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It's Not All Black & White

Though the tuxedo recently celebrated 150 years, there is still some debate over how the timeless suit got its name—not to mention exactly how old it really is. Here, a winding tale of kings, consorts and classic style

illustration by donna mehlko

In 1865, the Prince of Wales asked his tailor, Henry Poole & Co., to run up a midnight blue silk “smoking suit” for informal dinners at Sandringham, his country estate in Norfolk. Known as Bertie to family and familiars, the increasingly corpulent future Edward VII wanted more comfort than was afforded by the traditional white tie and tails, especially for stag evenings without the ladies. And thus was born the dinner jacket, that simple and eminently wearable garment in which most gents feel (and look) a little like Cary Grant. As legend has it, some twenty years later a wealthy young American named James Brown Potter would wear one to the first Autumn Ball at the exclusive resort of Tuxedo Park, New York, and give the garment the name by which it has been known ever since. It’s a charming story that has been repeated anecdotally and in print for over a century but is more rooted in fable than fact.

“While uncertainty will always remain about precisely when and where the first short dinner jacket was worn in America,” says Deborah Harmon, executive director of the Tuxedo Historical Society, “we do know it was not worn at the first Autumn Ball.” The Autumn Ball was strictly white tie until after World War I, although Victorian members of the Tuxedo Club did popularize the semiformal garment by wearing it to dinners in the country and stag evenings in the city, much as Bertie had done. However it happened—and we’ll never really know for sure—the name tuxedo was quickly pinned to the jacket. It stuck, as did the style, and by the onset of World War II tailcoats were pretty much relegated to Fred Astaire, diplomats and symphony conductors.

In 2011 the firm of Henry Poole & Co., which has been at 15 Savile Row since 1804, decided to push the clock forward and mark a century and a half of “the little black jacket,” which tied in neatly with the 125th anniversary of the Autumn Ball.  After all, what’s a little pesky math when you’re talking about a garment that revolutionized menswear and has remained essentially unchanged to this day?  “One hundred and fifty years sat better on the program than one hundred and forty-seven,” comments Angus Cundey, whose family has been with the firm for five generations. “It gives us an excuse in the UK to celebrate in another three years’ time.”

The London celebration kicked off with events sponsored by the London College of Fashion and several prominent corporate donors, including Dormeiul fabrics and, of course, Henry Poole & Co., and featured a Project Runway-style challenge where top students of the college redefined the bespoke classic. As for the formerly fabulous Autumn Ball, it had not been held since 1971, a victim of changing times and economic decline. But the glittering event was revived at the Tuxedo Club on October 8, 2011, and may well return every three years through continued collaboration between the London College of Fashion and the Tuxedo Historical Society. The special guests of honor that night included Linda Michonski of Greenwich, whose great-great-grandfather was that wealthy young American, James Brown Potter. And therein lies a tale.

Potter’s wife, née Cora Urquhart of New Orleans, was a ravishingly beautiful redhead with violet eyes and a winning manner. And Bertie had a taste for redheads, which was why he invited the young couple to Sandringham in 1885. One unspoken purpose of the country house weekend, apart from the delights of socializing and fresh air, was covert assignation between man and mistress. Was the tuxedo the result of an affair?

“It’s a bit clouded as to how this all happened; it’s really oral history,” says Linda. “We tend to think of the Edwardians as these very staid people, but they weren’t, not at all. My great-great grandmother was the king’s mistress, known as one of The Three Redheads. All actresses: Sarah Bernhardt, Lillie Langtry and Cora. I never heard about this growing up, but I’ve met any number of British people who know about The Three Redheads.”

The Prince of Wales had spotted Cora some months before at the Caledonian Ball in London, and asked her to dine after. They talked until dawn. At least that’s what Cora claimed in “The Age of Innocence . . . and I,” the three-part memoir she wrote for Cosmopolitan magazine in 1933. It’s a delightful reminiscence of a vanished era, but more given to name-dropping—Robert Browning wrote poetry to her, Winston’s Churchill’s mum had her to tea, Whistler painted her, Oscar Wilde begged her to play Salome—than it is to details and dates, about which she is maddeningly vague.

