not so racist," noting that the students who work out around him at Payne-Whitney are often women or minorities.  In fact, I was amused to discover, his political views are far more liberal than those of the undergrads who now associate J. Press clothing with their own extreme conservatism.  Asked for his opinion of our current Head of State, who is still miming a speech on the television screen in the background, Paul considers for a moment before judging him "fair. I don't think he's a great president at all.  Well, he was elected by the Supreme Court, not the United States people."  After a moment he adds a characteristic personal note: "I didn't know or like him as well as his father, or his grandfather."

Changes at Yale have meant fewer student customers for J. Press, but they still do a brisk business in specially manufactured goods, and the New Haven store sells plenty of scarves and other residential college paraphernalia both to undergrads and returning alumni.  "Reunion weekend is a big weekend for J. Press," says Mr. Press, speaking like a businessman once again.  "Matter of fact, when reunion time comes along, I drive by York Street and see these white-haired guys with their wives, and stop for a minute."  He acts out the familiar dialogue once more: "'Do you remember me?'  'No.'  'Paul Press.' 'Oh!  J. Press!  Of course!'  Then they tell me their name; nineteen twenty-eight, or thirty, whenever they were at Yale."  As an afterthought, he adds, "I don't do it anymore. But I used to."

Nowadays one would have to look hard to find men who graduated from Yale in the thirties, or at least to find those who are active enough to revisit their old stomping grounds (only 9 alumni showed up for this spring's 70th reunion of the class of 1933).  Paul, on the other hand, shows few signs of slowing down: he is looking forward to presiding at the Woodbridge Country Club's annual "Paul Press Day," including a tennis tournament named in his honor two years ago as a ninetieth-birthday tribute.  He points to the framed photo of himself with Wimbledon champ Fred Perry that hangs on his living room wall.  I can easily pick Paul Press out of the group of men lined up behind the net: he still has the same solid frame and a full head of wavy, neatly-combed hair, although it has turned from dark to silvery-gray, and the wrinkles around his eyes do little to soften the intensity of his stare.  Mr. Press adds wistfully that he will not be playing in the Club tournament this year, having alarmed his family with a fall, but whenever he begins to tell me about his celebrity encounters he still seems capable of tearing up a tennis court. 

Meanwhile, in spite of foreign ownership, the company still promotes itself as "J. Press, an American tradition."  Non-American details, such as the fact that founder Jacobi Press was not native-born, are elided from the online "history" of J. Press, and Paul Press himself cannot remember the name of the country from which his father immigrated.  Officially, and in Paul Press's memory, the J. Press image has become the reality.  Yet now, as a Yale graduate, I walk by the J. Press store and the name on the blue awning reminds me of a person, a family, as well as a set of outmoded ideals.  J. Press no longer seems designed to exclude.  Instead, I think of a man for whom the family clothing business was a window into the walled courtyards of the Ivy League.  I am sorry the Press family sold the company, even if Mr. Press is not ("It's a tough time to be in the suit business," he says, pragmatically, "and anyway, the name's still on it").  I am sorry that I cannot go in and ask to see Mr. Press, as so many people have done in the past, and tell him, "You don't know me, but I knew your father. . ." 

When I told Mr. Press that I had graduated from Yale he naturally asked, "What college were you in?" and then, when we had exhausted that list of connections (I was in Saybrook; he was a personal friend of legendary college master Basil Duke Henning), he asked, "Where did you go to high school?"  I expected him to be disappointed when I replied, "Scranton High"-not Groton, Hotchkiss, or Andover-but although my public school had sent few customers his way, he was impressed.  "You must have been a damn good student to get into Yale."  Once again he is transported back to the Yale of his young adulthood: "If your father went to Yale and you were in the class of 1936 and you were a C minus student, you got in ahead of somebody who was an A student who went to [public] high school," he gruffly declares.  For over fifty years Paul Press depended on such men for business, men whose fathers had been fitted for suits by his father, and so he understands the importance of legacies.  His own family name is a legacy of sorts, a legacy that combined with a century of hard work to make Paul Press a "quasi-official" part of Yale.

Published: May 9, 2004