Walter Matthau as Henry Graham, self-serving profligate
New York City, Summer 1969
Film: A New Leaf
Release Date: March 11, 1971
Director: Elaine May
Costume Designer: Anthea Sylbert
Tailor: Roland Meledandri
I’d long been intrigued by Elaine May’s directorial debut A New Leaf, released 50 years ago this spring, but it was an Instagram story posted by my friend Jonathan (@berkeley_breathes) showcasing Walter Matthau’s dapper wardrobe that finally prompted me to watch this offbeat classic.
Matthau brings his characteristically cantankerous charisma to to role of Henry Graham, a wasteful heir gradually blowing his family fortune on capricious spending from his immaculately tailored wardrobe to weekly maintenance for his Ferrari. The wry family lawyer Beckett (William Redfield) is tasked with managing the unmanageable Graham, who ducks Beckett’s calls of cautions as long as he can… until his last check bounces.
Despite his extravagant lifestyle, Graham is shocked by the dishonored check, prompting Beckett to patiently explain the basic principles of finance: “Your expenses have exceeded your income to such a point that you have exhausted your capital. Now, you have no capital, no income, and therefore no funds for the check, you see.” Beckett even reverts to plain English (“you have no money”) to explain his “financial downfall”, though Graham chooses to remain ignorant of the decisions leading to his current indigence, concluding their business relationship by gifting the layer a gold cigarette case, ostensibly to cover the $550 overdraft that Beckett has personally covered for him. “You may have these, too,” Graham declares as he spills the remaining cigarettes out onto Beckett’s desk.
Graham parts ways with his lavish lifestyle as he makes the rounds of Manhattan in his abused Ferrari, including visits to Lutèce, the polo stables, and the tailor who has so attentively cut him for his rotation of stylish suits. Arriving home, he admits his situation to his butler, Harold (George Rose), who quickly puts the idea in Graham’s mind that he could find money in marriage… “the only way to acquire property without labor.” Confirmed bachelor Graham hates the idea but Harold—acting from a sense of self-preservation as he’s all too aware of the scant demand for a “gentleman’s gentleman”—reminds him: “If you do not commit suicide, sir, you will be poor… poor in the only real sense of the word, sir, in that you will not be rich. You will have a little after you’ve sold everything, but in a country where every man is what he has, he who has very little is nobody very much. There’s no such thing as genteel poverty here.”
Graham increasingly adjusts to the idea of marrying for money, securing a loan from his despotic uncle Harry (James Coco) and choosing a bride in the awkward form of wealthy botanist Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May). On the eve of their wedding, Henrietta’s larcenous and suspiciously lovestruck lawyer Andrew McPherson (Jack Weston) brings the couple together at Graham’s apartment to confront them with the terms of the loan, which stipulated that he had six weeks to marry or he’d forfeit all of his remaining property to his uncle. Just when McPherson thinks he has Henry trapped with his signature on the loan, Graham saves his hide—and his butler’s job—by claiming that he was going to use the $50,000 to tide up his affairs before ending his life, deciding only to continue living after he met Henrietta.
What’d He Wear?
Henry Graham takes particular pride in his wardrobe—and for good reason—with one of his sentimental stops during his nostalgic tour of New York being to visit his tailor. Matthau’s on-screen wardrobe was tailored by Roland Meledandri, the esteemed cutter whose East 56th Street shop catered to celebrities like Paul Newman and Robert Redford. The shop door names Graham’s on-screen tailor as “Silvestri”, played by an uncredited actor who I read was portrayed by Meledandri himself, though the photos I’ve seen of Meledandri don’t match the actor we see on screen.
Graham cycles through more than a dozen suits and sport jackets on screen, though this dark gray pinstripe wool suit appears in some of A New Leaf‘s most pivotal scenes, cut and detailed in Meledandri’s signature manner as described in Bernardine Morris’ profile of the tailor that appeared in The New York Times in November 1971, seven months after the release of A New Leaf:
When [Meledandri] opened his men’s shop in 1961, the fashion‐conscious males were all clad in “New Haven Ivy League Brooks Brothers clothes,” he recalled. “Even the custom tailors were doing the Brooks Brothers look.” As a partner in another men’s clothing store, where the customers were overwhelmingly conservative, he decided to play his hunch and do a different type of suit in a shop of his own. “I always admired old‐fashioned British tailored clothing,” said Mr. Meledandri, whose heritage is Italian. He consequently introduced the shaped suit with wide lapels, and to emphasize its bravado added wide ties and dark patterned shirts. It served as a prototype for the men’s fashion revolution that came a few years later.
