UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Fall 2003
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Editor's Note:
The recent death of Sloan Wilson—whose novel The Gray Flannel Suit became a huge cultural reference point in the 1950s—stirred the memories of two alumni who encountered the novelist when he was a UB English professor and public information director from 1952 to 1955.





Stories
THAT GRAY FLANNEL SUIT ... woven in Buffalo
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

  Online Extra: Sloan Wilson Remembrance

THAT GRAY FLANNEL SUIT ... woven in Buffalo

By J. William ("Bill") Everett, B.S. '50

Wilson
  Sloan Wilson
Courtesy University at Buffalo Archives
 
The "tailor" of this suit, Sloan Wilson, came to Buffalo in 1952 as the new director of information services for the University of Buffalo. I figured I had better meet this fellow, since my duties in alumni relations, development and sports information included issuing numerous press releases and editing the alumni magazine.

My first courtesy visit to his second-floor office in Hayes Hall put me in the presence of an affable, low-key chap who favored the casual tweeds of his Harvard background and whose hair and eyebrows were akin to those of Andy Rooney. Wilson wasted no time in affirming his lack of interest in football as "22 men fighting over a bag of wind," as well as his support of my independent efforts. He made it easy to forge a close and cherished friendship based on our sharing of Navy tales from our service in World War II. Sloan had been an executive officer aboard a harbor vessel, with each of his stories convincing me that I had met the original model for Ensign Pulver of "Mr. Roberts" fame.

As summer slackened the campus pace, myself and a few friends from Hayes Hall and Clark Gym found ourselves strolling across Main Street for sandwich special lunches at "Ma" Bitterman's tavern. Weekly regulars included Sloan, alumni director Tom VanArsdale, accounting professor Nick Kish, basketball coach Mal Eiken and occasional academic stars like history professor John Horton and statistics/insurance professor Robert Riegel. Conversations covered academics, athletics and world events, all in good humor. Invariably, should the conversation lag, someone would turn to Sloan and ask, "How's the book coming along?"

Sloan had come to UB to escape the frantic pace of Manhattan and the corporate world, to teach creative writing and find time for his own work. The time he found was mostly on nights and weekends. He kept us posted on his latest struggles with chapter such-and-such or situation this-and-that, along with his occasional "40 winks" with head resting on the typewriter in his Snyder residence. The group would respond with polite interest and encouragement, such as "Oh," or "Great," or "Way to go!" We even enthused when he announced that his wife had come up with the title "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit." As best I can recall, those present offered up a mixture of "Oh," perhaps even a "Gee" and "Wow," as we all exchanged questioning glances around the table.

Then came the day our fellowship was interrupted by Ma Bitterman herself, as she informed Sloan that he had a long-distance phone call waiting on the public phone located beneath the stairway in the side hall. Sloan excused himself and soon returned in a state of nervous excitement accented by almost-dancing steps. The call was from Paris, where "the book" had been named Book of the Year! One of the responses at our table was "Holy cow!"—a toast was in order. Soon, Sloan was in negotiations for movie rights; cheers broke out when the then-magnificent check arrived and was deposited. When asked what it felt like, Sloan beamed as he described taking his wife to Klepfer Buick on Main Street "for any car in the place" and writing a check.

Sloan later rented a private office in Manhattan "just for writing." When A Summer Place was published in 1958, local readers recognized the avenues and boulevards of Kenmore, New York-Delaware, Elmwood, Colvin, etc.

This alumnus seldom misses a television rerun of the 1956 movie version of The Gray Flannel Suit and thrills to the sight of the suit itself at "United Broadcasting," where the elevator operators wear shoulder patches bearing the letters U.B. in royal blue and white, and where the personnel director is a "Mr. Everett." Thank you, Sloan, from all of us!

Sloan Wilson died May 25, 2003, at age 83. The Associated Press wire service reported that "While working at Time, Wilson penned The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, based on his experience with the corporate culture." Let the record show: Sloan Wilson typed that novel while working for the University of Buffalo, and the label in that famous suit reads "made in Buffalo."


Everett
J. William "Bill" Everett, B.S. '50
, held a number of UB administrative posts, including director of alumni relations, assistant director of development and director of sports information during the 1950s and 1960s.


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