NEWARK, N.J. — J. Wesley Tann spent much of his life traveling the world, gallivanting among the most fashionable sets and cavorting with the elite.
He was one of the first black fashion designers to open a shop on New York City’s Fashion Avenue, and he designed clothing for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Leontyne Price, the famed black opera singer.
But on a misty Saturday afternoon recently, Tann, 83, was deep in the belly of the Boyland Recreation Center in Newark’s tough West Ward teaching the finer points of dining and social etiquette to the children of this hardscrabble city.
“Good living is easy,” Tann proclaimed. “All it takes is practice.”
Tann’s students were mothers, fathers and children all taking part in a city-sponsored program that Mayor Corey A. Booker hopes will take politeness and manners from “abstract concepts” to daily essentials. The city hopes that by improving the niceties shared among Newark’s residents the quality of their lives and their futures will be markedly improved — one fine meal and one properly executed place setting at a time.
“I just feel that black and Hispanic children need to have an even playing field when it comes to the social kinds of programming that they get,” said Catherine J. Lenix-Hooker, manager of the city’s department of recreation and cultural affairs, “so that they are able to have the kinds of social skills that make them very productive and at ease in different kinds of social situations.”
Youth from Newark often bear heavy burden of being poor or working class, she said, or the bad reputation that can hang over even this city’s most promising young people. Thus the importance of “learning the language of the silver.”
“Our youth need to know how to conduct themselves in a public setting — some of the dos and don’ts,” Lenix-Hooker said. “If everything else is equal, it will help them break through these barriers.”
The city is offering a number of classes that it hopes will introduce residents to things “globally understood as the niceties,” including tennis and golf, and the nuance of manners. The goal is to break down the degrees of separation between Newark’s youth and the more affluent youth who might have greater access those things simply by virtue of environment or familial connections.
The city has managed to squeeze out such programming even as budget woes have hobbled most agencies and programs, including the police department, which laid-off more than 150 officers earlier this year.
At the rec center, Tann, a gray-haired and bespectacled man in a navy blue, double-breasted sport coat with gold buttons and khaki slacks, held court over his students.
He hovered over nearly two-dozen eager pupils sitting at tables draped in white cloth and topped with fine flatware, placed precisely an inch from the table’s edge. Servers delivered meals prepared by an award-wining chef who worked his magic behind a black curtain, emerging to announce each course.
Tann told folks to step into a chair from the right after it had been pulled out in order to avoid collisions with others being seated. Take a fork in your left hand, a knife in your right, and take small enough bites to avoid unsightly mouthfuls of food while trying to respond to another diner’s quick-witted quip or question.
Tann glided from person to person and table to table, urging the ladies in the room to learn to expect that chairs should be pulled out for them.
“Go home to your husband, your daddy or your partner and let them know that you are civilized!” he said.
As for hors d’oeurves, take one at a time. “They’re not going anywhere; there will be more,” Tann said. “Please don’t embarrass me — just take one.”
Katrina Anderson, 15, was there with her mother and 13-year-old cousin. She took the class last year but was boning up on her etiquette for an upcoming trip this summer to Europe, including visits to France, England, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
“I hope to just get better acquainted with the art of fine dining,” said Anderson, a high school sophomore, a few minutes before the class began. “I want to impress them,” she said of her host families abroad this summer. “I don’t want to look nasty when I’m eating.”
“It’s going to develop and round her out quite well,” said Thomasina Anderson, Katrina’s mother. “When she goes to different settings she’ll be aware or conscious of how to interact with others on a quote-un-quote acceptable level.”
Sunshine Hall, 10, was also there, with her mother and older sister. Her cuteness belied her normal mealtime sloppiness.
“Usually I just like, throw stuff around,” she said of her dining habits. “I don’t even care about it a lot, but now I see that table manners and things like that are very important in life, now I understand that.”
Students, some awkwardly at first, did take to Tann’s rules. Soon it seemed the group had gathered for a high-society brunch at the Four Seasons (or at least the Holiday Inn), not in one of Newark’s six humble recreation centers.
Tann said he wasn’t always a refined gentleman, admitting that as a boy he once had the unseemly habit of eating bacon with his fingers. That habit ended when he was 13: His mother died and he left the little town of Rich Square, N.C., for Washington, D.C. to live with a family friend, the Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. His first meal in D.C. was in the Congressional dining room, he said.
“My etiquette was poor,” he conceded. “One does not eat bacon with one’s fingers in the congressional dining room.” The late congressman set out to break the young Tann of his bad habits and sent him directly from breakfast to the International School of Protocol and Etiquette.
The years that followed were filled with ritzy affairs and fine dining (there’s a difference, Tann says, between dining and simply eating) with Powell and then-wife Hazel Scott, the famed pianist and singer, and such guests at the Powell home as Paul Robeson, Billy Eckstine and Duke Ellington.
What became of the young boy with bad manners from the hiccup of a town in the Deep South, is something Tann credits to hard work, but also “the black and white elite that I grew up with.”
Tann has long since traded the lush life for a life of giving. He said with the world becoming much smaller and economies and industries overlapping all across the globe, he hopes to give people a shot at communicating in the internationally understood language of manners.
Tann said the pointers and tips he offers students are more than just helpful at a dinner table in a fancy restaurant here or abroad. They are also helpful in the sometimes hard-knocks communities where his students live.
“I think number one, its one word: respect,” he said.
“Its respect for life in itself. If you have respect at the dining table you will have respect on the street. Our young boys and girls walk the street with no idea of what is right and wrong as far as etiquette is concerned, or respect for each other.”