Turn the pages of any men's style magazine and you'll find the usual obligatory salutes to the leading men of the golden age of Hollywood: from Gable to Cooper to Grant. However, in an era when the average American man was dressed in a suit and tie with a fedora to match, there was one star above all others who set the tone for the stylish dandies of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Indeed, George Raft might be a singular example of the era, in that he was an established sartorial trend-setter along Damon Runyon's Broadway before he made it in Hollywood. When he eventually did become one of the leading box office attractions of the 1930s and 1940s - despite his terrible habit of turning down the films that would make Humphrey Bogart a legend, including Dead End, High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon, and Casablanca - Raft was transformed from neighborhood fashion-plate to national style icon.
Born on September 26, 1895 in a ten-family tenement on 41st street between 9th and 10th Avenue in the Hell's Kitchen section of Manhattan, Raft started out looking to make it big in boxing. After sustaining a broken nose, two black eyes, and a swollen jaw against Frankie Jerome, he gave up on the "sweet science" and started hanging out around pool halls on Broadway. Raft became something of a decent hustler, and it was during this period that he formed a partnership with another pool-room fixture by the name of Billy Rosenberg. Raft and Rosenberg were a pretty good team, and the two would often retire to Lindy's together after a night of hustling.
One night, the two were in a booth at the famed establishment when two popular songwriters, Con Conrad and Ray Henderson, came in and were given special treatment by the Maitre'd. Shortly after, Raft lost his partner when Rosenberg changed his name to Billy Rose, who went on to pen such Tin Pan Alley classics as "Barney Google with the Goo Goo Googley Eyes," "You Gotta See Mama Every Night," "Me and My Shadow," That Old Gang of Mine," "More Than You Know," and "It's Only A Paper Moon."
Raft continued his poolroom hustling when he wasn't chauffeuring his childhood friend, Owney "the Killer" Madden around or driving trucks full of "Madden's #1" bootleg liquor around town. His mother had always encouraged his love of dancing and in his spare time, Raft would frequent popular dance halls such as the Audubon Dance Hall or the Manhattan Casino. It was also during this period that he worked as a male escort in the "tea rooms" of Manhattan - well-appointed, romantically-lit cafes frequented by frisky housewives, prostitutes, and divorcees. It was around this time that Raft also became acquainted with a co-worker named Rodolpho Guglielmo, who would go on to become the great lover, Rudolph Valentino.
Raft himself first came to prominence as a dancer in the speakeasies and nightclubs of Manhattan. Soon enough, a who's who of notable names of the day were flocking to nightclubs like the "El Fey" Club to see Raft dance. As Milton Berle remembered, "The first time I heard about George Raft was through my brother Phil, who was a pretty good ballroom dancer. . . Phil, who rarely spoke of anyone but himself, got to raving one day about the greatest dancer he had ever seen. Somehow he lured me into this ballroom to see George dance. He was the sensation of the dance halls in that era. No one had his class or ability."
Soon, Raft was a featured performer at the El Fey Club, earning $150 a week. Word of his prowess on the dance floor spread around the world as the most renowned performers of the day flocked to see him perform. As Fred Astaire commented,
"I went there several times to see George dance. I believe it was George Gershwin who first took us. He was a sensation in those days and we went especially to see George. The "El Fey" club was the "in" place to go. It was handsomely decorated in a gaudy red and gold but in many ways it was a dive. George was the main attraction, and Ruby Keeler and others who later became stars danced there also.
They served terrible champagne and booze in coffee cups, but it was mainly the entertainment that packed the place, and George did the fastest, and most exciting, Charleston I ever saw. I thought he was an extraordinary dancer and later I heartily recommended him to a club owner I knew in London."
It was during this period that Raft also began earning enough money to indulge his sartorial appetites. Longtime Raft confidante Mack Grey later described the George Raft of this period:
"There wasn't a sharper dresser or a nicer guy on Broadway. George's suits were always the latest style. Wide lapels, high trousers, spats, and you could cut your finger on the crease in George's pants. He was one of the first guys to wear a black shirt with a white tie. He wore long collars. A pearl gray hat was pulled down over one eye. Come wintertime he'd either be in a black form-fitted coat with a velvet collar or a sporty brown camel wrap-around. He wore fifty-buck shoes with pointy toes, shined so bright you could see your face in them."
When Raft eventually went west to Hollywood, the wardrobe that so captivated Grey on the streets of Manhattan would be captured in all its glory on the silver screen for the rest of the country to experience. After his star-making turn as Tony Camonte's "little boy," the coin-tossing gangster Guino Rinaldo in Scarface, Raft would receive top-billing in his own films. Raft's sartorial sensibilities were on full display in one of his first featured roles in Night After Night (1932). Although the film is now remembered as Mae West's screen debut - old friend Raft secured the role for her - it also captures the youthful Raft in all his sartorial splendor. In these screen shots, we see the long collars, wide lapels, and high trousers that Grey spoke so admiringly of:
In the above snapshots from the film, we see the high-waisted trousers that were a Raft trademark. In the first shot, we also get a good look at the long, pointed collar. Note also how Raft has tucked the tie into the suspender. Finally, these shots also provide a good example of the pomaded "patent leather" hairstyle - Raft was said to use a full jar of Vaseline to perfect the look.
In these snapshots from the same film, we see Raft's wardrobe in motion. In the first shot, we see the wide, peaked lapels on the single-breasted three-piece suit. Note how the high-waisted trouser is hidden by the vest once Raft is fully dressed. Of course, Raft also leaves the vest unbuttoned at the bottom. Interestingly, while the placement on the armholes of the suit jacket seem rather high and, altogether, the suit jacket exhibits a rather tapered fit, the pants retain that distinct "baggy" look of the 1930s.
Finally, we see Raft in all his glory - the three-piece suit with peaked lapels, vest, the long pointed collar, and high-waisted trousers. Also note the high-button stance on the two-button jacket. Raft's sleeves show off impeccable tailoring, with just a touch of shirt cuff peaking out from under the suit jacket sleeve. The finishing touch is the pocket square just under Raft's white floral arrangement pinned through the jacket's lapel.
In Part Two, we'll continue to look at Raft's position of prominence as a sartorial trendsetter of the 1930s and 1940s on a scale that dwarfed the reputation he had previously achieved on Broadway during the Roaring Twenties. Along the way, the Uptown Dandy will take a closer look at Raft's brief sartorial conversion away from the "racketeer" image to a more conservative look in the late 1930s.