S. N. Behrman
The New Yorker
April 9, 1932: 22-25

On October 23, 1929, the day of the first big stock-market crash, Richard Jaeckel, the furrier, had such a day as he never had before and as he never hopes to have again. There were various—to Mr. Jaeckel—interesting transactions. One customer, a stockbroker, bought a Russian sable coat for fifty-five thousand dollars. Somebody else, more saving, bought a chinchilla for thirty-eight thousand. In that one day, various gentlemen said it with furs to the tune of one hundred and two thousand dollars. Several financiers, high in the banking fraternity, who dropped in at Mr. Jaeckel's shop at Fifth Avenue and Forty-fifth Street the night before that fateful Wednesday, to roam conversationally in the twin realms of business and diversion, were optimistic. The present boom was nothing. Things would go higher than a kite: as Mr. Jolson would put it, Mr. Jaeckel hadn't seen nothing yet. Since then bankers have fallen somewhat into disrepute, but at that time Mr. Jaeckel shared the average American's religious faith in their dicta. Once he heard the word, Mr. Jaeckel went forth to do. On the basis of the bankers' optimism, he invested forthwith a quarter of a million dollars in sables alone. And, he says grimly, "I've still got 'em!"

You can't tell Mr. Jaeckel about the depression. He will tell you. On the Thursday after the fatal Wednesday, business for the day dwindled from one hundred and two thousand dollars to eight hundred. At the present moment the gross income of Jaeckel's is a fraction of what it was in the boom year. Chinchilla coats, the rarest and most costly of coverings, sold in the platinum era for prices up to sixty thousand dollars, have since come back in dozens for resale. More chinchilla coats have been turned in to Mr. Jaeckel for resale in the past year than have been sold in the entire trade for the past ten years. A partial list of the owners—one famous actress has three—is a touching roster of vanished or dimming glory: those celebrities most extinct of all, the celebrities of the near-past. Of a forgotten luminary who, in my boyhood, was the symbol of voluptuary splendor, before whose hotel in Worcester, Massachusetts, I stopped on the way to the theatre with the bated thought: "This building contains her!" I found myself asking with some surprise: "Is she alive?" only to have Mr. Jaeckel tell me, with a singular lack of emotion: "Sure, she's alive! She lives in Flatbush. Paid fifty thousand for a chinchilla twenty years ago and expects to get forty for it still!" . . . They are hanging in Mr. Jaeckel's vaults in Fifth Avenue, these costly shrouds of the vanished living.

Concerning depression, Mr. Jaeckel is there to contradict an aphorism common to his trade: that the fur business is the last to feel it and the first to recover. To this hopeful lay, Mr. Jaeckel is a nay-sayer. In the past year, for example, he has sold as many expensive sables and broadtails as ever, but his income from the moderately priced pieces has dwindled lamentably. The lower-middle class of his customers, economically speaking, those with incomes ranging from five to twenty-five thousand a year, has been submerged by the depression into the non-fur-buying strata. It is easy to see that in a business where an income of from five to twenty-five thousand dollars represents the "submerged tenth" of the clientele, only the fabulous uppermost layers can still afford to indulge a taste for peltries. Even the luxury trades have their indispensable lower and middle classes; the spectacular sales can't keep business running and the poorer customers, comparatively speaking, have been decimated by the slump. The out-of-town trade—the buyers from Fort Worth and Wichita and Montpelier, anxious for a metropolitan imprimatur on their garments—is now contenting itself with a local imprint. Every business, Mr. Jaeckel says, must depend on the mass-volume of its middle-priced orders and these have been conspicuously "shot" by the depression. There are still the standbys: there is, for example, his best customer, a lady who, for some unexplained reason, sold all her stocks—"everything she had"—on the day before the first market crash and who has spent eighty thousand a year at Jaeckel's for the past ten years; there are a few spectacular bears who are able to indulge magnificently their impulses of gallantry; there are the movie stars; there are the few unassailably rich—but the bread-and-butter customers are vanished. I asked Mr. Jaeckel if I might idle around his emporium. "You can," he said brusquely, "but you won't meet anybody." Concerning the depression, Mr. Jaeckel is vociferously frank, like a hypochondriac advertising his ailments. On the very lease of his store, a lease acquired very advantageously in 1919, he might have had, a few years later, a profit of a hundred thousand a year. The possibility of that profit, together with the fur-buyer with the income of from five to twenty-five thousand, has vanished beyond recovery.

