Yes Sir, That’s Our Beebe

beebe-1.jpgWhen Dandyism.net launched four years ago, we stated as our mission the desire to rescue the dandy from the slag heap of history through rigorous scholarship and unflinching self-righteousness.

Now it is time to rescue one particular dandy: Lucius Beebe, an all-but-forgotten American original who barely warrants a mention by the academics of dandyism, who are more concerned with muddled abstractions like “performance” and “self-invention” than the tangible plumage of top hat and tails.

To Beebe, this plumage was essential as it was to Fred Astaire. In donning it, Beebe simultaneously defined himself, an era, and the new genre of celebrity journalism. His gold-headed cane cut a wide swath through stuffiness, social conventions, and hoi polloi (he was called a notorious “peasant baiter”). Beebe’s patrician style was unmatched, as was the notoriety his wardrobe brought him.

Read the second and third installments of this article.

During his lifetime he was equally as famous as the stars and socialites who populated the small and swank universe he called “crazy luxe,” but within a few years of his death in 1966 he all but disappeared from public memory.

“The Passionate Spectator” columnist and burgeoning staff biographer Robert Sacheli, whose appreciations of Noel Coward and Fred Astaire have brought D.net acclaim on the Web and in print from as far away as New Zealand, ransacked a bevy of buried texts on Lucius Beebe in preparation for what is certainly the freshest and most thorough account of the man written in many decades, which will be presented in three parts.

The Junta encourages its faithful myrmidons to join us in a toast to Sacheli for his assiduous research, and to a long-lost member of our fraternity.

Welcome back, Lucius.

Lucius Beebe: Part One
By Robert Sacheli

On a beautiful cloudless afternoon in San Francisco in the late 1930s, there were probably hundreds of luncheon parties being thrown, but only Lucius Beebe could have thrown this one.

The exact menu is unknown, but knowing Beebe it likely began with champagne, moved on to dishes rich and rare, and concluded with cognac and cigars. Then, to clear the meal’s remains, Beebe later recounted, “We threw the eggshells and other incidentals on Mr. Hearst’s elegant San Simeon estate.”

The luncheon, you see, took place on a Goodyear blimp. Among the clouds it was champagne, laughter, and eggshells aimed at America’s richest newspaper baron, while thousands of miles away the world prepared for war.

This is how Lucius Beebe spent his life: host of an endless moveable feast as untethered to the realities of time and place as that balloon floating above the Pacific coast. Beebe was a supreme example of the detached ironist laughing at the foibles of the modern world, but that vantage point came at the price of a kind of splendid isolation.

There was a time when Lucius Beebe was the most famous dandy in America. Fifty years ago, housewives in Fresno could tell you the number of suits in his well publicized wardrobe (there were 40). Commuters driving home to Westbury or Winnetka could describe the décor of his private railcar (Venetian Renaissance, complete with Turkish bath). And young men imagining a life beyond Springfield knew which of his lapel ornaments had been temporarily swiped by a socialite at a Noel Coward opening night (a diamond gardenia worth $10,000).

But say his name today and you’ll likely be met with an expression as empty as a speakeasy raided by New York’s finest.

Beebe was an author, bon vivant, and unrepentant Tory; a connoisseur of fine wines, railroad lore and bespoke haberdashery; and, due in great part to his own indefatigable efforts, he was once a legend on the order of Beau Brummell, King Kong, or P.T. Barnum — notables with whom he shared not a few idiosyncrasies.

At the heart of Beebe’s outsize personality were two characteristics he cherished above the rest. He was, according to his longtime partner, “an individualist and, by virtue of his own time machine, an Edwardian.” A Janus in a derby, Lucius Beebe was the first retro-eccentric dandy of the modern era, a distinction made more fascinating by the fact that 1.5 million readers once thought him the most up-to-the-minute man in New York.

You Must Have Been a Beautiful Beebe

Lucius Morris Beebe was born 1902 to a wealthy clan in Wakefield, Massachusetts, and his education was as notable for its peripatetic nature as it was for the quality of the institutions through which he passed. Amateur explosives and amateur drinking got him booted from the first two of his three prep schools. At Yale, where he lived in a room with a roulette wheel and a bookcase that revolved into a bar, his primary pursuits were nightlife and shocking classmates with his clothing. He also tossed off much verse of dubious quality, and the opening of one poem (“I am weary of these times and their dull burden/Sweating and laboring in the summer noontide”) shows that his nostalgia was already firmly entrenched. Very little sweat and labor clouded his own noontides, and he was known to appear at early-morning classes in the previous evening’s white tie and carrying a gold-headed cane, the effect enhanced by his lanky 6’4″ frame.

