Lucius Beebe

Café society columnist and bon viveur Lucius Beebe (1902-1966) cut a swathe through ‘crazy luxe’ Jazz Age New York with all the swagger of a seasoned flaneur. Describing his magpie mind, Beebe said ‘the Renaissance Man did a number of things, many of them well, a few beautifully. He was no damned specialist’. Like Oscar Wilde, he had a genius for aphorism and was entirely unacquainted with self denial. He believed ‘there is no food or time of the day and night when the service and consumption of champagne is not both appropriate and agreeable’ and said of parsimony ‘nowhere is moderation so debilitating and destructive of character as in the expenditure of money’.

Born into Bostonian wealth, Beebe had the distinction of being expelled from both Harvard and Yale for his elaborate practical jokes. When the bearded Dean of Yale endorsed Prohibition, Beebe donned fake whiskers, heckled from a box at the theatre and lobbed an empty liquor bottle onto the stage. At Harvard he would sport full evening dress, a monocle and a gold-tipped cane to morning class and kept a roulette wheel and fully-stocked bar in his rooms. He was credited with introducing white linen plus fours to Yale.

After publishing several volumes of florid poetry, Beebe found his metier in journalism as a social columnist. His dispatches from booths at New York’s fashionable nightspots Sardi’s, Quo Vadis, the Colony, 21 and Chasen’s would become legendary. He judged the performance of Manhattan café society like a theatre critic taking great delight in the new social order in which stripper Gypsy Rose Lee was feted more than ‘poor little rich girl’ Barbara Hutton. In 1929 he was hired by the New York Herald Tribune. His column This New York ran until 1944 and was read by 1.5 million New Yorkers every morning.

Lucius Beebe was one of the few columnists who became as famous as the social circle he examined. At noon he could be found in the Oak Room at the Plaza ordering his first gin martini of the day and would close the Stork Club or El Morocco before retreating to a Broadway dive with Noël Coward to devour chopped chilli beef with beer. Like Coward, Beebe was a fixture on Cunard’s trans-Atlantic liners travelling with a wardrobe that would shame a Maharaja.

Beebe rightly said ‘no woman can stand seeing a man as well or painstakingly dressed as herself’ while blithely doing just that. His wardrobe consisted of forty bespoke suits, two mink-lined overcoats with sable collars, numerous silk top hats, doeskin gloves and a collection of evening canes and gold cigarette cases. He favoured Henry Poole suits, shoes made by John Lobb and Charvet ties. In a lengthy paean to Poole in The Holiday Magazine, Beebe wrote ‘(Henry Poole) is to tailoring what Rolls-Royce and Cartier are to automobiles and diamonds respectively’.

In 1944 Beebe attended a dinner held by Evalyn Walsh McLean, a lady famed for owning the Hope diamond. Also in the party was a square-jawed, handsome photographer called Charles Clegg. Clegg and Beebe became lovers – or partners as Beebe preferred to say – and would remain so for the rest of Lucius Beebe’s life. They shared a passion for railway trains that would result in numerous co-authored books on the subject and the purchase of two private railroad cars. Unusually for the times, Beebe and Clegg made no secret of their relationship even when, in 1950, they quit New York to live in Virginia City, Nevada.

Of the move from New York, Beebe said ‘the last part of every party is not the best’. He described aging as ‘high blood pressure, cheeriness at breakfast, a mellowing political philosophy and an inability to drink more than half a bottle of proof spirits at cocktail time without falling over the fire irons all suggesting dark wings hovering overhead and the impending midnight croak of the raven’. Together Beebe and Clegg bought the Territorial Enterprise newspaper and built its circulation up to being the best-selling weekly in the West.

The Territorial Enterprise’s editorial policy was wryly described as ‘pro-prostitution, pro-alcohol, pro-private railroad cars for the few and fearlessly anti-poor folks, anti-progress, anti-religion, anti-union, anti-diet, anti-vivisection and anti-preparing breakfast food’. Beebe actively campaigned when a city brothel was threatened with closure because of its proximity to a school. His headline? ‘Don’t move the girls: move the school!’ But any antipathy between he and his neighbours was deflected when Beebe bought Virginia City a fire engine.

Beebe and Clegg were inseparable and travelled extensively in Europe and across America in their private railroad cars The Gold Coast and The Virginia City accompanied by their 185-stone St Bernard T-Bone Towser. The Virginia City was decorated by Hollywood set designer Robert Hinley in a style Beebe christened ‘Venetian Renaissance Baroque’. The antique furniture that wouldn’t have shamed Versailles cost half a million dollars. There was a 23-foot observation drawing room, a dining room for eight, a fifty-bottle wine cellar, three state rooms, staff quarters and a small Turkish bath on board. When film director Cecil B. DeMille clapped eyes on The Virginia City he said ‘tell the Madam I’ll have a drink, but I’m too old to go up the stairs’.

In 1960 a new column, This Wild West, was offered to Beebe by the San Francisco Chronicle. By now he had written over thirty-five books and was a familiar presence in the New Yorker, Town & Country and Playboy as well as being honoured with a top-hat-and-tails front cover of Time magazine. He and Clegg sold the Territorial Enterprise in 1961 and bought a house in San Francisco. He died of a heart attack aged sixty-three. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote ‘Lucius Beebe, who was larger than life, is dead. The famous author suffered a heart attack shortly after his ritual morning Turkish bath’. Charles Clegg committed suicide in 1979.

Though largely forgotten by all but railway enthusiasts for whom his books are bibles and the young dandies who revere him as a hero of British bespoke tailoring, Beebe was in his day celebrated by the likes of Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart in musical lyrics. ‘Luscious Lucius’, as fellow columnist Walter Winchell called him, wrote arguably the finest ode to Henry Poole & Co in the 1960 Holiday Magazine profile entitled ‘London’s Fanciest Tailor’. He lived by his own maxim ‘if anything is worth doing, it is worth doing in style’.

(c) James Sherwood

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