Preppy Handbooks—or, The Hidden History of the P-Word

Lisa Birnbach, Editor
The Official Preppy Handbook
New York: Workman Publishing, 1980

The Official Preppy Handbook was originally published in late 1980. It spawned many imitators and at least one quasi-sequel (True Prep, 2010), as well as various updated and deluxe editions. It also helped to launch a genre of humor books that mixed faux sociology and sartorial fun. I touched on that trend a year ago in my supercilious takedown of 1984’s The Yuppie Handbook.

But Preppy Handbook had much more influence and staying power than the other gag books. For a long while anti-hipsters took it seriously as a guide for living—a combo of Dress for Success and The Status Seekers. Clothing designers and retailers let the so-called “preppy” look dominate their product for years and years. In the 1980s, J. Crew appeared as a mail-order and shopping-mall chain, its whole purpose seemingly that of providing an endless, ready source of mid-priced “classic” clothing that you wouldn’t have to hunt around for in department stores.

The book itself wasn’t enormously funny but its promotion was hilarious. The lead author/editor, Lisa Birnbach, was herself no “preppy” by education or background, being a product of an Ethical Culture (secular Jewish) day school in the Bronx, followed by Brown University. But someone at Workman Publishing decided she was close enough; and thus she was drafted “to hold the reigns [sic] of a book we see as The Preppy Catalogue.” In addition she would play the morning talk-show circuit and explain “preppy” traditions and lifestyle.

And so there she was on The TODAY Show—early 1981, I think it was—promoting The Official Preppy Handbook, and explaining the style of Quality Folks to Bryant Gumbel. But she was a trouper, played it for laughs, and seemed to be enjoying it all. I don’t have a video of that TODAY segment, so like Captain Queeg I can only cover these things roughly, from memory. I believe it was about 8 o’clock in the morning and I was getting dressed for work. But I was riveted by the high irony on the tube: a Sportscaster-of-Color (Gumbel) in suit and tie, interviewing a young Ms. Birnbach who was all togged out in clothes that would have been perfectly at home in a 1964 advertisement for the Villager Collection in Seventeen magazine. Birnbach opened by explaining her own special “layered” outfit: Fair Isle sweater with Henley-neck collar, unbuttoned to show a single string of pearls worn over thin white turtleneck. That, she said, was “preppy.” Another “preppy” thing, supposedly, was anything in tartan or plaid design, like the red-blue-white cover pattern which the book tells us is supposed to be madras fabric. (Madras—truly? These writers thought madras was traditional and high-class? Old slides and snapshots tell me that madras was mainly for loud summer sportscoats and Bermuda shorts, circa 1964.)

In the book, affected dowdiness is the recommended fashion. The Talbots chain scored very high in the Preppy Handbook‘s estimation. In those days, at least, The Talbots specialized in overpriced, over-upholstered business suits and A-line dresses for suburban women in their fifties, not girls in secondary school and college. Preppy Handbook also informed us that the “duck motif” is a sacred emblem among preppy families. So aspiring preppy-wannabes should acquire plenty of duck-bedecked wastebaskets, keychains, toilet kits, weathervanes, etc., etc.

My takeaway to all this was that the class being described is actually just people who spend a lot of time at yard sales, thrift shops, and antique barns.

The book supplies lists of secondary schools, day and boarding; and universities where preppy style is best maintained, supposedly. It’s notable that most of the colleges are party schools, often in the South, with modest SAT needs. You are warned against setting your sights on MIT, Oberlin, Sarah Lawrence, University of Chicago, or Columbia, because they are too hard and/or too weird. When interviewed for secondary school, don’t wear a LaCoste shirt or sneakers (if you’re a boy) or a short skirt with platform shoes (if a girl). Boys at interviews should wear blue blazers; girls, plaid skirts. Loafers recommended for both. If you wish to dress weird, please wait until after you’re admitted.

As this suggests, the book often drags a bit and falls down in the humor department. Its half-dozen main contributors (there are also untold dozens of other friends & helpers in Acknowledgements) all often seem to be going off in different directions. So the university listings are full of snark, while that prep-school interview advice leans toward earnest, helpful hints. Much of the book is padded with commemorations of debutantes and prep role models. Their relevance is elusive, other than being rich and/or famous. (1938 Debutante of the Year Brenda Frazier? Gloria Vanderbilt? Dick Cavett? Where did he prep?)

