Everyone has an opinion about bow ties. I have a young friend in the television business in New York whose job does not require him to dress for work in the conventional sense; he can wear jeans and T-shirts to produce the promotional spots for his cable channel. But once a week he wears a suit, a fine shirt, and a bow tie. He is more than six feet tall and in the past three years has gone from shoulder-length hair to a shaved head. The only constant in his appearance is a bow tie, once a week. "I hate the grunge look," I tell him. "Why don't you wear a bow tie every day?"
"A bow tie is like a wrapped gift," he tells me. "If I wore one every day, it wouldn't be a treat."
I own 147 bow ties. Most of them I bought myself. Some of them have been given to me by friends. Often these gift ties have little lights in them, connected to batteries that fit in a shirt pocket, and the lights spell out messages like HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY and REDSOX IN 1999. Or they are decorated with feathers or designed to spin around like windmills. Until my junior year in college I wore bow ties only to high school proms. These bow ties were always the clip-on variety. Early in my junior year in college a roommate and I were invited to a black-tie dinner. My roommate had grown up in New York City, had gone to boarding schools, and had attended numerous coming-out parties on Long Island, in Connecticut, and in the city. When he saw me clipping on my black bow tie, he grabbed it from my hand, threw it on the floor, and jumped up and down on it until the clips were broken. "Never," he cried, "wear a clip-on bow tie. Never admit you even know anyone who does." My roommate was sartorially intimidating. He wore straw boaters in the spring. He wore white-linen suits to class. When he didn't wear braces to hold up his pants, he pulled a silk tie around his waist and knotted it like a belt, just like Fred Astaire. Being a successful roommate is like being a successful husband or wife: it's a careful dance. He didn't want to teach me how to tie a bow tie. He wanted to tie it for me, whenever I was forced into a formal situation. My job was to get him through exams. His only advice for me when we parted was "Remember, tying a bow tie is like tying your shoes in the dark while drunk."
I actually learned to tie a bow tie from a friend of my parents', a friend my father dismissed as someone who "thinks he's Peter Pan." Mike, my parents' friend, lived in New York. He had gone to Harvard, class of 1928, and spent his working life in the retail business as an executive, starting in handbags. My junior year in college I used to escape from my family during vacations and stay with Mike and his wife, who always welcomed young people. Mike wrote poetry. He took Chinese-cooking courses at a time when Chinese restaurants specialized in egg foo young and brown sauces. He specially painted a wall of his apartment on which he projected films of the sea crashing against rocks, so that he could "hold nature to my bosom." He owned a negative-ion machine, which he would turn on when he retired for the night in a pessimistic mood; it would pump out enough good vibrations during his sleep to allow him to awake an optimist. "A bow tie is like the ideal life," Mike told me. "You have to play with it, tweak it, to get it right. Even then, of course, it's always a bit askew. But it should be." He stood next to me in front of his full-length closet mirror and walked me through the steps: "Let the ends hang down, left side longer than right. Left hand over right hand, make a knot, form a bow with the front piece, flip over the back half, search for the little hole . . . and pull the end through. Now you fiddle and diddle and decide who you are in the bow-tie spectrum."
"What do you mean?" I asked Mike, as he undid my tie and signaled me to try it.
"Well," he said, "the little-polka-dot people are generally lawyers, professors, or doctors. Stripes are what these same lawyers, professors, or doctors wear on weekends--more informal. A tie with a single stripe and little figures like animals represents a club--golfing, social, or professional--to which the wearer belongs. You will be expected to know this and not to inquire as to what these little figures mean."
I know that bow-tie people tend to appear cocksure of themselves--people like Professor I. B. Cohen, of Harvard; Archibald Cox, of the Watergate hearings; Louis Farrakhan. They are also often short men, like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Senator Paul Simon. Mike at the time told me to be careful of short men who are cocksure of themselves. Luckily, I suppose, they often wear bow ties--the dead giveaway.
I practiced my tie-tying back in Boston, thrilled that I could master the art without having to give extra points to my old roommate.
One of my other roommates that junior year was James MacArthur, Helen Hayes's son, a man who later played the role of Dano on television's Hawaii Five-O. His mother was about to open in a play on Broadway, Time Remembered, by Jean Anouilh. Her co-stars were Susan Strasberg, the daughter of the director Lee Strasberg, and a young Welshman starting his American career, Richard Burton. The play was having tryouts in Boston, and MacArthur's roommates were invited to opening night and to the cast party afterward, at the Ritz. I wore my club bow tie, the kind you are not supposed to ask about. At the cast party I haunted Susan Strasberg, knowing that she had to fall for a Harvard junior with just the right hint of insouciance at his neck. The more I chased her, the more she chased Richard Burton, escaping me constantly by jumping onto his lap and burying her head in his neck. Burton was drunk, and talking about how he was responsible for the discovery of Dylan Thomas. I kept trying to butt in to their conversation. At one point Strasberg excused herself to go to the ladies' room. Burton looked at me as if I were an annoying undergraduate. He pointed a finger at me--or, rather, at my bow tie. "Which are you?" he said, in that incredible voice. "A waiter or a clown?" I flushed my bow tie down the Ritz toilet system and into Boston Harbor, and I heard Helen Hayes tell her son, as I was leaving the party, "He seems like such a nice young man . . . so neatly dressed."