The Ca d'Zan collection of ties

An unexpected discovery yields timeless ties in John Ringling's wardrobe, a reminder of his enduring sense of style. In his honor, the Parisian fashion house that created the originals is reissuing five of the designs in fresh colors.

By Georgia Brown, Special to the St. Petersburg Times
Published November 11, 2007

SARASOTA - A man's tie can reveal his fashion sense, his stature - perhaps even what he had for lunch.

But in the case of John Ringling, the circus magnate and art collector who placed an indelible stamp on Florida, ties provide even more. Bold and expensive, they're an intimate look across the decades into a man who loved power, glamor and glitz.

Lost from view for more than 50 years, Ringling's ties also make for an intriguing tale, one that begins behind a lock with no key.

Restoring Ca d'Zan

After Ringling's death in 1936, the lavish French bedroom suite he brought to Ca d'Zan, his Sarasota mansion, sat largely undisturbed in all its brilliant ormolu glory. Meanwhile, the waterfront mansion was disintegrating from the sea air and a leaky roof.

Almost a half-century after Ringling died, preservationists and the government swung into action to save the place from quite literally falling into the bay.

Many objects of art, rugs, linens and personal belongings were carefully packed away during the $15-million renovation that started in 1995 and was completed in 2002.

In 1998, when it was time to refinish John and Mable Ringling's bedroom furniture, nobody could find the key to his locked dresser. The top had to be removed so a locksmith could forge a duplicate for the complex lock.

Everybody figured the chest would be empty, said Ron McCarty, the mansion curator. Everybody was wrong.

"Inside we found photos of John and Mable, silk socks and underwear, clean shirts folded around cardboard and secured with rust-covered pins, and many ties, including silk ties from Charvet the prestigious French menswear house and bow ties from Saks Fifth Avenue."

And what ties they are. Forget boring stripes. Ringling's ties fairly shout with vivid colors: deep purple with hot pink highlights, burnt sienna on cream, gunmetal with red accents. Spring green, pumpkin and gray circles dance like champagne bubbles on a creamy background. Art deco forms - some inspired by tropical foliage - were every bit as stylish and flamboyant as the man himself. The black-and-white photos museum staff had seen of Ringling in no way prepared them for these bold and cheeky Jazz Age designs.

Ringling revisited

McCarty knew he had stumbled into something wonderful in that old sock drawer.

"I realized these ties would broaden the image Americans have of John Ringling. He had learned the value of visual impressions from the circus and had developed a strong personal style. He always wore expensive suits and what we would call power ties today."

McCarty contacted Jean-Claude Colban who, with his sister, now owns Charvet, and sent him the ties. Then he went back to work on the restoration of Ca d'Zan.

Years later, while in Paris to deliver a Titian painting from the Ringling Museum of Art to the Musee du Luxembourg, McCarty visited Colban at the Charvet shop on the Place Vendome.

Colban carefully examined the ties again as McCarty watched. "We discussed John Ringling's love of luxurious fabrics, custom-made clothing and his extravagant European trips," McCarty recalled. Ringling's favorite? What he called his "bubble ties," the bold circle print he owned in many colors.

Turns out, Colban knew more about Ringling than just his taste in ties. Back when Colban was a young designer at Charvet (his family bought the business in 1963), he would chat with a senior employee who remembered the circus magnate's visits to the shop in the 1920s.

If Ringling liked an item, he would often order a dozen and have them shipped home to Sarasota. Now Colban held some of the same ties he heard about all those years ago.

After a few months, Colban called McCarty and said the firm had decided to honor Ringling and his taste by reissuing some of his ties. Colban chose five of the original necktie designs for the special collection, re-creating them in 10 contemporary colors.

Colban said part of the firm's decision had to do with Ringling's cultural legacy. His buying trips in the late 1920s drew attention to the art treasures the European aristocracy and impoverished churches were willing to sell for ready cash in the aftermath of World War I.

"Although (Ringling) was never able to shed his circus image at home, Europeans saw him as a knowledgeable art collector and wealthy businessman," McCarty said.

Timeless style

Ringling's fortune came initially from the family-owned circus business, but he began investing in oil leases and railroads while his brothers ran the circus. He became president of Madison Square Garden and sat on several boards where he rubbed elbows with the Astors and Vanderbilts. In Sarasota he began developing land and planning a Ritz-Carlton hotel. It was reported that he was worth $200-million, making him the 13th wealthiest man in America at the time.

John and Mable's European wanderings were initially trips to audition new circus acts, but as his wealth increased in the 1920s, they spent more time shopping to furnish their mansion.

By 1925 he had commissioned a design for his grand Italianate art museum and was becoming a sophisticated collector. He purchased fine paintings, marble columns, statuary, polished stone, roofing tiles and hand-carved doorways, often for bargain prices.

During the land boom of the 1920s, luminaries including New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, Gov. Al Smith, humorist Will Rogers, actress Billie Burke and Broadway producer Flo Ziegfeld flocked to visit the Ringlings. But soon, the entertainment world was speeding past the Ziegfeld Follies and the circus. Movie houses were springing up across the country. When Ringling's income declined, he stopped work at the partially built Ritz on Longboat Key and funneled all his funds into the museum.

Mable's death in 1929 devastated Ringling. He held a grand opening for his museum in 1930, but the Depression squeezed his investments, and federal agents came to Sarasota to investigate his tax returns. Then came a disastrous second marriage, divorce and a series of strokes. In the last year of Ringling's life, a court order forced the sale of his mansion. While in New York, he contracted pneumonia and died at the age of 70.

Through the newly expanded museum and restored mansion, John Ringling's legacy of grand design and grander art lives on in a big way. But up in his bedroom, the strips of silk that provide a more intimate glimpse into the man are safely tucked away. Visitors can see them in photographs; the ties themselves are too fragile to expose to constant light.

"There's no doubt John Ringling was 80 years ahead of his time," McCarty says, holding one of the ties. "The ties and this recognition from Charvet confirm his stature and good taste."

Georgia Brown is a Bradenton freelance writer who specializes in art, travel and equine sports.