December 30, 2009

Regardless of religious devotion, odds are most Americans exchange gifts during the month of December. We buy them, wrap them, give them, get them. We also mail and receive them through the post, which means giver and receiver may not be in the same room, or even state, to thank one another, and so rely on a phone call or, if more gauche, an e-mail. It’s a regrettable indicator of our times that e-mail is so prevalent a mode of communication; it’s efficient for business and sharing casual information, but for personal correspondence… utterly inadequate.

Try it.

Long years ago George S. Parker founded a company which produced good American writing pens, and today his son, Geoffrey Parker, works as the branding consultant to that company, Parker Pen Co.

Mr. Parker, though he may be unduly influenced by his financial interest in pen sales, is a firm advocate of that near-forgotten art, lost almost entirely in the antiquities of time: the hand-written thank-you note. As he tells the Wall Street Journal, “It’s a common courtesy. If someone does something for me, I need to acknowledge that. As these modern electronic devices become more common and overused, they become cheap.”

Mr. Parker prefers thank-you notes written on heavier stationary, with his name and address printed at the top, and writes them with fountain pens using an ink which is a different color than his printed header. A broader nib on the pen allows for a look which feels “less mass-produced.” Through his dedication to common courtesy, Mr. Parker not only resurrects the outdated practice of hand-written thank-you notes, but another almost-forgotten practice as well: common courtesy itself.

Guest of A Princetonian

December 24, 2009

The New York City social website Guest of A Guest recently profiled preferred Princetonian hangouts in “the city,” and its picks proved relatively accurate, as judged by Tiger insiders. The distinctions were generally drawn along eating club lines, with each distinct Princeton club favoring a different Manhattan haunt.

Per the socially diverse (by the standards of the most socially stratified campus in the League) Terrace Club, the site wrote:

“Preppy Princeton might not overflow with Bohemians, but the school’s soon-to-be-starving artists probably eat up at the Terrace Club’s buffet. You can find Terrace alums chain-smoking at grungy/artsy venues like Glasslands, Union Pool and Galapagos or trying to catch a big break with their band at Mercury Lounge of Cake Shop.”

The less egalitarian Cottage Club patronizes the Rose Bar, while the Tiger Inn crowd “is the closest The Street comes to a Beirut and beer bong-centric frat house. It’s popular with the jocks who participate in Princeton’s testosterone-heavy sports as opposed to the niche programs like fencing and squash that every Ivy League school somehow excels in. TI’s crowd would normally hang out in a Murray Hill sports bars. But those Ivy degrees allow them to avoid such down-market venues and cheer on the Black & Orange at midtown’s Princeton Club.”

Tiger Inn, Princeton University.

Whisk(e)y Men

December 22, 2009

Most whiskys (the Scottish and English spell the name of the drink without the American “e” in the middle) are blends. Famouse Grouse and the inestimable Johnnie Walker both are; oddly, most single malts are too. What we call single malts today are blends, but from casks of whisky in the same distillery.

Blenders, blending.

Blenders, blending.

Blended whisky was invented by Scots who realized that strong spirits went down smoother mixed with grain alcohol. The Irish, ever slow to change, clung to the stronger spirits and eventually Irish whisky lost ground to blended Scotches. Houses like Dewars and Johnnie Walker lead the revolution, but quickly came up against the same problems anybody who mixes things for a living comes up against: how to keep a consistent product, from bottle to bottle. So the Scottish distillers became expert mixologists also, judging blendable spirits by aroma and palate, adjusting for cost while retaining quality. Master blenders like Tom Aitken of Dewars, David Stewart of William Grant & Sons, and John Ramsay of Famous Grouse became sought-after commodities and honed their skills over decades.

As each blender gets on in years, he turns his craft over to apprentices. Aitken recently turned over the reins to Sophie MacLeod, Ramsay to Gordon Motion, and David Stewart to Brian Kinsman. Stewart, though, won’t retire: he’ll stay on as master blender of The Balvenie, a single malt whisky. The Balvenie is the first single malt to be finished in a separate wooden cask than the one in which it was started. He’s also the man behind the Glenfiddich Solera Reserve, and the blender responsible for choosing and blending the whiskys used in the landmark Glenfiddich 50 Year, an acknowledged masterpiece of the blenders’ art.

The “ECHL”

December 9, 2009

Author G. Bruce Boyer is best known as an essayist on the subject of classic men’s fashion; he is the author of several books on the subject and a contributor to, and editor of, The Encyclopaedia of Clothing & Fashion. He’s also the author of the short essay below “The English Country House Look”… or, ECHL, which first appeared on the web log A Suitable Wardrobe.

The Gothic Business Look (all laser-cut black suits and pointed shoes), the Made-in-America Blue Collar Look, the Neo-Japanese Preppy Look, the Neapolitan Relaxed Elegance Look. There are so many looks around these days to tempt a young man at the onset of his wardrobing life. What’s a fella to do?

May I suggest taking one step forward by taking two steps backwards: the tried & true English Country House Look (ECHL). It’s stood the test of time, has proven adaptable to virtually any body shape, continues to have enviable street creds, and can be worked and re-worked over and over infinitum.

Ralph Lauren & The ECHL.

In his distinctive book, On Decorating, Mark Hampton slyly puts his finger on the secret of the ECHL:

…rooms with old worn carpets and turn-of-the-century upholstered furniture which, instead of being newly reupholstered, is covered in loose slipcovers that look (and perhaps are) homemade. There are books everywhere and leather club fenders in front of smoke-streaked mantelpieces. This is commonly called the undecorated look. Sometimes it is the result of happenstance; sometimes a subtle effort has been made …

“Sometimes a subtle effort” would be a good title for a study of this subject that speaks to both interior design and to clothes. Since Mr. Hampton has noted the touchstones of the interior design genre, let’s look at the salient points of the ECHL pertaining to clothes.

