Evander Berry Wall, King of the Dudes

There’s an odd dignity to the title of “old money”, born from the strange notion that one should respect someone more if they have not earned their fortune, rather than less. This idea is, of course, strongly fostered by those in the positions of power that “old money” provides. In Europe, this is formalised through the aristocracy, where titles are handed down along with fortunes as a visible signifier of inherited wealth and supposed worth. Some Americans delude themselves that the lack of such titles makes them more egalitarian than their European cousins. Of course, this is far from true. There are still those born into luxury, left fundamentally incapable of understanding poverty and hardship. One such was Evander Berry Wall.

Caricature of Evander Berry Wall from the New York Times - headstuff.org
The young Evander, caricatured later in the New York Times in 1902.

Evander was born on January 14th 1861, [1] the child of Charles Wall. Charles had inherited some “seed” money from his father, but had built on it to establish his own fortune in the rope-making industry. Evander’s mother Elizabeth had money of her own, as well, and she and Charles had two other children in addition to him. As he grew up, Evander wanted for nothing, and had the fortune of being the darling of both his father’s father and his mother’s mother – the latter being the one who introduced him to New York high society, for Evander was born on Fifth Avenue and raised, through and through, as a creature of the great city.

Both Evander’s father and grandfather died within a few years of each other, and both left the young man (who was in his late teens) around a million dollars, a vast sum in those days. With this fortune the young man launched himself full tilt into the glittering world of New York’s social elite, establishing a reputation as a charming, though somewhat dissipated, young man with a notable interest in the theatre, and in his own dress and deportment. To call him a “dandy” is almost too light a word. In 1883, as he holidayed  in Long Beach, one journalist christened him the “King of Dudes” – a dude being at the time a mocking term for one obsessed with his clothing. Evander was at first outraged by the term, but soon came to embrace it as a rightful title.

Evander Berry Wall - headstuff.org
One of Evander’s costumes from the “Battle of the Dudes”.

People should wear what suits them and pleases them and so add to the individuality of life. That is all that I did. A high collar was simple to wear. It had a horsey, military appearance. With it I wore a tie a yard long, wound around twice and knotted into a bow. It seemed to suit me.

Evander was always on the cutting edge of fashion, and is often credited with having introduced the tuxedo in its modern form to America. At the time the standard evening dress for a well-to-do young man was “top hat and tails”, but in England the Prince of Wales had decided to do away with the tails. Instead he wore a dinner jacket cut short, in the style we now regard as normal. Evander was sent one by an English acquaintance (he had, of course, travelled in Europe and made several good friends there). When he first wore it to a ball at the Grand Union Hotel, he created such a stir and commotion that the hotel manager ordered him off the premises. In such a manner is “the correct way of doing things” used to exclude those not raised in the ways of “old money”. Evander, of course, was old money through and through, and turned out to be far better tuned in than the nameless manager. Within ten years the dinner jacket reigned supreme, and wearing “tails” became ridiculously old-fashioned.

Bob Hillard - headstuff.org
A newspaper caricature of Bob Hilliard in his Highland dress. Source

Evander’s reputation was cemented in the 1880s by his relationship with the society journalist Blakey Hall. Hall used Evander as a recurring feature for his weekly column, reporting on the latest outfits and doings of the “King of Dudes” to an eager public. Of course, other reporters saw Hall’s success and tried to promote their own society personalities. One such personality was the actor Robert Hilliard, known as “Handsome Bob”. In 1888 the press between them managed to manufacture a supposed rivalry between the two men, which they christened “the Battle of the Dudes”. The two men (with their tongues somewhat in their cheeks) bought into the challenge of Hilliard for the title of “King of the Dudes”, and each began trying to outdo the other with more and more outlandish outfits. Wall apparently drove his tailor into a nervous breakdown and had to send for a replacement, while Hilliard astounded New York by introducing it to the Highland garb created by Sir Walter Scott, complete with kilt. In the end one of them won the “war” during the great New York blizzard of March 1888, by striding through the snow into the fashionable Hoffman Hotel wearing gleaming thigh high patent leather boots. It was a master stroke, lessened only slightly by the fact that the various newspapers of the time could’t agree on which if them pulled it off. [2]

Lomie Wall - headstuff.org
Lomie Wall, a photo from Evander’s autobiography.

Evander was a newly wedded man at the time having married Salome Melbourne (who he always called “Lomie”) the year before. Her father was a General, and her mother was a romantic – it was she who had given her daughter such an unusual name. Marriage didn’t slow Evander down – in the summer of 1888, he was involved in another famous battle of fashion with a man named John Gates. Gates went on to become infamous for his wagers, and in 1900 earned the nickname “Bet A Million” when he won almost that much on a horse race in England. He was so addicted to gambling that he once was bet thousands of dollars on which of the raindrops running down a window would reach the bottom first. His bet with Evander was on whether the “King of Dudes” could make an appearance in 40 different outfits in a single day. A tough challenge for some, but not for a man who counted his collections of ties and trousers in the thousands. Evander went to the races, appearing in one outfit after another, and made his last change of clothing into evening dress, to go out and celebrate his victory.

