- Historic Sites
The Great Club Revolution
What with all this democracy things will never be the same
December 1954 | Volume 6, Issue 1
A member of the Century continues with stern counsel against the Union League. “Look out for those boys,” he says. “They put a tag on everybody—I guess they have to. They never say they’re dining with So- and-so. It’s always So-and-so, president of Such-and- such, and then they both deduct each other from their income tax.” A member of the Union League follows with a strong caution against the Metropolitan. “They take in anybody,” he says. “They get some fellow who doesn’t know the first thing about clubs and the first thing he knows he’s in there, and then where is he?” A member of the Metropolitan proceeds with a critical view of the Manhattan. “It isn’t even just everybody,” he says. “It’s everybody and his friends. Why, they even have two entirely different crowds. It’s textile men at lunch and lawyers at dinner. They never even speak to each other.”
A Manhattan member, obviously, has no use for the University. “They can talk about their library all they want. It’s a rather crowded and not very exclusive hotel. Nobody knows who anybody is and half the time nobody’s even heard of the college they’re from. It’s like a cemetery in there at night, and at lunch time it’s like Jones Beach.” A member of the University has some fatherly advice about the Racquet and Tennis. “They do nothing but drink and gamble and talk about their rice pudding.” he says. “Who wants to join a club on account of rice pudding?” A Racquet Clubber, of course, takes a short snort in the direction of the Links. “They’re always telling you about their big shot executives and how strong they are out-of-town. They have to be, I guess, because in New York nobody even knows where they are.” A member of the Links concludes with a parting shot at the Brook. “They don’t even know what time it is,” he says. “I had to go over there a year ago and tell them it was their fiftieth anniversary.” And, finally, a member of the Brook brings the wheel full cycle by ending up again back at the Union. “I mean to say,” he says, “I could take you up there for lunch. It wouldn’t be a good lunch, I mean to say, and it wouldn’t be a bad lunch. I mean to say, it just wouldn’t be anything.”
This sort of defection is a large change from the Good Old Days. In those days the clubs had their differences, of course. The Century, for example, which dates from 1847, was formed in the belief that the Union was slighting intellectual eminence. “There’s a club down on 43rd Street,” said one Union Clubber, “that chooses its members mentally . Now isn’t that a hell of a way to run a club?” The Union League, a Republican club dating from 1863, was formed in answer to the fact that the Confederate Secretary of State was allowed to resign from the Union Club when, according to Union Leaguers, he should have been expelled: the Manhattan, originally a Democratic club, was formed a year later in answer to the answer. The Knickerbocker (1871) was formed because its members felt the Union was taking in too many out-of- towners and wanted a club limited to men of Knicker- bocker ancestry: the Metropolitan (1891) was formed because the elder J. P. Morgan could not get a friend of his into the Union and thereupon, in the Morgan manner, built his own club; and the Brook (1903) was formed because two young Union Clubbers had been expelled for having attempted, unsuccessfully, upon the bald head of the Union’s most levered patriarch, to poach an egg.
But basically these were minor differences. The gentlemen of New York’s “400” belonged to not one but many clubs and wore them like ribbons—actually wearing them, in fact, on neckties, hatbands, vests, garters and suspenders. The elder Morgan forgot the difficulty about his friend and was soon again a member in good standing, not only of both the Union and the Metropolitan but also of every other major club as well. Even the errant Brook Club eggheads were soon reinstated in their mother t lull, and by the time of the Union’s 100th anniversary, it could boast that the presidents of no less than 13 other clubs were all good Union men. Further back, before the turn of the century, there occurred perhaps the most striking demonstration of club power when the late Union Clubber, Frederick de Courcy May, had, in the course of an argument, the misfortune to kill a New York policeman. Fellow Clubbers promptly rallied round, hid Mr. May for a time in first one club and then another, and finally, when the occasion offered, spirited him away to South America for a year until the unpleasantness blew over.
To understand the causes of this great club revolution it is necessary to look for a moment at club history. The American city clubs were patterned originally on the English ideal of a gentlemen’s club. Although they never carried this pattern to the extreme of the English Club, where in the old days members wore their hats everywhere in the club except the dining room, the American gentleman found, like the Englishman, that his club, and not his home, was his real castle. Here he had the best of his well-bred friends, the most comfortable of his well-stuffed (hairs, the best of food, drink and cigars from his well-stocked larders and cellars, the least irritating of reading material from a well-censored library and the best of games from well mannered losers. Here he could do what he pleased when he pleased where he pleased and with whom he pleased: here, and only here, he found sanctuary and his four freedoms—freedom of speech against democracy, freedom of worship of aristocracy, freedom from want from tipping, and, above all, freedom from fear of women.