Onward. Making certain that LFG never has to search for her daddy.
*I am posting this without permission from Tom Junod or GQ. I will immediately remove this post if there is an attribution or copyright concern.
MY FATHER’S FASHION TIPS
By Tom Junod
As we celebrate fifty years of GQ, we look back at some of the greatest writing the magazine has published. In 1996, in a piece that was nominated for a National Magazine Award, Tom Junod wrote not only of his dad’s impeccable style but also of the secrets—and underwear rules—of a lost generation
GQ, December 1996
First it was Lubriderm, what my father rubbed briskly between his palms and extended in glistening offering. “How about a bit of the Lube?” he’d say when I walked into his bathroom. I was, like, 8 years old, or something, so I had no choice but to put my face in his shiny hands. Then, for a long time, it was Nivea. “How would you like a little…Nivea?” he’d ask, with his brown hands singing. Now it was baby oil. Now he was 77, and I was 38, and we were sharing a room in a hotel near the ocean. He was sitting in bed, and I was sitting on the floor. He poured the oil into his hands and whisked them together, with a sigh of friction, and applied the oil to his face. Then he said, “Here—rub a little baby oil into your kisser. If you want to stay young, you have to keep well lubricated.”
”Baby oil? What happened to Nivea?”
”Too greasy. Baby oil soaks right in. It’s the best thing for a man’s face.”
”Isn’t baby oil just as greasy?”
My father raised a thick eyebrow. “Listen to me,” he said. “Learn my secrets.”
He held out the bottle. I held out my palm. “Good, good,” he said. “Rub it right in—right in…”
There were always secrets. You could not walk into my father’s bathroom and not know there were secrets. Secrets of grooming, secrets of hygiene, secrets of preparation, secrets of the body itself—secrets and knowledge. First of all, he had a bathroom all to himself—his bathroom, Dad’s bathroom. And he made it his, by virtue of what he put in it—his lotions, his sprays, his unguents, his astringents, his cleansers, his emollients, his creams, his gels, his deodorants, his perfume (yes, he used perfume, my father did, as his scent—Jean Naté eau de cologne—for he was, and is, as he will be the first to tell you, a pioneer, as well as a fine-smelling man), his soaps, his shampoos and his collection of black fine-tooth Ace combs, which for years I thought were custom-made, since that was his, Lou Junod’s, nickname in the Army: Ace. He called these things, this mysterious array of applications, his “toiletries” and took them with him wherever he went, in a clanking case of soft beige leather made by the Koret handbag company of New York, and wherever he went he used them to colonize that bathroom, to make that bathroom his own, whether it was in a hotel or someone’s house—because “I need a place to put my toiletries.” He has always been zealous in his hygiene, joyous in his ablutions, and if you want to know what I learned from him, what he taught me, we might as well start there, with what he never had to say: that fashion begins with the body, and has as much to do with your nakedness as it does with your clothes; that style is the public face you put together in private, in secret, behind a door all your own.
I have a sense of style, I guess, but it is not like my father’s—it is not earned, and consequently it is not unwavering, nor inerrant, nor overbearing, nor constructed of equal parts maxim and stricture; it is not certain. It does not start in the morning, when I wake up, and end only at night, when I go to sleep. It is not my creation, nor does it create me; it is ancillary rather than central. I don’t absolutely f’ing live it, is what I’m trying to say. I don’t put it on every time I anoint myself with toilet water or stretch a sock to my knee or squeeze into a pair of black bikini underwear. Which is what my father did. Of course, when I was growing up, he tried as best he could to teach me what he knew, to indoctrinate me—hell, he couldn’t resist, for no man can be as sure as my father is without being also relentlessly and reflexively prescriptive. He tried to pass on to me knowledge that had the whiff of secrets, secrets at once intimate and arcane, such as the time he taught me how to clean my navel with witch hazel. I was 18 and about to go off to college, and so one day he summoned me into his bathroom. “Close the door,” he said. “I have to ask you something.”
”Do you…clean your navel?”
”Well, you should. You’re a man now, and you sweat, and sweat can collect in your navel and produce an odor that is very…offensive.” Then: “This is witch hazel. It eliminates odors. This is a Q-Tip. To clean your navel, just dip the Q-Tip into the witch hazel and then swab the Q-Tip around your navel. For about thirty seconds. You don’t have to do it every day; just once a week or so.” He demonstrated the technique on himself, then handed me my own Q-Tip.
