My favorite San Francisco happenings occurred from 1968 through 1982 below Nob Hill. In 1968 Jack Kennedy, the J. Press west coast sales rep moved from his showings at the Clift Hotel to managing our new store on 233 Post Street directly across the street from Gump’s legendary department store. Featuring high-end gifts, housewares, and jewelry synonymous with San Francisco in its elegance, Gump’s worldly style and maverick spirit provided a good fit for J. Press.
A well-appointed Ivy Style Heyday window display on the street level fronted the elegant lobby with its private elevator to the second-floor shop. Irving Press, Yale, ’26, designed the store replicating the Eli look of Davenport College’s lounge adjacent to our home store. Nudging nearby Brooks Brothers and Cable Car Clothiers, the Press Boys offered unique York Street New Haven ambiance to Bohemian Club cognoscenti campus adding authenticity for Stanford University with nary an equivalent in Palo Alto.
Jack Kennedy’s Irish bonhomie personalized the San Francisco store panache. After graduating Hillhouse High Kennedy started his retail career selling white bucks at Barrie Ltd., the legendary shoe store side-by-side J. Press in New Haven. Ingratiating himself with his role model Paul Press, my dad spotted rookie talent offering him a job next door. An opening on the J. Press west coast route occurred when the current rep deserted the company to join a New Haven competitor. Kennedy quickly filled the void connecting with the former guy’s fans. Many of the top tier Nob Hill crowd lobbied the Press Boys, Irving, Paul, and yours truly, to open a San Francisco branch with Kennedy as its manager. The shotgun wedding took place shortly thereafter.
Local celebrity Barnaby Conrad enhanced the connection. Conrad was an American artist, author, nightclub proprietor, bull fighter and boxer. Born in San Francisco to an affluent family, he was sent east to prep at the Taft School in Watertown, CT and attended Yale studying painting circa 1943. A man for all seasons, he opened the El Matador nightclub in 1953. A J. Press aficionado since his time at Taft and Yale, the bistro became San Francisco’s version of the New York City Stork Club for local elites to meet, eat and greet.
Local bon vivant Norman Hobman, or Henry Africa as he was also known, opened the Dartmouth Social Club in the Marina on the corner of Greenwich and Fillmore. Capitalizing on the nascent Preppy Handbook craze he recruited genuine Dartmouth graduates to man the bar in white button downs, aprons, and knit ties. Dick Press tippled and sang many Big Green songs at the bar.
In 1982 we were about to lose the lease on the store. Kennedy wanted to move back to New Haven and renew family ties. We felt that our personnel resources were strained and rather than find a new lease, my father was getting older, and Kennedy could replace him in New Haven. We felt it was sensible under these circumstances to not move forward with further investment in San Francisco. It was successful and profitable but expressing prudence over pride we decided to leave on that note.
I left my heart in San Francisco along with plenty of empty highball glasses at El Matador and the Dartmouth Social Club.