There are many paradoxes in this flummery, but the biggest is that the p-word was really a derogatory term. This goes unacknowledged today because in pop consciousness the word “preppy,” noun and adjective, is mainly associated with clothing style. Its earlier, sneering connotation has been lost to memory.

The origin of the term is touched on only obliquely in the Preppy Handbook. It’s unlikely to have begun as direct reference to prep schools per se. Such institutions generally don’t call themselves that; they usually have names like “The Hill School” or “Milton Academy.” More likely “preppy” was derived from the “prep shops” that one used to see in the better department stores or menswear retailers. Usually on the third floor for whatever reason, they involved displays of snooty-looking mannequins of teenage males, dressed in ties and blazers and polo shirts, occasionally even little snap-brim fedoras—though assuredly not all in combination. (There was no female prep shop; equivalent departments would be called something like “Young Misses,” or, later on, “Juniors.” Female “preppies” would thus be a contradiction in terms, even after the leading schools went coed in the 1970s.)

Some people found the name and layout of prep shops distinctly irritating, particularly those who got suited out at Robert Hall or Barney’s Boys Town.

I recall the p-word entering popular parlance about 1970, beginning with a popular novelette called Love Story, which almost immediately became a treacly film with Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw. To be precise, Love Story had actually begun life as a movie script by a Yale classics teacher, Erich Segal. After Segal sold his script, he was asked to reprocess it into a little novel—a gift storybook for Valentine’s Day, 1970, and a smash bestseller for the rest of the year. Come Christmas season, the film version was out and about, with a ready-made fanbase. It was everywhere, along with its mawkish, meaningless tagline (“Love Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry”) and a theme song sung by Andy Williams and a million others.

Early in the film we have a blond, bland Ryan O’Neal (rich Harvard hockey player) going to the Radcliffe College library to find a laughably ubiquitous book. [1] He immediately runs into dark, snappish Ali MacGraw. It’s oil and water. She chews him out for poaching on the little Radcliffe library instead of Harvard’s much vaster collection. She sneers and calls him “Preppie” [sic]—a studied insult, though it later becomes an affectionate nickname. Her character was softened a little for the final movie script, but when we meet her in the book, she’s a nasty, argumentative piece of work:

“Wouldja please watch your profanity, Preppie?”

“What makes you so sure I went to prep school?”

“You look stupid and rich,” she said, removing her glasses.

“You’re wrong,” I protested. “I’m actually smart and poor.”

“Oh no, Preppie. I’m smart and poor.” [2]

Wow, meet cute!

Like Lisa Birnbach and author Erich Segal, this Ali MacGraw character was originally Jewish. Segal altered that, in book and movie, possibly because of concerns that a mixed marriage of an upper-class Yankee to a lowly Brooklyn Jew would offend a great many people. So he turned the character into Jenny Cavilleri, an “Italian” from Cranston, Rhode Island. We never see her do anything Italian, unless you count listening to classical music. Her father meanwhile is the very Jewish actor John Marley, lovingly remembered today for his 1972 role in The Godfather, as Hollywood producer and horse fancier Jack Woltz. At one point in the film, the Ryan O’Neal character, Oliver, refers to Jenny as “Catholic,” but the script is emphatic that Jenny is not and never was. (Religious distinctions are such minefields for scriptwriters!) Unsurprisingly, Segal turns out to have based the character on a Jewish girlfriend of his who—we might safely infer—liked to sneer at “preppies.” [3]

So was the p-word basically a slur used by Jews of a certain type to categorize and decry Heritage Americans of a particular caste? It would certainly seem that way. I was thinking of that a few years when I reviewed Steven Brill’s Tailspin (book excerpt here). Growing up lower-middle-class in Far Rockaway, Queens, and first reading about the world of “prep schools” when he was 14, young Steven decided this was an exotic world he wanted to rise to; and so he soon headed up to the Deerfield Academy on scholarship. Brill himself doesn’t use the p-word; that would be sneering at a club he feels lucky to have joined. If he’d learned about “prep schools” a few years later, say when he got to college, the story might be different. If you can’t join ’em…you can always beat up on ’em!