  1. Aspirational gentility: the perceptive Ralph Lauren has, over these many years, firmly convinced us that our grandfathers all had mahogany-lined speedboats and polo ponies, even though they were in fact slaving away down some mine shaft or other. You can’t beat the past as a commodity.
  2. Disdain for technology: why would anyone bother with a Blackberry, cellphone, headsets, ipod, Kindle, or laptop when a simple Montblanc and Moleskin diary will suffice, and not ruin the lines of the suit. Let solitude be a time for thought.
  3. Untidiness trumps symmetry and organization: consider Nancy Mitford’s famous dictum: “All nice rooms are a bit shabby.” This applies to dress as well. Otherwise there’s the suspicion of calculation.
  4. A preference for the mildly tatty over the new and shiny. Flaunting new labels, or any labels for that matter, gives the impression of insecurity.
  5. Comfort triumphs: never sacrifice a cozy, warm, homey feeling to fashionable trends. You don’t have to.
  6. Eccentric within reason is charming: we preach individuality, but how refreshing to actually see it. Wear the orange cashmere tie and purple socks with the navy suit, or a plastic shopping bag for a briefcase.
  7. On the other hand, novelty is as unwelcome as excessive tidiness. Just because a person likes something is not a good enough reason to wear it. Denim dinner jackets and chinchilla bow ties are cute and whimsical. That’s the problem.
  8. Be sentimental: style is about attitude. Wearing Granddad’s old pocket watch from a chain through your buttonhole is a perfect touch, even if the face keeps falling out of it.

But don’t take my word for it. Just ask Ralph.

Barbarians At The Gate

December 5, 2009

With celebrity gossip and reality television often taking media precedence over coverage of military engagements and economic recession, it’s little wonder that the two would eventually travel perpendicular paths. It may be a testament to the tragic prominence of pop culture “news” in our national consciousness that those paths would cross at so venerable an event as a White House state dinner.

The hopeful Salahis.

The hopeful Salahis.

Aspiring nouveau socialites Tareq and Micheaele Salahi, known for dodging creditors and for courtroom brawls with relatives, secured their coveted fifteen minutes of fame by bluffing their way in to President Obama’s first-ever state dinner. The two engineered the stunt as part of a bid to appear on Bravo’s “Real Housewives of D.C.” reality television series. Previously, Michaele had also claimed to have been a Redskins cheerleader and appeared at a cheerleaders’ alumni event for that team; she was unable to perform any of the cheers and was quickly outed.

The couple (he, a polo-playing vintner and she, a blonde) are in the habit of forcefully rubbing shoulders with those who would rather not. The two maintain a Facebook account which documents, in pictures, their aggresively upward social mobility. His family owns a Virginia winery, the subject of protracted legal battles with his parents: he wants it, they say they need to sell it to pay off his debts. The couple have already lost their Virginia home to foreclosure. A photo of Tareq posing with Prince Charles hangs prominently inside that house and its closets contain, by Michaele Salahi’s own estimate, about 300 pairs of her shoes.

“Nobody wants to deal with them,” say the couple’s Virginia neighbors. “The sheriffs have come by twice already looking for them” in connection with their Maserati and Aston Martin, both of which have been repossessed.

The pair were spotted almost immediately at the White House dinner by a D.C. society columnist who was there to cover the event. The columnist, apparently more in tune with that town’s social radar than the two aspiring insiders, alerted an event staffer that the Salahis appeared out of place. A quick check revealed that neither actually had an invitation. Appropriately fitting that two such ladder climbers, hopeful for reality television riches, would be turned in by one of that ladder’s own guard dogs.

Yale: “We Won’t Be Fooled Again.”

December 4, 2009

An Ivy League degree opens doors around the world, as South Korean art professor Shin Jeong-ah knows: her diploma from Yale University helped her land a job at Dongguk University, in South Korea, and a prestigous museum curatorship. The problem was, Professor Jeong-ah was never a student at Yale. Or, perhaps the problem was that Yale said she was.

In September 2005, Dongguk University forwarded materials from Professor Jeong-ah to Yale, asking the Ivy League university to verify that their potential new hire had, in fact, earned a Yale degree. The materials had been faked but Yale bought it, and sent a letter back confirming Jeong-ah’s degree.

Professor Shin Jeong-ah, center.

As news broke, Yale back-tracked: “I’ve seen the fax that supposedly confirms that Shin earned a degree from Yale, and it bears no resemblance to the letter that [the university] sends when actually confirming someone’s degree,” Yale’s Director of Public Affairs wrote in an e-mail to the Yale Daily News.

Yet, quickly thereafter, that paper reported “the University reviewed its documents and determined it had indeed sent the fax in question.”

An official statement explains: “Responding quickly to what appeared to be a routine request, Yale’s staff mistakenly relied on the letterhead and signature on the purported May 2005 letter.”

In addition to her faked Yale degree, Jeong-ah also provided Dongguk University with her Ph.D. dissertation, “Guillaume Apollinaire: Catalyst for Primativism, for Picabia and Duchamp.” That dissertation was later revealed to have been submitted to the University of Virginia in 1981 by Ekaterini Samaltanou-Tsiakma.

After landing a museum curatorship with her fraudulent credentials, Jeong-ah embezzled nearly $400,000 from the institution, posed for nude photographs, and commenced an affair with a top aide to the President of South Korea. She staunchly maintains her Yale diploma, which is missing the signature of the President of that school, is authentic.

Yale has vowed to tighten up operations.


December 1, 2009

Please excuse the recent absense of frequent posting at this web log; law school finals are too-fast approaching, per usual, and we’re all looking forward to some additional writing time when those are finished.