The glow and romance of it: Douglas Fairbanks on stage

Monday, July 31st 2023
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By Tom Mastronardi.

Anyone that knows me appreciates my resolute affection for being well-tailored. Even as a kid raised in a decidedly blue-collar neighbourhood on Chicago’s South Side, I never required any coaxing to don a jacket and tie.

But of all the explanations for my embrace of bespoke, the best and certainly the truest has its genesis in a first date: one that marked the culmination of a teenage crush on an outstandingly lovely (of course) young girl.

Now, in my dotage, I realise my memory might be slightly porous, but still, I have the fondest recollection of an unforgettable evening spent with said lovely – and, more to the point, with the (distant) presence of Mr Douglas Fairbanks, Jr (above).

Okay, then – a boy and a girl and a Hollywood icon. But how does a tale of young romance – even one with a Hollywood version of a Fairy Godfather – lead to my enduring enthusiasm for tailoring?

Let’s go back even further to 1958, when a new play entitled The Pleasure of His Company by Samuel A Taylor and Cornelia Otis Skinner premiered on Broadway. (The New York Times found it to be "thoroughly delightful.”)

The plot of the play follows the return of a wayfaring bon vivant father, one Biddeford ‘Pogo’ Poole, who has returned to San Francisco for the wedding of his now grown (but long neglected) daughter, as well as to pursue his former lady, the mother of the bride. Charming hijinks ensue – which is why the French title is, with good reason, Mon Séducteur de Père. Racy stuff in Eisenhower-era America.

Fast forward to 1971 when, on the eve of my 16th birthday, I was in the throes of a mad crush on the aforementioned girl (whom I’ll henceforth refer to as ‘Olivia’, owing to discretion and her overwhelming resemblance to Olivia Hussey of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, also a significant presence in my youthful aspirations).

How to win her heart (or at least get her attention)? The planets aligned when I was given a pair of tickets to a road-company revival of The Pleasure of His Company at Chicago’s Drury Lane Theater, starring the still esteemed Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, who toured the play for a number of years both in the US and internationally.

(Full disclosure: back then, we had only the Late Show to provide context, so my familiarity with the actor was confined mainly to films like The Prisoner of Zenda, Gunga Din, and Sinbad the Sailor – still, it all sounded good to me).

I was certain that this would tick all the boxes for a memorable first date:

  • Cultural uplift? Certainly.
  • An unchaperoned public transit journey to a glittering metropolis? Passage on the Orient Express couldn’t be finer.
  • Two-plus hours in the dark, sharing an armrest with the leading lady of my personal romantic reveries? The sheer pleasure of the thought thrills even today.
  • Topped off with the pleasure of an actual movie star’s company…Huzzah.

I asked, she accepted.

On the appointed evening, I sported my finest three-piece suit. As I recall it was the best Robert Hall had to offer, and featured a reversible vest that cunningly matched both the self and the accompanying odd trousers. Olivia wore a velvet mini-dress (no issues with recollection there) that only enhanced her lit-from-within beauty.

Off we went – by ever-so-romantic Chicago Transit Authority – from the old neighborhood up to ‘Downtown’ Chicago. Dinner somewhere that was optimistically, madly, elegant (read: white tablecloths) and finally, the theatre.

Curtain up.

Act 1, an interlude, Act 2, and final curtain.

Followed by tumultuous applause.

In the midst of that perfect evening, I realised that, in addition to young love, something more, something exceptional had marked me for life. I was, of course, riveted – gob-smacked – by Mr Fairbanks Jr’s wardrobe.

To this day, I can’t tell you exactly what he was wearing; just that it looked great (although that probably had as much to do with Himself as the aptitude of his tailor) and was largely realised in shades of grey (perfectly complementing the great man’s silver mane).

What he wore was, in retrospect, clearly less important than how he wore it: with grace, with charm, dignity, pleasure, and certainly without pretense – all key elements of his exceptional style, and all attributes which, callow youth that I was, I now desperately yearned for.

And luckily, beyond Mr. Fairbanks Jr’s particular sophistication, I discovered something that provided a sure and certain application – a manual, if you will – for me to achieve the singular sophistication I sought for myself.

