Heyday Fraternity House on 44th Street

The 1970s were so uncertain that President Ford told New York to “drop dead.” J. Press at 16 East 44th Street refused to surrender. In 1981, the Japanese trad magazine Popeye characterized the crew and their store as “more of an Ivy League fraternity house than a store.” That alleged fraternity brotherhood was bolstered by yours truly.

The Popeye sidebar pictures Tony LaBue sporting a maroon blazer. Ragtime Tony started his time at J. Press as a backroom shipping clerk eventually graduating upscale and upstairs displaying the ambiance that served him so well as lead pianist for a popular neighborhood Bronx jazzband playing through local weddings, bar mitzvahs and sweet sixteen parties. Tony was the concierge of the store mezzanine featuring the outerwear, raincoat, overcoat and topcoat department. There were many springtime and summer mornings he told me to put a piano at the top of the stairs to liven up the joint during slow times. Unfortunately for J. Press, Brooks Brothers lured him in the early 1980s across the street to prime their first-floor shoe department.

Tall, dark and handsome Henry Press exuded Hollywood executive chic. When he was hired, Uncle Irving Press had a problem with his name. “I am willing to take you on, but don’t want anybody asking if you’re my brother. You want the job you have to get a new name, H.P. Henry.” Coincidentally he named his son Richard prior to his employment at J. Press.

Henry was our bespoke tailoring authority. His intuitive gut instincts were rewarded with the sartorial trust of his “CUs”. Henry’s Madison Avenue corporate appearance belied his Ocean Parkway Brooklyn lineage growing up blocks away from Coney Island. Henry offered sobriety for an otherwise gregarious crew.

Ken Trommers was our J. Press-Ralph Lauren WASP archetype. Ken came from modest Bronx circumstances, becoming a backroom stock clerk at Alexander’s 59th Street mid-price department store. He immediately became a fan of the store’s menswear drawn above and beyond its proletarian selections by the conservative style favored by members of the Farkas family, the company owners patrolling the aisles wearing non-Alexander’s J. Press. Prompted by their example, he applied for a position at J. Press. Irving Press recognized his star quality. A goodly portion of Ken’s trade became a significant portion of the NY Social Register. Their mothers, wives and prom dates fell for this F. Scott Fitzgerald lookalike. The final days of his J. Press stewardship were highlighted when he was afforded guest membership at the Yale Club regaling his crowd describing the clothing preferences of their precious peers.

Jerry Haber, squeezed between me and Ken in the sidebar squib, was a whole other story. An indelible occasion repeated time and again by his fans, Jerry was hanging out on the 44th Street sidewalk when he spotted basketball Hall-of-Fame star New York Knickerbocker Walt Frazier inspecting the store window display. “Hey Walt, how about going man to man with J. Press,” Jerry hollered at him.

“I am very sorry,” Frazier replied, “I don’t wear your kind of Ivy League threads.”

Jerry had a close friendship with Sid Zion, acerbic troubleshooter, bombastic columnist, restauranteur, Yale Law School grad and Roy Cohn biographer, the New York City H.L. Mencken of his time. Their favorite hangout was Gallagher’s Steakhouse, once a Roaring 20s speakeasy still evocative of the Roaring Twenties. Former banquet manager Thomas Horan recalls them raucously exploiting and exploding the bar. Sid Zion once confided to me, “Your guy Haber is so hilarious selling clothing, he’s absolutely shameless, but customers absolutely love him.”

Did I enjoy the Heyday on 44th Street as much as my fraternity days at Dartmouth? I plead the fifth amendment.

 

RICHARD PRESS

 

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