Drink once again hastened his departure from the halls of academia, though more indirectly this time. Outraged that a poll of Yale Divinity School students showed overwhelming support for the enforcement of Prohibition, he fired off a pseudonymous letter to the campus newspaper, a missive whose phrases (“… out of the colossal cavity of their ignorance… innocent device that proved a pleasure to Jesus Christ… exhibit their poltroonish idiocy… Such whim-whams we may look for in pretzel-varnishers… dodos and dinosaurs at large on the campus”) hint at the arabesques of prose that would come to characterize his writing career.

The dean of the Divinity School made his disapproval known to Beebe, who later tried to get the last word by rising in a box at a local theater, resplendent in fake whiskers, and announcing “I am Professor Tweedy of the Yale Divinity School,” before lobbing an empty liquor bottle on the stage.

Yale had the last word, and it was “goodbye.”

After a year on a Boston newspaper, Beebe packed up his poetry notebooks and canes and headed to Harvard, where the muses and the high life continued to call in equal volumes. Wolcott Gibbs, in a delightfully cockeyed 1937 New Yorker profile of Beebe, captures the undergraduate dandy: “When his father was amiable and funds were high, he ate magnificently at the Touraine — he wore a monocle, and was embarrassed when it fell into the soup and had to be fished out and dried by a waiter.”

Graduating in 1927, Beebe continued studies at Harvard, focusing his graduate thesis on the work of poet Edward Arlington Robinson. As part of his research, Beebe borrowed from the poet the manuscript of deleted sections from one of his works but found more than just a scholarly use for them: He had them printed as a limited-edition volume of 17 copies. When a fellow student alerted Robinson of Beebe’s publishing operation, the writer and Harvard were understandably concerned. Beebe confronted the tattletale in his rooms. Gibbs recounts that “a heavy bookcase fell or was thrown,” causing serious injury to the man, and “Harvard, not unreasonably adverse to being the scene of a trial for manslaughter, took action promptly, and for the second time Lucius was a martyr to culture.”

Dateline Babylonia

After a sojourn at another Boston newspaper, in 1929 Beebe was hired by the New York Tribune at $35 a week, and at first it looked as if he’d last about as long there as he did at one of his prep schools. Factual reporting of the more mundane events and calamities of urban life did not inspire his pen. He was known to attend fires in morning dress. Switching his beat to theater and movies proved equally unpromising. He called Hollywood “the outhouse civilization of the world, full of preposterous mountebanks and bores who live in the most witless and spurious manner ever devised.” He also filed interviews with performers in which, according to Gibbs, “it could be observed that the subjects, both men and women, spoke in an educated and haughty manner, rather reminiscent of Mr. Beebe himself.”

In 1933, the manager of the Herald Tribune‘s syndicate found a subject that was the perfect match for Beebe’s singular personal and journalistic styles: New York life itself — specifically, the part of it that was riotously conducted between sunset and the appearance of the milkman. The general idea was to chronicle the city as “a Babylonia-on-the-Hudson, sinful, extravagant, full of the nervous hilarity of the doomed,” says Gibbs, and no more ideal scribe could be found than that “richly upholstered Babylonian” from Wakefield.

Beebe’s timing was as impeccable as one of his evening emsembles. The long cocktail party of the 1920s and the hangover of the early years of the Depression had played havoc with the old-style status quo, and New York saw the emergence of a new kind of elite, a spangled crowd that came to be known as Café Society. Though the term itself was initially spun by columnist Maury Paul (who wrote under the name Cholly Knickerbocker), it was Beebe’s syndicated column “This New York” that made it a household phrase for glamor-hungry readers from Philadelphia to Seattle (and, for several months, a few bewildered ones in Ketchikan, Alaska, whose local editor took on the column not fully aware of its content).

In contrast to the old-money crowd that dominated New York society for generations, Beebe explained that Café Society was a very modern phenomenon. It was the product of journalism in which gossip and scandal were increasingly important components, and a byproduct of a city where being seen, particularly at the burgeoning number of smart nightspots, was more important to celebrity than simply being rich during daylight hours. Café Society, as he defined it, was “an unorganized but generally recognized group of persons whose names made news and who participated in the professional and social life of New York available to those possessed of a certain degree of affluence and manners.”

