For 40 years, George Frazier was to Boston what Jimmy Breslin was to New York, what Mike Royko was to Chicago and Herb Caen to San Francisco.
Handsome and elegant, he wrote columns about jazz, sports, politics and style for publications in the United States and Europe: the Boston Herald, The Boston Globe, Down Beat and Life.
His most important – and popular – subject was duende, an Andalusian-Spanish word that he said meant “class.”
“So difficult to define, “ he wrote, “but when it is there it is unmistakable, inspiring our awe, quickening our memory. To observe someone who has it is to feel icy fingers running up and down our spine.’’ He made his commitment to duende evident in his fastidious dress, often sporting a white carnation in his buttonhole.
His Esquire essay on men’s style required years of research. In his final analysis, New England’s finest men’s clothiers ranked with the best in London, Paris and New York, he wrote. Many catered to the region’s storied institutions of higher learning, such as J. Press at Yale, Andover Shop at Phillips Academy and Chipp at Harvard.
George Frazier had a steeper learning curve about men’s fashions than did the wealthy socialites he wrote about. He was born in South Boston on June 10, 1911, the son of a firefighter. He graduated from Boston Latin School and then Harvard College in 1932. Soon after graduation he began writing about jazz – in both French and English.
He analyzed what was best about popular culture and elevated it to a higher plane. George Frazier celebrated the way the music of Count Basie wafted over the Public Garden from the Roof at the Ritz. He made readers wish they’d seen Hobey Baker play hockey at Princeton.
In his essays on duende, Frazier tried to separate what was genuinely excellent from dross. Frank Sinatra had duende, he wrote; Dick Haymes did not. Nantucket had it, Martha’s Vineyard didn’t. Ted Williams had it when striking out; Stan Musial didn’t even when hitting a home run.
For Esquire, Frazier deconstructed the clothing preferences and habits of the best-dressed men he knew — men with duende:
The best-dressed American men — at least for the most part — not only cherish venerable clothes, but cherish venerable milieux as well. Like their apparel, they, too, are full of tradition, being, rather more often than not, products of such sanctified New England private schools as St. Mark’s, Groton, and St. Paul’s, and of ivied universities like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton; living, not in such youthful and characterless cities as Los Angeles, but in either what Roger Angell has termed “The Effete East” — which is to say the hallowed ground of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and the posher precincts of Long Island.
The best-dressed American men also respected and liked the men who sell them clothes, wrote George Frazier. They began buying clothes at Brooks Brothers on Christmas vacation. When they got married, he wrote, “it would have been absolutely unthinkable not to have had a Brooks Brothers representative on hand to tie their and their ushers’ ascots.”
J. P. Morgan, wrote Frazier, greeted a Brooks Brothers’ employee with “Good morning, Mr. Webb.” Webb replied, “Good morning, Jack.”
Credit to BroBro
George Frazier gave credit to Brooks Brothers for creating the foundational garment of the well-dressed New Englander: the No. 1-sack suit. Not-yet-President John F. Kennedy wore it, though Frazier didn’t include him on his list of best-dressed men.
He did include Kennedy’s future chief of protocol, Angier Biddle Duke. Duke was the nephew of A.J. Drexel Biddle – about whom “it would be something of a task to find a male more elegant than he,” wrote Frazier.
George Frazier traced the spread of the sack suit style among Yale undergraduates by the venerable J. Press, which had catered to Yalies since 1902. In the 1940s, two tailors left J. Press and opened a shop in Harvard Square called Chipp, which later opened a shop in New York. Chipp closed its Cambridge store by 1960, but still had its New York branch.
Frazier called Zareh of Boston and Brookline, Mass., “one of the few authentically tasteful men’s shops in the United States.” He praised Marty Sullivan’s in New Bedford. The shopowner was so attuned to men’s fashion he sent his buyers and designers to hang out in P.J. Clarke’s in Manhattan so they could watch “the creatively dressed Ivy Leaguers” who frequented the bar.
