Interview with Richard Torregrossa, Author of the Book Cary Grant: A Celebration of Style

Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in “North by Northwest” (1959)

Richard Torregrossa is the author of the book Cary Grant: A Celebration of Style, a book I always find myself reach for. Well researched and beautifully written, it is an insightful study of the evolution of the charismatic actor’s style, one of the best dressed men of all times. It’s a book I cherish deeply for many reasons, which I mentioned in my review a while ago. Mr. Torregrossa is also a notable journalist, having written for The Financial Times, The New York Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Huffington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Washingtonian, Cosmopolitan, Town & Country, The South China Morning Post, among many other publications, and he is the illustrator and author of six other books. I had the pleasure and great honour of interviewing Richard, who was so incredibly friendly and kind to answer all my questions – there were so many things I wanted to ask him about the Cary Grant biography, style, fashion and film, and it was truly inspirational to read his honest, engaging and knowledgeable opinions on all these subjects, and it was reassuring too – a confirmation, if you like, of what real style is about and why we should promote it with all our might. Thank you, Richard!

One of the messages of your book, Cary Grant: A Celebration of Style, is that Cary Grant continues to inspire us all not only to dress better, but to behave better and to live better too. He was a man of character, as well as a man of style. Was Cary Grant the last gentleman?
You got that right. Cary Grant was the Last Gentleman. As my biography shows, his style was as much about the inner as well as the impeccable persona — style as a projection of character. In business as well as in his personal life, manners were important. So was a high standard of quality in all things and a fairness towards others. I think we’ve lost that today. We live in an era of obsessive self-regard where the most trivial accomplishments are celebrated on Facebook and everybody has a voice even if they have nothing of importance to say. Everything is public, a mournful state of affairs. Cary Grant had a high regard for privacy, his as well as others. If he was alive today, you wouldn’t find him Tweeting: Just had the best turkey sandwich in Brentwood. A gentleman is never a bore.

Cary Grant was one of the best dressed men of all time. Style seemed to come so naturally, instinctively for him. But reading your book I came to learn how hard he worked to achieve this ideal he came to embody, just as he worked hard for everything else in his life. Writing the biography, has your perception about him changed in any way?
No. As you say, his style was learned and it was always evolving. He knew how to soften his flaws and accentuate his better features, developing a kind of imperfect perfection.

Cary was known for the fact that he chose his own wardrobe for his movies. “I wore simple, tasteful clothes, the same kind I wear off screen.” Why does every actor and actress need a stylist today?
Because they are ignorant, but it’s not really their fault. They were raised in an era of flip flops and untucked shirts. Their parents didn’t have the knowledge to pass on to them. Parents who grew up in the godawful 1970s saw the defenestration of elegance along with the finer points of dressing. Thus, the chain of fine dressing ended. So they resort to designers because they have no style sense of their own.

In your book, you say: “To Grant, revealing such personal details about himself, even something as trivial as what he ate for breakfast, was unseemly a breach of one’s privacy, a kind of moral transgression.” I think this had to do with his own mannerism and set of principles, but it was also a reflection of society: people valued their privacy and respected the other’s. Where does this obsession with fame and celebrity come from nowadays?
Narcissism. Everybody wants to be the star; nobody wants to be the unsung hero, the guy or gal in the background, the extra in the movie, the amanuensis, the person who does the heavy lifting. They’re not looking for glory; they’re looking to be glorified. And it doesn’t matter for what.

Cary Grant | Getty Images

Giorgio Armani wrote the forward to Cary Grant: A Celebration of Style. Ralph Lauren also says a few words about the actor, who had admired the designer’s talent before many others did. They are two of my favourite designers, two modern classics. They have both created a staple style they have stayed true to and I think this says a lot in a world more focused on fashion than on style. Did CG influence their work?

Yes. CG was a proponent of Ralph Lauren before Polo was a behemoth fashion company. Ralph, who was much younger, idolized him and they became friends. CG’d influence on POLO is apparent. The English cut and lifestyle and all that. Cary Grant used to clip references in newspapers about RL and send them to him. Ralph joked that CG was so efficient at this that he considered firing his clipping service.

Before one of Armani’s menswear shows, he said: “This collection is inspired by the understated elegance of Cary Grant in the Hitchcock classics To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest.” That’s what inspired my bio and to go back and trace the antecedents of CG’s style, to see how he created himself, a fascinating and fun journey.

Which was the most challenging part about writing this book? 
Getting people like Armani, Michael Kors, Tom Wolfe, Eva Marie Saint, Peter Bogdanovich, CG’s tailors, and people who knew him to open up and talk to me. A lot of CG biographies are scurrilous, so they wanted to make sure that they would be associated with a quality project and I managed to do that, but it took a lot of hard work and time.

