Art is supposed to imitate life; when life imitates art, things get weird.
This week, the real J. Peterman catalog company announced that it would finally produce the most infamous product of their fictional counterpart, the fake J. Peterman company, depicted on the sitcom “Seinfeld.”
Yes, the Urban Sombrero, as “invented” on the show by Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), will finally exist in the real world — offered as an exclusive reward in the company’s newly launched Kickstarter campaign.
How did this come about? A quantum entanglement between real and unreal that began when “Seinfeld” started sending up J. Peterman in the late ’90s. The company, whose gloriously overwritten, illustrated catalog was once a cultural staple, was an easy target. Its conceit was that each item was a copy of a vintage piece the real Peterman had found on his international travels, and each listing came with a Hemingway-esque back story.
From a blurb for a turtleneck dress: “Alexandra the Great annexes the top floor of the Cristallo Palace Hotel, prompting Hans-Rudi to cancel a week’s worth of ski lessons.” A caftan: “Her house in Bangkok was enclosed by high walls. Her guards were clearly armed.” On “Seinfeld,” actor John O’Hurley perfectly nailed the fictional founder, bringing to the role his stentorian tones, silvery hair, and unabashed bathos.
Not long after O’Hurley started playing J. Peterman, he met the real John Peterman on a morning talk show. The two Johns could not be more different. O’Hurley was an effusing Broadway veteran, born in Maine and raised in Natick. Peterman was a former minor-league baseball player from Kentucky. But the men formed an odd bond.
“He and I are the closest of friends,” O’Hurley said Tuesday by phone from his home in California. Peterman, he says, is exactly as you’d imagine him, the kind of guy who would travel to South America by cargo steamer and play cards with the sailors on the way.
“He is one of the most interesting people you’ve ever talked to,” O’Hurley said. “Everything is true. He’s as authentic as they come.”
O’Hurley became famous as Peterman, and J. Peterman became famous as the company from “Seinfeld.” Not long after the show ended in 1998, though, J. Peterman went bankrupt and the brand was sold. In 2001, O’Hurley received a call from Peterman himself.
“He said, ‘Let’s put the company back together,” O’Hurley recalled. The actor helped round up investors to buy back the J. Peterman name, and today he and Peterman are co-owners. “I liked the role so much I bought the company,” he jokes.
Since then, J. Peterman has done business mostly online. Over the years, O’Hurley has badgered his business partner to produce some of the gag items from “Seinfeld” — most of all the Urban Sombrero, a monstrosity that in one episode causes the fictional Peterman to recoil in horror.
It wasn’t until they decided to experiment with Kickstarter that the real Peterman relented. The two hope the Kickstarter campaign will allow the financial freedom to follow their whims, letting customers vote for products with their dollars rather than having to answer to investors.
“Authenticity” is a word O’Hurley uses often, though he concedes it’s hard to claim authenticity when you’re selling a sombrero that only ever existed on a TV show.
“It’s a replica of a really, really good sight gag,” he said. Nonetheless, the real-world Urban Sombrero will be produced the Peterman way: In a limited edition of 500, available to backers who pledge $275 or more, fashioned in Mexico by a hatmaker who made a sombrero for the pope. Now that’s a back story.
S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.