Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Evander Berry Wall: King of the Dudes

Evander Berry Wall in 1927.
by Delia von Neuschatz

There is one colorful society leader who, if he were around today, surely would have thought he had died and gone to heaven had he been in New York last week. Social arbiter, international clotheshorse, and legendary lover of chows, Evander Berry Wall would have sat front row and center at the fashion shows and at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

A lifelong owner of chows named either Chi-Chi and Toi-Toi, Berry certainly would have applauded along with Martha Stewart when her dog, G.K., won top honors in the chow chow competition last Monday. Indeed, with his sartorial savoir-faire and natural love of display, he could have given the beauties on hand (of the human and canine kind) a master class in preening. 
Berry with his chow chow Chi-Chi in Paris in the 1920s. Berry refused to seek refuge in England during World War I on account of England’s tough quarantine laws which would have separated him from Chi-Chi for six months. Martha Stewart with her chow chow G. K. (Ghenkis Khan) II who won “Best in Breed” at the 136th annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
E. Berry Wall (1861 – 1940) was a bon vivant leader of café society whose fashion flair brought him fame far and wide. He was known as the Best Dressed American in Europe and in the US, and reveled in his title as “King of the Dudes” (“dude” meaning “dandy.”) He was considered a fashion pioneer and trend-setter who could claim, among other things, to have introduced the tuxedo or dinner jacket to Americans as an option to the formal tailcoat.

Berry lived life with a single-minded pursuit of pleasure. He was a socialite and fashion plate bar-none and wasn’t ashamed to admit it in the roiling, striving atmosphere of Belle Époque New York. In fact, he quit New York for Paris permanently in 1912 complaining that New York had “become fit only for businessmen.”
Berry’s Savile Row tailors, Henry Poole & Co. had made him a jacket “to be worn for a quiet dinner at home or at an evening’s entertainment at any of the summer resorts.” When he wore it for the first time at a ball at the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga, where he “had taken a very pretty girl,” he was immediately ordered off the premises and not allowed back in until he had changed into a more traditional tailcoat. Berry was vindicated soon thereafter, however, for by 1889 the dinner jacket had caught on. Berry held Henry Poole & Co. in very high esteem, considering anyone not being dressed by them to be a “Happy Hooligan.”
The Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York, ca. 1880. At the end of the 19th century, Saratoga Springs was a popular summer resort for East Coast society. And the Grand Union Hotel was, by far, the grandest hotel in Saratoga. In its day, it was the world's largest hostelry, covering seven acres of ground with 834 rooms, 12 miles of red carpeting and a solid square mile of marble tiling.
Berry in a caricature by French illustrator, Sem. He is shown at Charvet declaring “Look here! I want a Chinese neck-tie for my dog.” Berry Wall with legendary Ritz bartender Frank Meier. Frank concocted a drink in Berry’s name.
In Paris, Berry continued his reign as fashion royalty, cutting a striking figure wherever he went, sporting a stiff Edwardian-style collar and glinting monocle. His most conspicuous accoutrement, however, was indisputably his russet chow who wore “spread-eagle” collars and cravats custom-made for him in the same style and fabric as his master’s by Charvet.

This 1902 caricature of Berry Wall in The New York Times shows him in one of his “very extraordinary” costumes: a dust coat of a reddish Havana brown, a suit made of a large grey shepherd plaid check; extremely wide trousers tapered at the ankle, and turned up several inches to display white spats and highly varnished shoes; a "startling" striped shirt in red and sky blue, with very high false collar of a pattern different from the shirts, a striped vest and a widely spread stock-cravat.
Berry’s chows accompanied him everywhere – even to dinner at the Ritz.

By the time Berry turned 22, he had inherited a fortune from his grandfather and then another one from his father totaling $2 million (the equivalent of about $43 million today) which allowed him to indulge all of his sartorial and pleasure-seeking fantasies.

These fantasies included a stable of race horses and a wardrobe containing no less than 5,000 custom-made ties and 500 pairs of pants – all in all, enough gear for 500 complete changes of wardrobe. As he was reputed to change his tie six times a day, all those cravats must have come in handy.

Nor were Berry’s ensembles a Beau Brummell model of quiet refinement. Berry liked his colors bright and his patterns bold. He wore lavender spats, loud checked suits and a profusion of tweeds – sometimes all together. His fashion philosophy was simple: “Find what suits you and always wear it.”

His status as fashion royalty was cemented at the height of the 1888 summer racing season. On a bet one August day in Saratoga Springs, Berry changed clothes 40 times between breakfast and dinner.

This was no small feat considering that on an average of every 18 minutes, Berry, with the help of his valet, had buttoned up 40 sets of spats, attached 40 starched collars onto 40 shirts, secured 40 sets of cufflinks onto 40 sets of cuffs and stuck as many different pins into as many different Ascot ties.

