The Country Club

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As the suburbs expanded in the 1920s, country clubs came to serve more and more as the social centers of their communities. Not only were the big coming-out parties and wedding receptions held there more frequently, but the clubs began to organize regular dances, teas, and young people’s parties to attract their members beyond the usual sports facilities. This, of course, reinforced the tendencies of clubs to stick to one ethnic and income level. If one’s children were more and more likely to find mates at the country club, it became ever more important to make sure that the possibilities were from the “right” families.

At the same time that the social functions of country clubs began to enlarge in the 1920s, the clubs began to have a serious impact on American literature. John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra and Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt , whose plots revolved around country-club-dominated small-town societies, were published around this time. In later decades J. P. Marquand (whose father had been a founding member of The Country Club in Brookline) wrote Point of No Return and Louis Auchincloss wrote The Embezzler . Dozens, probably hundreds, of lesser works made use of the country club to delineate the American social landscape of the upper and middle classes.

By 1929 there were fully forty-five hundred country clubs in the United States. But the Great Depression devastated the membership rolls, and the Second World War greatly reduced the work force available for the very labor-intensive maintenance of club facilities. The number of country clubs fell by half in those years and did not again reach the 1929 figure until the 1970s. But the number at least began to rise immediately after the war, as the suburbanization of America began in earnest. By the early 1960s there were thirty-three hundred clubs with a total of 1.7 million members. The ethnic and class distinctions established in the early history of the country club, however, have largely persisted, even as barrier after barrier in other areas of American life fell.

Springfield, Massachusetts, for instance, has long had four country clubs. The Longmeadow Country Club is the most prestigious, and its membership is mostly WASP. The Springfield Country Club is predominantly wealthy Irish Catholic, the Crest View Country Club is exclusively Jewish, while the Ludlow Country Club caters to the lower middle class.

Many clubs exhibit the stereotypical characteristics of the class and ethnic group they cater to. Old-line WASP clubs are often as genteelly shabby as they are comfortable (and wouldn’t be caught dead in Architectural Digest ), while clubs catering to newer money are often professionally decorated to the nines. Club managers will tell you that they can tell if an establishment is Jewish or WASP simply by looking at the house accounts. At the former far more food than liquor is consumed; at the latter it’s the other way around.

The Depression devastated club membership rolls, and World War II greatly reduced the work force available for the maintenance of club facilities.

Two new types of country club started after the war. Proprietary clubs are profit-making businesses, and company clubs are owned by companies and often limited to their employees. By the early 1960s there were more than two hundred proprietary clubs, including such well-known ones as the Tarn O’Shanter Country Club near Chicago, owned by George S. May. Probably the largest company club is the Du Pont Country Club in Wilmington, Delaware.

Also in the 1960s country clubs catering to blacks appeared, first in North Carolina. Blacks, of course, suffered from discrimination even more than Jews and for most of America’s history lacked the disposable money needed to aspire to country-club membership. Despite the end of official segregation, the rapidly growing black middle class of recent years has found little welcome. At the Chevy Chase Country Club, near Washington, D.C., discrimination reached such an absurd level that black foreign diplomats were welcome but black Americans most decidedly were not.

There are signs that the situation is slowly changing as the twentieth century draws to a close. Some clubs, notably the Mill River Club on Long Island, have adopted a policy of fifty-fifty quotas for Jews and Gentiles. And some states and municipalities have begun to exert pressure for change, often by exploiting the Achilles’ heel of every country club: property taxes. In 1986 the Burning Tree Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, lost a $186,000-a-year no-development exemption because of discrimination against women.