Still, it is a fascinating and enviable world in which Mr. Jaeckel functions imperially. He was born, it may be said, to the ermine. His father, Hugo Jaeckel, like an earlier fur-trader, John Jacob Astor, came here from Germany, and arrived in time to fight on the Northern side in the Civil War. He brought over with him a small capital and a preoccupation with the fur business, both of which he invested in the establishment in New York which still bears his name and of which he is still listed as president. The elder Jaeckel remained here as active head of the business till 1926, when he left it safely in the care of three sons—H. Francis, Richard, and Walter—and went back to a country estate outside of Wiesbaden, where he is now living in hearty retirement. Richard, on his swift expeditions to Paris to look at models—owing to the speed with which he makes these trips he is known in the trade as the Flying Dutchman—occasionally takes the time to look in on his father in the old house in the village near Wiesbaden where he lords it, Richard will tell you with a chuckle, like a great man. Of the other sons, Theodore is consul-general at Rome and Albert is a member of the law firm of Chadbourne, Hunt, Jaeckel & Brown. Richard was born in New York, went to Williams, and became the amateur wrestling champion of America before he started in his father's business in the shipping department, and later on the delivery wagon at five dollars a week. (What an aroma of outdated Spartanism there clings to this heroic discipline, as old-fashioned as cloak-spreading in chivalry!) Young Richard's first contact with the social side of the business to which he was to devote his life came when he was asked in to have a cocktail by a young lady to whom he was sent to deliver a fur-piece, This was his first experience of hospitality of this kind and it is not surprising that he kept the wagon waiting downstairs so long that there were no more deliveries that afternoon. On his return he was given a prideful lecture by his father, fired, and sent upstairs. The interesting thing about such dismissals when you are the heir to the business is that they instantly result in advancement. But the pleasant fiction of "starting from the bottom" and of surviving such crises of parental wrath contributes to a sense of having made one's way against immense odds which is valuable and perhaps gratuitous for the upkeep of complacency in the scions of the established.

Prices, beginning with the present Jaeckel's ascendancy in the business, began to soar. During this period furs became, with jewelry, the prime commodity of the "conspicuous consumers." Richard remembers his father saying to him, when he told him that he was asking and getting two hundred and fifty dollars for a red fox he had in his hand! "You're a bunch of robbers!" In Richard's youth, when the store was in Thirty-second Street, he sold his first sable coat to Mrs. Al Woods, at a price that made him gasp: twenty-one thousand dollars. Mrs. Woods came to the store in a hansom cab, and a retainer staggered in with two valises containing the price of the coat in cash. Mr. Jaeckel claims the credit for having started, single-handed, a vogue which he himself modestly describes as "nutty": the white-fox craze. In the summer of 1914, an unusually hot one, with the thermometer around one hundred, women walked festooned with white foxes costing from twenty to a hundred and fifty dollars. In his lucubration on the mystery of changing fashions, Professor Veblen does not allow for the creative imaginations of such captains of the cohorts of the conspicuously wasteful as Mr. Jaeckel. With the cynical detachment of a mercenary but critical writer turning out a potboiler, Mr. Jaeckel conceived this white-fox mania and propagated its contagion among many thousands of women. The "aesthetic nausea" which, Professor Veblen says, follows styles once they are outmoded, Mr. Jaeckel felt even in the moment of his inspiration.

Indeed, it would repay amply any professional sociologist to consult Mr. Jaeckel before setting down his generalizations. Knowing personally, according to his own weary admission, more women than any other man in America, he is in a position, in a matriarchy, to give you the lowdown on the still current civilization. He is as paradoxical as Bernard Shaw and as realistic as an accountant. None of the satirists of marriage, for example, are so devastatingly critical of it as an institution as Mr. Jaeckel, whose actuarial analysis makes you realize that it is not (at least in the metropolis) an institution at all. From the point of view of a creditor, Mr. Jaeckel distrusts the married accounts as unreliable and impermanent. The erosion of divorce eats away two out of three marriages before the charge account is balanced. Far more satisfactory, as the ledger indicates, are the unsanctified relationships in which the women have independent incomes. Judged by the keystone of credit, these ladies, Mr. Jaeckel will assure you, are more solid, more reliable. Those hallowed bourgeois virtues—meeting your obligations, paying your bills on time, simple capitalistic honesty—are subserved far more faithfully by what used to be known, in a less practical age, as the filles de joie than they are by those momentarily blessed of book and candle. The jagged issue of credit seems to pierce inevitably through matrimonial disputes and it appears to be harder to pay for a fur coat once ecstasy has gone glimmering. On the other hand, the outlaw relationships go on placidly and solvently year after year. One lady, with no ecclesiastical standing whatever, has bought a quarter of a million dollars' worth of furs from Mr. Jaeckel and her account is tidy. So with many others. One gets a bewildering sense of the chaotic insecurity of the married relation: the satirists, one feels, should centre their attacks on those stodgy, humdrum alliances plodding along year after year with unimaginative adherence to all the obligations which arouse the hilarity of the lampooners of the middle-class virtues. Marriage, among Mr. Jaeckel's clients at least, appears to have all the excitement of unertainty, the glamour of the unpredictable.

Such diverse authorities as Anita Loos and Mrs. Edna Woolman Chase of Vogue find Mr. Jaeckel's emporium of plate glass and mahogany a vantage point for observing the foibles and the vanities. Through these mirrored ateliers, where the models pirouette slowly, farce and drama bubble. Sometimes they converge. . . . On one occasion, Mr. Jaeckel had the delicate responsibility of entertaining simultaneously in contiguous booths a gentleman's sweetheart, at the moment suing him for fifty thousand dollars; his first wife; and his second, current one. The gentleman, when informed of the coincidence, felt a certain natural apprehension, but on the whole he was not displeased. His vanity swelled at this inopportune concentration of his far-flung interests. Mr. Jaeckel managed it for him so that the situation passed off without consequences, and he adds proudly: "I sold all three of them!"

