Monday, February 11, 2008
More speculations on "Eustace Tilley," a dandy name
Ever since hearing about this year's cover illustration contest, I've been doing a lot of "eusless" speculation on the name, Eustace Tilley, the fictional and enigmatic icon of The New Yorker magazine. I'm a sucker for research and speculation when a tantalizing mystery ensues. The curiosity started when, whilst researching dandy, Eustace Tilley for purpose of my entries, I ran across another famous Tilley of the same era. "Vesta Tilley" was the stage name of an English male impersonator, singer, actress and comedienne who was wildly popular with audiences of both men and women, both in England and the United States. In fact, her first stage appearance in NYC was as a dandy: that uberly-refined male stereotype of the likes of Beau Brummell and Count Alfred D'Orsay. Born Matilda Alice Powles, she was the wife of Walter de Frece, the son of a theatre owner. "Tilley" was borrowed from her nickname, short for Matilda, and "Vesta" referred to a brand of household matches (wax vestas) in the day. Grecian and Roman words and names such as Vesta and Eustace were the retro-vogue during Victorian and Edwardian eras, along with neo-Greco fashion and design. But the High Hat era was flapping and streamlining into eclectic stylisms of Art Deco and Arts and Crafts by the 1920's. Aside: in Roman mythology, Vesta is the virgin goddess of hearth, home, and family. And Vesta Tilley was a fire-starter when it came to igniting applause, laughter and admiration.
I can't help but suspect that art director and painter of the Eustace Tilley profile, Rea Irvin, as well as Corey Ford, who named Eustace Tilley — and Johann Bull, artist of the running inside-joke Tilley cartoons — surely knew of, and had seen Vesta Tilley act and sing onstage in New York...prior to The New Yorker's and Eustace Tilley's conception. And so, just possibly there might be a conscious or unconcious osmotic, creative connection made in his creator's mind concerning Tilley as Eustace's surname. It seems there were all kinds of ingenious, wonderful and silly spoofs and puns going on within those early issues of the magazine, and Eustace was in on the act. A dilly of a Tilley. Meanwhile, back in London, Mrs.de Frece, a.k.a. Vesta Tilley had retired just 5 years prior to the February 17, 1925 debut (i.e., the February 21st issue) of The New Yorker, 'ere the subsequent addition and naming of Eustace Tilley as a regular feature by the August issue. Vesta Tilley's New York and London performances would still have been fresh in the minds and hearts of New York's worldly, theatre-going well-to-do, walking down Park Avenue...and the working class, too, which reportedly adored her. I don't doubt that there would have been immediate recognition of Vesta's stage-surname and mental images of her dandy-characters upon seeing the name of the magazine's dandy coined as Eustace Tilley.
My research bone was urged on through Emily Gordon's EMDASHES responsive blog posting, Eustace Tilley Inspired By Famous Male Impersonator?, penned after her reading of my previous Monkey Sox postings. Some further conversation ensued. Googling on, I found a picture of the original Tilley cover model.
Historically, dandies must have been a dime a dozen, or maybe a dollar a dozen, since they apparantly frolicked through their own pockets and the purses of any willing others for the sake of clothes and good times. Something like the Japanese geisha, dandies were, although in a lesser sense, "being art" through exteme refinement and impeccibly good taste. Irvin went for the crème de la crème, and chose "dandy of dandies," Alfred Count D'Orsay as his profile model for the inaugural cover. Nobody quite knows what the cover's image signified for either magazine or city, or even why it was selected. The profiling character was christened with the Eustace Tilley moniker, evidently, after he came to life and started running The New Yorker's production from the inside cover. Ooh, Eustace Tilley. You go, beau. You and your bad-buttocked ego. (I do feel a song coming on!)
According to Wikipedia," Ford borrowed Eustace Tilley's last name from an aunt — he had always found it vaguely humorous. 'Eustace' was selected for euphony, although Ford may have borrowed the name from Eustace Taylor, his fraternity brother from Delta Kappa Epsilon at Columbia College of Columbia University."
In addition to being a nickname for Matilda, Tilley is also a surname. It is "euphonically" (ha!) similar to "silly," or "thilly," with a lithp. Ok. Lisp. Which makes it sound even thillier than Tilley. A bit effeminate, affected and/or foppish, too (although fops and dandies claim some differentiation). Not to mention that the stylish and bohemian lesbian fringe of the 20's had adopted the dandy's fancy duds and monocle as their own gender-bending sex symbolism. The monocle identifies Eustace Tilley, who peers though his quizzing glass at a rather social pink butterfly. Or perhaps the butterfly is peering at the dandy. Monkey Sox can't help but be reminded of the Chinese philospher, Zhuangzi's dilemma illustrating "the transformation of things", when he asks to the effect, "Am I a man dreaming I'm a butterfly, or am I a butterfly, dreaming I'm a man?" Ah, through her looking glass, Monkey Sox (albeit, straight monkey that she is) views dear, supercilious Eustace as a Pinnochio dreaming he's a real man dreaming he's a pink butterfly dreaming he's a man... . But I digress.
Where I live, in Central Florida, there is a distant small town which sports a derivative spelling of Eustace (Ευσταχυς or Eustachys): it is spelled, Eustis. In high school band, our son used to play a horn called the euphonium. And so I knew the prefix, "eu" means "good," and "well" even to the extent of "beautiful" or "pleasant" (as in the lovely sound of the euphonium). The name, Eustace means "good grapes," or, carried out beyond the literal, "bountiful harvest." So, euphonically, and phonetically, because of similarity in sounds, our warped family has long made it a habit to make pun with the name of Eustis by re-naming it "Useless, Florida." That is, along with "Weirds-dale" (Weirsdale), "Where's Waldo?" (Waldo), "Tittiesville" (Titusville), "Tampax" (Tampa), "Tampon Strings"(Tarpon Springs), and other town-names here which are funny enough without further ado.
I digress (again). So... "monkeying around" as usual, I've found that when rolling the name around on tongue and in mind, "Eustace Tilley" can easily be transformed into "Euthleth Thilley," and punned into "Useless Silly" or "Useless Dilly." Which would be apt summation of what the dandy figure represented—a lampooned and, by the 1920's, outdated male stereotype. As mentioned above, what Eustace Tilley represented, was uncertain from the beginning, according to Louis Menand in his fascinating article, Mystery Man: The many faces of Eustace Tilley featured in The New Yorker's February 2005 issue (Portfolio). The magazine, itself, he tells us, didn't have a distinct direction or purpose at its inception. Tilley almost lost his airs over that, but as luck had it, said randy beau stayed on his high horse, reaching world fame, even though his fashion-ho image continues to be lampooned and bandied about to this day (just view the contest entries!). And great googley graffitage! What a true super-dooper trooper! Monseiur E. Tilley has even managed to turn ridicule about, 360 degrees to his advantage, making himself even more illustrious in a center-of-attention kind of way by faux-zenfully resigning to his fate through promoting such $acrilege. What pluck! What marketing chutzpah. $heer genius. Yes, the dear dandy really does possess a set of low-hanging spherical objects. Thilley Monkey Thoxth thinketh that ith juth too whimthically fun (methinks she's having another literary euphemism).
Monkey Sox Fashion Statement for February 2008: Yo. Eustace Tilley. Call home. Ya'll keep putting on" the Ritz, if you know what I mean. Snap! Somebody really o'tta put some musicology on those blush-swanky cheeks.
Monkey Sox's entries are in the Eustace Tilley Contest Flickr pool:
Eustace Tilley IV
Alfred Hitchcock Presents: 2008
Hitch About Town
and in her set, I Play With Eustace Tilley