“And buy a decent suit. You can’t come in here looking like that. Go to Morty Sills. Tell him I sent you.”
Gordon Gekko in Wall Street

Morty Sills couldn’t sew a stitch, but when his name came up, and it came up a lot, he was always “the tailor.” It was like the old music-business joke where somebody asks a famous bandleader what instrument he plays, and he says, “I don’t play—I lead.”

He was a one-off and, for a moment in New York, a supporting player in the lives of a crazy quilt of people who, taken together, gave the city an extra layer of polish. Never front and center, Morty was sewn into those lives like the tag on the inside of a well-made suit.

His digs were on the second floor of a little building on 48th Street, just east of Fifth—and certainly like no shop I’d ever seen. The place looked like a living room, but after a visit or two you came to realize it worked like a salon. People didn’t just go to buy suits—they went to see who else was there, to talk, to laugh, to flirt, to show off, maybe have a drink. To be part of a comfortable little play. And that, God bless him, was how he got you.

Morty Sills often celebrated his birthday with the actor Kevin McCarthy.

Morty’s desk was back to one side of the big main room, near the window, and facing it was a sofa, a few comfortable chairs, and a large coffee table piled with books and magazines. There’d be everything from political books by his favorite liberal—outright Communist, sometimes—writers, to design books, to English Vogue, to The Nation, to Playboy.

Against one wall was a long glass counter with drawers underneath all full of ties sorted by type—every color and pattern and material, plains, stripes, polka dots, silk, wool, the coarse woven kind with the horizontal heavy-stitched bottom—and on another wall, next to the bar, wooden shelves of fabric samples for suits and jackets. Little thick books you could lose yourself in. Solids and pinstripes and chalk stripes and herringbones and glen plaids, in flannel or worsted or cavalry twill or silk blend. Seersucker even. The tweeds alone could keep you busy for hours. And there was a rack of already made-up coat samples—navy cashmeres and Chesterfields and lightweight topcoats and British warms.

Guys brought their girlfriends, or girls who might become girlfriends, because for sure there was seduction afoot. Something about the feel of the fabrics and the air of extravagance, and, of course, maybe a glass of sherry or something stronger, and the intimacy of going in back and taking your clothes off and getting fitted. Luxe et volupté.

And the cast of characters was as eye-catching as the merchandise. On a Saturday afternoon in the late 1960s you might find old friends from school or big-deal Wall Street types or model-pretty girls or the actors George Hamilton and Kevin McCarthy, or the writer Dominick Dunne, or the movie director Gordon Parks. Muhammad Ali was supposed to be a customer, but I never saw him.

Then there was Morty himself. He was charming and funny and cared deeply about people and could make a friend out of almost anybody. He was seriously short—not much over five feet—but never pulled attitude to deal with it. No aggressive cock of the head, no heavy footfall. Always put together and neat, but as comfortable as the suits he made. And always the trace of a smile—part salesman, part in-on-the-joke.

And Morty loved to laugh, especially at himself. A customer and friend invited him for a weekend in Northeast Harbor, Maine. Mount Desert Island. Rockefeller country. He’d be hanging with the rich, and naturally he had all the gear. Come time to dress for cocktails on Saturday, it was a cinch—white ducks, white bucks, blue blazer, silk pocket square. He loved describing the expressions he got when he walked into that room full of khakis and old polo shirts and scuffed boat shoes. He was young then and didn’t make that mistake again, but it only made them like him more, and he went back.

He was a Jew, completely self-educated, with highly developed and strongly held liberal views, yet some of his close friends were giants in business whose politics couldn’t have been more different—and they adored him. Beautiful women were drawn to him and took him into their confidence, and, if they were unhappy—or had a good secret to share—he’d talk for hours. If you needed something, he’d be there for you, whatever it took.

Morty was sewn into those lives like the tag on the inside of a well-made suit.

A close friend, going through a turbulent re-entry after a hitch in Vietnam, got caught in a drug sting—saying to exactly the wrong guy in exactly the wrong bar that he’d help him find cocaine. He landed in Sing Sing. He was very white, very good looking, and physically slight. He and all his friends were terrified. But Morty knew some people, made some calls, and nobody laid a hand on him.

The Well-Dressed City

By the 1960s, Brooks Brothers had comfortably ruled the ready-made menswear market for decades. The suits were well cut and well sewn; the salespeople knew their stuff and really cared about the customer.

