27 June 2012

Interview with Hal Rubenstein: Author of The Gentry Man

I first came across Gentry Magazine in a Philadelphia used book store on 18th Street 11 years ago. The store, long closed, had a dusty back room where a couple issues were leaning against each other on an empty shelf. I brought them to the register. The owner frowned and asked where I found them. I turned and pointed to the rear of the store, "In that back room." "You're not supposed to be in there." "Sorry," I said.

A price of .50 was handwritten on one magazine. The owner sighed, "Well, I'll sell them, but they sure as hell ain't fifty cents." Published by William Segal, Gentry was a pricy ($2.00 in 1951) book but amazingly original. Like Segal's sister publication, American Fabric Magazine, Gentry was stuffed with hand glued fabric samples. Unlike American Fabric, Gentry included packets of spices and fishing flies, copies of blueprints and art prints suitable, and easily removed, for framing.

A best of Gentry collection, "The Gentry Man" was released last month ($19.99 by Harper Design) I spoke to editor and author, Hal Rubenstein about the book and how it informed and helped men back in the '50s, and how it can do the same today. Sadly, there are no articles on how maintain a three day beard or comb your hair in a Tintin hair flip with pomade.

Gentry Publisher & Editor, William Segal (1904-2000):
Everybody uses that word Renaissance Man to describe anyone who can do more than two things in a life time. This is somebody who really embraced life and considered every stop another challenge along the way. There was nothing he didn't want to learn.

William Segal (documentary here) was founder and managing director of Reporter Publications in New York City, as well as writer, editor, publisher and art director of, Men's Reporter, American Fabrics and Gentry.

Gentry's Influence: When GQ's Jim Nelson first saw the book, what hit him, and he'd never seen Gentry before, was that GQ was born in 1957, (Gentry: 1951 - 1957) and he told me Gentry reads like a template for GQ. He told me that it was like, for the first couple of years of GQ, they were just riffing on this magazine."

One of the ways I got interested in magazines as a kid was my uncle always had two magazines on his nightstand. One was Esquire and one was Playboy. Playboy was a very well written magazine. It really was. And Esquire, not only did it have great writers, it was also visually the most sophisticated magazine out there as well. And I think a lot of that is owed to Gentry.

The Gentry Reader: Most people were thinking, all these guys are home from the war and they just wanna get back to Americana. Segal was thinking, these guys left home for the first time and they saw the rest of the world and they came back and culturally you had to be changed. Whether you were stationed in Germany or France or Okinawa or Northern Africa, you had to be changed because you saw parts of the world you would never have seen...that your parents didn't see, that your relatives didn't see.

The media you grew up with in the '20s and '30s, and the only part of that visually was in the movies, was some heightened version of reality. Some American's idea of what it was like to be in the Casbah. It's a lot different to encounter people from around the world who have completely different habits than you do, and interests than you do, and eating and dressing than you do.

Everybody talks about how their father's didn't want to talk about the war. Well, they may not have wanted to talk about the of war but they came home, not just changed by the experience of war, but culturally changed by the exposure.

We now come from an era where presidents are proud of the fact they never left the United States before they were elected. That's scary. But here is the case where you have an entire nation of young men, who were forcibly thrown out into the world, and came back exposed to different things that no one before them had been exposed to in that way.

Selection: There were several factors we used to pick what went into the book. One, I wanted a sense of relevance. When you could look at stuff and still relate to it. Two, a sense of humor. Three, a sense of discovery and surprise. Things that you didn't think people in the '50s would be interested in and what wasn't confined to just one decade.

Men's magazines today: I think they were, for a period, devoted to fashion, and I think because of that they limited themselves because everybody got excited about fashion and they copied women's magazines too literally. Men are never going to be emotionally connected to clothes in the way that women are. We're not programmed that way. Not brought up that way. We don't consider shopping a sport but only as a function or a task.

Women go crazy over handbags. There's no sartorial equivalent for a man. It just doesn't happen. So, the only way to integrate clothing in a men's magazine is you have to connect it to the rest of his life. You have to relate it to a purpose. And I think some magazines do. Especially GQ. Jim Nelson is doing a really fine job in the way he integrated both clothes and fashion into modern life.

It's also about helping people develop a higher way of looking at life. The fact is, you don't wear clothes in a vacuum. If you're gonna buy new clothes, you have to ask, "Where am I going?" Give people places to go to. Give people places to travel to, and experiences you can have where you can wear different types of clothing, and then they'll have a reason to go shop.

Today's Culture: If Gentry were a magazine just about men's clothes, I never would have approached it. I could've cared less. What I liked about it was, it was teaching men how to cook, teaching men how to behave. One of my huge problems these days is that we have generations of men and women who have very poor social skills. They're great at texting but they're horrible face to face. They don't know what they're doing. Socially, they're inept. They don't know how to speak. They don't know how to function.

They move out of their parent's house and they don't know how to decorate their own house or cook a meal. Or entertain. Or hold a dinner conversation. They're lousy at traveling. Frankly, that's part of the fun and excitement of life. These are skills in the same way that knowing how to play basketball is a skill. You have to practice it and know the rules before you get better at it.

The Gentry Man Today: A lotta young people are very ambitious now. They reach a level of success and say, "Okay, I have some money now. What am I gonna do with it?" They need the skills to know where they're gonna put their money. They buy a big car. Okay, now what are you going to do? The book speaks to that. Know how to travel. Know how to really enjoy traveling. Take a cooking course. You're married, know how to put together a house. Don't just listen to what the little woman says. You mean to tell me you don't care? Of course you care.

Phone Interview Recorded at 2:07 PM on 25 May 2012

My review of 'The Gentry Man: A Guide for the Civilized Male' will post tomorrow.


Main Line Sportsman said...

I am trying like Hell to keep my kids from being what he describes in "Today's Culture."

Oyster Guy said...

It might have been WW I but the question applied then too. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYflT3h6lCQ

The Pacific Theatre of WW II also ushered in Hawaiian shirts and Tiki bars from Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic, who some have argued was the birth of fusion cuisine. Somehow I can't imagine Afghanistan producing any similar influence...