All Boutonniere-ed Up
There were two sides to Richard Merkin, artist, writer, bon vivant, flaneur, raconteur, bull-shitter, who died Saturday, at 71, in New York of a heart attack. There was the Providence, Rhode Island, Merkin. There was the New York Merkin. There were probably other 'sides' to Merkin that I didn't know. But the list I mention, based on the I Merkin I knew in Providence and Boston, seems enough for one life.
It was a life that shared generously with those, like me, who needed guidance in men's fashion -- oh yeah, Merkin was a toff, too -- and a glib, cheeky quote for an upcoming newspaper story.
The Merkin I knew -- mostly in the 70s and 80s -- was a teacher, as well. (He was a graduate and a long-time instructor at the Rhode Island School of Design).
His presence in Providence as a man-about-town was legendary. I don't think anyone else in Prov at that time was wearing a bowler as everyday hatwear. And Savile Row bespoke suits. And Lobb shoes. The bowler, from Lock, not surprisingly. Or anyone who sucked up as many fancy-Dan cigs (Turkish tabac, I suppose) from a silver case. We used to meet for lunch, drinks. He'd show me around the galleries near Brown. Hey, I was getting an education.
That was the New England Merkin. Image-wise, an Amtrak ride away in New York, I suppose he cut a similar swath, with his favourite croc shoes and boutonniere. But that was the West Side Merkin I didn't know -- the writer for GQ, a pornography boffin, and, in later years, a cover artist for The New Yorker. (How could this immaculate man, seriously, be an artist? Where was the paint under the fingernails? Merkin's nails were always buffed).
There was yet another Merkin. He was also a man of letters. His GQ column was named 'Sense of Style' -- a direct steal from George Frazier's old col in Esquire. He was one of the acolytes of Charlie Davidson -- he of The Andover Shop in Cambridge -- as was Chris Lydon and, to a much lesser degree, myself, as well. We were all sorta Frazier manque, especially after George died -- what was it? -- in 1971.
Still, there was the Merkin-Frazier controversy. It was probably even reported in The Boston Globe. That would be, of course, the old Boston Globe. The Globe that Frazier used to write for. Frazier thought it correct to wear a pocket hankerchief and a boutonniere at the same time. Merkin thought that was painting the lilly. High dungeon, that stuff.
For all of us, the big cheese was John O'Hara. From O'Hara, all flowed. And, yes, O'Hara sided with Merkin regarding the pocket square/boutonniere dust-up. I think Charlie, ever the fiercest Frazier-ite, even agreed with that.
Richard Merkin was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1938, and held degrees from Syracuse University and the Rhode Island School of Design. In 1962-63 he received a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Fellowship in Painting and, in 1975, The Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award from The National Institute of Arts and Letters.
Merkin began teaching at RISD in 1963 and remained there for nearly 40 years. During this time, he built his reputation in New York. He was represented in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, The Smithsonian Institution, and the Whitney Museum, as well as many others.
Merkin was a Contributing Editor for Vanity Fair since 1986 and was a regular contributor of illustrations to The New Yorker since 1988, as well as Harper’s and The New York Times Sunday Magazine. From 1988-1991 he wrote a monthly style column for Gentlemen’s Quarterly. In 1995, he illustrated the book, Leagues Apart: The Men and Times of the Negro Baseball Leagues, (by Larry Ritter). He wrote the text and captions for The Tijuana Bibles, (Simon & Schuster, 1997).
He also had the distinction of appearing on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, (back row, right of center).
Richard Merkin died on September 8, 2009 from a heart attack. He was 71 years old.