Berry’s feat was telegraphed around the country, making him an instant celebrity, prompting a reporter, Blakely Hall, to bestow upon him the title “King of the Dudes.” “Dude” was a pejorative term meaning “dandy," but Berry wore the title with pride.
Berry in his moment of triumph as “King of the Dudes” at Saratoga Springs, New York in August, 1888. At the dinner hour, Berry emerged triumphant but exhausted at the top of the steps of the fashionable United States Hotel, in his 40th and last outfit of the day. The crowd erupted into cheers and the hotel band struck up “Hail the Conquering Hero Comes.”
Thereafter, Hall publicized Berry’s sartorial adventures in weekly installments. A rival reporter, nosing a good story, declared flamboyant matinée idol Robert “Handsome Bob” Hilliard to be the true fashion sovereign and the race was on. The New York Times reported that Berry managed to hold on to the crown when, months later, during the worst blizzard to have hit New York to date, he strode into the Hoffman House Hotel in gleaming, thigh-high patent leather boots.

Some historians maintain, however, that it was Hilliard who was so elegantly prepared for the storm and not Berry. Whoever the winner was, there is no doubt that keeping up appearances, coupled with a string of bad investments, took its financial toll on Berry. In 1899, he declared bankruptcy. It had taken him less than 20 years to blow through more than $40 million in today’s money. Another royal sobriquet was now added to his list of monikers – “Prince Prodigal.”
Berry Wall in 1888 during the "Battle of the Dudes" sporting one of his horse-blanket plaid coats. Mrs. E. B. Wall, ca. 1890. Berry wrote in his memoirs, Neither Pest Nor Puritan, that his wife remained to him all his life “the most beautiful and the most charming and the kindest woman on earth.” According to him, their honeymoon had never ended.
Still, while in France, he and his wife, the former Miss Salome “Lomie” Melbourne of Washington DC whom he married in 1887, managed to live with panache. An eventual  legacy from his mother (a third inheritance) put in trust for him along with various stints by Berry as a stock broker and champagne salesman, helped maintain their elegant lifestyle.

Flitting between all the fashionable watering holes of Aix-les-Bains, Deauville, Biarritz, and Monte Carlo, Berry and his wife became fixtures of the international “jet set,” rubbing elbows with the likes of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the Aga Khan, Grand Duke Dmitri, and King Alfonso XIII of Spain. In Paris, the couple took up residence in a luxurious suite of rooms at the Hotel Meurice, dining out and dancing virtually every evening, rarely retiring before daylight.
Mr. and Mrs. Berry Wall with their chow chow in the 1920s. Inset: One can read about Chi-Chi’s fashionable life by perusing his memoirs, written by his mistress.
Soon, however, the reality of WWI hit home and Berry and Lomie threw themselves into the war effort, raising funds for the wounded, particularly for blinded servicemen. At the end of the war, they were each awarded the Legion of Honor in recognition of their charitable activities. Socially-speaking, the Walls managed to enlarge their circle of friends and acquaintances at this time. 

Through circumstance, the hostilities had brought them in touch with a wide variety of people including the ill-fated spy, Mata Hari, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, King Leopold’s notorious mistress, Caroline Lacroix, sculptor Auguste Rodin, and pianist Arthur Rubinstein.
A postcard of King Leopold II of Belgium and his mistress, Caroline Lacroix, a prostitute and rumored daughter of a janitor. The 65-year-old king encountered 16-year-old Caroline in a hotel in Paris. According to Berry, the old monarch became instantly smitten with her apparent indifference to his exalted status. Thereafter, he lavished upon her extravagant gifts of money, jewels and estates throwing a noble title (Baroness Vaughan) into the bargain. Caroline was to be his last and most notorious mistress, staying with him until his death in 1909. This affair rendered the old king even more unpopular than the atrocities he had committed in the Belgian Congo.
Portrait of E. B. Wall by renowned fauvist painter Kees van Dongen, 1939. It’s a shame this plate is in black and white because van Dongen and his fellow fauvists were known for their bright use of color. Berry Wall with Marie-Claire van Dongen, Kees van Dongen’s wife and “one of the prettiest artist’s models” according to Berry, in Deauville, late 1930s. This photo was taken by famed photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue.
After the war, the Walls resumed their frenetic social life, bouncing from one glittering spot to another; being entertained and entertaining their high-wattage friends. Lomie died in 1936 at the age of 67. Her husband would outlive her by four years.

Berry credited his longevity to staying away from doctors ("There are more old drunkards than there are old doctors ..."), never drinking water (he claimed to drink only champagne, reportedly quaffing two pints with breakfast alone), and to living according to his general philosophy of life laid out in his memoirs titled Neither Pest Nor Puritan, The Memoirs of E. Berry Wall (Dial Press, 1940): “… that the object of life is to do what you have to do and to do it well. That is the art of living.”

Berry Wall died on May 5, 1940 at the age of 79 in one of his favorite places on earth – Monte Carlo. His death was timely in that he only had $12,608 left to his name (about $200,000 today), having spent nearly every cent of his fortune on the unabashed pursuit of pleasure.