Ed Turco, today the head of London tailor Huntsman’s New York branch, remembers his first job at 346 Madison Avenue, Brooks’s flagship store. His phone rang one night about one o’clock. It was his boss telling him they needed to meet immediately to make an urgent house call. Fred Astaire had just rung up. The sleeves of his new Brooks pajamas were too short, not a lot but short nonetheless, and he couldn’t sleep. “He was very polite,” Turco recalls. “He apologized for troubling us but said the sleeves were too short. We gave him a quarter of an inch and wished him a good rest of the night.”

New York had enough wealth and enough men interested in dressing distinctively to fuel a growing bespoke market. But while Brooks Brothers and some of its competitors offered a custom option, it was little more than a sideline. Where they all fell down was that none of them offered the end-to-end hand-holding—from choosing the fabric to dealing with finicky design details, to multiple fittings, to delivery—that the new generation of buyers thought should go along with spending upwards of a thousand dollars for a suit.

Gordon Parks was a Morty Sills loyalist. When he directed the movie Shaft, he hired Morty to design the wardrobe for the title character.

And that’s where Morty came in.

Taste is a funny beast—it flips the finger at genetics and pops up wherever it damn well pleases. Morty was born with it, and understatement was his trademark. His suits varied from the norm in only the smallest ways—side vents when center vents were the standard, lapels not too narrow or too wide, and the waist gently shaped, not pinched. But when I had one on it was amazing: the phrase “custom made” came to life. The collar settled perfectly on my neck, the armholes let me move but held me at the same time, the trousers without an inch of excess at the back of the leg, but not tight either. It felt not just made for me but made on me. From that day on I wanted all my clothes to feel that way.

Certain men came at stylish dressing differently. You saw them in magazines. Men who twisted the tail of elegance in their own signature way. Gianni Agnelli wore his watchstrap over his shirt cuff. Fred Astaire used a tie for a belt. But they were Gianni Agnelli and Fred Astaire. Others copied them and looked like rubes.

Morty understood that. His only nod to pretense had to do with the buttonholes on the jacket sleeves—all hand-sewn and able to be opened. He always wore the last button, the one nearest the cuff, undone. Just a tiny thing, but he suggested I do it, and, timidly at first, I did—and got the point. It made me feel a little different, showing a bit of style, but quietly, without shoving it in anybody’s face.

With so few bespoke options around, there were Sills suits all over town. I was in the club car of the Long Island Rail Road on a hot summer Friday, the 4:19 p.m. run to Southampton, with a friend, also a Sills customer. The car was crowded with summer bachelors, most of them recovering after a week on the loose in Manhattan, hitting the problem head-on at the bar. I recognized a few.

It was a time when the East End of Long Island was swimming with athletes, talented amateurs as well as the occasional pro—crew jocks and tennis players particularly. Loads of Irish blood. The faces were mostly ruddy and handsome, some with a self-assurance that looked a little too easily come by, as if they were getting a ride in somebody else’s fancy car. There were nicknames left over from school. Mungo. Snake. Many were tall and wide-chested. Acres of fine gray cloth and yards and yards of proud chalk stripes and pinstripes. My friend said, “If this car gets blown up, Morty loses half his business.”

An early advertisement for Morty Sills.

After college, in the late 60s, as my circle of New York friends grew, Morty was everywhere. My girlfriend, Sidney, and Morty got to be pals. And Morty’s best friend, Nancy Holmes, got to be a friend of ours, and then her daughter, the beautiful Brooke, got to be a friend. And Brooke went out with my friend Rex, who was also a great friend of Morty’s, and after Rex with my English friend Jeremy, who was best friends with my Harvard buddy Michel. And, after Sidney was out of my life, I went out with Brooke’s good friend Pat, who became a close friend of Morty’s.

Nancy and Morty were made for each other—two good-hearted charmers on the make. And so much damn fun! Nancy had been everywhere and done everything—with everybody. She’d been a model, discovered by Balmain in Paris after the Second World War, then a photographer, then a fashion editor, then a best-selling writer, always floating to the top of any social scene despite never being on her good behavior. She loved jazz and once threw a chair at a drunk in a fancy nightclub who was interrupting the music from Joe Bushkin, her favorite piano player.

It felt not just made for me but made on me.

Morty’s shop was a magnet for pretty girls. My friend Tony’s girlfriend, Kiki, a former model and ex-daughter-in-law of the owner of the Yankees, was looking for work. Morty offered her a job phoning customers who were slow with their bills to gently put the arm on them. She was as hard to resist on the phone as she was in person, and it clicked.