”But Dad, who is going to smell my navel?”
”You’re going off to college, son. You’re going to meet women. You never want to risk turning them off with an offensive odor.”
I never did it—or, rather, I did it that one time and never again. I am a son who has squandered his inheritance, you see; I am incomplete in my knowledge and practice of matters hygienic and sartorial. And yet…I want to know, and that is why one weekend late last summer I wound up staying with my father in a hotel room that smelled of salt water and mildew, with his bag of toiletries spilling out on the bed and a puddle of baby oil shimmering in my palm: for the blessing of his instruction, for the privilege of his secrets. He had always told me that a man is at the peak of his powers from his late thirties to his early fifties, when he has forced the world to hear his footsteps—that a man comes into the peak of his powers when he has power and the world at last bends to him. He never told me, however, that that power can be measured by the number of secrets a man knows and keeps, and that when it became my time to make the world heed my step, I would want to know his secrets, for the paradoxical purpose of safekeeping and promulgation. My father’s fashion tips: I’d listened to them all my life, and now that I was finding myself living by them, I wanted to tell them to the world, if only to understand where in the hell he got them; if only to understand how someone like my father can come to know, without a moment of hesitation or a speck of doubt, that the turtleneck is the most flattering thing a man can wear.
1. The turtleneck is the most flattering thing a man can wear.
This is axiomatic, inflexible and enduring. This is an article of faith and, as we shall see, the underpinning of a whole system of belief. Mention the word turtleneck to any of my college roommates and they will say “the most flattering thing a man can wear.” Mouth the phrase “the most flattering thing a man can wear” and they will say “the turtleneck.” This is because my father was born to proselytize, and when he and my mother visited my college and took me and my friends out to dinner, he sought to convert to his cause not only me—as he has as long as I’ve been alive—but them as well. Those who wore turtlenecks that evening were commended; those who did not were instructed and cajoled. My father was declamatory in the cause of turtlenecks, and as often as possible he wore them himself. Indeed, this is my wife Janet’s first glimpse of Lou Junod: We have sat next to each other, Janet and I, for five hours, as our bus bucked a snowstorm and made its way from a college town in upstate New York to a mall parking lot on Long Island. We have kissed, for the very first time, the night before. We have held hands covertly the entire trip, although she has not yet smelled my neglected navel. Our seats are in the back of the bus, and so we have to wait a long time before we can get out. When we finally reach the front, there is a man standing at the door. He is impatient. He is not standing in the polite semicircle that the other parents have formed outside the bus; indeed, he is trying to stick his face inside the bus, and so we have to wait a long time before we can get out. He is, however, oblivious to whatever confusion he causes, and his chin is held at an imperious tilt. Although snow falls heavily behind him, he has a very dark tan, and his face shines with steadfast lubrication. He is, by his own description, “not a handsome man, but a very attractive one.” He has a strong face: a large nose with a slight hook; thick eyebrows, nearly black; and eyes of pale, fiery green. He is about five-ten and a half, or in his words, “six foot in shoes.” He is wearing a leather windbreaker, unzipped, and a pair of beige pants, which he calls “camel,” and a ribbed turtleneck, tight to his body and pale yellow. Over his heart dangles a set of gold dog tags—his name is on them—and on his left pinkie is a gold ring of diamond and black onyx. He does not wear a wedding band. “Where is he?” he is saying, theatrically, with a habit of elaborate enunciation that lingers lovingly upon every consonant. “Where is…my son?” Janet looks at him and then at me and says, “That’s not…?” I look at him and say, “Hi, Dad.”
Now, the turtleneck in this scene may seem incidental—just another detail, in an accumulation of detail—rather than an organizing principle. Don’t be fooled. Anytime my father wears a turtleneck, he is advancing a cause, and the cause is himself. That is what he means when he says that an article of clothing is “flattering.” That is where his maxim extolling the turtleneck acquires its Euclidean certainty. The turtleneck is the most flattering thing a man can wear because it strips a man down to himself—because it forces a man to project himself. The turtleneck does not decorate, like at tie, or augment, like a sport coat, or in any way distract from what my father calls a man’s “presentation”; rather, it fixes a man in sharp relief and puts his face on a pedestal—first literally, then figuratively. It is about isolation, the turtleneck is; it is about essences and first causes; it is about the body and the face, and that’s all it’s about; and when worn by Lou Junod, it is about Lou Junod. The turtleneck is the most flattering thing a man can wear, then, because it establishes the very standard for flattery in fashion, which is that nothing you wear should ever hide what you want to reveal, or reveal what you want to hide. This is the certainty from which all the other certainties proceed; this is why my father, never a religious man—indeed, a true and irrepressible pagan, literal in his worship of the sun—believes in turtlenecks more than he believes in God.