So goodbye Mrs. Astor, hello Tallulah Bankhead.

Beebe provides a run-down of what filled the calendars of the set’s glamor girls, entertainers, debs, and the well dressed and well funded of both sexes:

It was this amiably demented whirl of scrammy entertainments, Elsa Maxwell levees, Fifty-second Street morris dancing, whoopsing, screaming, and clogging it to Eddie Duchin music at the Persian Room of the Plaza, making pretty faces for the camera at Gilbert Miller first nights, bicycling through Central Park to charity carnivals, keeping luncheon trysts at the Vendome in Hollywood and being at the old desk next morning, gossiping by the hour on the London phone, and living in a white tie till six of a morning before brushing the teeth in a light Moselle and retiring to bed, which constituted the life of Manhattan’s café society.

There was no more energetic proponent of whoopsing, screaming, and clogging than Beebe himself. To his readers, the columnist became inseparable from what he dubbed “crazy luxe,” the near-mythical milieu that he covered and in a large part created. But the Beebe who spent his nights at 21, the Stork, the Colony, El Morocco, and the Rainbow Room was also a man who longed for the vanished, gas-lit world of Delmonico’s. Gibbs paints Beebe as possessing “the true Bourbon’s profound hostility to change, looking much more affectionately on the decent past than any raw new world to come.”

Beebe later stated it simply and directly in a recollection of the well mannered Boston of his childhood, extending his judgment to the London, Paris, and New York of yesteryear: “Everything everywhere was better then, and the measure of all worldly wisdom attests to it.”

Despite the creative innovators who filled his circle, Beebe’s tastes in art, music, and literature were profoundly conservative. Modern forms of writing “depressed and confused him.” He covered the 1934 opening of the Virgil Thompson–Gertrude Stein opera “Four Saints in Three Acts” and promptly pronounced it “the fanciest and most utterly Bedlamite flag-raising within recent memory.” Airplanes were forever “the Wright Brothers’ folly,” and equally foolish were travelers who strapped themselves into these “hurtling tubes of death.” The first of his many volumes on the romance of train travel appeared in 1938, and Time sniffed “that so soigné a soul as Lucius Beebe should ride a hobby as undandified as railroading is as unlooked-for as red wine with fish.”

That paradox, however, was Beebe’s greatest party trick. He was the only man who simultaneously managed to be a citizen of the New Yorks of Gypsy Rose Lee and Edith Wharton.

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35 Responses to “Yes Sir, That’s Our Beebe”

  1. D Says:

    The gay dandy is largely a myth- gay men today might favor Savile Row, but ONLY the Abercrombie and Fitch store on Savile Row. Beebe, however, was one sartorially superior sodomite. (Just don’t go to gaydandy.com – YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.)

  2. Christian Says:

    Bob, I have an idea for your next article.

  3. JES Says:

    Heaven

  4. scott Says:

    Blimp bash – I’m inspired!

    Wonderful article.
    Looking forward to the next installment.

  5. G~ Says:

    Maybe it’s my plebeian ignorance, but I did not know Lucius Beebe was gay.
    And, for once I can say this with no stigma attached…too bas he was gay.
    Why is it too bad he was gay? Because no gay man can be a true dandy. A dandy must needs be a straight man since gay men frequently have that artistic/feminine edge making elegant presentation come almost naturally [another reason Oscar Wilde was no dandy]: a dandy must be able to pursue elegance and yet retain enough virility that were he to walk into a bar, a bully would think twice before mocking him.

  6. Christian Says:

    G, I read your intriguing comment, thought about it carefully, and have decided I agree with you.

    You suffer from plebeian ignorance.

  7. M Says:

    Dear G~

    You’re joking, right?

    “a dandy must be able to pursue elegance and yet retain enough virility that were he to walk into a bar, a bully would think twice before mocking him.”

    Um… Who a man sleeps with has no bearing on either his virility or his manhood. Beebe walked into many, many seedy bars in his time, including the Bucket of Blood Saloon in Virginia City — one of my favorite dives, BTW — with a kind of aplomb that most men, regardless of orientation, should envy. He was able to pull it off because he had style, could throw a punch and, like Wilde, hold his drink.