Something that, conveniently, I held in hand. The Playbill.

Despite all the things unfolding around me – the young lady’s shoulder brushing mine (for the life of me, I still can’t remember anything else about the first twenty minutes), the glow of the stage lights, the air redolent with cultural sophistication – it was the Playbill, which noted the source of each item of Fairbanks’ impeccable wardrobe, which has stayed with me all of these years.

As in:

Mr Fairbanks’ suits by STOVEL & MASON, London

Mr Fairbanks’ hats by LOCK’S, London

Mr Fairbanks’ shoes by GUCCI of Rome and by A. CLEVERLEY, of London

Mr Fairbanks shirts and ties by TURNBULL & ASSER, London and by ASCOT CHANG, Hong Kong

Mr Fairbanks top coats by HUNTSMAN, London

All this and his signature red carnation. Just like that, I was hooked. Deal with the Devil dealt — and marked delivered.

This, I concluded, was how a proper gent progressed.

All you needed to be well-dressed was the right names (as sartorial icon Adolphe Menjou’s autobiography made clear in the title, It Took Nine Tailors – plus assorted shoemakers, hat makers etc) and I was henceforth prepared to join that line of worthies that stretched back at least as far as Beau Brummell.

It would be a decade and then some before I could afford my first bespoke garment – and there was a full run of designer suits in the meantime, starting with Pierre Cardin, extending through Giorgio Armani and running into a bevy of other erstwhile Italian RTW.

But his initial lesson took. There has been steady but not rash accumulation of these craftspeople since.

Fairbanks himself discussed the method of acquisition in in Salad Days, the first volume of his autobiography: I’m rather conservative about suits…No one in public life can afford to overstep. One has a responsibility, and before I get anything new, I brood about it, try it out on my wife and daughters, and perhaps on someone in the Club.”

If ever there was an attitude to emulate, it was this.  The notion of excess — or at least enthusiasm – tempered by moderation.

(Though I do wonder what Mr Fairbanks would make of Instagram— rather than the approval of the wife, or attaboys at the Club, using social media as the laboratory for proposing and analysing cut, colour and combination.)

Importantly, I do believe Olivia enjoyed herself; and I did get a kiss at evening’s end — which I considered a wild success. A line from the play comes back to me: “I’m still filled with the glow and romance of it”.

Still, I can’t help but wonder all these years later, if young Olivia realised the bullet she dodged, had things turned out differently. Possibly the best person to ask is the lady with whom I have been sharing a closet — albeit lopsidedly — these many years (“why yes; my love, but that does indeed appear to be another new suit…”), and to whom my only excuse is yet another bon mot courtesy of The Pleasure of His Company, this one delivered by Pogo:

“Oh, I know. I’m sorry. I get carried away.”

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Absolutely ripping tale, bravo Tom!
My equivalent introduction to the sartorial arts was a Fred Astaire flick whose title I can’t remember. Those Australian readers of a certain vintage will remember Bill Collins introducing “The Golden Years of Hollywood” movie of the week on the telly, every Saturday afternoon, if I recall correctly.
My weekly fix of viewing the well dressed sated, I would proceed to then raid my father’s wardrobe, or the local 2nd hand shop (don’t think we called it ‘vintage’ back then) to try and approximate my favourite outfit of whoever the leading man was that week.
I think I was too clothes obsessed at that point to bring any romantic endeavours into the equation (that would come later), but thank you Tom for stirring wonderful memories of the beginning of my own journey into tailoring.

Thomas Mastronardi

Thank you, Nick. As a bit of related Fred Astaire trivia, he actually starred in the 1961 film version of The Pleasure of His Company (which, with all due respect to Mr. Astaire — and the decidedly luminous presence of Lilli Palmer— still pales in comparison to the production I so enjoyed). And if we’re honest we need admit that the tailoring journey never really ends…


An enchanting story made all the more relatable as it’s from someone with whom I share the same age and possibly similar memories from the UK side of the pond.
Oh that one, I had that suit for ages….!

Thomas Mastronardi

Ah, Stephen, if only the “I’ve had that suit for ages” excuse still served.

Peter Hall

Plan B
‘Crikey I’d forgotten I still had that and look…it still fits’

Thomas Mastronardi

Oh. That’s sheer genius.