2. There is nothing like a fresh burn.
I do not know exactly what my father looks like, for I do not know what my father looks like without a suntan. I have never seen him pale or even sallow. He does not often use the word suntan, however because he has been going out in the sun for so long that he has as many words for suntan as Eskimos have for snow. There is, for instance, “color,” which he usually modifies with a diminutive and uses almost exclusively to entice and encourage his three children—my brother, my sister and me—to “go outside, stick your face in the sun and get a little color.” There is also “glow,” which seems to mean the same thing as “color,” but which requires less of a commitment—as in, “Just a half hour! Just a half hour in the sun and you’ll get a little glow, and you’ll look and feel terrific.” But neither a little glow nor a little color can substitute for the nearly mystical properties of “a burn.” Indeed, a burn is such a powerful thing that my father never asks his children to get one. A burn is such a powerful thing that in order to get one for himself my father concocted, in his bathroom, a tanning lotion of his own invention, composed of baby oil, iodine and peroxide (a few years ago, he tried to improve upon it by adding a few drops of Jean Naté, “for the scent,” and it exploded). A burn is such a powerful thing that my father went to great lengths to make sure the sun shined on him, all year round, and turned the world into his personal solarium. In November and December, when he went out on the road for weeks at a time to make a living selling handbags, he always ended his trip in Miami and stayed for a few extra days at the Fontainebleau or the Jockey Club, so that when he finally came home he would come home—and this is another of his Eskimo words—“black.” In January and February, he would dress in ski pants and a winter coat, cover himself with a blanket and sit for hours on the white marble steps that led to the front door of our house on Long Island—steps that were built with their reflective qualities in mind—with a foil reflector in his gloved hands and his oiled face ablaze with winter light. (Me, freezing: “How’s the sun, Dad?” He, with tanning goggles over his eyes: “Like fire.”) In March or April, there was Florida again, or California, and in the summer there was our house in Westhampton Beach, where my father indulged his paganism to its fullest extent; where the ocean was “nectar of the gods”; where the black bikinis he usually wore under his trousers he now wore to the beach; where the reflector now on occasion surrounded his entire body, like some incandescent coffin; where the sound track was my father singing “Summer Wind” and tinkling the ice in his cocktails; where he wore straw fedoras and V-necked angora sweaters; where his sense of style seemed to stretch all the way to the sunset and his burn was forever fresh….
3. Always wear white to the face.
It’s gone now, that house—it’s a goner. The ocean took it away, years ago, and now wind and sand blow through where it used to be, straight to the sea. I mean, there’s nothing left—not even a spike of foundation, nor a snake of plumbing, nor a hank of wiring…not even ruins, to mark, in shadow, my father’s empire of the sun. That’s what we saw, when we drove out there last summer, my father and I, to Westhampton Beach, to 879 Dune Road—that there was nothing at all left to see. Still, we had to see it…and then we had to stay at a hotel called the Dune Deck because, say what you will about the Dune Deck, it’s still standing. You have to give it that. Its paint is faded, and the planks of its eponymous deck are splintery and mossy, and its rooms smell like old water…but at least it is extant and ongoing, this place where my father went to practice the art of swank; where he took my beautiful mother, Fran for dinner; where he always sported drinks for his pals; where the image I remember is him standing at the bar with a gin and tonic, wearing white jeans—which he called “white ducks”—and a sweater over a bare chest, whistling; where, in the summer, the great Teddy Wilson, from the Benny Goodman Trio, played piano; and where, once upon a time, my father stepped up to the mike to sing…at least it is still around, this place where Lou Junod was a star.