It would be surprising, from his special vantage point, if Mr. Jaeckel were not slightly cynical about the reputedly popular morality. Like medicine and religion, the supplying of furs to ladies seems to be a personal ministration, and if Mr. Jaeckel is less austere than the self-righteous consider seemly, it is because he, as he himself modestly confesses, is "in a spot for concessions." Sometimes, after a day of waiting on as many as a hundred women, he feels that he could not ever bear the thought of addressing another, but so resilient is human nature that after dinner the misogynistic mood vanishes and his anticipations return to normal. These disclosures about himself he makes with an eighteenth-century bluntness. At fifty-one he is remarkably youthful-looking and vigorous and, although a grandfather, not without a masculine pride in the fact that he has a daughter of twenty-four and a son of five and one-half.

The walls of his office above the store in Fifth Avenue are lined with inscribed photographs of most of the prominent musical-comedy and picture stars: Kitty Gordon, who had the best-advertised back in America; Lillian Russell, wrapped in the furs of an earlier day; Marion Davies, Mary Pickford, Adele Astaire, Peggy Joyce, Marilyn Miller, Gloria Swanson, Lilyan Tashman, who, in Mr. Jaeckel's opinion, can wear a smart gown or a fur coat better than anyone else in the world. Contrary to popular legend, the stage, Mr. Jaeckel says, is of no importance in his business, as most of the actors haven't any money—the actual percentage contributed by the theatre and movies is less than five—but actresses are of great value as advertisers and boosters. Actresses who go in heavily for society are especially valuable in this respect; Adele Astaire—soon to be Lady Cavendish—has sent in droves of customers. But the best ad in the world, Mr. Jaeckel says, is Peggy Joyce. To make a coat for Miss Joyce is to cast bread upon the waters. On one occasion, Mr. Jaeckel made her a white ermine coat which she wore for the first time one night after dinner on the Île de France. Mr. Jaeckel had jumped on the boat at the last minute on one of his innumerable trips. The ship was filled with Western buyers, to whom the coat, as worn by Miss Joyce, appeared to be a knockout. At odd moments in whiffs of confidence, Miss Joyce let fall the maker's name and by the time the ship docked at Cherbourg, Mr. Jaeckel had put down special orders for the coat from forty per cent of the buyers. Again Professor Veblen, searching the mystery of style fluctuation, might have done well to consult Miss Joyce also. It may be added that Mr. Jaeckel is himself no slouch at advertising. On one of his Paris visits, he went to the best perfume manufacturer in the world and commissioned him to synthesize a unique scent. Of this mixture he had two hundred and fifty bottles made; dubbed it with his initials, "Are Jay;" and sent the bottles to two hundred and fifty of his best-known customers. "If," he speculated in his message to them, "you like me well enough to accept this scent of me, you may keep this bottle, but the scent is not for sale." And so it has been ever since. There is no other way of acquiring this scent except by personal gift, and the habit of it must be insidious, for Gloria Swanson, finding herself abroad bereft of it, had to cable Mr. Jaeckel; and Marion Davies and Mrs. W. A. Harriman will use no other.

Mr. Jaeckel is proud of his trade and happy in it. He feels himself part of a stalwart tradition; the fur trade has been important in the development of this country and has been the basis of some of its most spectacular fortunes, from John Jacob Astor's to Marcus Loew's. It is curious that this pioneering, frontier hardihood should have formed the basis of the most effete of contemporary industries. It is a long distance from the forest-runner, John Jacob Astor, carrying a pack through the dense forests of the Niagara frontier, dickering with Indians for muskrat skins in exchange for beads and needles, to Miss Joyce's ermine on the Île de France. Even since his father's time, Mr. Jaeckel says, the character of the business has changed from a necessity to a luxury trade. It is a long way but an inevitable one, as inevitable as the swing from classicism to romanticism—like climbing and going down a hill, as Havelock Ellis says—and no theme song for the hymn-intoning moralist. But it is a fascinating world which Mr. Jaeckel allows you to glimpse, perhaps the final dissolving epitome of our time. Aldous Huxley might trace the slow evolutionary process which makes it possible for Miss Joyce's ermine, on a transatlantic liner, to arouse envy in Midwestern salesmen: that sated stockbrokers may flaunt generosity to the ladies of their adoration the bright-eyed expensively furred little animals roam the wide steppes to their doom. But the speculative aspect does not concern Mr. Jaeckel. He is worldly, Bismarckian. When we entered the war, he matched with his brother, H. F. Jaeckel, and won. He allowed his brother to go and tells you with genuine pride that H. F. came out a major. At the same time he is very content to have missed the chance of being killed or maimed himself. It is a healthy realism. With his customers he has an easy intimacy, he understands them because he understands himself.

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