We do know, however, that the 1885 invitation to Sandringham prompted James Brown Potter to visit Henry Poole & Co. to make sure he was properly outfitted. There he was told about the prince’s dinner jacket, and it was suggested he order one. This James did, and, on his return to America, is said to have introduced the fad to his tailor.

The first Autumn Ball was held in Tuxedo Park in October of 1889 and was a glamorous occasion, and in time would hold sway as the opening dance of the New York debutante season. The new community, built in 1885, was a 5,000-acre enclave that boasted fifteen cottages with artfully antiqued shingles decorated with moss, paved roads lit by streetlamps, a swimming pool and fish hatchery, and a four-story clubhouse—all surrounded by an eight-foot barbed-wire fence. On  opening day, May 31, 1886, a chartered train from Manhattan had arrived bearing prospective members, including John Jacob Astor, William Waldorf and Cornelius Vanderbilt, who were ready to sign up, buy in, and pay the yearly membership fee of $100. James Brown Potter was in fine and familiar company.

It seems that the Potters were happiest when apart and Cora spent much time in London pursuing her dreams of theatrical and social success. One London journalist wrote of her, “She has no replica, she stands alone, compelling, mysterious, like Cleopatra of old, or Helen of Troy.”  It was common knowledge that she was “favored” by the Prince of Wales, which only added to her stature. London society, for the most part, blandly ignored the salacious doings of the upper crust.

Cora and Bertie had at least one illegitimate child (according to Linda, some accounts say as many as three), a daughter named Sprite who lived with Cora on the Riviera until she died in her late twenties, and about whom little is known.

In the insular society of Old New York as chronicled by Edith Wharton, however, this behavior was frowned upon. James Brown Potter was one of New York’s 400, so named for the capacity of Mrs. Astor’s ballroom. His family was distinguished in both Boston and New York; they descended from Revolutionary War patriot Israel R. Potter, who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and included a fistful of Episcopal bishops, with houses on Washington Square and in Newport, Rhode Island, as well as Tuxedo Park. Cora’s “shenanigans,” plus her attempt to trade on the family name—she sold it to a skin cream company for the then staggering sum of $200,000—led to a scandalous divorce. A born survivor, she did what she had to and returned to the stage, in later years touring Shakespeare in such far-flung corners of the empire as New Zealand and Tasmania.

“The Tuxedo Historical Society is fascinated by Cora,” says Linda Michonski. “We’re still doing research. There’s a lot of information out there and we’ll probably never know all of it.”

Notoriety did not end with Cora. Her daughter Ann was divorced by James Stillman, Jr., son of the founder of Citibank, after he accused her of having an affair and a child with a Native American who worked at the family ranch in Canada. Subsequently, Ann married a grandson of John D. Rockefeller and founded the McCormack horse-breeding ranch in Scottsdale, Arizona.

“This is not a family tradition I adhere to,” Linda says quickly. “I’ve been happily married since June 20, 1978.”  Her husband, Henry, after thirty years of selling luxury real estate in Manhattan, is currently writing up his marketing strategies and is at work on a book about Greenwich history (Linda’s Greenwich roots include J. Kennedy Tod of Tod’s Point, who married James Brown Potter’s sister in 1881).

This all means that Linda is distantly related to the Windsors; through Cora and the king’s progeny she is, by marriage, the great-great-niece thrice removed of Queen Elizabeth. “I’m still waiting for an invitation to tea at Buckingham Palace,” she says, “although I don’t think it will arrive anytime soon. Because of Bertie’s romantic interest in Cora, my family has been persona non grata with the royals.”

She is also on a par with Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and the second wife of the present Prince of Wales, whose great-great-grandmother Alice Keppel was the last great mistress of Edward VII (so beloved that Queen Alexandra graciously allowed her a visit when the King was dying of typhoid fever). Of this tenuous connection Linda Michonski just laughs and says, “Oh, well, I guess this means I won’t be getting an invitation to Highgrove either.”                                                                

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