A star, yes—that’s what my father was, because that’s what he wanted to be…that’s all he wanted to be. My father’s stardom was unusual in that he didn’t have to do anything to be a star, even though being a star was what he worked at, every day. For instance, my father was a singer without being a singer—without being a pro. A crooner, my dad was, steeped in standards, with a voice that—when it was on—could make you cry. He sang his way through World War II, with an army big band, in a revue called “For Men Only,” after he was twice wounded. He sang all over Europe. He sang in Paris. He sang in an afterhours club with the great swinging gypsy, Django Reinhardt, as his accompanist. He never really stopped singing, either, even when he came home, to my mother, to Brooklyn and then Long Island, and then to us—he used to sing at clubs in New York, at closing time. The Little Club, the Harwyn Club…Not for money—as far as I know, my father never made a dime from his voice—but to put himself across. And when he went to see Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis one night at the Copa and Dino passed the microphone around to patrons and asked them to sing a verse, my father was prepared: He took the microphone in hand and sang to such effect that Dean Martin had to take it back. “Hey,” Dino said, his voice whittled down to a point of low warning. “Hey,” he said, glaring at my father over his shoulder, with a squint, with a glance of sudden, alarmed appraisal, sparked by his knowledge that there was now another man in the room, and to this man attention must be paid.
It was this, more than anything else, that was the true measure of my father’s stardom, especially in the absence of other, more reliable measures, such as box-office returns or record sales or public acclaim: the response he elicited from other stars. See, in my father’s stories—and my father is a man of many stories—he has many encounters with celebrities, and each of them ends in the exact same way: with the celebrity in some way recognizing my father, with the celebrity finally having to take my father into account. If the celebrity is a beautiful woman, she will inevitably end up being unable to take her eyes off him, as in, “I saw Ava Gardner at Bill Miller’s Riviera, with Sinatra, and she couldn’t take her eyes off your old man,” or, “Elizabeth Taylor was there—she couldn’t stop flirting with your father. It started getting embarrassing—embarrassing!” (My father, by the way, is swift and aphoristic in judgment of his peers, and also unsentimental, so that Ava Gardner, in addition to being a “big nympho,” was “shorter than I expected—nothing much,” and Elizabeth Taylor was “short and dumpy, with a little bit of a facial-hair problem.”) And if the celebrity is a man…well, then, he can’t his eyes off my father, either, but his regard is sharper, much more complicated, especially if he is something of a kinsman to my father—a fellow traveler—and as such a potential rival, like Sinatra and Dean Martin. 1952: Sinatra is at the Copa. Sinatra is, in my father’s words, “flat on his ass,” because of Ava, the nympho. He is drinking, and his voice is gone. He makes a request. “ ‘All or Nothing at All,’ ” he says. Sinatra shakes his head. “ ‘All…or Nothing…at All,’ ” my father, commandingly, with his own exaggerated singer’s diction. Sinatra touches his throat and looks at my father, imploringly, pitiably. “Too tough,” he whispers, softly and hoarsely, before leaving the stage. “Too tough.” 1957: My father goes to Vegas for the first time, in the year before my birth. He rents a convertible and drives across the Arizona desert with the top down, and by the time he gets there he is, well, black, and of course, and vibrant with the pulse of the elements themselves. He goes to a coffee shop, and Dean is there, and Dean recognizes him—a nod. And then the next day, my father goes down to the casino, to play at the blackjack table, and Dean walks over, tan like my father, but not of course as tan as my father, and asks the dealer to step aside. “Let me deal to him,” Dean says (or maybe, preferably, “Let me deal to him”), and for the next twenty minutes that’s what he does—Dean Martin deals cards to Lou Junod. It’s just the two of them, two men wearing suits and shirts with French cuffs at twelve o’clock noon, in the middle of the freaking desert, and somewhere along the line it must occur to them—well, at the very least, it occurs to my dad—that they are men who very easily could have lived each other’s lives…which is why my father always told me never to ask for autographs (“They should be asking for your autograph”)…and which, I suppose, is why, thirty-eight years later, when I was about to interview John Travolta, this was my father’s advice: “Where are you staying? Do they have a pool? OK, this is what you do—listen to your father: This afternoon you go to the pool, and you get some goggles to cover your eyes, and you put your face in the sun, and tomorrow you wear white to the face and a nice tie and you show John Travolta how good-looking you are.”
