Even the most gracious gentlemen have their limits. In 1958, a Levi Strauss publicist dispatched four shirts to a popular actor with a keen sense of fashion.
Cary Grant responded with a graceful thanks, but no thanks.
|PIECING IT TOGETHER - By writing a book on Cary Grant's sartorial excellence, Richard Torregrossa caught the attention of movie buffs, style-setters and a few movie stars. CNS Photo by Crissy Pascual. |
"The shirts are, for a conservative such as myself, rather, rather ... if you dig me .... and I'm not at all sure if I can swagger out in gold-threaded finery," the actor wrote. "I shall await a braver mood."
Grant was being polite; a self-remade man, he had courage to spare.
Archibald Leach had landed in New York City in 1920, a 16-year-old English lad without funds or contacts. In little more than a decade, he had acquired a new name and persona: the perfectly attired, effortlessly witty and impossibly elegant Cary Grant.
"The essence of the man was style," said Richard Torregrossa, 39, author of "Cary Grant: A Celebration of Style" (Bulfinch Press, $35). "What I tried to show was how the style was a reflection of the inner man."
We've heard this tale before, about the plucky waif who takes the coarse threads of his early life and spins them into gold. This is the story of Abraham Lincoln, Jay Gatsby, even a few authors. In the 1990s, Torregrossa left his native New York City for cheaper housing in California and a career as an independent writer and illustrator. Cosmopolitan bought his first stories, printing them under the headlines "Risque Rendezvous" and "The Joy of Phone Sex."
"My mother would introduce me as her son, the pornographer," Torregrossa said. "She was not happy."
A TAILOR'S NUGGETS
While Torregrossa never stooped to porn, he was not quite an A-list author. That changed in September, with the publication "Cary Grant." Before this book's appearance, he was best known for a series of small volumes that paired info nuggets with his whimsical drawings.
"My big sellers were 'Fun Facts About Cats' and 'Fun Facts About Dogs,'" he said.
He knew little about Grant, beyond a vague sense that the man had been stuffy, gray, about as flashy as a banker. That impression changed, though, as Torregrossa's freelance assignments introduced him to the world of fashion. In 2003, designer Giorgio Armani announced that his menswear collection had been inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's leading man in "Notorious" and "North by Northwest."
"When Mr. Armani says something," Torregrossa noted, "you listen."
Soon, the writer was mining a rich vein - Grant's clothing, speech, behavior. As a young performer in New York, the poor immigrant studied the rich, the powerful and the elegant. From Noel Coward, he learned the power of understated wit. From various well-heeled gentlemen, he learned to keep his pockets empty, ensuring that his coats and pants would hang in sharp, unrumpled lines.
"Grant," Torregrossa writes, "knew what we know now - that knowing what not to wear is as important as knowing what to wear."
Torregrossa never had an opportunity to interview Grant, who died in 1986, but buttonholed friends and colleagues. He prowled archives at the University of Southern California and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He devoured all previous lives of the man.
"Fourteen biographies," Torregrossa said, "and none of them had talked to his tailor."
That craftsman spilled a series of nuggets:
- Grant had the arms of his suits moved higher, to accentuate his silhouette.
- Grant preferred suits with side vents, so he could put a hand in his pocket without his coat bunching up.
- Grant wore high-collared shirts to hide a thick neck, a souvenir of his days as a vaudeville tumbler.
"He said that it takes 500 details to make one favorable impression," Torregrossa noted.
The detail-rich book has impressed many. "The author," The Atlantic Monthly reported, "very nicely synthesizes a lot of material on Grant - much not directly related to things sartorial - and has produced a smooth and very well-illustrated primer."
Donald Spoto, a biographer of Hitchcock and Audrey Hepburn, calls this "the definitive Cary Grant book." Town & Country magazine printed an excerpt. And George Clooney distributed copies of the book on the set of his latest film, "Ocean's 13."
BEING CARY GRANT
For Torregrossa, the attention has been unprecedented and a bit unnerving. Last fall, he flew to New York for a book launch party. His hosts: Armani, who had written the book's foreword, and Pamela Fiore, the editor of Town & Country.
The gala also happened to coincide with a presidential visit to New York. The limo sent to pick up the guest of honor was caught in the ensuing traffic snarl. Torregrossa stood outside his hotel in the rain, waiting and wilting. Late to his own party, the author presented a soggy contrast to his ever-elegant subject.
"What I learned," Torregrossa said later, "was that I wasn't up to the Cary Grant standard. You came to respect him more. He never underdressed. He was always comfortable and relaxed."
He was not, however, always serene. In his research, Torregrossa found that the actor was an obsessive critic of his own press. The Aug. 25, 1975, edition of People reported that "eternal matinee idol Cary Grant, 71," was late for an appointment because "he was detained fitting his false teeth." In ink, Grant wrote a single word: "Nonsense."
In 1978, Grant dictated a typewritten 11-point riposte to another article. One item - "9. I never practiced to discover an effective way to light a cigarette, fasten a cuff link or straighten a tie." - stirred him to jot with a pen, "Ridiculous."
Still, the biographer found many more instances of his subject at ease, enjoying life and the sheer pleasure of being the debonair character Archie Leach had created. Torregrossa quizzed the actor's surviving friends about any gap between on-screen image and off-screen personality.
"They said the main difference was he laughed with gusto. His laughter was uproarious.
"The guy had a blast."
Copley News Service
His mantra: clean, classic, classy, confident
Turning poor Archibald Leach into suave Cary Grant required plenty of backstage labor. Biographer Richard Torregrossa lifted the curtain to identify several elements behind this transformation:
- Clean lines. In film after film, Grant wears suits that are remarkably unwrinkled. He "doesn't even seem to be carrying a pen or a wallet, for no unsightly bulges mar his trim silhouette." A passion for smooth lines also led to an unorthodox fashion decision: Grant wore women's nylon panties.
- Quality. Leach's father advised his son to buy one excellent suit rather than several cheaper models. That way, "even when it is threadbare, people will know it was once good."
- Classy, classic. Grant's clothes weren't just expensive - most of his suits came from Savile Row, modeled on designs that had stood the test of time. "He was always in style, never in trend."
- Simplicity. Torregrossa points out that Grant's Hollywood home was spacious but simply furnished, "more a sanctuary than a showplace." When traveling, the actor kept luggage to a minimum. His screen style, likewise, is direct and unfussy.
- Preparation. Watching vaudeville veterans endlessly rehearse their parts, young Leach realized that effortless performances require great pre-performance effort.
- Comfort, confidence. While Grant's personal life was often the subject of rumors, Torregrossa found no evidence that the five-time-married actor had been gay. "But he was very comfortable with homosexuals. He just didn't care that by association people would think that he was gay. For him, there was no stigma."