The silhouette of Graham’s suit recalls “golden era” tailoring of the interwar era, the ventless double-breasted jacket rigged with broad, full-bellied peak lapels and configured in the traditional 6×2-button arrangement. The shoulders are padded and roped at the sleeveheads, the end of each sleeve finished with four buttons at the cuff. Jetted pockets are positioned straight along each hip, and Graham dresses the welted breast pocket with a scarlet red silk pocket square folded to show three points.
Graham’s desperation reaches new heights when his mirror reflects his image no longer clad in his well-cut pinstripe suit but a poorly fitting version of the same. “You can’t top Hart Schaffner and Marx!” he hears a tacky salesman pitch him, offering “the best suit you can find in ready-to-wear!” Those last three words are anathema to Graham, who can’t stand the sight of himself dressed in anything that wasn’t crafted by his tailor.
Graham’s tie is patterned in a small-scaled black-and-white houndstooth check, often colloquialized as “puppytooth”.
As part of Graham’s old-fashioned approach to dressing, he favors the contrast-collar dress shirts often marketed as “Winchester shirts” in commemoration of Oliver Fisher Winchester, the 19th century haberdasher-turned-rifle producer, according to Gentleman’s Gazette.
Graham takes this formal shirt a step further with a white point collar that not only contrasts against the body of the shirt but can be attached to the collarless shirt neckband via gold stud-buttons. Detached collars had been falling from popularity ever since the advent of shirts with attached collars during the roaring ’20s, with all but the most formal classes adopting this more convenient style by mid-century. Even though they were practically passe by the time he was born, Graham maintains a persistent preference for detachable collars as their fastidious appearance and upper-class associations befit his haughty personality.
The first shirt Graham wears with this suit is patterned in thin gray and white stripes, detailed with a front placket and double (French) cuffs that fasten through rounded metal links.
The suit’s matching flat front trousers have straight side pockets, jetted back pockets, and turn-ups (cuffs), as well as loops for the black leather belt with its polished silver rectangular single-prong buckle.
Part of Graham’s nightly routine includes Harold helping his master into his more leisure-oriented evening-wear, including replacing his shoes with more comfortable velvet slippers. With this suit, he wears black calf derby shoes and black socks.
Once Graham’s comfortably in his slippers, Harold helps him off with his jacket, tie, and collar, replacing all with a dark shawl-collar belted dressing gown in green, burgundy, and navy paisley, completing the look with a bright scarlet red scarf and a white pocket square before “respectfully” giving Graham his two weeks notice.
When McPherson confronts Graham and Henrietta with Uncle Harry’s loan, Graham wears the same suit and tie, though he’s wearing a different Winchester shirt with a solid light blue cotton body.
Given how rigorously Graham drives his Ferrari, he was well-advised to equip himself with the appropriate racing gear from his black perforated leather driving gloves to that plain white racing helmet with black leather padding and chinstrap.
The closing credits cite all jewelry was “courtesy of Cartier, Inc.,” which likely also extends to Graham’s gold tank watch with its white rectangular dial, secured to his left wrist on a black leather strap.
What to Imbibe
As Henry Graham admits his new financial situation to his straight-talking butler, Harold, Harold pours him a carefully measured highball of whiskey and water, evidently another part of Graham’s beloved evening routine.
Despite A Night to Remember being one of my favorite movies, I hardly recognized actor George Rose as Harold, a little more cautiously measuring the components for his master’s highball than he was when swilling Johnnie Walker as Charles Joughin, Titanic‘s chief baker whose inebriated state may have fortified him against hours in the freezing Atlantic Ocean, possibly saving his life.
Harold serves Graham’s spirits from a glass decanter, so it’s not certain what he’s drinking, but—assuming it’s whisky—we know Graham approves of the Ballantine’s 21-Year-Old variety of blended Scotch as we see him funneling into his flasks to prepare for a canoe trip with Henrietta in the Adirondacks.
How to Get the Look
Turn over “a new leaf” in your style this spring, embracing a re-opening world by dressing up a classic gray pinstripe double-breasted business suit with a contrast collar shirt and colorful pocket square.
- Gray pinstripe wool tailored suit:
- Double-breasted 6×2-button jacket with wide peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, ventless back
- Flat front trousers with belt loops, straight/on-seam side pockets, jetted back pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Gray-and-white striped cotton shirt with neckband, front placket, and double/French cuffs
- White detachable point collar with gold stud fastening
- Round metal cuff links
- Black-and-white houndstooth silk tie
- Black leather belt with polished silver rectangular single-prong buckle
- Black calf leather cap-toe derby shoes
- Black socks
- Cartier Tank gold dress watch with white rectangular dial on black leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
I have no skill, no resources, no ambition. All I am—or was—is rich, and that’s all I ever wanted to be.