By Alan Flusser
Late in one afternoon in the fall of 1974 I was strolling up Madison Avenue when I spied a rather impressively dressed figure making his way towards me. Drawing closer, we both paused as to take each other in. I remember blurting out somewhat quizzically: “Richard Merkin?" To which he responded: “Alan Flusser?” As if divinely arranged, our first encounter took place at the most sublime yet ironic of addresses, 346 Madison Avenue -- smack dab in front of Brooks Brothers.
Stopping to introduce myself, I recounted how I first became aware of Richard through the book Cheap Chic in which he'd been profiled and quoted in all his custom-tailored glory. Richard responded by recalling how he had first seen me on the pages of Gentleman’s Quarterly. We quickly discovered that we lived blocks from each other on the Upper West Side. After what seemed like no more than a couple of minutes, I walked away feeling like I had just met my new best friend.
Richard died several years ago, and there is not a day that goes by that I do not think of him. Arriving at my Manhattan office each morning, I am regaled by Richard’s gorgeous portrait of Cole Porter that hangs directly across from my desk. My shop and homes are filled with his art. One of his most beloved vintage Negro League baseball hats hangs in my Southampton dressing room, across from a pastel caricature of me that he showed up with one morning, insisting I immediately unwrap and hang it up so we could look at it together.
Richard was someone who always made me feel better for having spent time with him. Instead of there being a sense of ego or competition between us, we shared in each other’s passions and appreciated each other’s talents so much that we just loved trying to invent new career-building schemes for each other. I remember feeling so proud when I was able to introduce him to Art Cooper, the venerable editor of Gentleman’s Quarterly, and it leading to Richard being commissioned to write and illustrate a monthly column called “Merkin On Style.” His writings were marked by exceptional flair, a voluminous insider knowledge, and personality galore. Richard’s monthly installments became one of the magazine’s most compelling selling points, with many readers (myself included) cutting them out to collect.
When my custom shop moved into Saks Fifth Avenue, overlooking Rockefeller Center and the ice skating rink, we celebrated with a big Christmas tree lighting party. I had Richard create a gigantic pastel painting of this iconic winter scene, which I used for the invitation illustration and featured in the shop. Richard got a few commissions from that.
Richard at one point decided that Tom Wolfe’s wife Sheila should meet my wife, as both of them were older first-time mothers. What grew out of that introduction was a lifelong friendship between the Wolfes and my family. Richard also designed the only logo I would ever consider wearing or using: a small 1930s Bauhaus-looking dandy smoking a cigar.
Back in the day, Richard split his time between his art professorship at RISD, where, donning his outlandish custom-made tweeds, he would tool around in his 1946 British Racing Green MG TC like some fictional 1930’s character out of P.G. Wodehouse. When in town, Richard made his home in a sprawling vintage memento-strewn apartment on West End Avenue and 84th St. His art studio was located a few blocks south, overlooking Zabar's. On his painting days, Richard would emerge in his own kind of Broadway bag lady chic, debuting the day’s mélange of vintage sport gear arranged in a David Hockney-like color story. Occasionally, one of my girls would come across him taking a work break, having planted himself on one of Broadway’s island benches to take in the local scenery. Whether costumed in his best Adolph Menjou-inspired town clothes or head-to-toe in his favorite second-hand painting togs, seeing Richard in the flesh was always a sight worthy of recollection.
At the time, Richard was represented by the prestigious Dintenfass gallery on 57th. street. His patrons were a cross-section of style-savvy urbanites stretching from Manhattan to the country’s old world hold-outs like Palm Beach, Palm Springs, and San Francisco. In the city, we had a bit of a local boys club going whose members -- including writer Tom Wolfe and the musician Bobby Short -- shared a passion for their own custom-tailored creations and for Richard’s art. Richard’s art openings at the Dintenfass Gallery were much-anticipated affairs, bringing out all the most sartorially daring burghers. And what Master Merkin chose to don for such occasions was usually the aesthetic equivalent of one of his paintings hanging on the wall.
Richard was something of a rough Damon Runyon character, softened by his own search for artistic elegance. As one of Gotham’s most recognized boulevardiers, Richard virtually lit up the streets, being a civic treasure that only the likes of New York City could hope to claim. Having appeared on The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album cover, Richard is forever a member of one of pop culture's most exclusive clubs, and his portraits graced many a prestigious New Yorker cover. He did a bit of modeling for Ralph Lauren and was photographed in full Merkin regalia by some of the day’s most acclaimed photographers. Countless articles were written on the many aspects of Richard’s life and personality: his art, his extensive wardrobe and opinions on fashion, his jazz and boxing expertise, his charm as a raconteur, and his insight as an observer of the louche and demi-monde of New York’s citizenry. Richard collected pornographic art, wrote a book about the genre, and even created some of his own. He amassed an enormous collection of Negro League baseball clothing and art, along with piles of art books and references on all matter of 1930’s life and fashion. He hoarded rare and antique artists’ supplies and materials, and his appetite for stylish curios was unbounded.
Richard was beloved by all who knew him -- and he knew a fair amount of people. From the three generations of his RISD students and acolytes to Esquire’s famed George Frazier and legendary Cambridge retailer Charlie Davidson, he shared a vast and varied jazz and art world scene with his many friends and contemporaries, as well as the city’s publishing set, who would bespeak his savvy and sophisticated art for their magazines. Naturally, he knew his way around the town’s many tailors, haberdashers, and approved retailers. And then there were his many art patrons and their families and friends.
After Richard was left by his blond, Marilyn Monroe-looking girlfriend for another well-known New York artist, he holed up for a month at my family's country home, where I would garage and babysit his vintage MG TC for the next many years. Richard would kid my little girls about “Where’s the bunny?” and they would lovingly call him “Uncle Richard.”
When RISD held a memorial for Richard, the Wolfes and the Flussers piled into a rented white Cadillac SUV (perfect for Tom) to drive up to Providence, Rhode Island for the occasion. Tom and I both spoke, and I showed a compilation of videos taken of Richard at my parties where you could hear his booming voice and totally infectious laugh. Afterwards, his students came up to reminisce about how much they would miss hearing their teacher at full throttle.
As with Tom, I miss Richard dearly and daily. Fortunately, both of them left so much for everyone to remember them by.