Ah yes, of course—wear white to the face. A white shirt or a shirt with a white collar. Why? Because it’s flattering, that’s why. Because you can’t wear a turtleneck all the time, or even a lot of the time—that’s the tragedy of the turtlenecks—but you can always wear white to the face. And because when you wear white to the face, the light is always shining on you…As it is right now, at the Dune Deck—the sun is shining on my father. He is wearing a polo shirt and khaki shorts and Nike sneakers and white socks. He is retired, and has been for nearly ten years. He has two major complaints, each of which is long-standing: one, that he is “shrinking,” and two, that he is losing his hair, or rather, losing his hair at a race in excess of the rate at which he was losing his hair when he first started complaining about losing his hair, which was at the very least thirty-five years ago. We are drinking cocktails, and our faces are in the sun. “OK, Dad,” I say, “what are some of the rules a man should remember when he’s getting dressed?”
“Well, always try to wear white to the face,” my father says automatically, repeating a motto, a chant, a mantra my brother, Michael, and I have heard, say a thousand times in the course of our lives, usually when we have worn something other than white to the face, and have been accused of thereby “disfiguring” ourselves. “Particularly if you’re tan. Gray is the worst color you can wear. Don’t ever wear a gray shirt. Gray or brown.”
“I have a gray shirt,” I say.
“You do? Never wear it.” Then, after a moment’s reflection, during which my father almost winces, in order to set his teeth for the impeccable rendering of his final judgment: “Burn it.”
4. Make sure to show plenty of cuff.
I bring a Calvin Klein blazer to the Dune Deck to wear at night, and when I show the jacket to my father, I make a confession: “Dad, I think the sleeves are a little long.”
“Get them shortened immediately,” my father says. “For chrissake. I can’t stand long sleeves. Jesus Christ! Don’t waste any time….”
They work, my father’s fashion tips. That’s what’s funny about them, besides the fact that they are…well, funny in the first place. They work, or they worked, for him, for my father. They were cohesive and complementary; they spoke in a single voice; they were his manifesto. Take a look, for example, at a picture of my father standing in a group of his fellow salesmen at a Bar Mitzvah circa 1962. Take a look at the one man whose jacket sleeves cover his shirt cuffs, like the sleeves of a cassock. He does not look merely glum or sour; he looks defeated, whipped, scared, precancerous—a recessive man, with a receding hairline. Now take a look at my father, holding in one pinkie-ringed hand a drink and a cigarette. He is about 43 years old, and, by God, he is glistening, for he is in his prime, and all the elements are in place. He has a fresh burn, and he is wearing a shirt with a high collar. He is wearing a suit of midnight blue, single-breasted, with a silver tie and a handkerchief in the pocket (I’ve never heard him call it a “pocket square”), which he does not fold into regimental points but rather simply “throws in there,” so that what shows is just “a puff.” He is undoubtedly wearing bikini underwear, for anybody who wears boxer shorts is “a square” or “a farmer,” as in, “What are you, a farmer?”; and he is undoubtedly wearing socks, or “hose,” that go “over the calf, knee-high,” for if there’s anything he hates more than long sleeves on a suit jacket, it’s “ankle socks,” because “I can’t stand to see someone sitting down with their ankles showing—their white ankles and their black socks.”
His shirt has French cuffs, of course, and he’s showing plenty of them—“at least an inch”—and he looks sharp… and by sharp I mean avid, by sharp I mean almost feral, by sharp I mean that if this were not a Bar Mitzvah but rather a meeting of the Five Families, when the schnorrer in the long sleeves and the boxer shorts and the ankle socks would be the guy fingered for a rubout, and the guy showing plenty of cuff would be the man commissioned for the kill. 1962: a good time for sharp dressers. 1962: Even the freaking president is a sharp dresser, and he’s just about the same age as my father, and as for him, as for Lou Junod, well, he’s still coming on, and if he looks, in this picture, slightly dangerous, in his own proud display, I also have no doubts that on this resplendent day he was one of the most beautiful men in the world.
“I didn’t grow up with any of the disadvantages,” my father says at the Dune Deck. “I didn’t have any money; I didn’t have any brains—all I had was my looks and my charisma.” Yes, that’s right: His fashion tips worked because they had to work—because he had nothing else. No education to speak of, and no religion worth naming; no father (his father was a briny, bingeing drunk, and whenever any of us mentioned him, whenever any of us used the words “your father,” Dad was quick to correct us: “I had no father”); not even any history (to this day, I have no idea when my father’s forebears came to this country or who they were or where they came from).
