The Swimmer: Donald’s Suburban Poolside Style

Tony Bickley as Donald Westerhazy in The Swimmer

Tony Bickley as Donald Westerhazy in The Swimmer (1968)

Vitals

Tony Bickley as Donald Westerhazy, affable and affluent advertising executive

Suburban Connecticut, Summer 1966

Film: The Swimmer
Release Date: May 15, 1968
Director: Frank Perry
Wardrobe Designer: Anna Hill Johnstone

Background

It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, “I drank too much last night.”

… begins John Cheever’s 1964 short story “The Swimmer”, which was adapted by the husband-and-wife team of director Frank Perry and screenwriter Eleanor Perry into a hallucinatory drama starring Burt Lancaster as the eponymous Ned Merrill, a well-tanned embodiment of the failed American dream.

The focus of today’s post is a little more esoteric than usual, not necessarily because of the movie—which is relatively well-known, if offbeat—but more the relatively minor character and his little-known portrayer, Tony Bickley. The Swimmer was Bickley’s fifth and final screen credit and his only significant movie role, more than a decade after his four sporadic appearances in TV anthologies during the early 1950s.

Bickley co-starred in The Swimmer as Donald Westerhazy, a gregarious suburbanite whose palatial home is Ned’s first stop on what becomes his route to “swim home” through the backyard pools of his neighbors. Donald and his wife Helen (Diana Van der Vlis) are nursing hangovers from the previous evening’s party… with the help of martinis, of course.

As more neighbors trickle into the Westerhazy yard, Donald and his friends share their mutual concerns about Ned, who appears cheerful and vigorous at first, but whose more tragic life becomes clearer as he continues his surreal journey home.

What’d He Wear?

The Swimmer was costume designer Anna Hill Johnstone’s fourth collaboration with director Frank Perry, though most of the costuming efforts would have been reserved for its cast of supporting characters as the lead character’s sole vestment is his pair of short dark blue nylon swimming trunks (and sometimes not even those!)

The first other person we meet is Ned’s neighbor Donald Westerhazy, whose laidback leisurewear consists of a striped shirt, linen shorts, and espadrilles, all neatly coordinated on a pleasant white, red, and pink spectrum that flatters the well-tanned Tony Bickley.

Burt Lancaster and Tony Bickley in The Swimmer

Ned begins his existential journey at the Westerhazy home.

Donald’s trim sports shirt has the classic “Lido collar” that emerged during the rise of resort-wear during the interwar era. Also known as a “Cooper collar” or “Hollywood collar” in tribute to its star power as modeled by the likes of Gary Cooper, the one-piece collar arcs across each front leaf before tapering down the shirt-front. Six translucent white plastic shank buttons fasten up the plain (French) front, including two narrowly spaced at the waistband, though Donald only wears these bottom four buttons done for a more relaxed look that also allows him to work on developing his poolside tan. The straight waist hem reinforces the shirt’s casual nature. Donald’s shirt also has a matching patch pocket over the left breast and short sleeves that are split with short vents.

The white shirt is patterned with a well-spaced sets of red candy stripes that alternate between sets of two and sets of seven. The slubbing on the shirt suggests linen, which would be comfortable for relaxing on a lazy summer Sunday, though the soft material looks too opaque and without linen’s distinctive wrinkle, leading me to suspect it may be an equally comfortable—if somewhat less breathable—jersey-knit cotton that’s prone to pilling.

Burt Lancaster and Tony Bickley in The Swimmer

Donald’s shorts appear to be a red-and-white end-on-end linen, which present as a mottled rosy pink. He folds over the end of each leg to make the already short inseam even shorter, showing some of the white lining. As seen in contemporary movies like Thunderball, knitted swimming trunks were still commonly worn by men in the ’60s, before the mainstream popularity of quick-drying polyester and nylon trunks like the navy briefs that Lancaster wears for his arguably more vigorous day in the water. (The movie’s swimwear is credited to Elizabeth Stewart, though I’m not sure if that extends to cast members like Lancaster and Bickley as I can find little documentation that Elizabeth Stewart made men’s swimming attire.)

Tony Bickley and Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer

Donald’s summer slip-on shoes are espadrille-style sandals with red canvas uppers cut away at the front to ventilate the toes, with modernized off-white rubber outsoles in lieu of the espadrilles’ traditional jute rope soles.

Burt Lancaster and Tony Bickley in The Swimmer

Donald’s gold-plated wristwatch has a round case and off-white dial, worn on a gold expanding bracelet.

What to Imbibe

Donald offers his wet guest the remnants of a “diluted martini,” served on the rocks in a rocks glass with a lemon peel and presumably mixed with the Beefeater gin and Noilly Prat dry vermouth that he and Helen store on their poolside bar cart.

Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer

Ned receives his welcoming martini on the rocks from Donald.

Seeing a martini served in such a manner is certainly at odds with the traditional image of the concoction served straight up in an elegantly stemmed cocktail glass, but the seemingly incongruous Martini on the rocks did enjoy a heyday through the 1950s into the ’60s, as reported by Robert Simonson for Punch:

The Martini on the rocks began to nudge itself onto bar menus in the early 1950s. “Most popular cocktail seems to be a Martini-on-the-rocks,” wrote Bert Bacharach in “Stag Lines,” a syndicated column aimed at male readers, in March 1953.

The elite on both coasts were lapping up the new style. The Detroit Free Press, writing about a new type of bar stool in 1952, talked of a time in the near future “When California sips its Martini on the rocks…” on the new chairs. Meanwhile, sportswriter Red Smith, in 1956, ticked off all the earmarks of modern Gotham life, stating, “This is the New York of air-conditioned skyscrapers and television towers, of shrimp cocktails and Martini-on-the-rocks and filter cigarets [sic], the New York of Grace Kelly and Orson Welles.”

By 1961, the New York Times observed, “As for Martinis, the two most significant recent developments are the trends to the vodka Martini and to the Martini on the rocks.”

In context, Donald’s martini served on the rocks makes plenty of sense, as it would be easier to prepare for a day prioritizing leisure over labor, with the added ice keeping the drink cooler in the sun. Simonson noted that Seagram’s capitalized on this in a 1960 ad, asking consumers “Who said the Martini isn’t a summer drink? Our good host above makes a martini-on-the-rocks that tastes fresh and frosty when it’s 90 degrees in the shade!” Additionally, the rocks glass would be a more easily gripped vessel when handing the drink down to Ned as he reaches up from the chlorinated waves.

How to Get the Look

Tony Bickley as Donald Westerhazy in The Swimmer

Tony Bickley as Donald Westerhazy in The Swimmer (1968)

Donald Westerhazy’s poolside style is the type of coordinated summer fit I strive for, with his trim Lido-collar shirt, pink shorts, and espadrilles providing the envied balance of warm-weather clothing that’s flattering yet comfortable.

  • White red-striped jersey-knit cotton short-sleeved sport shirt with arced “Lido” collar, plain 6-button front, breast pocket, and straight hem
  • Red-and-white end-on-end linen short-inseam shorts
  • Espadrille-style sandals with red canvas uppers and off-white rubber outsoles
  • Gold-plated wristwatch with round off-white dial on gold expanding bracelet

If you’d rather strive for the look of Burt Lancaster’s eponymous swimmer, all you need to do is find a pair (or 17, according to production lore) of plain dark blue nylon short-inseam swim trunks… and nothing else.

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie.

Leave a Reply