Which puts me in mind of the late Éva Balogh, a Hungarian-Jewish refugee from 1956 who was a professor of Central European history at Yale in the 1970s. For a while she was master of Morse College (a residential college, what is called a “house” at Harvard or Andover, or a “college” at Oxford or Cambridge). Eccentric, opinionated, and sharp-tongued, she was popular with many of her charges. One story about Éva was her denunciation of the “roommate preference” card, traditionally sent out to incoming freshmen in their matriculation packs. The idea with these was that you wrote down one or two names of secondary-school friends you want to share your freshman suite with. She wanted to get rid of the cards entirely. “Why are they still doing that? That stuff’s only for preppies.”

Voilà—naked animosity, slouching toward us on all fours. Éva didn’t want preppies, with their social traditions, old-school ties and cliques of friends from St. Grottlesex.  No, she wanted the admissions committee to replace them with a mass of atomized souls—scoured from state high schools hither and yon—ready to be inculcated into your favorite ideologies. You know…Diversity! Which pretty much describes the continuing admissions scam of the last half-century and more.

So there you are. The p-word was/is a slur, a word of derision for well-born, “privileged” goyim, whom you are asked to hold in contempt. I don’t believe I ever heard an actual prep-school alumnus or student refer to himself, unironically or otherwise, as a preppy. Or herself—though as I said, the term was seldom applied to females. I sometimes saw the word preppish used to describe to dress style or personal attitude (Gore Vidal used it on Jack Kennedy) but when “preppy/preppie” arrived on the scene it was clearly derogatory. Erich Segal himself admits as much in the Preppy Handbook. One of the book’s contributors asks him the etymology of the word. He says it’s short for—preposterous! And there we have it again, folks: an object of mockery, a figure of fun. [3]

  1. Notes
[1] The book is The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga, originally published in the 1920s and readily available in any used-book store for 40 cents, or the Harvard Coop, or a dorm suite down the hall. The joke here is that a Harvard jock would journey over to the women’s college because he’s taking this big “gut” survey course in history, hasn’t touched the reading list, but now it’s late in the semester, and he can’t find a copy anywhere.

[2] Erich Segal, Love Story. Signet Books, 1970.

[3] Segal himself was said to be anti-Catholic, at least according to prospective Yale students and aspiring Classics majors he interviewed and rejected. But this could possibly be the result of turf rivalries among Classics teachers.


Ask the Family Doctor: Should I Get Rid of My Monkeys?

with Ferenc Molmar, M.D.

Q. With this new monkeypox scare going around, all my neighbors are on my case to get rid of the three monkeys I keep in my living room. They are very dear to me, as I bought them all from a comic book ad when I was quite young (I had birthday money) so they’ve lived with me almost all my life (I am 59 years old). They are very old and wise in monkey years and it seems a shame to have them put down when they themselves haven’t got that long to live.

I also want to say that I am disabled and wheelchair-bound, and depend upon these support animals for my household chores. They know how to load and empty the dishwasher, though we don’t have that many dishes as we all mainly subsist on Hungry-Man TV dinners. They also know how to turn on the Roomba and do some light dusting.

Is there any danger of them spreading monkeypox to me and the neighbors?

A. As I’ve said many times before, I am not an animal doctor, let alone a monkey psychiatrist, and I wish people would stop bringing me their animal problems. In your case your real problem is your neighbors, who evidently are using the monkeypox scare to shame you out of your companions.

Dr. Molmar

Perhaps their real complaint is that your house is filthy and stinky. I’m sorry, but I don’t trust squirrel monkeys (if that’s what they are) to maintain their own hygiene, let alone yours. Because you don’t get out of house, you probably don’t notice the smell the way your neighbors do. I am merely speculating, of course. When my grandmother was housebound she had a cleaning woman come in once a week, and she really needed that, as her two great danes could really make a mess. I suspect your house smells a lot like hers.

I wouldn’t recommend monkeys as support animals, myself, as they are inclined to commit bestiality and other forms of sex perversion that cannot be discussed in a family newspaper. But I’m not here to tell you how to live, and if you’ve done well with these critters for fifty years or whatever, you may as well ride to the last trolley stop with them, and to hell with your neighbors.

Matisse/Picasso at Tate Modern: 20 Years On

The Picasso-Matisse (or Matisse Picasso) exhibition opened at the Tate Modern twenty years ago, running for three months before traveling to Paris, finally making it to New York’s MOMA in early 2003.

It was a landmark event in many ways, a massive installation that set the pace for other comparative exhibits in the years to come. About half the shows put up in the new Whitney, I’ve noticed, are not for individual names but for the works of two, three, four, five artists who are ostensibly of the same school or sensibility. This actually follows the Whitney’s own long experience in maintaining a friendly and familiar Permanent Exhibition of 20th Century American art. Which was the only consistently good exhibit.

