(This is a snippet of the book I’m currently working on, a history of Seinfeld that will be released next year by Simon & Schuster.)
John O’Hurley was hosting the game show To Tell the Truth in 2001, a perfect use of his blend of glittery charm and smooth authority, and invited his Seinfeld character’s inspiration, John Peterman, on as a celebrity guest. On the show, Peterman and two “liars” would try to convince the players that they were the real J. Peterman. This process did not acknowledge the confusing mess Seinfeld had made of the word “real.”
As Peterman remembers it, when the taping ended, he joined O’Hurley at the actor’s house for dinner. As the two public faces of J. Peterman stood in the backyard at the firepit, overlooking the San Fernando Valley, Peterman and O’Hurley discussed the massive public failure that had befallen the clothing company in the three years since Seinfeld ended.
After hitting a sales peak of $75 million and opening retail locations across the United States, J. Peterman had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 1999 and was purchased by the Paul Harris Co. Peterman attributed the failure to pursuing too much expansion—a chain of stores, expanded catalog offerings, $198 reproductions of the necklace in Titanic. One of the final pieces of catalog copy written for the company but never published said everything: “As my boat sank into the Sambezi I watched all my luggage float downstream over Victoria Falls. But the day wasn’t a total loss. The trek back to the hotel gave me time to think about things. How much does a man need, really?”
Because of the company’s Seinfeld-fueled fame, its disintegration attracted more press than another company of its size would. Hundreds of newspapers and magazines chronicled its bankruptcy proceedings and the Kentucky office’s closing. The Harvard Business Review published a thorough case study on the company’s rise and fall. In The New Yorker, a humor piece imagined used office equipment being sold via Peterman-esque dramatic vignettes. “Is it possible to love a water cooler? Somewhere it is 1947. The country is back to work. The war is over. The ‘boys’ are home. Everyone’s wearing hats, even children. People eat lunch at Automats. Things are ‘Martinized.’ Cars are huge. Gravy is put on everything. And water coolers. Down at the end of the hall. In every office in America. Big, blue-green glass pottles holding clean, cold, crisp water. And by its side a long metal tube dispensing delicate conical paper cups so small you have to fill one six or eight times for a satisfying drink. No matter. We’ve found one exactly like those old ones. Only in plastic. And empty. But you can fill it. How, we don’t know. But good luck to you. Price: $450.”
Peterman began drafting plans to launch a new Internet venture using the name “John Peterman,” which was still legally his. But Paul Harris Co. itself went bankrupt a year later, and Peterman now had the chance to buy his own company back—if he got enough investors.
“We’re putting the company back together,” Peterman told O’Hurley as they stood in the actor’s backyard. “Do you want to invest?”
Thanks to O’Hurley’s investment, Peterman continued to sell huaraches, paille-maille dresses, and the like. (“Soft leather Mexican huaraches comforting your delicate feet through Japan’s greatest garden on a sun-drenched breezy afternoon. Glorious.”) He kept things simpler this time: catalog and online only, sales of about $20 million.