Of course the good times could not last forever. Evander Berry Wall had inherited two fortunes in the early 1880s, but by 1899 he had managed to squander them both. This was not just down to his extravagant habits – he had also tried to turn his hand to stockbroking and horse breeding, failing spectacularly at both. Not yet forty years old, he was forced to declare bankruptcy. Of course, this didn’t mean he was reduced to poverty, by any means, but it did mean his days of blithe extravagance came to an end. He was even forced, horror of horrors, to find actual work, acting as as a champagne salesman. His relationships seem to have soured with his family, as when his sister Louise died in 1910 she pointedly left him, unlike her other brother, out of her will. It may have been this indignity that led he and Lomie to quite New York and move permanently to Europe, declaring New York “fit only for businessmen”.

Evander Berry Wall - headstuff.org
Evander with one of his beloved chows.

The Walls eventually settled in Paris in 1912. According to Evander’s autobiography, his mother accompanied them there. When the war broke out, Evander didn’t wish to evacuate to Britain, as their rabies laws would have meant his dog, a chow named Chi-Chi, would have to go into quarantine for six months. Instead the Walls (and mother) moved south to San Sebastien, just over the border into neutral Spain. They stayed in Spain for the next few years, but in 1917 they returned to Paris, after America had entered the war. Evander’s nephew Harvey Ladew had been in the city when the troops arrived, and became a liaison officer between the local government and the American forces. The Walls became heavily involved in entertaining the arriving soldiers, with Lomie’s singing and Evander’s gift for anecdotes and undoubted charm. They also became heavily involved in fundraising for those who had been blinded in the fighting at the Front, something which made them enormously popular in Paris.

A caricature of Evander Berry Wall - headstuff.org
A caricature of Evander with one of his dogs at the tailor.

After the war they remained in Paris, though they resumed their expeditions to the resorts of Europe that had been interrupted by the war. In the early 1920s Evander’s mother gave him back his financial independence when she passed away, as she left him her fortune. Though not so grand as those he had squandered, it was enough to free him from the horrible idea of having to work for a living. They returned to New York for a visit in 1926, but the passage of time and the dawn of Prohibition had left the city that Evander had loved changed beyond recognition. Downhearted, he returned to Paris. His wife continued her charity work for the “War Blinded”, and in recognition of their efforts the two Walls received the Legion of Honour. Evander became as much a fixture in Paris as he had been in New York forty years ago. His greatest fame came from his dogs. First the chow named Chi-Chi and then his successor, another chow named Tsoi-Tsoi, who was in his turn succeeded by Chi-Chi the second. Evander had his tailors produce collars and bow ties identical to his own for his dogs, making them an easily identifiable pair for the cartoonists and painters of the day. The celebrity of the chows was confirmed when Lomie wrote a memoir of Chi-Chi’s life, which was published in 1933. [3]

Evander Wall - headstuff.org
Evander in Monte Carlo in the late 1930s.

Lomie passed away in 1936, leaving Evander heartbroken. Four years later, at the age of 79, he died in Monte Carlo. Of the three fortunes he had inherited, he left behind only $12,608 dollars – the rest he had spent. He had been writing his memoirs after his wife’s death and they were published posthumously, helping to cement his position as one of the genuine characters of the fin de siècle and interbellum periods. It’s a sign of how reliable these memoirs are that in one anecdote he claims to have been “great friends” with Daniel Sickles, then manages to insert himself adroitly into the story of Sickles shooting his wife’s lover (despite this having happened at least a year before he was born). He also claimed to have attended the notorious Bal des Quat’z’Arts on his “grand tour” of Paris in 1880, though the first such was not held until 1892. Still, they do make for a cracking read. One chapter begins with the old man claiming “It was I who first introduced the foxtrot to Spain,” another ends with a surprisingly sympathetic aside on the fate of Mata Hari. That mixture of self-aggrandisement and touching insight runs through the book.

My secret of dress is like my secret of life. Find what suits you, stick to it, and get the very best…Quality counts. It counts in clothes and it counts in friends.

He wasn’t a bad man, really. He wasn’t a good man, either. In his memoirs he described himself as “neither pest nor puritan”, a fair assessment. Yet through his life runs a beastly comfortableness – a certainty that he was entitled, by virtue of his birth, to a level of privilege unknown to this he considered his lessers. The sheer distaste with which he speaks of the idea of working for a living – that tells volumes, and helps to explain why, without being offensive, he could epitomise something truly terrible.

Images via the New York Social Diary except where stated. 

[1] Or so his autobiography claims, though a lot of sources claim 1860. It’s entirely possible he could have lied in his autobiography in order to claim he was under eighty, of course.

[2] To lend some context to these antics, during the Great Blizzard over 400 of their less wealthy fellow citizens froze to death, through a lack of proper heating and warm clothing.

[3] Sadly this seems to be both out of print, and to have never been translated to English. One oddity is that Lomie’s name is often given in the records as “Leonie”, this may be a simple misreading of her unusual name.