James Cagney was haunted by Shanghai Lil in the 1933 film Footlight Parade. “I’ve been looking high, and I’ve been looking low, looking for my Shanghai Lil.”
My Shanghai Lil is a merry-go-round of several J. Press customers who informed my life on 44th Street so many years ago.
My obeisance to them remains fixed in time. Wary to this day of retribution, allow me to camouflage the name of a Mafia don who favored Holland & Sherry Superfine 130s English Worsteds.
Banana Sal, lovingly referred to by his fellow members of The Triangle Social Club in Greenwich Village arrived at J. Press in the late sixties. Graciously “waited on” by star salesman Ken Trommers, his 5’6” balletic frame favored bespoke suits, blazers and sport jackets with basted try-ons carefully razored by fitter Felix Samelson who honed his craft surviving as a youngster in the Auschwitz tailor shop fitting SS officers.
Banana Sal winged our credit requirements paying cash for every order which numbered in the dozens. I regularly chatted with him about his foulard tie choice for each item, the New York Yankees or my own Third Avenue neighborhood haunt he allegedly owned a piece, Tre Amici.
The story woefully ends in the middle seventies with his unexpected departure leaving three fully paid unfinished suits on the try-on rack.
Pivoting to a J. Press jailbird, the longtime patronage of Alger Hiss follows me to this day. Hiss graduated Harvard Law ’29 serving at the top rungs of government under FDR, but he also served three years and eight months in federal prison for a hotly contested perjury conviction engineered by then Congressman Richard Nixon suggesting he was a Soviet spy. New York Store Manager Henry Press (no relation) spent decades attending his post-prison clothing requirements. Irving Press, Yale Law ’26, engaged in many legal dialogues with him. Painfully naive Richard Press shared with Hiss our mutual joy the time of Nixon’s 1974 White House resignation. Without getting deep into the mud Hiss’ role as a Soviet agent is still murky.
My J. Press Shanghai Lil — take your choice, Alger Hiss or Banana Sal.
Outstanding. However, while Banana Sal was a retail gangster, Moscow Alger was a wholesale facilitator of monsters and their Gulag.
While some contributors may recall my regrets at the discarded detail which once enhanced gentlemens’ dress, I wonder who would support me in the forgotten pleasure of studying the detailed presentation of neckwear affiliations.
Surveying the school, club and regimental color schemes presented in detailed pages was always a pleasant task in adding to one’s necktie collection or deciding how to best coordinate with the wearer’s OCBD, blazer or suit jacket.
That pleasure has apparently now been set aside unless a store visit is possible. Scott Fitzgerald could have expressed a lament in his writings.
Love these “old timey” stories. At a recent meeting the 69-year-old me wearing a tan J. Press poplin, was told by a much younger attendee as we were looking at a non-cutting edge product , that it was “old timey” and pointed at me exclaiming- “like you”. Thanks for the compliment
Terrific story. The tailor and the gangster, quite a crossroad of individual histories
With my compliments.
I remember Ken. He was the only sales person I would go to. Peter behind the shirts sitting on his stool with his slippers on. Great conversation with the 2 of them. you also had a guy named Tom O’Donahoe working there. He and his father ran a clothing store in Rochester,NY.
If they asked you, you could write a book…LOL. Entertaining, as always.
There is no doubt that the nefarious Alger Hiss was a Soviet agent. Whitaker Chambers exposed him and wrote about the incident in WITNESS. Declassified Soviet archives even have on file the code name — AILES — that the KGB used for Hiss. Allen Weinstein set out to write an exoneration iof Hiss, but he found in his research that the evidence against Hiss was so overwhelming, that he (Weinstein) confirmed in his book PERJURY that Hiss was irrefutably and without doubt a Soviet agent. He also confirmed irrefutably that Hiss was a craven, ignominious liar and traitor. (Whitaker Chambers’s biographer Sam Tannehaus also reached the same conclusion.)
Can safely say Sal’s the more honorable customer, having had to research the latest information on Hiss from the then recently opened Soviet wiretaps on which Hiss was IDed as an important asset for them.
Nixon wasn’t right about everything of course, but about Hiss he was.
Hoping to get your take on this fall’s Donegal lineup when it’s available…
Forget to mention Foolight Parade is a classic and the Shanghai Lil segment is truly something to see
George Will: “The myth of Alger Hiss’s innocence has suffered the death of a thousand cuts.”
Wonderful article evoking a time when people were true characters , not merely tasteless media creations and knew how to dress with the assistance of true craftsmen
Another terrific reflection. But graduate is transitive. One graduates from a school.