Thomas Mastronardi

I’ll run that one up the flagpole next, Peter; but trust me, the utter scorn she can express with a mere shake of her lovely head is soul killing…


This is a beautifully written article, I thoroughly enjoyed the personal touch there by Mr Mastronardi.

JJ Katz

Nice story. We all have moments of youthful inspiration, I think, in our ‘style journey’. One could do worse than Mr Fairbanks.

Mark Seitelman

This was a wonderful reminiscence, Tom.
It is remarkable that Mr. Fairbanks secured credit for his London clothiers. Of course that was natural in that he lived in London and was a spokesman for Savile Row and the wool industry. In comparison, many of today’s clothiers who do occasional stage and screen work toil almost anonymously and receive scant credit in a small type box where all of the providers to the production are noted including the piano tuner and the tobacconist providing the smokeless cigarettes.
It is also remarkable that these were all Mr. Fairbanks’s actual clothes. He was a known patron of all of these clothiers. I think that there is little doubt that Mr. Fairbanks worked with the production designer in picking the clothing for the production. This harkens to the earlier days of the theater where a leading man provided his own wardrobe. This is one reason why leading male players were quite elegant in that they usually played drawing room comedies and dramas taking place in upper class homes. In this connection Mr. Fairbanks, Jr., followed the leading man tradition of his father, Mr. Fairbanks, Sr., who came-up in that theatrical tradition.
Last, Mr. Fairbanks’s property went to auction at Doyle Galleries in New York. This occurred before Covid. The suits, sports coats, and overcoats were from Stovel & Mason and Huntsman. (Stovel & Mason merged into Davies & Son.) The extant clothing was in excellent condition.

Thomas Mastronardi

I do regret missing the Doyle auction, but am not at all surprised that the clothing was well maintained. As anyone following PS is sure to agree, respect for one’s wardrobe is a mark of gentlemanly behavior. Thank you, Mark.

Barry McGill

A lovely piece about a very stylish gentleman and one of my late father’s favourite actors. Incidentally no one should be surprised by the reference to Mr Fairbanks’ hats coming from the famous Lock’s. For a period Douglas Fairbanks lived in the flat above the Lock & Co shop. The company still recalls him through their exquisite beaver felt trilby named The Fairbanks.

Mark Seitelman

Just one more note . . .
The production that Tom saw in 1971 was a revival of the 1958 play. Essentially, it was a star vehicle for Mr. Fairbanks which played “the provinces.” It was already an “old” play. The attraction was the star, Mr. Fairbanks.
The original Broadway production in 1958 was directed by Cyril Ritchard, and he played the lead. Cornelia Otis Skinner was both co-writer and co-star. It had a respectable run of almost one year.
The film version in 1961 starred the king of elegance, Fred Astaire.
The 1971 revival is a worthy successor.

Mark Seitelman

Just one further note . . .
The production was a touring vehicle for Mr. Fairbanks in the early 1970’s. Aside from the United States, it also played London and “the provinces” in England and Australia. The supporting casts changed over time and included Wilfrid Hyde-White.


Brilliant. I find especially pleasing the link between the final image and the description of Himself on the evening it all began.

Nigel C

Lovely article. A very different era in 1971:
The playbill advert for Jack Thompson Oldsmobile dealership with the line – ”We have that inexpensive used car for your wife”.
It’s not a tailoring observation – but I could not resist.
Best wishes N

Thomas Mastronardi

Nor should you resist, Nigel; a different era indeed. Thank you and high marks for observation. All these years and I’d never noticed.


This author writes like he dresses.


Thank you for a charming account from your sartorial journey. It reminds me of my own similar moments of discovery–the first time I saw a double-breasted jacket or someone writing with a fountain pen–when a veil was lifted, the beauty and style seemed so obvious.

It also reminded me of a former boss from Chicago’s South Side with a decidedly working-class Irish Catholic upbringing (Beverly and Evergreen Park neighborhoods, St. Rita of Cascia high school, then three degrees from Loyola). He lived with his family in the North Shore suburbs, but returned each Sunday to take his mother to mass in Evergreen Park. Every week it was suit-and-tie with the appropriate accoutrements, and once he appeared at her front door dressed as normal, except without a handkerchief in his chest pocket. She responded that, in the future, he should arrive fully-dressed for mass, or she could ask the priests to arrange a ride. Of course, affluence can help, but really, style is a choice.