At least they used to maintain it up on East 74th Street, where it took up a whole floor. When I visit their new digs in the Meat Market, they always seem to have most of their nice pieces put away in storage, to make way for yet another fingerpainting show by savage pygmies.

I attended the Tate Modern show in its press preview days, and brought back the press kit, and the PR blurb which I’ve scarcely looked at (see below), and a souvenir pin-back button.

Also bought a mug at the gift shop. The mug soon lost its handle, but still sits on the shelf there, full of pencils and brushes and implements of destruction.

A couple of snippets from the Tate’s opening press release:

Matisse and Picasso are the acknowledged twin giants of modern art, between them having originated many of the most significant innovations of twentieth-century painting and sculpture. This major exhibition explores their relationship, which is revealed as much closer and more complex than has been thought. In spite of their initial rivalry, each came to acknowledge the other as his only true equal. In old age they became increasingly close personally, and increasingly important to each other artistically.

*   *   *

From 1906 to 1917 there was open rivalry between the artists. This was a time of intense innovation, when between them they produced some of the greatest art of the twentieth century. This period forms the densest part of the exhibition. Among the revelatory pairings are Picasso’s monumental Boy Leading a Horse of 1906 and Matisse’s Le Luxe l of 1907; Matisse’s celebrated Blue Nude and Picasso’s relatively little known, aggressively primitivist Nude with Raised Arms, both of 1907; and, in a stunning sequence of paintings of women, Matisse’s great portrait of his wife of 1913 and Picasso’s majestic Woman with a Fan of 1908. Other sections are devoted to still life and landscape. A key section shows Matisse responding to synthetic Cubism in his Moroccans, 1915-16, and Piano Lesson, 1916. Picasso in turn responded to Matisse’s interpretation of Cubism by producing a new, more decorative Cubism of his own, as for example in Three Musicians of 1921.

Big Monet Sale at Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s May 17 auction of modern masters brought in a total of $423 million, led by a Picasso painting of a starfish ($67.5 million), and a fuzzy late-Impressionist oil of the Grand Canal, by Monet ($56.6m).

Nicer still was the Cezanne that sold for $41.7m. I mean, you could hang this one anywhere and feel no shame:

For further details, check out our friends at The Art Wolf, over here.

Sotheby’s Orientalist Auction, London

“The Bazaar of the Coppersmiths” by David Roberts (1842) sold for £403,200 on March 29, although Sotheby’s estimate going in was £60k – £80k, writes G. Fernandez at The suggestion here is that “Orientalist” art is out of vogue and does not sell well, or a least hasn’t been expected to sell well.

When I look at such paintings, my mind casts itself back to Gustave Flaubert’s famous trip to the Near East, specifically Cairo, where he had a rollicking time in 1849. Reviewing Francis Steegmuller’s book in 2013, author Guy Portman suggests the trip gave a serious tilt to the ol’ Flaubert creative engine:

Flaubert’s eye for scatological detail can be seen later in his brilliant classical epic Salaambo.  No doubt this trip was a major inspiration.  A visit to a hospital provides ample material, such as, not wishing to be too graphic, the anal chancres of a group of syphilitic Mamelukes.  Perhaps, that was too graphic.


Why They Closed All the Art Supply Shoppes


(A version of this column originally appeared at our sister site,

Pearl Paint on Canal Street in NYC was the artists’ Mecca for eighty years, with its assemblage of tumbledown warehouses and 1820s townhouses, selling every sort of paint and brush and picture album and canvas-stretching doodad in the Known World.

When it closed in 2014, people were  left bereft. Where now to buy your non-repro blue pencils and comic-strip boards and Prat portfolio books?

It’s a good bet you won’t find them at the Art Students League’s dinky shop, which is just past their main entrance hall on West 57th Street. That place is about as big as a suburban bathroom, and it satisfies that immortal precept of Paul Fussell in Class: If everybody doesn’t want it, nobody gets it!

This wasn’t much of a worry when Pearl closed, way downtown. For we still had, right there, across the street, the sumptuous and eternal emporium called Lee’s.

