Dude!

Berry Wall (1860-1940) was known as King of the Dudes.

His father and grandfather each left him more than $1 million between his 18th and 22nd birthdays, which enabled a certain grandeur. Thereafter, Wall never drank water – only champagne – and sported a walrus mustache, gleaming monocle, and high, stiff collars encircled by one of his 5,000 flamboyant neckties. Wall eventually owned a wardrobe of 500 outfits, useful for someone who completely changed his clothing at least six times daily.

Unlike the classic dandy Beau Brummell, who aspired to quiet sartorial perfection, Wall liked color, in not only his neckties but his waistcoats of tropical pattern, loud checked suits, lavender spats, and at least one outfit described as “an amazement of tweeds.” His justification: “People should wear what suits them.”

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One sultry August evening in Saratoga, Wall escorted a pretty girl to a ball at the Grand Union Hotel while wearing what was the first dinner jacket publicly seen in the Americas. An incandescent manager immediately ordered him off the floor. He was only readmitted after he went to his room and changed into an acceptable evening coat with tails.

how to fold a dinner jacket napkin

Wall became famous after meeting Blakely Hall, a reporter hungry for good copy. Thereafter, every week or so, Hall’s articles publicizing Wall’s adventures in clothing appeared in newspapers across the country. Then one of Hall’s competitors set up a rival, actor Robert “Bob” Hilliard, another flashy dresser. Thus began the Battle of the Dudes, in which each sought to eclipse the other in sartorial extremes. According to the Times, Wall finally won when, during the Great Blizzard of 1888, he strode into the Hoffman House bar clad in gleaming boots of black patent leather that went to his hips.

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Wall won another contest in Saratoga when daredevil financier John “Bet-A-Million” Gates wagered that he could not wear 40 changes of clothes between breakfast and dinner. On the appointed day, Wall repeatedly appeared at the racetrack in one flashy ensemble after another until, exhausted but victorious, he at last entered the ballroom of the United States Hotel in faultless evening attire to wild applause.

John Bet-a-Million Gates

Wall and his wife were famous members of the French social elite, with a society that included the Duchess of Windsor, the Grand Duke Dimitri, the Aga Khan and ex-king Nicholas of Montenegro, whom Wall called a “magnificent old darling”.

Magnificent Old Darling

They lived with their chow dog Chi-Chi in the Hotel Meurice, where he had his signature “spread eagle” collar shirts and cravats custom-made for both himself and his dog: Wall always dined at the Ritz with his dog, whose collars and ties were made by Charvet in the same style and fabric as his master’s.

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Wall ascribed his longevity to having nothing to do with physicians, claiming: “There are more old drunkards than there are old doctors.” His self-indulgent life brought him great happiness, and he remained a fixture of fashionable life, whether in Paris, Deauville, Biarritz, or Aix-les-Bains, until his death in Monte Carlo on May 5, 1940. Wall’s timing was impeccable: He left only $12,608, having squandered nearly every cent on pleasure.

Published in: on October 5, 2010 at 7:12 am  Comments (39)  
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