Among the many things I took for granted about the publication of my first novel, in 1988, when I was twenty-three and in the business of taking everything for granted, was the question of what to wear when posing for the jacket photo. The occasion, I thought, clearly called for a suit and tie.
I owned one suit. It was navy blue tropical-weight wool, with hand-stitched lapels, in a boxy Ivy League cut. My soon to be ex-father-in-law had taken me to buy it in the Men’s Suits department at Nordstrom in downtown Seattle — the original Nordstrom location — where he bought all his suits. Arnie owned a large janitorial supply business and wore a suit to work almost every day. The man who sold Arnie his suits had been selling them to Arnie for twenty years and was like a member of the family. The dapper little Italian gentleman who handled alterations knew Arnie’s measurements by heart. I bought two shirts, one pink and one white with blue pinstripes, and a couple of ties. I wore the suit on the afternoon that I married Arnie’s daughter, with the pink shirt, and then I hung it up until I needed it for the photo shoot, in New York City, a few months later.
The photographer was a man named Jerry Bauer (d. 2010). I knew the name well. Along with those of Jill Krementz and Dominique Nabokov it appeared frequently beneath or running up the side of author photos on the rear flaps and back covers of books I admired. Having my picture taken by the man who had photographed Patricia Highsmith, Joyce Carol Oates and Samuel Beckett was just one more thing to take for granted, along with having it taken in a suit.
If I were a woman — as so often when the question of what to wear arises — the answer would have been less clear. In an earlier era, women writers had tended to pose for their book jackets looking like ladies of the club: their hair set, their cheeks powdered, wearing a boatneck collar with a string of pearls, or a sweater set, or a dress of watered silk. Sometime in the late 1960s, however, with the loosening of conventions both in society and in photographic portraiture (and with a concomitant loosening of stays) you began to see women writers posing in everyday attire: a flowing print blouse, a turtleneck with a macrame vest.
But if you were a male author in that era — even with your big bushy sideburns and your collar-length hair and your newly-liberated sexuality on full display in the stacked heels of your Florsheims — you were likely to wear a suit. Sure, you could do the cardigan with shawl collar and leather buttons, if that was your thing, or pose looking professorial in tweed jacket and tie, or in foul-weather gear on the deck of a yacht (borrowed, no doubt, for the occasion). One saw photos of Montana writers in chambray shirts, and literary lumberjacks in flannel. Mostly, though, even after a decade or more of anti-establishment tumult and shifting definitions of masculine and feminine, one saw suits, two- or three-piece, square-cut and Wall Street or tapered and Continental: John Updike looking lean and rangy in gray worsted, Saul Bellow looking gravely ironic in rock-solid Hart, Schaffner & Marx, Tom Wolfe and his signature white three-piece.
“Is that what you want to wear?” Jerry Bauer said, when I met him in the lobby of the New York hotel, where I was staying on my publisher’s dime. Publication of my novel was still some months away, but I had been flown in for this and other pre-publication purposes whose nature now escapes me. The hotel was, by far, the most posh I had ever stayed in, newly renovated, with a telephone and a television in the bathroom, and fresh flowers in a vase on the coffee table, and a fully-stocked minibar which I was apparently free to deplete. At first its splendor had astonished me, but by the next morning I was already in my practiced manner taking it for granted; the syrup on my room-service pancakes had not been 100% pure maple. “A suit?”
He seemed genuinely disappointed, to an extent that I would have been hesitant to express to someone I had met less than a minute earlier. He was a small man festooned with serious cameras, wearing a heavy winter coat. I nodded and followed him, at his invitation, out through the splendid marble lobby to the sidewalk. I was rattled, a condition far from uncommon among people who take too much for granted.
“That’s a very nice suit,” Jerry Bauer said. It so happened that he was correct, but it sounded like he was lying. “Navy blue, all right. Very beautiful, over a very nice pinstripe shirt. And what do you call that kind of tie, the pattern? A rep tie, is that it? And that’s what you want to wear? You’re sure?”
“Is it okay?” I asked him.
“Of course,” he said. “It’s fine. You look very nice. I don’t know why, I just wouldn’t have put you down as a suit kind of guy. You don’t look like a suit kind of guy. I just want to be sure it’s really you, that’s all.”
I was not, of course, a suit kind of guy, as far as I or anybody knew. This afternoon in the late winter of 1988 was likely the third, perhaps the fourth time in my life that I had worn a suit.
“This is me,” I assured him. “I love to wear suits.”
I have bought a number of suits since then, including my all-time favorite, a medium-gray cashmere, by Shipley & Halmos, patterned with a subtle Glen plaid in darker gray. I got it on clearance at Barney’s in San Francisco for less than a quarter of the original price. Like a lot of Shipley & Halmos’s clothes the cut was narrow and just a little bit Mod, to keep me from getting stodgy. (Neither store nor suitmaker, alas, still exists.) The wool traveled well — wrinkles fell out over night in a hotel closet — and felt so marvelously soft that when people reached to steer me in the right direction, or gave me a hug, their fingers tended to linger momentarily, involuntarily, on my shoulder or my arm. And even though suits require extra care in packing, and sometimes when you’re on the road selling your book for two or three weeks at a stretch you just want to show up for the Librarians’ Breakfast in your plaid pajama bottoms and your Guided By Voices t-shirt, a suit turns out to be the only garment in which I truly feel comfortable while I’m doing the public part of my job.
That morning, on a sidewalk in midtown Manhattan, shivering in my tropical-weight suit because Jerry Bauer said that the camel coat I had bought specially for the occasion would “do weird things with the light,” I discovered that I hated posing for photographers more than I hated almost anything else I had ever been asked to do. Writers, by definition, are people who like to be alone. We don’t want to be observed; we want to observe others. We don’t want to think about how we must look; we want to think about how the world looks when we aren’t around.
But in my suit, although I was freezing (I can see how cold I look in the above picture) I felt strangely protected, or maybe it would be more accurate to say that I took refuge, in that suit. A suit is a uniform, the uniform of workers in abstractions, ideas, language — bankers, stockbrokers, lawyers, or professors. And a man in a uniform, like a writer researching a story, courts invisibility. In my blue wedding suit, even with a camera pointed relentlessly at me, I was concealed, rendered unremarkable. I blended in with the mass of men all around me, making their way to the public part of their jobs as I was doing the public part of mine. I could pass — or at least I felt that I could pass — as a member of Arnie’s world of work and sleep and cocktails and golf, a world that contained big cheerful men like Arnie, men who bore no ill will to anyone and went around the house whistling, and paid their debts, and found ready places in their hearts for newcomers to their families. Thus disguised, I would have my picture taken, and emerge from the ordeal with my soul, that sphere as bright and pitted with shadow as a moon, intact. Jerry Bauer was getting nothing out of me.
Commissioned but, so far as I know, never published by GQ UK.