Lee’s Art Shop lived in a late-1800s building with Art Nouveau ornamentation, a structure that was originally designed as a companion piece to the Art Students League across the street. When it went up, West 57th Street was artist-land, full of new blocks of luxury flats designed with high windows for painters’ and sculptors’ needs. You can still see some of these, in the older buildings, on 57th between Sixth Avenue and Broadway.

Lee’s Art Shop was a veritable Empire of Creativity. If you didn’t have any idea of what you wanted to do, a stroll through Lee’s might give you a dozen. Eddie Salveri would tell you about lightboxes and airbrushes and hi-fashion lighting, and Hector the Chilean Board-Master in the back of the store would advise you on the finer points of FomCor and basswood and cold-press vs. hot-press illustration board.


Then there was the tall guy in the frame section out in front. He looked like Christopher Walken. I once saw him in an animated conversation with seated comedian Al Franken, who was getting something framed (I guess), and suddenly asked, as in a non sequitur, “Anyone ever tell you, uh, you look like Christopher Walken?”

And the frame man went, “Naaooo!”

For a while Lee’s spread out to other buildings in the neighborhoods, with retail shops dedicated to lighting and furniture. Then the chill came, the extremities dropped off, only the main store was left, and it had fewer and fewer and fewer seasoned experts. I’d show my 20% off discount card, the one I’d been carrying about for 30 years, and the wench at the cash register would be totally baffled, having never seen such a thing before. Well, she’d been there less than a year, what do you expect?

I’d go visit Hector in the back, and he was curt and glum, implying I was trying to butter him up to get some freebies. I think the word had just come down that Lee’s was going to close.

As Lee’s did, sometime in 2016. As with Pearl, I stocked up heartily on discounted drawing pads, inks, paints, brushes and other supplies that mainly remain unopened in the drawers of my armoire.

As of today, the Lee’s building is still untenanted. To which I say: Karma is a bitch.

TIME: Where Young & Rubicam Outdoor Trade Advertising Totally Disappears

A seldom-remembered detail of the commuter-railroad experience back in the 60s is the prevalence of ‘trade advertising.’ These were posters and car-cards and billboards that you passed but barely noticed in the train car and on the platform.

They didn’t advertise a product per se; they advertised advertising space where you could sell your product.

Catching the train in Bronxville or Cos Cob or New Haven you’d see these ads, often mystifying and surrealistic, lining the station platform alongside the enticements to Broadway plays and musicals:

Gilroy IS Here! The Subject Was Roses. Pulitzer Prize Something.

What? You Haven’t Seen Man of La Mancha (“The Impossible Dream”) Even Once?

Now, those theatrical posters were straightforward. They were clearly selling something, and you knew what they were selling. Trade ads were different. Unless you were in the business, you might not know what a trade ad was up to. If it was plugging WNEW Radio, you’d probably vaguely imagine it was instructing you, the innocent commuter, to listen to WNEW Radio . . . when actually it was telling ad buyers to buy time at WNEW Radio.

One baffling but long-lived trade series was a Young & Rubicam campaign for TIME magazine.  There might be eight or ten of these in a single location.

Imagine you’re walking down a long station platform or concourse, and every few yards you see a mockup of a Time magazine cover. There’s a stark, simple image, and one short line of copy mentioning a Time advertiser. For example, you might see the arm of a chalk-stripe suit surrounded by Time‘s red-bordered branding, and the copy would go:


Where Brooks Brothers buttonholes the Madison Ave man.


That example is made up; Brooks Bros. didn’t advertise in Time, and they weren’t featured in this outdoor campaign. The fact is, I can’t remember any specific copy at all from this Y&R trade campaign for Time.

This forgettability was sort of intentional. The agency was trying to get Mr Advertising Man to buy space in Time right now, this week, in 1968 . . . they weren’t hoping consumers would go around mouthing a brilliant tagline for the next fifty years.

Because that would be tragic. Nothing fails worse than a clever campaign that doesn’t hit the right target. “You don’t have to be Jewish . . . to love Levy’s . . .Real Jewish Rye” is a Y&R line from the era everyone remembers now, though almost no one today eats Levy’s rye bread. I’ve had it recently, so I know it’s still being made.

I suspect the Levy’s campaign was like the Bob and Ray cartoon ads for Piel’s Beer a decade before. They were popular with young and old, and memorable. But they didn’t move beer sales.

But while we remember the Levy’s ads, the Y&R poster campaign for Time does not stick in the public imagination at all. They have in effect been dropped down the memory hole. I’ve been Googling and otherwise researching Advertising Age and Young & Rubicam histories to see if there’s any mention, any image of the Time campaign. Not a chance.

