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.