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Winter 1992
City Journal Winter 1992.
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A Tour of New York's Clubland
Anthony Lejeune
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The convenient thing about New York, Bertie Wooster said in the very first of P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Bertie stories, is that it’s right there when you get off the boat. I belong to a generation which, regrettably, never sees the towers of Manhattan and the Empire State Building come up over the horizon. Landing at Kennedy just isn’t the same thing. But I quickly renew my taste for American things—Coca-Cola, the scent of roasting hot dogs and chestnuts at the street corners, even American television. It’s comforting, however, to have bolt holes in New York where an Englishman can feel more at home. The gentlemen’s clubs of Manhattan, with which the clubs of Pall Mall and St. James’s Street mostly have reciprocal arrangements, offer just such friendly comfort.

Although I’ve never tried, I imagine you could get Coca-Cola in even the most old-fashioned of New York clubs, which is not true on the other side of the Atlantic. Indeed, two members of the Cavalry Club in London, after idly discussing that very question, decided to put it to the test. Summoning the wine waiter, they asked if there was any Coca-Cola in the club. Drawing himself up to his full six-foot-two, he replied freezingly: “For drinking purposes, sir?”

But, in general, New York clubs are very like London clubs. The founders of the Union Club in 1836 specified that it should be similar in its plans and regulations to the great clubs of London which give a tone and character to the society of the British metropolis.” Like their British originals, some of the older New York clubs evolved from groups of friends who met in coffee houses and taverns. But if the clubs of St. James’s Street are haunted by the ghosts of Regency bucks and dandies, the New York clubs always seem to me redolent of another period-the confident, firmly rooted, literate, polite society of Henry James and Edith Wharton. The members frequently speak in mid-Atlantic accents which have more in common with Ronald Colman than with modern Hollywood.

American clubs tend to be more luxuriously appointed than their British equivalents; the leather armchairs are less shabby. The portraits on the walls, being newer, are probably worse. The Century has traditionally welcomed artists. A director of the Metropolitan Museum, dining there as a guest, looked incredulously around and asked, “Just how bad an artist does one have to be to get into this club?”

American clubmen, typically, are very hospitable to their English guests. A visitor from London’s Garrick Club said he liked everything about the Players except that he could never get to bed, because the members kept pressing more drinks on him. Lunchtime is another matter. The Lotos Club may have been named, in 1870, after Tennyson’s Lotos-eaters, who came to a land “in which it seemed always afternoon,” but I have found myself alone in the Knickerbocker at two o’clock because everybody has rushed back to Wall Street.

The New York clubs are, in a way, more socially exclusive than the London clubs and stricter in their rules. These things are complex and subtle. A notoriously cantankerous aristocratic member of White’s complained in the nineteenth century that what he called “my tradesmen” were now being elected to the club—by which he meant bankers and lawyers. Bankers and lawyers have always been socially acceptable in New York (not all lawyers, of course), but Sumner Welles grumbled in the 1950s that “there’s no such thing as Club Society anymore. They can’t even keep in the men they used to keep out.”

At two of New York’s most charming clubs, the Brook and the Coffee House, members and their guests all sit—as they do at the Beefsteak and Pratt’s in London—round a single long table; they are not allowed to be unsociable. One old member of the Brook used to rise, silently but promptly, if someone he disliked sat down at the table, and would go off to complete his meal at a neighboring restaurant. “He’s had a great many Brook Club soups,” observed a fellow member, “but he’s never yet gotten to the demitasse.”

Nobody joins a New York or a London club for the gastronomy; what one clerical clubman called “the piece of cod which passeth all understanding” is all too common fare. Conversation is supposed to be the point. Or, rather, there are two conflicting points: refuge and company, which is why real clubmen need at least two clubs—one where they can hide grumpily behind a newspaper and another where they can talk.

The Coffee House was originally a breakaway from the Knickerbocker, founded in 1914 by a group of dissidents who were “fed up to the tops of their detachable Arrow collars with the Knickerbocker and its brass-buttoned flunkies, silver duck presses, and gold-plated table conversation.” Instead, they would have a small club. of members uninterested in “business or wealth or such things that business and wealth produced or implied.” Their inclination, like that of their successors today, was towards the literary and theatrical; an early membership list included such names as George Arliss, Robert Benchley, Douglas Fairbanks, Stephen Leacock, Cole Porter, Booth Tarkington, and P. G. Wodehouse. They hoped for warm, witty, welcoming company which would resemble Dr. Johnson’s Club in eighteenth-century London or the fabled New Yorker table at the Algonquin. Did they succeed? Present members, after a due—but brief—pause for modesty, would say so.