George Frazier also approved of the Boston Bootmakers of Boston and Andover Shops in Cambridge and Andover, Mass., which to this day caters to Phillips Academy students.
Frazier, in his Esquire essay, noted that elegance didn’t have to be visible. Playwright Moss Hart, he wrote, favored solid-gold monogrammed collar stays. Noted English dandy Freddie Cripps would only have his underwear made in Vienna. He traveled there regularly for fittings. And then this:
In the case of the late William Rhinelander Stewart, for example, elegance was nothing more costly than not venturing out in the evening without first having his rumpled paper money ironed flat by his valet!
Best Dressed List By George Frazier
George Frazier then ended his 10,000 word essay with his picks for the best-dressed men he knew. They included:
FRED ASTAIRE — Then 61, he “favors English-type jackets, suede shoes, often uses silk handkerchiefs as belts. He has had many suits made by Anderson and Sheppard of London, but, at the moment, he is using John Galuppo of Schmidt and Galuppo, Inc., of Beverly Hills.” Frazier also quoted Astaire: “I often take a brand-new suit or hat and throw it up against the wall a few times to get that stiff, square newness out of it.”
DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS, JR, — Fairbanks, 50, then lived in London. “He is a member of the Century and Lambs clubs in New York, Buck’s and White’s in London, the Travellers in Paris, and the Metropolitan and the Army & Navy in Washington, D.C. His tailor: Stovel & Mason (48 guineas or $141.12 a suit) in London.”
ROY HAYNES — The thiry-five-year-old jazz percussionist belongs on any best-dressed list if only because of his taste in selecting clothes that flatter his short stature (five feet, three and a half inches). His suits are custom made (around $125 each) by the Andover Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
CARY GRANT — “Although Grant, who is fifty-six, favors such abominations as large tie knots and claims to have originated the square-style breast-pocket handkerchief, he is so extraordinarily attractive that he looks good in practically anything. He insists upon tight armholes in his suit jackets, finds the most comfortable (and functional) of all underwear to be women’s nylon panties. Something of a maverick as to tailors, he now goes to Quintino (around $225 a suit) in Beverly Hills, California, and, whenever possible, certain of the preposterously low-priced geniuses in Hong Kong.”
MILES DAVIS — Frazier noted the 34-year-old “genius of “progressive jazz” trumpet” favors skin-tight trousers and Italian-cut jackets. “His seersucker coats, which have side vents, are custom made. His tailor: Emsley (New York), which charges $185 a suit.”
JOHN McLEAN: JOHN McLEAN — The 41-year-old son of Washington hostess Evalyn Walsh McLean belonged to the Racquet & Tennis Club in New York and the Seminole in Palm Beach. He helped originate red socks for wear with a dinner suit. He goes to Bernard Weatherill.
George Frazier died on June 13, 1974. Studs Terkel had this to say about him:
Duende was George Frazier’s favorite word. It is, of course, the precise word to describe his life and his writings: roughly translated—grace, wit and class.
You can read the whole essay here.
With thanks to Another Man’s Poison: The Life and Writings of Columnist George Frazier by Charles Fountain.
Images: Roy Haynes by By Brianmcmillen – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77365373. This story was updated in 2021. A.J. Drexel Biddle Harris & Ewing, photographer. (1935) Biddle sworn in as Minister to Norway. Exclusive picture was taken Tuesday when Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, Jr., was sworn in as minister to Norway in the State Dept. bldg. Left to right: Sen. Joseph F. Guffey D. of Penn., Acting Sec. of State William Phillip, Minister to Norway Biddle and Percy F. Allen, Chief of the Appt. Division, seen swearing Mr. Biddle in to his new post, 7/23/35. United States, 1935. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2016881245/. Paul Newman By Lmattozz – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56807570. Cary Grant By farid_s_v. – Flickr. Information about which film this is from is in here., CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48810000. Roy Haynes By Brianmcmillen – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77365373. Miles Davis By Mallory1180 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56137966.
This story updated in 2022.