Thomas Mastronardi

That, David, is a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing. Needless to say, one’s mother is (almost) always right.

Max Alexander

I had many encounters with Fairbanks in NYC back in the ’90s when I was a young journalist, at theatre parties and such. By then he was in his 80s but still going out. What impressed me about his style was his ease and comfort–always well dressed (generally tweedy and I would guess Savile Row from the drape) but always relaxed, as if he had just woken up in that suit. To paraphrase the Rod Stewart song, he wore it well. In this age of IG influencers, he recalls a time when men dressed well for themselves, not to make a statement. He was also a really nice guy.

Thomas Mastronardi

“…as if he had just woken up in that suit.” Marvelous. A brand new notion to which I can aspire. Thank you Max.

A woman who loves to read about men's style

What an evocative and romantic story!

I am not a fan of facial hair, but I have to admit those pictures of Fairbanks put the feature in its best light.

Tom, I believe you do credit to your style inspiration. Fairbanks himself would appreciate you.

Thomas Mastronardi

Now, Ms AWWLTRAMS, Mr Fairbank’s appreciation is far more than I might hope for (or warrant), but to crib from Hemingway (another notably hirsute fellow); “…isn’t it pretty to think so.”. Thank you.


What a great article.
It is interesting how folk of our vintage got our principle sartorial inspirations from the arts and often very specifically from one individual.
For Tom it was Douglas Fairbanks Jnr and, from the enthusiasm with which he writes his article,one can tell that in Fairbanks Jnr he found somebody that perfectly embodied his own style but it was just that they had got there earlier.
My own interest in clothes started in ‘64 and although the modernist style was one I lent towards, it wasn’t until I saw the movie Bullitt in ‘68 that I really found my sartorial mojo.
In every frame of that film I felt that McQueen was modelling my wardrobe but he just happened to have got there before me. Everything I needed for life was on that screen from the trench coat thru’ to the Desert Boots and everything in between. Furthermore it all fitted into my lifestyle. It formed the bedrock of the furrow that I have ploughed all of my life and from which I’ve never deviated.
Of course, I’ve had fun over the years finding shops and tailors that share my passion for that look and who can add to it but every time somebody relaunches one of those pieces, be it the shawl cardigan or something else, I can’t help but manage a wry smile.
That movie was the greatest example of the perfect capsule collection ever and it was my capsule collection !

Thomas Mastronardi

Could do worse than Mr McQueen, David. Bullitt is singularly responsible for my enduring fondness for the Sanders ‘Luther’ model Chukka boot. Always a few pair in assorted colors in my closet.

G. Bruce Boyer

A lovely tale told with sly humor and warmth. let’s hear more from this young man.

Thomas Mastronardi

Beware, Bruce — if you’re going about referring to me as a “young man” I fear that you’ll run the risk of your public assuming you were personally acquainted with Beau Brummell. (But thank you for “sly humor and warmth” — too kind, as ever.)

William Kazak

A wonderful story. I grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago. We moved there from Cicero when I was five. I remember Robert Hall Clothes. I had a sharkskin suit for my grade school graduation in 1962. As a wedding photographer I got around to all of the banquet venues including Drury Lane. I remember the Lyric Opera house. My fiance at the time would get tickets and we wore our best clothing and mingled somewhat with the wealthy and enjoyed the shows there. I wore an ivory dinner jacket with pearl buttons and a shawl collar like Bogart wore in Casablanca whenever I photographed weddings. That was my best style.


Wonderful!!! Any efforts to, er, trace Ms Olivia and get her side of the story?

Ned Brown

Salad Days. After sex, Marlene Dietrich would douche with a mixture of ice water and white vinegar. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr once remarked, “whenever I am in a restaurant, and get a whiff of a salad dressed with sherry vinaigrette, it brings back pleasant memories of Marlene.”
I also am a South Side refugee from Jackson Park.


A delightful read…..brought a smile to my face and a nod of my head in every paragraph.