He came out of nowhere, thirteen pounds at birth, born to a great, kindly bawdy woman who played piano in the pits of silent-movie houses. So he was big from the start, Big Lou, but that’s all he was, and so he had to just keep getting bigger—for my father, it was celebrity or bust. His mentors, his teachers, his influences—they weren’t men; they were gorgeous silvered shadows, dancing across movie screens…and by the time he was 16 or 17, he was singing their songs, blanching the Brooklyn from his voice on the way home from the theater, and he was dressing like them, or trying to, anyway, and so was everybody else. That’s the most amazing thing about listening to my father’s stories of his coming of age—the sheer aspiration in them, and how easily it was shared and passed around; the way so many of them begin with my father and one of his rivals squaring off for a fight over a girl and end with the two of them recognizing each other before they ever come to blows and then going off somewhere to talk about clothes, of all things, and about style, and about class, and to argue over who was the better dresser, Fred Astaire or Cary Grant or Walter Pidgeon. My father believed, absolutely, in the old saw, at once terrifying and liberating, that “clothes make the man,” and so did his friends, and so everything they wore had to tell a story, and the story had to be about them, because otherwise, the world was never going to hear it. That’s really my father’s first fashion tip, come to think of it: that everything you wear has to add up, that everything has to make sense and absolutely f’ing signify.
He did not come up in the current culture of corporate individualism, so he could not let himself off the hook by wearing some fucking T-shirt that says NIKE on the front or CHICAGO BULLS; he has never been able to understand the utility of dressing, intentionally, like a slob, nor to discern what preference a heterosexual man is advertising when he wears an earring. “What do they mean?” he asks of earrings. “I’ve asked, and I’ve never gotten a good answer. Do they mean that you’re a swinger? Do they mean that you’re free? Nobody’s ever been able to tell me….”
Irony? Irony is no answer, because in my father’s view a man is not allowed irony in the wearing of clothes. Irony is for women, because for them clothes are all about play, all about tease and preamble—because for them dressing is all about undressing. For a man, though, clothes both determine and mark his place in the world; they are about coming from nakedness, rather than going to it—and so irony spells diminution, because irony says that you don’t mean it…and you have to mean it. You have to mean what you wear. Hell, my father remembers what he wore at just about every important moment in his life, and even at moments of no importance at all—moments whose only meaning derived from the fact that my father was wearing clothes worth remembering; moments when it might have seemed to my father that the clothes on his back and the sincere force with which he wore them were enough to deliver him where he wanted to go: “You know, I used to walk on a cloud when I walked down Fifth Avenue and went to La Grenouille for lunch. Like I owned it, you know? I remember one day I met [a fellow salesman, named Joel] with his wife. I was wearing a beige glen-plaid suit—beautiful—and a shirt with a white collar, with a silk grenadine tie and a set of nice cuff links, and Joel’s wife said, ‘Joel, I never saw anything like it. Look at the way these women are carrying on over Lou. Every place we go. It’s unbelievable.’ And it was. It really was. And I used to feel so good, I couldn’t believe it—and that was enough to satisfy me. I didn’t have to go any further with it. And whatever aspirations I had of being theatrical, of being in show business, I was—I was.”
5. The better you look, the more money you make.
There is a woman at the Dune Deck with a dark tan and long black hair and a block of brilliant white teeth. “My God,” my father says, “what teeth! Those are the most beautiful teeth I’ve ever seen in the flesh.” Now, I must say that I’ve heard this before, that this is not a particularly unusual utterance from the mouth of my father, because my father has a white fetish—as evidenced by his white cars, white pants, white collars, white marble steps, etc.—and on top of his white fetish he has a teeth fetish, so white teeth move him greatly, often in the direction of hyperbole, in regard to both women and men. For instance, a couple of years ago, I went to a baseball game in Atlanta with my parents and ran into a friend of mind named Vince. “My God, what teeth he had!” my father said when we got back to our seats. “Those are the most beautiful teeth I’ve ever seen in a man.” He has also been known to ask, flat out, upon first meeting someone, “Are those your teeth? Jesus, if I’d had teeth like yours…”
My father does not have great teeth, nor do I. Oh sure, has white teeth now, but as he says, “Those are all money; those are all work.” Back when he was singing, he was very self-conscious about his dingy choppers, and he often wonders now whether his teeth were what prevented him from going as far as he could have gone in show business. And as for my teeth…well, I was sick a lot when I was a kid and ran a lot of fevers and took a lot of medicines, and so it’s like someone lit a Magic Snake in my mouth—my teeth are an efflorescence of sulfur and carbon and ash. My mouth is forever in the shadows, and so it is no surprise to me, when we go back to our room at the hotel, my father and I, and lie together on his bed, staring at a ceiling slovenly with unsealed seams, that my father says, as he has said so many times before, “Do you mind if I ask you a question? You can tell me to mind my business, but when are you going to get your teeth fixed? What are you waiting for? You’re in the entertainment business now, son—the better you look, the more money you make. Will you listen to your old man for once? The better you look, the more money you make. The better you look, the more money you make.
