SCHENECTADY — By the time he graduated from Union College in 1848, Chester Alan Arthur, a tall and lumpish country boy from Vermont, had been transformed.
The hick had become an urban dandy who fretted about the cut of his green gabardine suit, the angle of his black top hat and the drape of his watch fob.
Whether it was the influence of his fraternity brothers at Psi Upsilon or fellow members of the debating society Delphian Institute, Arthur left Union with the affectation and refinement that later earned him the nickname “The Dude President.”
As an exhibit about its most famous alumnus displayed in the Nott Memorial on campus makes clear, the overlooked and lightly regarded 21st president of the United States had few peers in the White House when it came to matters of fashion and lavish entertainments.
Perhaps the first sign of Arthur's future dudish ways were his extravagant muttonchops — the size of apple turnovers — that he cultivated along with a full mustache at Union.
A classmate recalled Arthur as “genial and very sociable” at Union, though “not a very diligent student.”
“Chester Alan Arthur: The Elegant President” exhibit was assembled by Rachel Seligman, curator of the college's permanent collection. The idea came from political science professor emeritus James Underwood, who served as interim president until Stephen Ainlay assumed the duties as Union's 18th president earlier this year.
The exhibit draws upon the college's extensive archives on Arthur, including letters, photographs, political cartoons and some objects.
The most substantial item on display is a walnut desk with leather top that Arthur used when he was quartermaster general of New York state during the Civil War. Hidden slotted side compartments held a few cases of wine, according to lore.
“He loved the pleasures of the table,” recounted Arthur's friend Silas Burt, “and could carry a great deal of wine and liquor without any manifest effect other than greater variety of speech.”
There is no record of how much Arthur imbibed while in college, but some of his behavior suggests an undergraduate tippler.
One of the items displayed is a framed piece of a wooden sill on which C.A. Arthur carved his initials with a stencil's precision and a sharp penknife in Room 25 of the North College Dormitory where he stayed.
There are accounts in the college archives noting other minor infractions, according to Seligman, as well as suggestions of his affinity for gourmet food, cigars, billiards and fine liquor.
After graduating from Union, Arthur practiced law in New York City and became known for his support of equal rights for blacks. With a boost from Republican boss Roscoe Conkling, Arthur was appointed collector of the Port of New York in 1871 by President Ulysses S. Grant. Arthur controlled the considerable patronage at the Customs House for seven years.
In the 1880 presidential election, Arthur was elected vice president on the Republican ticket with James A. Garfield, who was later assassinated. Arthur was sworn in as the 21st president in 1881.
“I don't think he liked being president, and he wasn't particularly well-suited to the job,” Seligman said.
An assistant in the White House said of Arthur: “He'd never do today what he could put off until tomorrow.”
Biographers described a lax work ethic, in which President Arthur arrived late, enjoyed long lunches and regularly took three-day weekends.
And yet his reputation as a fashion plate was never sullied.
Gore Vidal described Arthur as “the most fastidious and fashionable president.”
Chet, as his close friends called him, reportedly kept more than 80 pairs of trousers in his wardrobe and changed pants several times a day.
Arthur learned the ways of high society from his wife, Ellen “Nell” Lewis Herndon, who came from a prominent family. The couple's parties in their Lexington Avenue townhouse in Manhattan were legendary.
Thomas Nast and other political cartoonists had a field day with Arthur. They lampooned him in Puck and Harper's Weekly as “the original political dude” and once dressed the president in drag for a panel titled “The Contest of Beauty.”
After he took up residence at the White House, Arthur commissioned lavish renovations from Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Arthur was interred at Albany Rural Cemetery in Menands, where a large, black sarcophagus was installed in 1889. The monument is flanked by a life-size bronze figure of the angel of sorrow holding a palm branch in her hand.