I can’t even find online photographs of station platforms where these ads appeared. I guess no amateur archivist ever thought to snap them. It’s almost impossible even to find photos of Broadway posters online. That’s why I show an ad from a train schedule above, instead of the actual 1964 theatrical poster for The Subject Was Roses.

What does stick in my recollection is that the Time campaign was resolutely upscale.  A place to advertise quality products for quality readers.

This all seems laughable today, when Time is popularly reputed to have been a middlebrow book, and now survives in a scrawny print edition filled with ugly pharma advertising. It’s subscribed to mostly by 85-year-olds, because they got in the habit of reading it around 1957, back in the days when Time ran real news and half its display ads were for top-shelf gin and scotch.

It’s a repellent little rag now, but in advertising demographics Time was the class act for decades, far outshining the ad-stuffed Life and Look, which were perceived as picture books that subscribers thumbed through while moving their lips. Readers read Time. Readers read the ads in Time.

Trade campaigns for other magazines imitated the Time model to a certain extent—e.g., the endless variants of “Forbes: Capitalist Tool,” which made a subtle pitch to the advertisers by flattering the readers. This series, which ran in and around commuter trains in the 1970s and 80s,  looked vaguely like a subscription promotion aimed at ambitious young commuters.

But of course the ads were reminding posh advertisers on the train that if they bought space in Forbes they could reach those ambitious young commuters. The kind of people who would read Forbes do not need a train poster to tell them to read Forbes.

The Sunday Giant

The most pervasive and long-lived of the trade-ad campaigns was probably for the downscale, big-circulation Sunday supplement called Parade. “Parade is the Sunday Giant!” went the slogan, generally on a poster or car-card showing a line-drawing cartoon of a towering figure looming over lilliputian newspaper supplements (New York Times Magazine, perhaps?).

Having mass nationwide circulation was, and still is, Parade’s big selling point. But advertisers needed to be reminded of this. Parade was easy to overlook. It was and is a one-of-a-kind publication: a bland, friendly downmarket supplement, with content kept so generic it can never seem out of place in Salt Lake City, Sarasota, or St. Louis. This is a difficult trick for a Sunday supplement and Parade’s done it for, what, 70 years or something?

Back in the 60s and 70s, every town worth mentioning had at least a couple of big Sunday newspapers, and one of them—generally the one with the better funnies and the shorter editorials—carried Parade. In such locales you’d actually see people in stores and newsstands on weekends, thumbing through the hefty Sunday paper to make sure the sports section and Parade were there! The same way parishioners of St. Catherine of Siena in Greenwich used to head for the newsstand after Mass, full of beady-eyed intent to ensure that their Herald-Tribune or New York Times wasn’t missing its book review section.

Parade emphasized its mass-market, downscale orientation in a dozen ways. In the 50s and 60s, when newspapers boasted of their sturdy newsprint stock and excellent rotogravure processes, Parade went in the other direction and made itself as shoddy as it possibly could. Tabloid-sized and unstapled, its pages were all different sizes, some with rag edges, others cut sharp or with extra dog-ear flaps at the corner.

Even on the cover, their color printing was often out of registration, like a 3-D comic book. Parade left a spot on its nameplate where the local newspaper could print its name or logo, and this just added to the cheap feel: the newspaper’s name was often printed crooked or looked like a rubber stamp.

The editorial matter was mostly filler, dealing with celebrities and fads, the sort of stuff you’d see in a popular Hearst newspaper from the 1920s to 1960s. Advice columns and celebrity gossip figured large. The writing went down easy. The words weren’t too big, and the sentences weren’t too long. And the attitude was relentlessly chipper. The main rule seemed to be that if you mentioned a celebrity, it had to be someone recognizable to 95% of the readership.

That was the secret of “Walter Scott’s Personality Parade,” an inside-cover feature that started around 1971 and still runs today, although Walter Scott himself has no more corporeal reality than Betty Crocker.

The Walter Scott column was a brilliant addition to Parade, because it ensured that there would be at least one feature that everyone would read. It’s still the first thing you see on the inside: pithy queries and answers about stars and politicians that everybody’s heard of, usually with bland but upbeat answers.

One I remember from circa 1974: “Does Elton John always wear a hat because he’s ‘bisexual’? No, actually he just likes hats! Also he’s having hair transplants!

