- Historic Sites
The Country Club
For a century now it has been a haven to some, an outrage to others—and it is one of the very few social institutions that have survived their founders’ world
September/October 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 6
In the early days of the Republic, anti-Semitism had been virtually unknown (the word itself entered the English language only in 1881). August Belmont arrived from Germany in the 1830s, made a fortune on Wall Street, married Caroline Perry of the distinguished naval family, and lived the rest of his life in New York’s highest social circle. (To be sure, Belmont converted to Christianity.) New York’s Union Club, the most prestigious in the country by the 1880s, had had numerous Jewish founding members fifty years earlier.
But after the Civil War, as Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe swelled, anti-Semitism began to flourish, and the separation of Jew and Gentile in American society began. When Jesse Seligman, a wealthy banker and one of the founders of New York’s Union League Club, put up his son for membership, the son was turned down because he was a Jew. Seligman, dumbstruck, immediately resigned. The club, with marvelous perversity, refused to accept his resignation (its position was that it wanted no more Jewish members but was happy to have those who were already members). It kept Seligman on its rolls for the rest of his life, although, needless to say, he never set foot in the place again.
This new reality characterized country clubs from the beginning. Denied access to the WASP clubs, Jews decided to form their own. Although institutionalized anti-Semitism began to break up in this country after the Second World War and is now mostly just an unhappy memory, country clubs have largely retained their ethnic characteristics.
Some country clubs had very specialized memberships. Others were more diverse and huge—and about as exclusive as a train station.
In 1962 the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith surveyed 803 country clubs and found 224 to be nondiscriminatory. Of the 505 clubs that were predominantly Christian, 416 had no Jews at all and 89 had quota systems. Of the 74 predominantly Jewish clubs, 71 were exclusively Jewish and 3 had quotas. In the thirty years since that survey, the situation is only beginning to change.
With the Great War and the prosperous 1920s, disposable income began to spread down the social scale. Did the WASPs let these newly affluent, and usually Christian, citizens into their country clubs? They did not.
Clubs, let’s be honest about it, almost always have two purposes, especially those that are limited by their nature to people of means. One is to provide the membership with facilities, services, and a convivial setting for their activities. The second is to distinguish those who are in from those who are out. As more and more people wanted to join the old clubs, there was more and more prestige to be gained by not letting them. So these groups, too, formed their own clubs, and even relatively small American cities often had half a dozen country clubs by the end of the 1920s, each catering to a different membership distinguished by both income and ethnic background.
Some clubs had very specialized memberships. In the 1920s the Mount Prospect Country Club near Chicago was favored by that city’s gangsters, and neighbors joked, quietly, one supposes, about the annual “Mafia Open” held on the club’s golf course. Others were much more diverse, and some were huge and about as exclusive as a train station. Chicago’s Olympia Fields Country Club owned 692 acres, featured seventy-two holes of golf, sixty homes, its own fire department, two thousand caddies, dining facilities that could feed fourteen hundred people, and even an outdoor dancing pavilion. “You weren’t a member at Olympia Fields,” one observer noted, “you were a citizen.”
In California the very prestigious Los Angeles Country Club did not admit Jews or show-business types, limiting itself instead to what its members, oblivious of the oxymoron, considered “old Los Angeles.” Hollywood moguls were more likely to belong to the Hillcrest Country Club. The comedian David Steinberg noted that Hillcrest “is a little like an inverted New York Athletic Club: there is no discrimination, but it sure helps if you’re Jewish and a comedian.” Even Groucho Marx belonged, despite his famous, and probably apocryphal, crack that he wouldn’t want to be a member of any club willing to have him as a member. (When one club offered to waive its no-Jews rule for Groucho, provided he abstained from using the swimming pool, he remarked, “My daughter’s only half Jewish, can she wade in up to her knees?”)
Outwardly the Hillcrest Country Club looks much like any other country club, but inside, its atmosphere is unique. It is housed, David Steinberg explained, in a “graceful colonial building that belies the atmosphere inside, which is more Stage Deli than Burning Tree.” Show business is everyone’s business at Hillcrest. “If Solzhenitsyn and Laverne and Shirley reach the maître d’ at the same time,” one member said a few years ago,” Al waits.” The food is superb. Milton Berle, a long-time member, described Hillcrest as “a dining club with golf.”