It was as if Morty had a magic elixir he sprinkled around that shop. Everybody came out feeling oxygenated, shined up, almost strutting. I asked Nancy for her take on it. She laughed. “Sure, the clothes are great,” she said. “You see a man in a Sills suit. Piss elegant! But it’s more—it’s the scene, the people he attracts, the friendship, the fun. You don’t go to ‘21’ with Mr. J. Press, whoever the hell that is. Letting Morty dress you is like making love. All the others—Brooks, Dunhill, Paul Stuart,” she made a sniffing noise, “any of them—dry humping!”

Cutting Costs

Stan Seewaldt couldn’t believe his eyes. The owner of a high-end custom-shirt maker, he and Morty shared a lot of clients and had begun talking about some kind of partnership, maybe even merging the businesses. That is, until the day Stan visited Sills and was led into the workroom.

“There were literally hundreds of suits finished or in the works,” remembered Stan’s son Eric. “My dad knew Morty never took a down payment with an order, and he knew customers could take forever to collect finished garments. Not to mention how long it took some of them to pay. All that cash tied up! And he also knew Morty had recently signed a 10-year lease at a crazy price. You can’t run a business that way.”

Morty in his store with Brooke Thompson, Nancy Holmes’s daughter.

Morty made the best clothes in town, but he was a bad businessman in a bad business. And because he was so nice, people took advantage. Customers didn’t pay, suppliers walked on him, bookkeepers outright stole. They all had a go at him. And what went around, went around.

“Kid, your suit’s ready for a fitting.”

“But, Morty, I didn’t order a suit.”

“Kid, you need a new pinstripe. Come Thursday.”

“Morty, what the hell is this fancy pin-dot silk lining? I know I didn’t order that.”

“Kid … ”

And a look like he cared so much and I needed teaching.

“When a girl sees a silk lining, she knows.”

Arm around the shoulder and that smile.

Case closed.

“Letting Morty dress you is like making love. All the others—Brooks, Dunhill, Paul Stuart—dry humping!”

Morty was not much good at family stuff. He had a wife, Polly, and they had one kid, Josh, but it was complicated, and I don’t think anybody knew the whole story.

Polly had been married before, with a child by that marriage as well, and—gossip that kept surfacing and Morty did nothing to discourage—had maybe had an affair with Jack Kennedy. Which, while by no means making her an object either of praise or scorn, was provenance of a sort, and you got the feeling Morty fed on it a little.

Most nights, if I or a bunch of friends had dinner with Morty, Polly wouldn’t be part of it. Nancy or Brooke or any number of others, but rarely Polly. And when she was around, the atmosphere thickened up. It was as if she carried a sign: Requires Special Handling.

And it all felt sad, because it wasn’t that Morty didn’t love her. I think he really did. He talked about her a lot—and he loved Josh too. But whatever it takes to make a family work like a family, that didn’t seem to be part of his makeup.

There was only one time I saw him cry. It was after Polly died. It had happened in the little apartment they lived in on the Upper East Side. There were stairs to get up the last bit and he told me they weren’t able to get her body down those. So, there was a crane, and they had to take her out the window. Something about her leaving that way he couldn’t take. He looked at me and, no hands to his face or anything, just cried.

The actor George Segal is fitted for a bespoke tuxedo at Morty Sills.

After she was gone, Morty focused on the son. Josh had gone to decent schools, graduated, and then kicked around, with Morty helping as he could. He kept trying to push him to come into the business, but there was no spark. You never know what goes on between a father and son, but what I saw was that any encouragement from Morty simply went off into thin air.

Morty brought in another desk and set it up facing his. And Josh would show up occasionally, always after noon, and sit, no papers, no nothing. Sometimes he’d try to engage with a customer, and, because they loved his dad so much, they’d give something back, but then it would die away.

Losing Your Shirt

In October 1987 the stock market had what my grandmother would have called a conniption fit. The Dow lost nearly a quarter of its value in a day, investors froze, and almost every business in town—restaurants, hotels, drugstores, department stores, bars, airlines—suffered. Still, customers needed at least some of what most of them were selling, so life struggled on. But with that kind of chill in the air, even the very rich can put off a new custom-made suit for a while.