I don’t tell him what I realize, at precisely this moment, in answer to his aphorism—that I have chosen to make a living out of printed words for the very purpose of transcending my dim teeth, my shadowed mouth. And I don’t tell him, because, for my father, there is no possibility of transcendence: He is attached to his teeth, and attached to his body, and attached to his clothes, in a way that I have never been attached to mine. He has nothing else now, except his family, which has become everything to him, while I have this, this urge not to sing but to somehow speak and tell…except that of course in the end writing is the same as wearing clothes: You do it to have some say over how you look to the world, and you wind up revealing precisely what you’ve hidden, and more than you will ever know.
“Dad, what’s the best you’ve ever looked?” I ask him that night at dinner. “I mean, the precise moment when you looked your best.” I figure that he will know the answer to this one. I figure that he will talk about the Bar Mitzvah in 1962, or walking down Fifth Avenue to La Grenouille, or coming down the stairs at El Morocco and feeling like “a bride at her wedding,” or the night he sang to close a club in Dallas and Zsa Zsa Gabor danced in lonely circles in front of the microphone…I figure that there will be a single instant when the world opened up to him and that it will be emblazoned upon his memory. But, no—there is no single instant, and when my father answers my question it is without hesitation: “The best I ever looked? Every day of my life. People will think I’m crazy, but I mean it. I felt like a celebrity every day of my life. I looked so good, I never wanted to go to bed.”
We have the best table in the house, at the restaurant located within the Dune Deck, which is named after its chef, Starr Boggs, and which, by the way, is excellent—or, in my father’s appraisal, elegant. We are sitting at a corner table, by a window through which you can see the black and white of the ocean and hear its yawn and sizzle and splat, and my father is wearing a yellow polo shirt, white ducks, brown loafers and a white zippered windbreaker with epaulets. I am wearing khakis and a white button dress shirt, with its collar unbuttoned, and the Calvin Klein blazer, which my father asked me not to wear when we were getting dressed for dinner: “You’re not going to wear a jacket, are you? Aw, c’mon Tommy—I didn’t pack one because I didn’t think we’d need one. You’re going to make me look bad.” Then he went downstairs to get a drink at the bar before dinner, and as soon as he left the room I put the blazer on and didn’t take it off. I wasn’t trying to make my father look bad or show him up, but, hell, it was my genetic destiny to wear that jacket and I was ready to claim it. And besides, I had a little glow, and I was wearing white to the face, and I left the cuffs of my shirt unbuttoned in order to show them off, and I have to admit that I looked pretty fucking good. “Look at you, you son of a bitch,” my father said when I walked into the bar. “You look handsome—handsome! You see what a little color can do? But you have to work on it. You should forget that natural stuff and try to get a little sun whenever you can. That natural stuff doesn’t cut it anymore—it’s not very in….”
Does my father look handsome on this night, at the best table in the house? He does; he does, indeed. And now, to tell him so, here come the women. Or, I should say, the woman—in this case, a woman about my father’s age, whose face is etched with lines of runic complexity and who is wearing a visor that says ROYAL VIKING PRINCESS and enormous square eyeglasses and a white-on-blue polka-dotted jacket over a blue-on-white polka-dotted dress: a peppy, strapping old gal who limps over to our table on a four-pronged cane and says, “Tell me, did you two get the best table in the house because you’re so good-looking, or do you know the owner?” Then she looks at my father and introduces herself: “Clara. Clara Straus. As in Johann….” Then she leaves, to no music, and we order our food, and when I choose our wine, my father—who is watching me, who is always watching—says, “You’ve got style, kid; you’ve got style.” His eyes draw fire and color from drink, and now they focus, with an intense effrontery, on the table behind me. “There’s an actress over there, and I forget her name. begins with an l. Very famous.” I turn around for a second and see a tiny, dark-haired woman with an even tinier head, a woman who is at once exquisite and insectoid, and who is so perfectly composed that she seems to turn all movement into a tremble.
“Susan Lucci,” I say.
