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Au Revoir, Georges de Paris

It would take a better writer than me, but there's a great novel to be written based on the life of Georges de Paris, who died of brain cancer Sunday at the age of 81 in an Arlington, Va. hospice.
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It would take a better writer than me, but there's a great novel to be written based on the life of Georges de Paris, who died of brain cancer Sunday at the age of 81 in an Arlington, Va. hospice.

Consider this: de Paris, a French tailor from Marseilles, came to Washington in 1970 to work for a woman tailor he contacted after reading about her in a Paris magazine. They get engaged and he puts the $4,000 in francs hidden in his sock in a joint account.

But when he said he didn't want to marry her, she refused to return the money and he was forced to sleep in a park near the White House and bathe in the Potomac River. He got a job as a cutter for a local clothing store and then opened his own tailor shop. One of his customers is a Louisiana congressman who introduced him to Vice President Lyndon Johnson, whose suits he altered.

When LBJ became president after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, de Paris made two suits for him. "He was very nice, he introduced me to his wife and daughters and gave me good tips," de Paris recalled in heavily accented English when I interviewed him in 2003 in his two-room shop near the White House.

Bush was the latest president the dimunitive tailor with the flowing silver-gray hair had taken the measure of - Barack Obama would be the last -- making him a household name at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and earning him the title of America's First Tailor.

De Paris, who became an American citizen in 1969, met Bush while altering slacks for his father, George H. W. Bush. Shortly after the younger Bush was declared winner of the contested 2000 election, de Paris received a call from the White House. "They said, 'Bring a photo ID and come to the East Gate,'" he explained. "Then somebody came and said, 'Zhorgh, come into the residence.'"

Working on a crash basis and with only two fittings, de Paris delivered the elegant dark blue cashmere wool suit Bush wore during his Inauguration in January 2001, and during his nationally broadcast speech to a joint session of Congress a few weeks later. The skilled tailor's craftsmanship and elegant needlework were also evident when Bush addressed the nation after 9/11 and in many other public appearances.

Sometimes, President Bush even acted as de Paris's agent. In 2002, he told Rep. Jim Ramstad (R) of Minnesota during a meeting at the White House that he "should see my tailor, who works around the corner." Ramstad did and bought a dark blue cashmere suit, which drew compliments from colleagues on the House floor.

de Paris found some presidents were easier to work with than others. The socially awkward Richard Nixon, he recalled, "was very friendly. He always asked me for news of my family and whether I liked the United States." Gerald Ford teased him about his small size and asked "whether I played on an American football team."

But Jimmy Carter was all business and "never said anything," while Ronald Reagan was positively loquacious as de Paris measured and fitted him under the watchful eyes of the Secret Service. "Reagan spoke a lot," he recalled. "Like George W., he knew how to appreciate the quality of fabrics. He gave me jellybeans and was always afraid that I would prick him with my needles during the fitting."

And while the first President Bush was reserved and "not the most agreeable," it was Bill Clinton whom de Paris remembers with Gallic disdain. "Clinton was very demanding, cold and always occupied," he said. "He was unaware of me completely."

de Paris, who never married and lived in an apartment on Pennsylvania Avenue eight blocks from the White House, often worked late into the evening until about a month ago with his assistant, Armenian-American Nubar Sahaykan, now 87, making the custom-made suits that cost between $2,000 and $3,000.

Memories of his grim early years in Washington were forgotten when de Paris pointed to a photograph prominently displayed in his shop. Taken in the White House in 2001, it showed a smiling Bush with one arm around his silver-haired friend and the other flashing a 'V for victory' sign.

The photo is signed, "To Georges, the ticket in 04? Best always, George Bush."