What does style mean to you? How would you describe your personal style?
Style is about the inner as well as the outer man and it touches on all aspects of life. I would say my style is classic. I don’t slavishly follow the trends, though I enjoy watching what’s new and seeing who can pull it off and who falls on their face. My rule of thumb is this. If you can look at a photo of yourself from, say, eight or ten years ago and not think you look ridiculous, then you’re doing something right.

Can you name three contemporary stylish men other men can look up to? What is there to learn from their way of dressing?
Slim pickings these days. I guess it comes down to the usual suspects. George Clooney is well turned out. He keeps it simple, although I find him a tad too fastidious. But he knows what works for him and what doesn’t. He seems to stick to a classic style, while David Beckham is trendy, but because of his looks, demeanor, intelligence, and genuine interest in fashion, he pulls it off. You can learn a lot from Brad Pitt — just do the opposite. Start by taking a bath and washing your hair and getting a good shave. He does everything to hide or downgrade his good looks as if he’s embarrassed by his handsomeness. He’s just one of many celebrities who dress badly on purpose and that trickles down to the masses. Generally, celebrities follow the trends. And today’s trends for men are clownish. Suits today are too tight, the jackets splay at the bottom so you see a little of the shirt and tie (I hate that), the trousers pool up at the ankle. All very unseemly and unflattering to the objective of style — to enhance, not diminish the silhouette.

But if you really want to learn how to dress, study The Rat Pack, particularly Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, and Sammy Davis, Jr. Those cats really knew how to rench the most out clothes. No detail was unimportant, not a button nor a tie clasp. Everything was thoughtfully put together. They were also innovators. A great book on the subject is Bill Zehme’s The Way You Wear Your Hat.

Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint on the set of “North by Northwest” (1959)

What can women learn from men when it comes to style?
To tone it down a couple of notches. Less really is more. Women’s shoes today, for instance, are like scaffolding, their dresses so tight you can see the outline of their spleen, and they strenuously put their breasts on display in a way that makes them seem desperate for attention. Many are logo crazy, as if their own initials aren’t enough, a mark of a woman who has no style of her own but must count on a designer to acquire one. There’s no personal grace or subtlety. Elegance and understatement have been replaced by a style that is more slutty than sexy. But I don’t, ironically, hear men complaining.

It is my constant impression that, over the years, men have begun to forget the rules that make their sense of fashion so enviable by women. Why this appeal for unmanly clothes, like skinny jeans and slim fit pieces? I, as a woman, don’t understand how those women at the arms of those men can find them attractive. 
It’s not their fault. That’s how their fathers dressed…in cargo pants, the doopey backwards baseball cap, the faded T-shirt, the flip flops…it’s all comfort based. Lazy, in a word. That’s all they know. That’s how the men in their lives dressed and that’s what they sexualize on men their own age. It’s Freudian. I also shake my head at the disparity of dress in couples. You often see women dressed to the nines in fine restaurants and hotels with a bloated slob donning a faded T-shirt or a blousy untucked wrinkled dress shirt paired with baggy jeans with a shiny bottom and the ever-present sandals that reveal yellow toenails. Horrific! You’d think the woman would urge the guy to up his game. Maybe they do, but I don’t see any evidence of it.

What should a man never wear?
Flip flops, except to the beach. Leather loafers are just as comfortable, but more stylish. Cargo pants. They make the silhouette bulky. Baseball caps. Grow up; you’re not a cute kid anymore. Choose a pork pie or a snap brim instead. And always go against trend; it’ll make you stand out.

Is success related to dressing well?
Absolutely. It’s a reflection of who you are, one of the first things people notice about you, so why not present yourself to the world in the best possible way?

How did you get into fashion journalism?
I started writing about health and fitness, but in the mid nineties fashion coverage exploded. Magazines were devoting whole issues to style when previously they devoted only one or two pages. So I went where the work was. But what really hooked me was when I attended Fashion Week in NYC on assignment and I realized that fashion is an art and art is my religion.

What is the biggest challenge fashion journalism faces in the context of the new media?
The kowtowing to advertisers. You can’t really say anything negative because the very people you are writing about are the ones who are paying for the ads, one reason why there is a dearth of real fashion criticism today. The other reason is the 24-hour news cycle. It’s more important to cover a fashion story or event and get it out there ahead or at least at the same time as your competitors than it is to post a thoughtful, informative piece of fashion journalism. We deserve better.

What fashion magazines or websites do you recommend?
I don’t, but I like Trust Your Style. For the most part, I read scholarly books because most blogs are just cut and paste jobs by hacks who really don’t have much knowledge or education or even insight. Everything is “awesome”, an empty adjective used by mental midgets, just like the word “fashionista”, which should be outlawed. I highly recommend a book I just finished called Hollywood Before Glamour: Fashion in American Silent Film by Michelle Tolini Finamore, a work that is as entertaining as it is scholarly, no easy feat. Dr. Finamore is a fashion curator at the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, and I suggest you interview her. She has a wealth of fashion knowledge and is one of the best fashion scholars writing and working today. She just curated a show at The Museum of Fine Art, Boston, called THINK PINK, about the meaning of this color in fashion history. The Wall Street Journal called it “A pirouette of a show”.