“That’s right, that’s right,” my father says. “Is that her? Your mother doesn’t like her, you know. Not a lot of women do. She’s the kind of woman that men like and women don’t.”
Can she keep her eyes of my father? I don’t know, because for the remainder of the meal my back stays to her. But he can’t keep his eyes off her, that’s for sure; and at one point, he dips his chin, and as he scrutinizes her he strikes a pose of suave regard.
“Dad, what are you doing?”
“Trying to catch her eye,” he says.
“Well, is it working?”
“She’s weakening, my son,” my father says. “She’s weakening.”
We stay at the bar after we finish our meal because my father wants to drink grasshoppers (“You’ve never had a grasshopper? They were the in drink at one time”) but mainly because he doesn’t want the night to end. “I don’t have to tell you how much this means to me,” he says, with his brown, mottled hand around my wrist. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a place like this—with a crowd like this.” Yes, my father is part of the crowd again, part of the crowd of hustlers and jostlers and guys coming on, of cigar smokers and martini drinkers and a woman in a silvery blue cocktail dress who is, in my father’s estimation, “stacked”…and so the lessons never stop. “Dad, what do you think about that guy turning up his collar under his blazer?” “You father did that fifty years ago.” “Dad, what do you think of band-collared shirts?” “I’d war a band-collared shirt—to bed. They look like pajamas. The worst is when they’re worn with tuxedos. I can’t stand that. They look like the dirty undershirt Dean Martin wore in Rio Bravo.”
He falls asleep, in his clothes, the moment we get back to the room. He snores, with his fingers folded on top of his navel, and I take off my shoes and walk down to the ocean, in my blazer and khakis, under a black seam that splits the spangled sky and vaults out into the ocean forever. The only excuse for a man to grow a beard is if he has a weak chin or acne—that’s what I know from my father. Make sure to splash some cologne on your privates—that’s another thing. Never wear navy blue and black—that’s what I came to know on the morning of my wedding, when I wore a navy blue suit and black shoes, and my father said, “What are you—a policeman?” (“But Dad, what kind of shoes should you wear?” “With a navy blue suit? Navy blue shoes.”) As for the rest…as for everything else…not what I know of him—that’s harder, of course, because, well, why do you wear clothes in the first place, if not to cover up? I mean, Adam and Eve found that quick enough—that clothes are totems of simultaneous confession and disguise. They are masks that unmask you, and what I knew of my father, through his clothes, was this: that he was going out. That he was going away.
That he was heading for Miami or Atlanta or Dallas…that he was dressing for other people, an audience somewhere; that he was dressing for Frank and Ava and Dino and Liz and Zsa Zsa; that he was dressing for the world; that he belonged to the world as much as he belonged to us, and we had to let him go. Let him go—that’s what my mother always said when my father was going out, and a few months ago, when I visited one of our old next-door neighbors, this is what she told me: “I remember one day your father was flying south, and he had a black tan, and he was wearing a white Bill Blass jumpsuit with a zipper, and I said to myself, ‘This is the most gorgeous creature I’ve ever seen.’ And I said to your mother, ‘Fran, are you going to let this man out like this?’ And your mother said, ‘Ah, let him go. Let him go.’ ”
And then he came back. He always came back, to tell us what he had seen and what he had found out. He always had news, my father did—he always had the scoop, about who had the smile, who had the handshake, who had the toup. He always told me what I needed to know about the world…and the world told me what I needed to know about him—that, yes, indeed, he owned it. He was a terror, my father, when I was young—he was hell-bent on mastery, and for years I was afraid of him…the sheer booming size of him. Then, for a long time, I idolized him, until I realized, not very long ago, that I have spent my entire life moving toward him. See, my father doesn’t belong to the world anymore—he’s given it up, or it’s given him up, or it’s just flat gone, like our beach house down the road. His world is no bigger now than his family, and he doesn’t even have to dress for it. But certain things still belong to him, and now, here I am, standing on the beach in the dark, with a $700 jacket on my back and my trousers rolled and my father snoring back in the room, and I’m stepping into the ink of the ocean—because just as the ocean inn Westhampton will always be his, his secrets will always be his secrets. Lou Junod: He was determined to make his mark, and God, he did, and now, as I walk into my life I walk into his, into the gift he gave me, his first and final fashion tip: the knowledge that a man doesn’t belong to anyone. That he belongs to his secrets. That his secrets belong to him.