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Appointment With O’Hara
What did the novelist want with a Delta Phi hatband?
By John W. Alexander Jr.

 

In John O’Hara’s 1949 novel A Rage To Live, one young woman asks another about a blue-and-black belt she is wearing. The woman explains that it is actually a Delta Phi hatband (from a straw hat) and asks: “Did you ever hear of Delta Phi?”

“What is it, some fraternity?”

“It’s the best fraternity at the University of Pennsylvania. Everybody says it’s the best.”

That quote, which was familiar to me and other members of the Eta Chapter of Delta Phi, led to my brief correspondence with John O’Hara and to a meeting with him.

In 1958, two years after I graduated from Penn, I became a member of the chapter’s graduate board. Two projects preoccupied us that year—the construction of a new chapter house at 3627 Locust Walk (where the chapter remains today) to replace the old one at 3453 Woodland Avenue (where it had been since 1899), and the upcoming 110th anniversary of the chapter’s founding at Penn in 1849, as the oldest fraternity on campus.

Someone suggested that a history of the chapter should be written —both to celebrate the anniversary and to ease the transition by reminding members of the numerous places the chapter had been located. Because I had been the editor-in-chief of The Daily Pennsylvanian and was unencumbered with a wife or family, I was chosen to write it.

I began my research by reading the chapter’s minute books and soliciting alumni for their reminiscences. It also occurred to me to find out where O’Hara got the idea for his character’s statement about Delta Phi. I had the impression that he was difficult to deal with, a prickly personality. Nevertheless, I looked up his address in Who’s Who and wrote a polite note.

Almost by return mail I received his reply, typed on blue notepaper with the logo—two or three straight lines above a wavy line—of LineBrook, his home in Princeton, New Jersey. O’Hara’s explanation was that, as a teenager in Pottsville, Pennsylvania (the Gibbsville of his fiction), he met Lawrance A. Brown W’22, Spade Man of the Class of 1922, who was working in the area.

At Penn, Brown had been a famous track star, holding several world records. He was later a member of the 1924 American Olympic Team and broke the 800-meter record at the Olympic trials. O’Hara said that Brown had told him that he should go to Penn and rush Delta Phi. Although O’Hara hadn’t gone to Penn—or any other college—Brown’s advice had stayed with him.

I relayed this information to Larry Brown, who was both surprised and gratified that O’Hara had remembered their conversation after 35 years and asked me to give O’Hara his regards. Having a correspondence with a famous author was a heady experience for me, so I wrote to O’Hara again, telling him that Larry Brown appreciated his recollection.

As before, O’Hara’s reply arrived promptly. He said that he was pleased that Brown had remembered their conversation because “he was an Olympic athlete, and I was just a high-school kid.” In my letter I had also asked his permission to quote from A Rage To Live in my history—to which O’Hara replied that I could, and in return should send him a Delta Phi hatband.

This posed a challenge, as straw hats were almost as rare in that era as they are today. I searched fruitlessly for a Delta Phi hatband throughout the spring of 1959.

Later in the season, I attended the wedding and very large, elaborate reception of a fellow member of Delta Phi in Wilmington, Delaware, that brought together many members of my era. While I was enjoying the occasion, a fraternity brother tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Mr. O’Hara wants to see you.” O’Hara, sitting at a table with his wife and several other people, greeted me sternly, demanding, “Where’s my Delta Phi hatband?”

I stammered that I had not been able to find one yet—but that I would keep trying. He smiled and said that he had enjoyed our correspondence. I told him how much I enjoyed his novels, particularly Appointment in Samarra, and added that I had recently read a collection of his plays, and had especially enjoyed The Farmer’s Hotel, which was about a couple—both married to other people—trapped by a snowstorm in a country hotel where they had had a rendezvous. O’Hara responded, “That’s actually an allegory about my father,” and seemed about to tell me more when his wife tugged on his coat to reclaim his attention and he shook my hand and sat down. I left, promising that the hatband would be forthcoming.

In the ensuing weeks I redoubled my efforts and finally was partially successful. The national office of Delta Phi located a length of hatband ribbon—black with three light-blue horizontal stripes. After meeting O’Hara I had decided that to make up for the delay in delivering the hatband I would deliver it attached to a straw hat. After studying his photographs on the jackets of several of his books, I purchased a Cavanaugh straw hat in what I thought would be the appropriate size. Then I cajoled my mother into turning the ribbon into a hatband and affixing it to the hat, using a straw hat of my father’s as a model. I shipped it to O’Hara, together with a copy of my history, which I entitled Eleven Times Ten since it covered the 110 years of the Eta Chapter’s existence.

In reply came my final letter from O’Hara. First, he said he had enjoyed the history, especially one episode in the 1890s in which two Delta Phi members were boxing, stripped to the waist. Since they were required to wear their fraternity pins at all times, they had pinned them into their flesh, where they became a target for their opponent’s blows. “That really must have hurt,” he wrote.

About the hat, he reported that while it had been the wrong size, he had taken it to Cavanaugh’s store in Manhattan and exchanged it. “I look forward to wearing it and being hailed by members of Delta Phi,” he added.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, O’Hara’s request for a Delta Phi hatband—and his alacrity in responding to my letters—were perhaps symptomatic of his lifelong insecurity about never having gone to college and his craving to be a part of the college scene, even vicariously. One critic has speculated that in later life that insecurity led O’Hara to seek admission to elite social clubs, even at the risk of being rebuffed, and to his preoccupation with “social minutiae”: “[W]hat prep schools served for lunch, how weddings and funerals were orchestrated, how real-estate deals were made, the social implications of a new hotel.”

Or he may have been interested in my history as possibly providing raw material for one of the massive novels he came to specialize in.

Then again, maybe he really did still revere Larry Brown’s status as an Olympic athlete—and wish he had heeded the advice Brown gave him so long ago, back in Pottsville.

After a career in advertising management, John W. Alexander Jr. C’56 finally has the time to do some writing on subjects of his own choosing.



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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 04/28/03

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