Morty’s phone went silent. No one showed up in the shop for days. It was like somebody had hung a CLOSED sign out front. He sat for hours, head in his hands—the bills, no money coming in, things so precarious anyway—wondering if this might be the end.

The older couple coming off the elevator were strangers, but the man broke the ice quickly.

“Ah’m lookin’ for Mistah Sills.”

“I’m Mr. Sills.”

“Well, Ah’m mighty happy to meet you, Mistah Sills. Mah name is Perry Bass and this here’s mah wife, Nancy Lee. We’re here ‘’cause y’all did somethin’ nice for our boy, Sid, a while back and now Ah wanna do somethin’ nice for y’all.”

When a friend had introduced Sid Bass to Morty, he’d come with an odd request—nothing to do with suits. Sid was having a new plane built and wanted cloth for the interior—not just for the seats but the walls, ceiling, the works—something unusual, more with the look of luxurious men’s suiting than upholstery fabric. So, a fancy tailor seemed the thing.

It didn’t take long.

A wide pinstripe, a glen plaid, and a flannel—medium gray—with a soft finish and enough texture to give it depth. Morty put the mills in touch with the airframe people, the orders were drop-shipped, and he got a cut.

And now Perry and Nancy Lee were getting a plane of their own.

“We want all the same cloth Sid got, so it shouldn’t be much trouble. But, one thing—Ah want you to bill me like you was makin’ suits out of it. Y’all talk to the airplane folks, and they’ll tell you how many yards they’ll be needin’. And, since what we got comin’ along is a Falcon 900, Ah reckon that’d be a mess o’ suits.”

“You see a man in a Sills suit. Piss elegant!”

Then 1987 went by and the world righted itself, but Morty’s business kept getting tougher. And being his friend got to be more expensive.

Morty’s suit-jacket sleeves could always be unbuttoned.

One day he came into the fitting room while I was trying on a new suit. Between pants. Moment of maximum vulnerability. There was a bench, and he sat down, face away from me.

“Kid, I got a problem.”

“Oh, God, Morty, how bad is it?”

“It’s bad.”

“How bad?”

“Thirty grand,” he said.

“How fast do you need it?”


“How fast?”

“Three o’clock.”

When I called my assistant she thought I was crazy.

A few weeks later I was in the shop.

“Kid, we haven’t had a nice lunch in a long time,” Morty said. “When are you free?”

“Next Tuesday. Where shall we go??”


Walter and the other captains were all over him. They always were. Straight to the corner banquette, on the left, in back, his usual. At the end of the meal I reached for the check, and he pushed me away.

“Kid, this is mine.”

I couldn’t help laughing.

“Morty, for Christ’s sake? You’re taking me to lunch with my money.” His hands came up, palms my way, fending off logic.

“Kid, you mean the world to me.”

End of the Thread

He developed congestive heart failure. There’d been an event of some kind; he’d been in the hospital but was back in his apartment with a 24-hour nurse. I called and arranged to stop by.

The apartment was nice but messy—a suitcase by the door, books lying around, pictures of Polly and Josh and the little house in Oyster Bay a friend had lent Morty for years and which he couldn’t take care of anymore.

He’d only been home a couple of days, but I could see the nurse was already in the palm of his hand. She had a warm face, and they were laughing when I walked in. He was wearing pajamas.

“Morty, what the hell happened? You look good, but how are you feeling?”

“Ah, kid, just some bad luck. I feel O.K., and they’re getting the medicine straightened out. It’s just a little setback. I’ll be back in no time.”

“Well, you’ve got to take it easy and rest until you’re stronger. No point in rushing things.”

“Kid, listen, I’ve got a lot to do. I need to get the business stable and get Josh more involved. He’s my big project now. I can’t do it lying around here. I need to get back.”

I caught the nurse’s eye and got the same sad smile people in her line give all the time. We talked a few more minutes. The nurse had to take him into the other room. I said I ought to move along but would stop by again soon.

“Couple of weeks I’ll be back in the shop. Kid, listen, I figure I have 10 more good years in me. But I’m going to need a little help.”

After he died there was a memorial drinks party at the Knickerbocker Club. It looked like every swell in town was there. Wonderful suit after wonderful suit. Four of us who knew we’d been his special buddies and figured he’d hit us all up for money started comparing notes, doing the sums. When we hit two hundred grand, one of us just said, “Fuck it, let’s have a drink. We loved the son of a bitch.”

Scott Asen is a private investor and the founder and president of Turtle Bay Records, a New York–based jazz music label