He played the part of Gerald Murphy, I was Ernest Hemmingway.
The Murphy’s were known as the ever gracious hosts, bringing together artists and writers to be stylishly entertained in the Riviera of the 1920’s. Chris Cox instructs the masses on how to stylishly entertain wherever you are in 2010. I decided to see if Mr. Cox was indeed, gracious.
We arranged to meet at the Can Can Brasserie in Richmond, for coffee. As I navigated my way through the capitol of the old south it struck me that I, who spends half his time living in a van, was on my way to sit down with a man who gives advice on dressing and presenting like Cary Grant for a living. I became very aware that this could turn out horribly.
I arrived a bit early but not as early as my host. He looked genuinely pleased to see me, shook my hand, and quickly won my undying favor by ordering me a Shirley Temple. He had done his homework.
Mr. Cox will tell you he was an army brat, the simple son of a soldier. The truth is his father’s abilities, especially with languages, led his family to exotic ports in Central America and Europe where the Sr. Mr. Cox was assigned to work with NATO. Simple soldiers do not find themselves the lone American in a NATO office.
Cox’s sartorial training began early with the requisite jacket and ties of a Virginia private school. He laughed easily as he told me tales of the prepsters of his day painting their ankles black to not expose their refusal to wear socks. I think kids at my school were wearing socks with sandals. Upon graduation he descended to the ranks of a state school; William & Mary. How many public schools boast educating three U.S. presidents, two who would be considered founding fathers? Not exactly Bo Diddley Tech; an elegant choice.
Not being familiar with the menu I just followed his lead. The aforementioned Shirley Temple had the surprise addition of a jasmine syrup and orange wedge. Nicely done. I soon had frites and oysters competing for space on the table with my elbows and notebook. I’m not sure, but I believe he ordered without actually looking at the menu. I do know for sure that he called the waiter and host by their first names. They were not wearing name tags.
Gerald and Sara Murphy are said to have pioneered the practice of sunning on the beach in the French Riviera. Before them people would occasionally take a swim, but the idea of sunning oneself on the sand was foreign. The Murphy’s lengthy and relaxed picnics changed that. After school Mr. Cox found himself in the South of France relaxing with the future Mrs. Cox. They went there because they wanted to be warm. Who doesn’t?
The Murphy’s came home when their children took ill. The Cox’s did not repatriate for medical attention, but Mr. Cox soon needed it. I listened as he told of how he survived cancer only to have it return 20 years later. That wasn’t part of the plan. “Chemo and the whole bit?” I asked. He smiled easily and said the doctor’s were unable to take that route as he is allergic to the CT scan dye. He said the whole experience gave him a little perspective. The illness, and his wife, helped him to realize he should slow down and relax a little. He did.
Mr. Cox scaled back his involvement with his then career as an ad man and copywriter. His friends had always commented on his unusual ability to pull off a successful dinner party after having only planned it on the commute home from the office, and they convinced him to begin writing on the subject. He enjoyed the pursuit. He wrote more and what began as a book grew into a blog.
Watching him as the conversation moved from cancer to his quest to convince us all to slow down and enjoy life, I could see he had taken his own lesson to heart. “People should open their horizons, dress a little better than they have to. People act better when they do.” He made the declaration easily with no accusations. His complete lack of pretention throughout raised my suspicion. I decided to see if I could find where he had hidden it. “So what is your sartorial pet peeve? What ensemble do you see and cringe at?” He let silence interrupt us for the first time and thought for a minute. He truly looked at a loss. “I suppose it would have to be when people simply don’t try at all,” he guessed. Boxing taught me to throw punches in combinations so I continued, “what about the standard corporate logoed polo with Dockers?” He smiled at my offering and said, “I suppose if you are actually standing at the tradeshow, but otherwise they could probably do better.” His answer was not exactly cutting. I had done a little home work myself and threw my final haymaker at him, “what about jeans? You are getting dirty in the garden, working on a car, still you won’t wear jeans? What’s wrong with jeans?”
Surely this one would rev him up, get him to rant angrily. “Ahhh, I simply don’t feel comfortable in them. I feel like I’m acting rather than being me,” he laughed. Touché.
He told me elegance is an attitude. The day he bought his first pair of brown suede shoes in London, he felt like the best dressed man in the world. He even told me I was doing fine in my choice of attire; of course I had to ask. He advises that a Navy blazer will take a man far, yet he paused again when asked his favorite item of clothing. It seems he was being honest with himself when he said it wasn’t the clothes but the attitude.
We talked past the end of the Shirley Temple and even through my caramel hot chocolate. He chatted easily till the alarm on his phone, the phone he apologized for earlier, went off to inform him it was time to go pick up the little one from school. I’m sure Hemmingway could afford his own meals but I imagine the Murphy’s always paid. I had arranged the meeting and argued in vain as Mr. Cox insisted that it was his city and therefore I was the guest. He wrapped up his silk scarf and buttoned his overcoat while inviting me to pay a visit to his home on my next pass through town. We had met an hour ago but I felt he meant it. I will probably take him up on it.
With a shake of the hand and exchange of cards, he walked back to the manse, and I climbed inside the van.