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Books: Yankee Dude

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NEITHER PEST NOR PURITAN—E. Berry Wall—Dial Press ($3.50).

For almost half of his 79 years, E. (for Evander) Berry Wall set a smart sartorial pace as an international clotheshorse. He was called the best-dressed American in Europe, the King of the Dudes. He was reported to possess 285 pairs of pants, 5,000 custom-tailored neckties. It was rumored that he changed his ties six times a day. His conduct was motivated by a great principle: find out what suits you and always wear it. Berry Wall usually wore capes and coats of horse-blanket plaid, high horse-collars cinched with lush Ascot cravats. Sometimes he changed into one of his crimson satin lounging suits to lead one of his chows, always named either Chi Chi or Toi Toi, through the streets of Paris. Though Berry Wall was born in Manhattan (1861), where he was a society swell in the ’80s and ’90s, he spent most of his later life in France. There, under the impression that he was leading a tumultuous and crowded existence, he drifted from race track to race track, from hotel to hotel, from gambling casino to gambling casino, with a miscellaneous society that included the Duchess of Windsor, the Grand Duke Dmitri, the Aga Khan, King Alfonso and ex-King Nicholas of Montenegro, “a magnificent old darling.”

Partly to preserve his recollections for posterity, partly to fill the void left by the death of his wife (to whom he was devoted), Berry Wall, 77, began to write (entirely from memory) his memoirs. When he died last spring they were still unpublished. This week they were published under the title Neither Pest Nor Puritan. To read them was like reading a Proustian novel written not by Proust, but by one of his vacuous, arrogant characters.

At 16, Berry Wall owned his first race horse. He became a charter member of two jockey clubs, an amateur walking champion, a dead shot, a member of Manhattan’s blue-blooded Old Seventh Regiment. Other members were various Schermerhorns, Belmonts, Harrimans, Rhinelanders, and Elliot Roosevelt, father of Eleanor. Says Wall: “I often wonder what he would think of his daughter and son-in-law now. Perhaps it is just as well not to wonder.”

Grandfather Berry had been “a grand old swell” who wore lavender trousers strapped under patent-leather boots. Father Wall was less dashing, but he left his son some good advice: “Never mind who or how charming your lady friend may be, always leave the money on the mantelpiece.” When he was 18, young Berry’s father and grandfather each left him more than $1,000,000. He soon ran through it, lived the rest of his life on somewhat less than $1,000,000 which his mother providently tied up in trust for him. Sometimes he eked out this pittance by brokering, “pushing champagne,” playing the races.

A Broadway swell, parading through the theatre district in violent waistcoats and loud checked suits, young Berry was much annoyed when “a lot of actors and racing men and sharps began imitating me.” At Saratoga Springs he introduced the dinner jacket to the U. S., got ordered off the dance floor for not being in evening dress. He decided to go West, got as far as Kentucky, where he admired the women, bought a stable, nearly fought a duel. Back in Manhattan, he sprained his leg dancing the cancan, then went to Montreal on crutches for the Hunt Ball to meet the Governor General. Against doctor’s orders, he danced until 5 o’clock in the morning. Berry Wall decided that the way to live long is to have nothing to do with doctors, observed ” There are more old drunkards there are old doctors.”

Europe was Berry Wall’s next fling. At the Four Arts Ball in Paris, he was surprised to see some 2,000 men and women cavorting around “mostly entirely naked.” He was even more surprised to meet a duchess to whom he had been introduced several days before. She was naked too. Berry overcame his confusion while he had a drink with her in the bar. Said he: “As I stood there looking down … I began to realize that it is in respect to certain things that the French differ so from the English.” He often threatened to tell about that unforgettable night, but his wife would reprove him with, “No, no, Berry, you mustn’t. Naughty!”

The French “broadened” young Wall’s viewpoint: the English confirmed it. “My idea was that life was worth enjoying. I liked the struggle, racing, gambling.” By 1914 the struggle had taken tougher forms. Berry Wall left his hotel at Aix-les-Bains, the first floor of which he shared with the Aga Khan, hurried off to San Sebastian, Spain. There he stayed cozily during much of World War I. He introduced the fox trot into Spain, found the plage at San Sebastian one of the best in Europe; King Alfonso the most hospitable of monarchs. But an inner voice kept whispering: “You are only marking time in Spain, there is something more important, more vital awaiting you elsewhere.” Berry Wall got back to Paris in time to play poker with U. S. Generals Atterbury, Russel, Bliss, duck into air-raid shelters with his rival dude & wit, Henry Symes Lehr, and Mrs. William B. Leeds, later the wife of Prince Christopher of Greece, who never took shelter without her heavy jewel case. He admired his friend Clemenceau’s realism. During the Armistice celebration, when people warned him: “Women aren’t safe, they are throwing themselves at the men,” the Tiger replied: “France has need of children.” Says Author Wall: “This may sound cynical, but we have to face truths in this world. . . .” He was not so understanding about Woodrow Wilson, thought him both a pest and a puritan.

After 14 years in Europe, Berry Wall decided to have another look at the U. S. He found the country in a bad way. A shocking practice called “gate crashing” had turned up. People gave invitations “most casually” over the telephone. When at one party a young man slammed a young woman down on a sofa, and Berry Wall interfered, the young man hit him, the young lady slapped him, screamed: “You old busybody, go on back to Paris.” He did.

In Paris in 1936 his wife died. Wall continued to dress gaudily, dine gaily, enjoy amiable caricatures of himself in the French newspapers. He could not conquer loneliness. For the first time he began to look back on his long life. The retrospect gave him a momentary power to write movingly and well: “No clippings, no diaries, no programs—nothing have I kept from the years to guide me, and I am an old man now. Details escape me. The general picture remains. Men who liked fighting and playing! Gracious and lovely women!” The old dude, whose life to most people would seem to have consisted of dressing and undressing rather than living, added: “I keep reminding myself as I draw nearer my last great duty, the obligation upon me to thank the God I believe in for the gift of life.”

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