Friday, October 22, 2010

The Tailcoat

Clothing makes a statement, it gives clues to the world as to who we are and even, to an extent, where we've been. Imagine Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine character in Casablanca wearing something other than his classic ivory colored dinner jacket. Sure he'd still be Bogey and he'd still deliver his lines in that inimitable fashion, but it wouldn't be the same. Nor would Mad Men be the fabulously addictive program that it is if it didn't have such an impeccable wardrobe for its talented cast--consider Pete Campbell's blue suits or Don's variations in grey. And the women's clothing, I'm terribly envious of the wonderful day dresses, gowns, gloves, and hats that are often sported by the female cast members.

And this brings me to The Tailcoat. For the past couple of days I've been able to visit dear old friends and help out with the work being done to ready Historic Mayowood Mansion for its Christmas season which begins in early November. I've loved Mayowood since I was a wee girl taking riding lessons in the Mayo's former stables and I learned a lifetime of lessons working at the house as an adult, it's as much a part of me as New England or horses or France.

On Wednesday we were putting away a few small artifacts in an upstairs closet and I noticed a beautiful gentleman's wool tailcoat with some other clothing. Because so many generations of the Mayo family called Mayowood home, there are clothes spanning eras from 1911 when the house was built all the way up until the early 1960s...there is everything from old style riding togs to beautiful handmade silk chiffon gowns. This coat stood out though. It was made from a beautiful medium weight charcoal grey wool and as we removed it from its special container for a closer look we could see it was custom made tailcoat in mint condition. The seams and hand sewing were works of art created by a skilled hand and the buttons on the front, tails, and sleeves were covered in a woven silk damask. Folded carefully beneath the coat was the matching pair of deep grey wool trousers and a silk vest with delicate pearl buttons. The entire suit was in perfect condition, not a moth nosh to be found. But who might have worn it? 

We examined the interior pockets on the coat a little closer--those slick, slim, secret pockets that held letters of transit or fashionable cigarette cases once upon a time--and found it had been made by Fieldcrest in Chicago for Dr. J. Mayo.
I felt an immediate and powerful pang of sadness at seeing his name in this beautiful garment, my heart sank a little in my chest. As my friend left the room to answer a question elsewhere in the house, I whispered quietly, "Oh, Joe, this is heartbreaking." I couldn't help myself, I always felt a real connection to Joe--Dr. Joseph Graham Mayo--from the first time I saw his portrait on a wall at Mayowood. 

Joe had been the second son in a family where the first son, Dr. Charles W. Mayo, bore a immense responsibility on very capable shoulders. Joe was an avid horseman and hunter and a lively soul. From all accounts, he had a big personality and razor-wit--possibly because he enjoyed freedoms that eldest sons from prominent families often don't have the option to pursue. He also was, to my mind, the great tragic figure of the Mayo family. He was killed in a car-train collision in November of 1936 (at the tender young age of 34) while on a hunting trip near the Alma/Cochrane/Buffalo City area of Wisconsin, leaving a young widow, Ruth, and two small children well as a heartbroken family and devastated older brother. His beloved hunting dog perished in the accident as well and it is said that the dog is interred with him. The premiere issue of Life magazine from November 16, 1936 featured a photo and short obituary of Joe Mayo in it--right below a blurb announcing the marriage of John Barrymore. President Roosevelt sent a letter to the Mayos the next day assuring them of his deep sorrow for their great loss. The stack of telegrams the family received after Joe's death was immense and a measure of the void he would leave in the lives of many people.

The tailcoat, vest, and trousers were a sharp reminder of the unfulfilled promise that young people like Joe Mayo leave in their wake. Had he worn them while dancing with Ruth at a lovely party, had the suit been made for a special occasion? They'd been cared for meticulously, the owner clearly intending to wear them again when the opportunity arose. Beautiful garments--be they gowns, tuxedos, or tailcoats--are meant to be worn. They are part and parcel of occasions large and small and this suit was a physical reminder of all the moments that Joe didn't have enough time to experience. 

Even after I'd neatly packed the suit up again, I couldn't get it out of my mind and I was (and am) still a little surprised at how deeply a mere garment could resonate with me. The passage of time can sneak up on us in unexpected places and in the oddest of ways, but I'm glad I spent a kind of stolen moment and spared a thought for a gentleman whom I never knew, but one I feel sure would've been a kindred spirit. 

Cheers, Joe, and here's to all the happy times you must have enjoyed in that magnificent suit. 


Mark Devereux said...

You have a terrific talent for making the reader care about things he has absolutely no historic connection with! I zipped off and Googled the mansion, Joe Mayo, Charles Mayo & the Mayo Clinic all because you shared the inspiration provided by a special piece of cloth. Beautifully written, as usual...

sid fernando said...

yes, beautifully written and it resonated in so many ways to me, from Joe to you over there.

MK said...

Well done, Mauer. Is the coat a 44 regular by any chance?

The Paper Tyger said...

Thanks so much Mark, Sid and Michael, for reading and commenting. Much appreciated!

Maria said...

Nice blog! I remember my daddy he is always wearing tailcoat and every time he go in especial occasion his look more elegant