    The idea that a gay man cannot be a dandy is the occidental uttermost of extreme absurdity.

    M

  8. Christian Says:

    Those who’ve visited G’s website thedandy.org and noted its content’s eerie similarities to D.net should congratulate him for finally coming up with an original idea.

  9. G~ Says:

    M, Am I kidding? No.

    For a man to be gay he must be attracted to his own masculinity, and not attracted to feminine aspects that would come naturally if he were straight. There is something, therefore intrinsically feminine about his nature; and thus it lacks something masculine. A gay man seeks masculinity and as such, he frequently needs to employ those feminine traits that “catch men” [and they seem to intrinsically understand and practice that; gay men frequently play out the "butch-femme" dichotomy in their private lives]. A dandy must be a straight man who appreciates elegance in a very masculine way, and who seeks to both seduce men and women socially with his manners: and women in particular romantically by being a refined man. I’m not saying gay men cannot do this, I’m saying gay men are out of the running. This because their natures give them an “advantage” in having that feminine “je ne sais quoi”, which frequently makes them more “effeminate”.

    Christian:

    Yes there are “eerie similarities” between our works. You will find that those who study the same subjects will frequently come to the same conclusions [were our mutual site dedicated to Astronomy you'd find we had the same measurements of Earth, Mars, and Venus: as well as the the same distances between them]. You will however notice that your on-line magazine is easily found from my work, while mine is unfindable form yours ,not that I would expect such since yours predates mine and excels it in every respect. I am nevertheless glad you find my observations unique.

    And as for my suffering the ignorance of the plebeians?, I claim neither to be erudite, nor educated, nor particularly witty: I only claim to be well dressed.

    As to my not knowing Mr. Beebe was gay; I wonder how many of your readers already knew that?

  10. Christian Says:

    G, your use of logic makes bricology look like Aristotle.

  11. Nick Willard Says:

    “You will find that those who study the same subjects will frequently come to the same conclusions.”

    G. — Your site goes beyond reaching the same conclusions; it extends to using the same words, although I have to admit that you sometimes mangle them.

    Your comment about claiming only to be well-dressed is, however, sufficiently witty.

  12. G~ Says:

    “G, your use of logic makes bricology look like Aristotle.”

    Oh, my! I must have been enjoying my claret a little too much last night.

  13. M Says:

    G~: What a great fat lot of half-baked unschooled gobbledegook. As a psychologist of human sexuality you might consider taking up tennis, because you have absolutely no idea what it is that you are talking about. You sound like a complete buffoon and I am very disappointed in you.

    While it’s interesting see how this has exposed prejudices — indeed plebian prejudices — this conversation should be about the many gems found in Sacheli’s excellent article and the rediscovery of genuine original.

  14. JES Says:

    For more of Beebe, if you go to http://www.epicurious.com and search under “Beebe” (not the recipe search, silly!) you’ll be able to view Beebe’s column for Gourmet magazine.

  15. Miguel Antonio Says:

    I understand G~ has a prejudiced mind, but plebeian?. Being a plebeian myself I cannot know.

  16. Miguel Antonio Says:

    “I claim neither to be erudite, nor educated, nor particularly witty: I only claim to be well dressed.”

    Yet you talk like someone with knowledge or authority.

  17. M Says:

    What a brilliant find, JES! Here’s a easier URL: http://www.gourmet.com/profiles/lucius_beebe/search?contributorName=Lucius%20Beebe

  18. JES Says:

    Excellent–thanks!

  19. Ferrando Says:

    Michael, thanks for the sensible words. You, too, Nick and Christian. I have to admit I was concerned that some of the comments on my story have taken such and odd and distasteful course.

    Then I happily realized that this mini-tempest in a martini glass was exactly the type of donnybrook that old Lucius would have relished. It simply shows that he’s a figure still capable of stirring up controversy. His choice words in that Yale letter are perfectly applicable to our correspondent: “colossal cavity of their ignorance…Such whim-whams we may look for in pretzel-varnishers…”

    So, G., my top hat’s off to you for such a thoroughly entertaining exhibition of “poltroonish idiocy” that sadly demonstrates that the narrow-mindedness against which Beebe’s life stood in colorful relief is still with us, and reminds us that bold dandies like Lucius — no matter their orientation — are still relevant and necessary.

