The current trend among crooks and Russian oligarchs laundering eight hundred grand a year on their threads touched memory lane regarding my all-time favorite J. Press Big Shot.
Charles Engelhard, Jr. established the gold standard of elegance at J. Press.
Engelhard’s wardrobe alliance began in the mid-1930s at St. Paul’s School where he patronized the regular J. Press travel exhibits and continued at the shop on Nassau Street while he attended Princeton, graduating in 1939. Upon the death of his father in 1950, he inherited the family business and substantially expanded operations in South Africa, South America and Europe, becoming one of the world’s leading refiners of precious metals.
Sports Illustrated in a 1969 feature tabbed him “The Platinum King,” mogul of a vast economic empire, who pleasured himself with Coca Cola, Hershey Kisses, and a multimillion-dollar stable competing on three continents. The quote depicting his Sprezzatura: “That morning in the Aiken, South Carolina stable Engelhard was sockless, his feet dipped in fleece-lined hide boots. He wore two sweaters, a bulky scarlet and a blue which rolled and bunched over mustard slacks— disordered clothing that would hardly fit the image of an international tycoon.”
Whenever Mr. Engelhard got off the elevator on 44th Street, Walter Napoleon, star salesman and manager of the New York store, made certain there were plenty of iced Coca-Colas and a bowl of Hershey Kisses next to the swatches. One day however, he had an experience much less sweet. Mr. Engelhard (as he was always called) was in the midst of his annual winter visit when a worker crashed through a fake ceiling with the air conditioning unit he was installing, both landing between Engelhard and Walter Napoleon. Bolts of woolens together with piles of swatch books were strewn around the wreckage between the two, yet miraculously nobody was hurt. Mr. Napoleon kept his pad and pencil out and, not missing a beat, Charlie continued to mark and select swatches.
The 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger, adapted from Ian Fleming’s spy thriller of the same name, brought Engelhard unwanted celebrity. A man for all seasons, Fleming was author, journalist and a former British investigator in World War II. He was also a longtime Engelhard pal familiar with Engelhard’s intricate mineral and financial machinations, and modeled arch-fiend Auric Goldfinger on Mr. Engelhard.
Engelhard’s forays at J. Press occurred every January, with final try-ons slated for the middle of March. During that time, legions of tailors in the shops of New York and New Haven devoted their energies finishing the extensive order, with extra cloth available to meet the demanding requirements of his President William Howard Taft body proportions.
Engelhard’s annual order: multiple quantities of overcoats, topcoats, suits, sportcoats, blazers and trousers with all the trappings of furnishings and haberdashery — were equally shipped to Cragwood Stables, his estate in Far Hills, New Jersey, The Waldorf Towers in New York, apartments in London and Rome, the Dolder Grand Hotel in Zurich, the mansion in Johannesburg, lodge in the lion country of the Eastern Transvaal, salmon camp in Gaspé, Quebec, and his beach house in Boca Grande, Florida. Additional sport and warm weather gear went to the horse farms, fishing camps, hunting lodges, and whatever other venue required special treatment.
Every detail was carefully supervised by his wife Jane, a brilliant “10 Best Dressed Woman” whom the New York society pages affectionately called, “Our Mother Superior.” Mrs. Engelhard once brought a men’s size 52 mink coat, directing me to attach it to the lining of a Burberry trench coat, a birthday gift for her husband. She ordered a full range of custom suits every Christmas for Derek, her husband’s valet. I received an emergency call from her in 1967, informing me that she and her husband were leaving on Air Force One with President Lyndon Johnson to attend the state funeral for Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt, tragically drowned that morning. Her husband had gained weight since he last wore funeral garments, and Derek would deliver them to the store pronto. She was confident Felix Samelson, our master fitter, would understand what alterations would be required sight-unseen. Derek would leave the following morning on the Engelhard private plane to deliver the garments on time for the event.
When her husband died March 17, 1971 at their house in Boca Grande, Mrs. Engelhard called to tell me she would be honored, if Felix, my Uncle Irving, and I would be her guests at the funeral. Irving was traveling in Europe, but we were seated in the pews of St. Mary’s Abbey Church in Morris Township, New Jersey, alongside former President Johnson, former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Senator Ted Kennedy, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield.
Goldfinger was the man with the “Midas Touch”, but Charlie Engelhard brought home the bacon at J. Press with a touch of Ivy class.