Somebody once said that a club should have only two rules: (1) that every member shall pay his subscription, and (2) that every member shall behave like a gentleman. The Coffee House has not achieved quite that degree of brevity—but almost. This is its entire constitution:

No Officers No Charge Accounts No Liveries No Tips No Set Speeches NO RULES

The Brook is a much grander club, physically and socially, than the Coffee House, but no less friendly. The name, taken from Tennyson’s poem, is supposed to mean that the club is always open and the conversation flows on forever. Neither is strictly true, which may be just as well. The bar, all polished wood, reminds me a little of Cheers. The barman is no Sam Malone, but everybody soon knows your name. The atmosphere of any club depends greatly on its servants, and the courtesy of an old-fashioned staff is particularly pleasing in New York, where the headwaiters in fashionable restaurants have been allowed—or so it strikes a visitor—to become extraordinarily autocratic and offhand.

Rising costs, staff problems, and changing patterns of urban life have affected both New York and London. Bar profits are falling because of the current wave of puritanism, which is bad news for club treasurers. One reason why ladies’ clubs have never really worked is that women do not drink or lunch seriously enough for the clubs’ financial well-being.

The woman problem has been wracking New York clubs and is being watched uneasily from across the Atlantic. In Boston a woman judge threatened not to renew the liquor license of one old-established club unless its rules were changed to admit women as members. The club, instead of swearing that its members would drink Perrier water until hell freezes over rather than be dictated to, meekly surrendered.

In New York, Local Law 63 says that if a private club has more than four hundred members, regularly serves meals, and accepts payment from members “in furtherance of trade or business,” it will be deemed “not distinctly private” but a “place of public accommodation” which “may not discriminate on the basis of race, sex, creed, color, national origin, or sexual preference.”

Some clubs, including the Coffee House and the Century, perhaps because their membership leans toward the artistic and intellectual, Bohemian characteristics, put up scarcely a token resistance. Others were made of sterner stuff. The Racquet Club, for example, sent a toughly worded letter to all its members. In order to keep the club out of the clutches of Local Law 63, the letter said,

you should not be reimbursed for dues or house account charges by any business with which you are involved. Business discussions of any kind, including business deals, must not take place anywhere in the building.

We feel that our existence as a private club is seriously threatened. If you do not feel that you can live with the spirit and letter of our rules, you should resign. If we discover that you are violating these rules, you may be expelled.

Some women had argued that exclusion from clubs adversely affected their careers in the professions, arts, and business. Of course, nearly all the women now being admitted to the clubs that formerly excluded them have already reached the height of their careers—without the help of club membership.

Most clubs now provide ample accommodation for women guests who, as the Union says firmly, being ladies, would not wish to intrude on those parts of the building reserved for men. Wives, widows, and daughters often have special privileges. The River Club is intentionally a family club, a delightful pied-a-terre in midtown Manhattan.

New York has almost as many clubs as London—clubs for the old upper-class, clubs for alumni of Ivy League colleges, clubs for actors, clubs for writers, predominantly sporting clubs, small intimate clubs like the Coffee House and the Leash architecturally magnificent clubs like the Metropolitan. Not so long ago they were featured heavily in movies, novels, and cartoons. Sophisticated heroes belonged to them. They were a point of social reference. If such sequences occur less often now (an exception is the admirable detective stories of Haughton Murphy, who is himself a member of the Century), the reason may be that club life and the social assumptions that accompany it have become unfashionable among the trendy young folk who control the media today.

This is no loss; the point about a club is that it should be private. Publicity is anathema. But the clubs themselves are still there, offering the quiet conviviality, the civilized manners, the refuge from uncongenial modernity that true clubmen seek. The surprising thing really is not that they have survived, but that there aren’t many more of them and that they are not more heavily used. Where else can a bachelor, a widower, or merely someone whose wife is engaged elsewhere, or a stranger in town—any solitary man who prefers not to eat and drink alone—go without embarrassment or prior arrangement to enjoy the company of his peers? Does any hotel now provide the simple amenity of a communal table, which every English coaching inn and every staging post on the Western trails used to supply? If so, I’ve never found it.

I met an elderly American in Brooks’s Club. He said that when he was in London, he always stayed at Brooks’s. When he was in Rome, he stayed at the Caccia. When he was in New York, he stayed at the Knickerbocker. Since he didn’t much care for today’s world, he hardly ever went outside and was therefore never quite sure what country he was in.

He and I, as I recognized immediately, were fellow citizens of the same country, where the climate is always warm and the natives are friendly—Clubland.

 

 


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