Saturday, July 22, 2006

Not starring Gary Cooper

(The following is my most recent piece for This is the unedited version.)
There you are. Having flown as far across the world as geography permits –in fact, if you tried to go further, you would only be getting closer— you stand at a lectern, ready for the formalities to begin, not entirely surrounded by the slavish and fawning. However, you are arrayed in finery that bespeaks your sense of self, your sense of station and sense of occasion. A shot rings out. A man in the crowd charges towards you and, just feet away, another shot rises over the din of the assembled. Your would-be assailant is wrestled to the ground but a yard away from you. Your reaction? Adjusting your cuffs in a state of pure sangfroid.

Before you scoff, I hasten to remind you “the story is true” and this actually happened to Charles, Prince of Wales while visiting Australia in 1994. Pressed for comment on the matter, he simply stated security was "well handled" by Australian police and his calm demeanor was merely "the result of a thousand years of breeding." In an impossible situation, he exhibited self-possession and grace under pressure.

The plumage or colorings found in wildlife are often dismissed as mere decoration designed to attract a mate. Naturally, this is the narrow view of things. Beyond the aesthetic value of these characteristics, are the functional attributes which follow such forms. For example, the wingspan of a Harpy Eagle exists not only attract potential Mrs. Harpy Eagles, but also to allow this apex predator to better to strike at prey. The same sort of principle applies to the dandy. The aesthetic features of the dandy bespeak much about —and much beyond the mere aesthetics of— the pinnacle of civilized masculinity.

The one thing allowing the dandy to transcend being a dapper bon vivant it is the Beau Geste, the beautiful gesture. Whether it manifests itself as an act of chivalry or wit it is always grounded in a man’s unshakeable faith in his own true nature. The reason why this is so should be scrutinized in depth; that is to say, the dandy —at least the popular conception thereof— begs to be reexamined in this light if he is to be better understood as a fully actualized man and not a foppish caricature who ceaselessly touts his own dandyness by quoting his own platitudes while arrayed in a celluloid dickey, a snood and spectator espadrilles.

A dandy arrays the outer male the way he does because the outer male is merely the topmost layer of an internalized worldview made solid and incarnate. The dandy, rightly, sees himself in a certain light and all else springs therefrom; apparel is merely the easiest aspect for the casual observer to, er, observe casually.

However, this is merely the most readily discernible tip of a colossal iceberg. The zenith is the “beautiful gesture,” where civilized elegance has one man’s spirit breathed upon it and it takes life. The most famous and poignant example is that of Benjamin Guggenheim. As the Titanic began to sink, Guggenheim gave up his place aboard a lifeboat and then proceeded to his stateroom, where he changed into his white tie and tails so he “might perish dressed like a gentleman.” The beau geste distills all that is best and finest in a given civilized gentleman and crystallizes it in the crucible of a moment of trial or a moment of triumph over ordeal. It demands self-awareness, self-possession and clarity of personality (and a worthy personality, at that).

Previously in this column we alluded to the young Count Marzotto, pausing on his way to the victory podium after winning the grueling Mille Miglia road race in an impeccable Caraceni suit, to purchase a bouquet of flowers, affix one to his jacket’s lapel, and then give the rest to a lissome young lady saying (if the accounts are to be credited) something along the lines of “Stamina merits but one, beauty eleven.”

The estimable Lucius Beebe recorded many such gestures. One of the more interesting of these gestures took place in, of all places, the rough-and-tumble Wild West burg of Bodie, California. You would expect, instead, Beebe to write of a salon of the Continent or the haunts of café society of which he was a habitué, but no, this tale concerns a banker whom Beebe immortalized specifically due to his beau geste. The town of Bodie was in its sunset years, and few mourned this slow demise. Nonetheless, one James Cain, president of the Bank of Bodie, still saw fit to navigate according to his own inner compass.

According to Beebe, “every morning at nine, in a well-brushed silk top hat and the frock coat of his calling, Banker Cain unlocked the front door, swung wide the vault,” and sauntered to his desk and proceeded with the day. One day, in 1897, would prove different. An abandoned building nearby caught fire and flames spread with amazing celerity. The adjacent post office became an inferno and the bank’s roof caught fire immediately, almost explosively so.

Continues Beebe: “The last First Citizen of Bodie was not found wanting in the emergency. He had just time to replace his ledgers in the vault and swing shut, and secure the great door with its painting of the Lakes of Killarney. The affairs of his depositors were safe. Only then did he reach for his venerable hat, adjust it at a decorous angle that might not be confused with the attire of gambler or confidence man, and emerge for the last time from the portals of the Bank of Bodie, closing and locking the doors behind him as he had done since the days of McKinley.”

As we have seen in the example of Prince Charles, and was alluded by Beebe, the true dandy is a man never found wanting in moments of trial. There is an indefinable something which allows the dandy to meet these situations with a purely reflexive grace. In other words, the beau geste is the natural instinct of the dandy, his behavioral domain. This is often manifested in a light vein as well.

An example of this sort of light coolness is brilliant (possibly apocryphal) little gem concerning a 19th century French dandy, Philippe Cadet. One particularly sweltering July afternoon, Monsieur Cadet decided “so as to prevent lacing [his] garments with perspiration” to bathe in a river, thereby freshening himself. While in the cooling stream, a carriage on the road above became disengaged from its team of horses, crashed and turned over. Without a second thought, Monsieur Cadet sprinted — absolutely nude — to check on the safety of the passengers. Upon arriving at the wreckage, he discovered the only passenger was a beautiful young lady whom he immediately extricated from the crashed carriage. Stunned, the young lady was not even capable of issuing thanks to Cadet, since she was fixated on his state of extreme undress. Suddenly realizing this, he explained "Pardon me, mademoiselle," he apologized, "for I have forgotten my gloves."

The preceding example (which I believe is one of Fearless Leader’s favorites), points out the dandy’s ineffable capacity of self-mastery by using the more commonly held dandy attributes of wit, observance of the niceties of civilized behavior, and supposedly exaggerated attention to detail, as foils to highlight said self-mastery. It is this capacity to be exquisitely attuned to detail which often seems the hallmark of the dandy, but in reality this is merely the byproduct of the self- and worldview to which he adheres.

In a similar vein, Fred Astaire (the prototype American dandy) was rehearsing Royal Wedding’s “dancing on the ceiling” scene for the first time inside the rotating room which allowed him to seemingly dance on the walls and the ceiling. The whole process was quite new and the wrinkles were still not quite ironed out. As it turns out, Astaire either misjudged his step or, more likely given the newness of it all, the mechanism which rotated the room moved unexpectedly and Astaire took a fairly nasty tumble. Stanley Donen, the alarmed director, shouted “Oh, God! I hope he didn’t break anything!” To which Astaire replied, from under the pile of props: “Only my tailor’s heart.”

One can readily imagine the relief of the director and crew at hearing these words. While any other film star might have merely shouted he was not gravely hurt, only a dandy could summon an instant witticism, assuaging the worry while simultaneously relieving the pent-up tension with a chuckle borne of a self-effacing remark that spoke volumes about said dandy’s intimate knowledge of self. Only a dandy knows the true reverence he owes his tailor.



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