Thursday, October 8, 2015

Book Week #5: "Brother, it's a dirty one!"

     I loved writing "Hatless Jack," my exploration of the history of men's hats, using John F. Kennedy's life as a narrative arc. I felt like I was exploring a lost world, and it helped me understand the general societal trend toward individual freedom, an era of shucking of rules, including the need to wear hats. Granta brought out an edition in England that was well-received, with a full page in the Times of London Book Review. Though the book is about men's hats, not all the characters in it are men: 

     Hatcheck girls came to occupy a particular niche in American culture in the 1920s and 1930s. They were both helpful and alluring—halfway between a sister and a slut—and their toehold on the bottom rung of the nightlife world of fancy clubs and restaurants made them perfect grist for all sorts of modern Cinderella stories in books, movies, and, occasionally, in real life. A number of society matrons, such as candy heiress Helen Brach, started life as hatcheck girls....
     If checking hats was an art form, its prima donna was Renee Carroll, the "hat check queen" at Sardi's, the famed theater district restaurant in New York City. Carroll was a brash redhead with a sharp tongue and an easy manner with the rich and famous, and her methods explain why it was estimated that 99 percent of men tipped their hatcheck girls. Though not particularly good-looking, the "snap-eyed, voluble" Carroll kept her clientele in line with a careful mix of flattery and bullying. For tippers, there was the carrot of being recognized.
     "When I accept a coat," she wrote in her 1932 memoir, In Your Hat, "I look at the label immediately and read the man's name that his tailor usually writes just inside the inner coat pocket. I call the gentleman by his name and remember it afterward, refusing to give a check for his coat and insisting on knowing faces and garments every time. This, of course, flattered the gentleman who, in turn, tips better."
     For nontippers, Carroll had a ready arsenal of sarcastic lines and gestures. She would hand quarters to steady nontippers (although this did not necessarily shame them. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright William Saroyan would wordlessly pocket the quarter, so she stopped giving it to him).
    She slathered on guilt. Hatlessness was no excuse. When French star Maurice Chevalier showed up at Sardi's without a hat, Carroll told him that she had just paid to see him in the movies the night before, and was it fair that he was now refusing to pay her the "customary fee"? Chevalier meekly went back to his car, got his hat, and checked it, tipping a dollar.
     Words were not even necessary for a hatcheck girl to make her feelings known. This is how fellow hatchecker Blanche Hollard described the reception given a nickel tip in the 1940s.
    "Some girls, however, extend the palm of their hand with the offending coin in it, and then look incredulously up at the man's face," she writes, in her own published confessions. "It most cases he immediately says, 'I get your pardon I thought I gave you a quarter.' Then, an exchange is hastily transacted."
    "If you give a hat check girl less than a quarter, she'll give you a look that you will carry around with you for the rest of your night-clubbing days," Dorothy Kilgallen wrote in 1942. "Brother, it's a dirty one!"
     Carroll had Sardi's customers so spooked that men would routinely tip her, even if they din't have hats to check. Playwright Ward Morehouse forgot to tip Carroll in his rush to make a steamship, so he sent her a five-franc note from Paris and a letter of apology.


  1. Interesting about the hat check girls but still glad hats are no longer a necessity.

  2. I really enjoyed this book. I love hats, and I do wish they were worn more. I'm not wanting the stringent rules about them again, those were crazy, but I do think hats are fun.

  3. When this book first came out I thought to myself, "Hmm, this is a weird thing to write about." A few minutes of browsing through it at the bookstore, and knew I had to have it on my shelf. One of my favorite books, full of fascinating facts and anecdotes I would never have guessed. And very humorous as well. It has something for everyone; highly recommend it to those reading this blog.


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