- Historic Sites
The Great Club Revolution
What with all this democracy things will never be the same
December 1954 | Volume 6, Issue 1
In 1936 in New York City there occured the 100th anniversary of the Union Club, oldest and most socially sacrosanct of New York’s gentlemen’s clubs. From all parts of this country and even from abroad there arrived, from lesser clubs, congratulatory messages, impressive gifts and particularly large offerings of floral tributes.At the actual anniversary banquet, however, as so often happens in gentlemen’s clubs, there was, despite the dignity of the occasion, the severe speeches and the general sentimental atmosphere, a little over-drinking. And one member over-drank a little more than a little. Shortly before dessert he decided he had had enough, at least of the food, and he disappeared. Furthermore, he did not reappear.
Worried, some friends of his decided, after the banquet, to conduct a search. The faithful doorman in the hooded hallporter’s chair gave the news that no gentleman of that description had passed out, or rather by, him, and the friends redoubled their efforts. High and low they combed the missing member’s favorite haunts—the bar, the lounge, the card room, the billiard room, the locker room, the steam room, etc. One even tried, on an off-chance, the library. There, as usual, there was nothing but a seniority list of the Union’s ten oldest living members and a huge sign reading “SILENCE.”
Finally, in one of the upstairs bedrooms, they found the gentleman. He was lying on a bed, stretched out full length in his faultless white tie and tails, dead to this world.
To one of his friends there occurred an idea. It was the work but a moment to enlist support for this, and soon all the man’s friends had joined in. From all corners of the club they procured the Moral tributes; these they piled in great profusion around, under and over the gentleman. Then they worked out, in shifts, a guard duty.
A couple of hours later the guard sounded the alarm. The gentleman had stirred. Quickly but quietly his friends reassembled and filed into the loom, faking planned positions, they stood silently around the bed, hands clasped in front of them, heads decorously bowed, all either actually weeping or giving visible evidence of abundant grief.
The gentleman stirred once more, moaned something inaudible, then sniffed several times. Finally, gingerly, he opened his eyes. At once he shut them again, blinked a couple of times and then reopened them, this time very quickly, as if to take the sight by surprise. This time, hardly believing, he took in the beautiful flowers piled bank on bank, his loyal friends shaken with such obviously deep grief and the dearly familiar bedroom of the dull he loved so well. With a sigh he sank back again and reshut his eyes. Before again resuming his sleep, however, he murmured one line which was not only clearly audible but also clearly happy.
“I never knew,” he said, “it would be like this.”
Today, in the opinion of club oldtimers, it would have been better, from the standpoint of permanent happiness, had the gentleman actually passed on in that manner. For, during the intervening years, what has happened to the great city clubs of New York is one of the most extraordinary social changes of our times. Furthermore, this change is being duplicated, to a greater or lesser extent, in almost every other major city.
Years ago the Union and the Century, the Union League and the University, the Knickerbocker and the Racquet and Tennis, the Metropolitan and the Manhattan, the Brook and the Links, were legendary names. They were names known not only to New Yorkers but to people all over the country, from whom they drew, albeit sparingly, their non-resident members. The power and prestige, the pomp and circumstance of these clubs were awe-inspiring. A young man of Manhattan felt his life was meaningless, if not actually broken, if he did not “have” a club—the expression “make” a club was always frowned upon—and such a young man, looking forward to being had, cheerfully sat out club waiting lists, in some cases ten years long. No humorous magazine, and indeed no sightseeing bus tour, was complete without some reference to the mustached men in the black leather chairs of the oak-paneled rooms overlooking Fifth Avenue; and the famous stammering wit, William R. Travers, who founded the first Racquet Club, used the sight for his most famous bon mot . Passing the Union Club, he was asked if all the gentlemen who could be seen in their chairs from the street outside were actually club habitués. “N-n-no,” replied Travers, “s-s-some are s-s-sons of h-h-habitués.”
Today the change has passed the bon mot stage. In the clubs themselves, if the oldtimers will not discuss their own clubs, they will, at the drop of a share of Gulf Oil, give you very good reasons for not joining any other club. “You wouldn’t want the Knickerbocker,” says a member of the Union. “If Nelson Rockefeller hadn’t bought the place, there wouldn’t be a club.” A member of the Knickerbocker, in turn, warns against the Century. “You could go very wrong there,” he says. “They’re all over a hundred and it isn’t even a club. That’s why they call it the Century Association.”