I’m jumping the gun a little bit—writing about Thanksgiving—but I ran across an envelope of very old Agincourt articles and wanted to share this one with you.
A few figs from thistles…
by Howard A Tabor
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 name “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 such as 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 is astounding to think how far-flung the family has become; what distant shores have welcomed weary emigrants from this lonely spot in northwestern Iowa. But it also caused me to recollect the diverse and disparate souls who have wound up here in Agincourt during the last hundred and fifty years. Some fairly impressive flotsam, not the least of whom was a modest Hungarian tailor.
At dinner Thursday 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 the wardrobe. I chose, among other well-crafted things, the pants I wore at Thanksgiving dinner. Pants he had worn for thirty-five years. Pants that will be part of my own estate sale when that time comes. Pants from the legendary Agincourt tailor Sandor Szolnay. What right did we have to the considerable talents of such a man as Szolnay?
Hungarians reverse the order of their names, putting the surname first. So it was Szolnay 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. Szolnay was widowed and had a twelve year-old-daughter Erszebet in tow. They spoke practically no English. Erszebet 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 Szolnay came with credentials beyond their hopes. He’d been born in Pecs, Hungary, in 1880, at the height of Hapsburg power. At eighteen, 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 and 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.] 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 Iowa’s gain.
deBijenkorf’s management team knew they had snagged a treasure. At forty, his hair already grey at the temples, Szolnay 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 chemostry” in the 1950s must have saddened him, as wool, leather, cotton and silk became nylon, rayon and vinyl. We no longer clother our bodies so much as upholstered them. When Sandor Szolnay reired in 1960, another era had ended. But his pants live on and that may be the finest revenge of all.
Szolnay 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 Szolnay suit—who carried our tailor legend to his grave at St. Ahab’s Cemetery.
There’s love in those pants, just as there is in my sister’s maple syrup.