Charlie Davidson

Obituary: Charlie Davidson, Andover Shop’s ‘Baron of Bespoke’

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By Bryan Marquard

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (Boston Globe) — What you sense about what you wear can be more important than what others see, Charlie Davidson believed.

“The lining is the most important thing,” the longtime Andover Shop proprietor told John Spooner when the investment adviser celebrated publishing his first book by ordering his first custom-made suit.

“But nobody will see the lining,” Spooner countered.

“Ahhh, that’s the point,” Davidson replied. “No one has to see the lining. But you’ll know it’s there. Style, not fashion. Remember that.”

Davidson, who was 93 when he died December 2 in his Cambridge home, was more than just a Harvard Square institution, quietly holding court while selling menswear in his legendary Holyoke Street store.

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He also dispensed wisdom — choice metaphors on how to live a refined life that he cloaked in the finery of men’s clothing advice.

For some seven decades, first at the shop’s original Andover location, then memorably in Harvard Square, he garbed an array of customers — some of whom became lifelong friends, especially if they were writers or jazz musicians.

Miles Davis and Chet Baker set down their trumpets to let Davidson improvise an outfit. Ralph Ellison became so close that the Invisible Man author wrote long letters to Davidson that are included in a just-published collection.

George Frazier, the late Boston Globe and Boston Herald columnist, used the Spanish word duende to confer an ineffable aura of class on people, places, and things he admired — among them his friend Davidson and the Andover Shop.

And the late Globe sports columnist Bud Collins, who sought Mr. Davidson’s assistance to create the unforgettably loud pants he wore to elite tennis tournaments, put a dazzling backspin on every compliment.

At various times, Collins wrote that Davidson was an “inimitable sartor,” the “maestro of Andoverian garb,” “the Baron of Bespoke.”

Topics: Obituary

As precise with a phrase as he was crafting suits, Davidson repaid such accolades.

“Jazz musicians always know the melody. But they never play the melody. They’re always playing the improvisation. It’s different every time,” he once said while discussing Frazier’s writing. “George is like that. People keep searching for the melody, but there is no melody. George was always playing the improvisation.”

To longtime customers-turned-friends such as Spooner, Davidson’s mere presence turned the Andover Shop into a sanctuary.

“He ran a club,” Spooner said. “It was a club, not a store.”

And not everyone who passed through the door became a member.

“Money meant nothing to him, really. It was style,” Spooner said.

If Davidson sensed he was dealing with someone with whom he didn’t care to form a proprietor-customer relationship, he would “finally tell the person who came into the store, ‘You know, I don’t think we have anything for you,’ ” Spooner said.

That didn’t stop anyone from trying to become one of Davidson’s clients. Once admitted to his circle, they stayed.

Word got around. Even New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell could name-drop  Davidson and know his reputation would strike a responsive chord.

“He was known all over the world. He was global,” said former Globe columnist and editor Sam Allis, who was 10 when he first met Davidson. “He’d send swatches to somebody in London about making a jacket. People would come from Europe. Everybody knew him.”

When Henry Louis Gates Jr. hosted the acclaimed PBS series “The African Americans,” Davidson’s wares merited a production credit for the Harvard professor’s wardrobe.

Jazz pianist Bobby Short once told the Globe that the Holyoke Street store was one only of three places in the world where he purchased his clothes (the other two were in London and New York City).

“As a matter of fact,” Short told the Globe in 1967, “Charlie Davidson at the Andover Shop is working up some new things for me right now.”

Born in Lawrence in 1926, Davidson was of Armenian descent. His father, Leon Davidson, was an entrepreneur who had co-owned the Andover Country Club. His mother, Agnes Ohanian, was “the most amazing cook and mother and housewife,” said Davidson’s daughter Casey Farley of Newport, R.I.

The second-oldest of four siblings, Davidson graduated from Andover High School and served as a gunner in the Army Air Forces in the Pacific at the end of World War II. He brought a dry wit to many stories, including about his military service.

“I asked him recently, ‘Wasn’t it dangerous?’ And he said, ‘Only if you got hit,’ ” Casey recalled.

After the war, he briefly attended Bowdoin College in Maine.

“He always said he never met a test he could pass,” Casey said. “But he was an incredible reader. He just loved knowing things and reading things — anything.”

Davidson initially ran the first Andover Shop in an Andover building his father owned. That store opened in 1948, and Davidson’s renown grew when he began running the Harvard Square shop, which opened a few years later.

As decades passed, he became “the last of a certain breed of American haberdasher from an age more golden than ours,” Christian Chensvold wrote in a 2012 essay for The Rake.

“Having a business like the Andover Shop meant I never once felt like I was going to work,” Davidson said in an e-mail to the Globe last year, when he sold his business.

Davidson was married twice — first to Elisabeth Kurth, with whom he had three daughters, and then to Terry Haller, with whom he had one daughter. Both marriages ended in divorce.

In 1993, Davidson and Joyce Comfort became companions, while keeping their separate homes — he in Cambridge, she in Nahant. They had known each other since 1960.

“He could make you feel like you were the most special person in the world,” she said by phone from his Cambridge residence, where she helped care for him during his time in hospice.

In addition to Casey and Joyce, Davidson leaves his three daughters from his first marriage, Stephanie Nicoll of Derry, N.H., Elisabeth of Andover, and Christine Anderson of Georgetown; a brother, John of Atkinson, N.H.; a sister, Rosemary Flynn of Brenham, Texas; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Family and friends celebrated Davidson’s life on Sunday, December 15 during an open house in his apartment at 19 Garden St. in Cambridge.

Along with Baker and Davis, Gates and Short, Collins and Frazier, he dressed the likes of Albert Murray, the novelist and critic, and George Wein, who founded the Newport Jazz Festival – a regular stop for Davidson, who kept a home in Newport, R.I., for many years.

In the early 1960s, surgery for cancer of the larynx meant the loss of vocal cords, and that his voice was soft.

“That could have been a huge disability to someone who wasn’t as strong as him,” Casey said. “Part of the intimacy of knowing Charlie was you had to get close to hear him. And he loved to talk, so he never stopped talking.”

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