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A good pair of pants


On the eve of Thanksgiving 2010, here is Howard Tabor’s column from The Daily Plantagenet of November 29th, 2008, the Saturday after Thanksgiving that year.

Giving Thanks

My sister Catherine and her husband Jim LaFarge were home for the holidays. They brought a generous supply of the maple syrup they manufacture in the woody thickets of rural Vermont. Business is precarious right now, there as everywhere, so I’ll put in a plug for their brand “Allouette” and hope you find some on store shelves in your neck of the woods. There’s love in those jars.

Thanksgiving dinner was lively. We had eighteen family members, plus friends and strays, for a ginormous feast that won’t be repeated soon. Conversation turned, as it inevitably does in a strange and unwieldy family like ours, to absent guests—all those members of the extended Tennant clan who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) be here: where they are, what they’re doing, how they got there. It’s astonishing to think how far-flung the family has become; what distant shores have welcomed weary emigrants from this solitary spot in northwestern Iowa. But it also caused me to recollect on the diverse and disparate souls who have wound up here in Agincourt during the last one hundred and fifty years. Some fairly impressive flotsam, not the least of whom was a modest Hungarian tailor.

At dinner Thursday night I happened to be wearing a pair of my dad’s pants. When he died in ’95, mother resisted having a garage sale. She kept most of Warren’s things exactly where he’d left them, but allowed me to have the pick of his wardrobe. I chose, among other well-crafted items, the pants I wore at Thanksgiving dinner. Pants he had worn for thirty-five years. Pants that may be part of my own estate sale when that time comes. Pants from the legendary Agincourt tailor Sandor Zsolnay. What right did we have to the considerable talents of such a craftsman as Zsolnay?

Hungarians reverse the order of their names, putting the surname first. So it was Zsolnay Sandor who arrived here in 1920, a forty-year-old custom tailor from the recently collapsed Hapsburg Empire. He almost immediately became Sollie Sander, a nickname that stuck through a forty-year presence in our community. Zsolnay was widowed and had a twelve-year-old daughter Erszébet in tow. They spoke practically no English. Erszébet became a friend of my mother.

The folks at deBijenkorf needed a tailor in their men’s department and had advertised in Chicago and elsewhere, hoping to lure the best, as they did in all things. Sandor Zsolnay came with credentials beyond their hopes. He’d been born in Pecs, Hungary about 1880, at the height of Hapsburg power. At seventeen, Sandor became a tailor’s apprentice in Budapest (technically on the newer Pest side of the Danube) and subsequently moved upstream to the Imperial capital Vienna and the auspicious haberdashery of Knize & Co. Who can say that he didn’t accompany his tutors to the Palace in 1913 and record the metric length of His Imperial Majesty’s inseam, noting whether the Jewels of Empire hung left or right. [In the 19th century, a man’s most intimate experiences might have been with his tailor, who knew full well which leg to enlarge and to what extent, something even a wife might not appreciate.] But that twilight could not last. A World War and cousins in Chicago brought him to America and deBijenkorf brought him to Iowa. Europe’s loss was Agincourt’s gain.

DeBijenkorf’s management team knew they had snagged a treasure. At forty, his hair already tinged with grey at the temples, Zsolnay brought the cosmopolitan to the American hinterlands. His talents would have been wasted on cuffs and collars. They encouraged him to double the men’s department, using his Old World connections to bring us quality that surpassed what even Des Moines and Omaha could offer. But those halcyon days of haberdashery were also not to last. The portent of “Better living through chemistry” in the1950s must have saddened him, as wool, leather, cotton and silk gave way to nylon, rayon and vinyl. We no longer clothed our bodies so much as upholstered them. When Sandor Zsolnay retired in 1960, another era had ended. But his pants live on and that may be the finest revenge of all.

Zsolnay died in 1968, the same year that my great-uncle Anson Tennant left us wanting more of them both. And Warren Tabor, my dad, was one of six pallbearers—each of them clad in a Zsolnay suit—who carried our tailor legend to his grave at St Ahab’s Cemetery.

There’s love in those pants and in my sister’s maple syrup, too.

There is much to mourn these days–and the corruption of quality is not the least of it–but there is also much to be grateful for. Like a good pair of pants.

I hope your Thanksgiving is filled with friends and the stuff that makes memories.

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