Parade’s advertising mechanism I never figured out. Its low-budget, rec-room-floor style could never have been a good fit for most advertisers. (Toothpaste, yes;  Tanqueray, no.) Since the same edition was distributed across the country, there was no way it could pick up lavish display ads from retailers or car dealers. Parade survived mainly on cheap ‘n’ cheerful national ads for five-dollar muumuus and anti-itch powder for dogs.

Their perennial full-page advertisers mostly sold stuff you might never see advertised anywhere else, or at least outside a Sunday supplement. There was Zoysia grass, a magical kind of turf that evidently never needed watering or weeding. (It did turn brown in the winter, but they never told you that.)

And there was a weight-loss candy that had the merry name of Ayds. The latter’s ads were always disguised to look like editorial matter, with a first-person narrative, “As told to Ruth L. McCarthy,” related by a former fat-lady. (Rumors flew that Ayds contained dexedrine or methamphetamine, but that alas was never the case, and it’s a marvel that the product survived as long as it did. In the 1980s it lost half its business, reportedly because potential customers were scared off by a name that sounded like a killer virus. The manufacturer tried changing the name to Diet Ayds, but that didn’t seem to help.)

One hears sometimes that Parade is a family-run, closely held, business. I find that easy to believe. There’s just enough work here, and just enough money, to support one extended family.

Kenneth Clark: The Fakery of the Public Gallery

Diarist and socialite Chips Channon thought the young Kenneth Clark seemed “bogus” in the 1930s when he was the young director of the National Gallery. Bogosity can have its own rewards, of course, one of which is a disposition towards pointless woolgathering.

Kenneth Clark, 1930s

Which brings us to this 1954 essay by Sir Kenneth, on the willy-nilly evolution of the public art gallery in the 19th and 20th centuries.

From ArtNews, where it was published originally:

The public art gallery is a relatively recent creation—scarcely one of them is older than two lifetimes—and it has grown up through a series of accidents, without much clear thought of its purpose, or, rather, of its conflicting purposes. This does not discredit it, for many of the most valuable human creations. from the British Constitution to the Italian opera, have been accidental, illogical and full of contradictions. But it does suggest that the function of museums of art is bound up with the historical process by which they took their present form.

Chips Channon

Under what circumstances were works of art first brought together for public enjoyment? The answer is that in the two complete, consistent epochs on which European civilization is based—those of fifth-century Greece and thirteenth-century France-works of art were first brought together as objects or accessories of worship. The first great displays of painting and sculpture in ancient Greece took place in temples, and were made in honor of the Gods. The first collections of works of art of all kinds—which we could call museums—were the treasuries of temples, such as that of the Oracle of Delphi. This is equally true of the Middle Ages. It was in the great cathedrals that men became conscious of the power of works of art to quicken their spirits…

Read the rest.

The Blue Boy“, one of Thomas Gainsborough’s most famous works, has returned to England for the first time in 100 years, and is on display at the National Gallery in London from 25 January to 15 May 2022.

Shirley Temple as
The Blue Boy

The fame of “The Blue Boy” led the American magnate Henry E. Huntington to pay $728,800 for the painting in 1921, one of the highest sums paid for a painting at the time. The sale of the work and its subsequent departure from England provoked a wave of widespread indignation against Sir Joseph Duveen, the broker who handled the deal.

Now owned by the Huntington Library Art Museum in California, the painting has now returned across the prairies and Atlantic for the first time in a century, as we said earlier. Further information on the exhibition may be obtained here.

Cole Porter

The sale to Henry Huntington inspired Cole Porter to write a slow, forgettable song for the 1922 London theatrical revue, Mayfair and Montmartre, entitled “The Blue Boy Blues,” in which a young soubrette named Nelly Taylor portrayed The Blue Boy, pantomime-style, to what must have been polite applause.

Other drag portrayals of the Blue Boy have been performed by such luminaries as Marlene Dietrich and Shirley Temple.

The Cole Porter lyrics run, in part,

Marlene Dietrich as
The Blue Boy

For I’m the Blue Boy,
The beautiful Blue Boy,
And I’m forced to admit
I’m feeling a bit depressed.
A silver dollar took me and my collar
To show the slow cowboys
Just how boys
In England used to be dressed.

I don’t know what I shall do
So far from Mayfair
If Mister Gainsborough knew
I know he’d frown…