Pierre Bergé was saying in an interview that Yves Saint Laurent would hate the fashion industry today. What has happened to the fashion business that it’s all about product, marketing and money now?
I don’t know about that. It’s always been about money, status, and marketing. Without those forces, there would not be a fashion industry. I think Pierre is being a bit naïve.

Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in “To Catch A Thief” (1955)

Who are your favourite designers?
I don’t have any favorite designers. I prefer tailors like Kent, Haste & Lachter in London who have had a presence in Savile Row for decades, the most stylish street in the world, and have dressed some of the most recognizable style icons in history, including Gregory Peck, Cary Grant, The Duke of Windsor, Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Kanye West, Charlie Watts and lesser known paragons of style, Harold Tillman CBE and Sir Alex Ferguson.

Has there been any film which, in your opinion, had a defining influence on fashion?
Dozens. The Thomas Crown Affair with Steve McQueen, Bonnie and Clyde with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, American Gigolo with Richard Gere which set off a menswear revolution with the help of unstructured Armani suits. Today of course things have changed. Everything is overly fitted, too tight and imbalanced. But that’s fashion. Looks come and go.

Name five of your favourite movies.
The Pope of Greenwich Village, Mildred Pierce, Transformer with Jason Statham, To Catch a Thief, A Single Man, and Married Life with Pierce Brosnan, all of which have a wonderful visual and sartorial style.

Why has American cinema, more than any other cinema in the world, always had a predilection for happy endings?
Because real life is often dreary and tragic and you must be somewhat masochistic to exist on a diet of angst-ridden, dark, and unhappy European art films. That’s why Hollywood films are the most popular in the world. The people who make them know the human psyche. I can’t think of any director or actor outside of the U.S. who wouldn’t jump at the chance of working in Hollywood.

I saw Letter Never Sent a few weeks ago. I’ve seen two other films by Mikhail Kalatozov, The Cranes Are Flying and I Am Cuba. The black and white cinematography is breathtaking, it’s something that always strikes me in his films, maybe more than in all the classics I’ve seen. Directors achieved so much with so little and not all the special effects in the world could ever reproduce those images, the moving images as an art form. In an industry channeled on remakes, commercial productions and special effects, do you still find anything fascinating in cinema? Is there any trace of art left in it?
A lot of the black and white movies you mention were heavily influenced by American film noirs. There’s a lot of good films out there, but you have to seek them out because there’s so much product. The blockbusters overshadow them — if you let them. Tom Ford’s A Single Man was a brilliant film. A Box of Moonlight with John Turturro and Sam Rockwell is one of my favorite films, but it was not a big budget Hollywood film. And I don’t think it’s a matter of one or the other — special effects films and indie art flicks. It’s a matter of taste and choice. Plenty to go around for all palates.

A couple of years ago I was interviewing Mary Jo Matsumoto and she was aptly noticing that television was having a moment. Apparently, it still does. Why this shift of good screenwriters, directors and actors towards television?
Simple. The sheer growth of the enormous number of channels on cable television has resulted in a voracious need for content. Most of it is junk, of course, but with the vast number of shows being made you’re bound to get a few good ones. But I see them mostly as formulaic, with a surface edginess and nothing underneath. I think television had it’s moment in the 1960s. Shows like The Munsters and the surreal Green Acres were almost dadaist in concept but they appealed to the masses, miraculously, with a truly unique and unselfconscious humor. They were suis genris and they’d never get made today.

How important do you think it is to expose the younger generation to the films of the past? How can we do that?
Enormously important. Take away their cell phones, iPads, and computers for a little while and turn them on to Turner Classic Movies.

What are you working on right now?
Marketing my next book. Here’s a brief description. Clothes make the man. And a very lethal adversary. Terminal Life kicks off the first novel in “The Suited Hero” series by Richard Torregrossa about Luke Stark, a damaged Nav SEAL with a penchant for smart suits. He returns home to discover that his wife has been mysteriously murdered and his son has disappeared, a journey that sets him on a course of revenge that is as brutal as it is cathartic and ultimately redemptive. This gripping mystery crime thriller with a groundbreaking cinematic style will be published on June 3, 2014 by Oceanview Publishing.

A lifestyle advice you’d care to share.
Yes. “Get dressed. We’re going out.” A quote from my good friend Jack Newcastle, a dedicated and very talented sartorialist and author of the novel The Fine Art of Mixing Girls.

This entry was posted in Interviews . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Interview with Richard Torregrossa, Author of the Book Cary Grant: A Celebration of Style