    And by the way, your discussion of gender theory shows you have absolutely no clue about pretzel varnishing.

  20. Miguel Antonio Says:

    “Those who’ve visited G’s website thedandy.org and noted its content’s eerie similarities to D.net should congratulate him for finally coming up with an original idea.” Christian

    That site is a bastard copy of D.net in many aspects. I am really disapointed with G~, I thought he was authentic enough to develop his own ideas.

  21. Nick Willard Says:

    Miguel Antonio writes: “Those who’ve visited G’s website thedandy.org and noted its content’s eerie similarities to D.net should congratulate him for finally coming up with an original idea.” Christian

    That site is a bastard copy of D.net in many aspects. I am really disapointed with G~, I thought he was authentic enough to develop his own ideas.”

    Miguel Antonio — I mean, Mr. Contes — you & I are finally simpatico.

  22. Miguel Antonio Says:

    Thank you, Mr. Willard. I felt like Julien Sorel in the Marquis de la Mole’s Maison my first time here in D.net, although now I think I am becoming part of the site. Or maybe I am lying to myself like Julien Sorel did in The Red and The Black?

  23. G~ Says:

    Well my rant made much more sense the night I wrote it, probably due more to the bottle of Liebfraumilch that I was nursing than anything else [note to self, less Liebfraumilch, more Chimay]…oh well, there’s nothing like the taste of shoe leather..

    Mr. Sachelli’s article is beautiful, and only makes one wish there were were more forms of media wherein one might appreciate work of such individuals as Lucius Beebe [someone aught to make a movie], I wonder [the article doesn't say] if he was a flamboyant dresser like Wilde, or just had a fondness for accoutrements like monocles [which would already have been "old fashion' in Beebe's day].

    As to my website, I did borrow the skeleton of D.net, but my site is not some rival work, it is a forum and resource for a club I belong to called the “Gentleman’s Society” whose favorite subject is dandyism. I had never created a website before and didn’t really know what format to use, so I based my site on a format I was familiar with, and appreciated- D.net [I've been reading D.net for almost 4 years now]. Perhaps I should make a few changes to make that more clear…?

  24. Ferrando Says:

    G: Thanks for the gentler morning-after words and your appreciation of my article. I can assure you that there will be plenty of coverage of Beebe’s spectacular duds in the second of the three installments of the story. So stay off the Liebrfraumilch and stay tuned to D.net.

  25. Miguel Antonio Says:

    “Perhaps I should make a few changes to make that more clear…?”
    G~

    I think you should tone down your expert “status”. The site you made clearly shows that the emperor has no clothes.

  26. Aesthete's Lament Says:

    How the estimable Mr Beebe’s homosexuality could have escaped anyone’s attention is beyond me, especially since so much has been written about him and his long-term relationship with the society photographer Jerome Zerbe. Even Walter Winchell made note of the relationship, noting that Beebe’s own columns might as well always end with the words “… and Jerome never looked lovelier.” That being said, a new biography of Beebe might be in order, between hard covers.

  27. G~ Says:

    Miguel:

    Um…I have never to claimed to be an expert in anything [in fact I avoid expertise at all costs].
    I am generally only good for a laugh

  28. Malcolm Says:

    I’m really intrigued by “the décor of his private railcar (Venetian Renaissance, complete with Turkish bath)”. Does anyone know where I can find out more about this, especially the Turkish bath. Credit will be given on the Victorian Turkish Baths website for any info used. Many thanks, Malcolm

  29. FM Says:

    Does anyone know that he had children?

  30. Marc (Beebe) Says:

    I’m a blood relative of Beebe’s from my mother’s side of the family, Beebe being my Grandmother’s maiden name. I really appreciate the information in the article and glad people are again remembering his spirit of individuality. I’m realizing how much “Lucius” had come out in my personality and explains some of my unique clothing choices, my extensive hat collection (including several bowlers) and possibly even my 6’4″ frame. Anyway, thanks for the article. Marc.

  31. Alice Beebe Says:

    Hey Marc (Beebe)

    Would love to talk to you. We are related. Of course you wrote this ages ago but I thought I would try.

    Alice

  32. Theatre Reviews | The Grumpy Owl Says:

    [...] but, just as bad, theatre criticism.  Holding this job is almost enough to have one banned from Lucius Beebe’s club, “Coffee House” where the credo is: “No brokers or bankers and perhaps no drama [...]

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