The Great Club Revolution

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Actually, in the case of the latter, he even found freedom from fear of the double standard of the day. It was to a gentlemen’s club, rather than his home, that the extra, or extras, among his lady friends wrote, and the tactful servant would always bring such a letter on a silver tray butter side down; this was, of course, on the chance that the lady might be connected with, or, indeed, in the family of, another member.

With such appeal it is small wonder that the clubs were, in the unpopular sense, of course, popular. Ward McAllister himself, author and creator of the “400” and a leading clubman of the day, blessed the movement. “Men whose personality is not remarkably brilliant and who. standing by themselves, would not he apt to arouse a great deal of enthusiasm among their associates on account of their intellectual capacity,” he said, “very frequently counteract these drawbacks by joining a well known club. Thus it will be seen that a club often lends a generous hand to persons who, with out this assistance, might ever remain in obscurity.”

Today this obscurity might be said to be on the other foot; certainly the four freedoms of the city clubs have gone with the wind. First came the rise of the country club. Then came Prohibition. At first thought to lie a boon to the clubs, with their secret bars and lockers, it proved, in the end. a bane. Clubmen found it easier to stop oil at a speakeasy than risk arrest at their own club. And finally, of course, there came the Depression. The first two club freedoms—versus-democracy and pro-aristocracy—seemed, in their political implications of that era. slightly to the right of Charlemagne. Even today it is a vital part of club tradition that Presidents like Herbert Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower are either honorary or actual life members of every major social club while a President like the late Franklin D. Roosevelt was a member of just two, the Century and the Harvard Club, and Harry Truman is neither an honorary nor an actual member of any. The only Democratic club, the Manhattan, changed with remarkable rapidity to ninety per cent Republican, and when Gordon Dean, recent chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, spoke last year to the Union League Club, he was advised that he was the second registered Democrat who had addressed the club in ninety years. “I never did find out who the first one was,” he says. “I think it was Robert E. Lee.”

Not only did the Depression usher in an era when assessments were added to dues, but it also ushered in an era when the club waiting list became a grab bag. “The only reason I got into the Century in 1931,” says lecturer and critic John Mason Brown modestly, “was because they thought I was John Nicholas Brown, the world’s richest baby.” Coupled with club poverty went an almost complete breakdown of club morality. To this day there is hardly a single club which does not complain of members’ stealing. For fifteen years a member has been driving up to the University Club on Sunday morning in a chauffeur-driven automobile, sneaking in and surreptitiously making off with a Sunday paper; at the Union League there is a similar story. At the Harvard Club the purloining of after-dinner coffee spoons became such an accepted practice that the club has had to give them up entirely. Even card playing in many of the clubs became a problem, the low being reached by the brief appearance of a sign on the Racquet Club bulletin board which read, “MEMBERS ARE CAUTIONED NOT TO PLAY CARDS WITH MEMBERS.”

Following the Depression, of course, came two and a half wars, inflation, and, worst of all from the club point of view, a king-and-a-half sized servant problem. The whole tenor of club life depended upon service, and yet the problem of keeping servants and at the same time maintaining the precious third freedom— freedom from want from tipping—became an almost impossible task. No club worthy of the name permits any gratuities to employees, except a regular Christmas contribution, any more than it permits members to pay cash for purchases, and yet a new generation of servants has arisen which fails to understand what an honor it is to serve. But if what has happened to the other three club freedoms is a stern story, what has happened to the fourth freedom—freedom from fear of women— is a positive nightmare. Back in 1838 James Gordon Bennett pondered editorially in the New York Herald as to whether or not he should accept his invitation to join the new Union Club. “What is the use of any social system in which women do not participate?” he asked. “In which their petticoat is not seen—where glossy ringlets cannot enter and make it Paradise … ?”

For a hundred years the laugh was on Mr. Bennett; today the last laugh is not. Even the New York Yacht Club which, in happier days, permitted no gentleman who did not own a yacht of a certain length, now permits ladies, after 5 P.M. and except Saturdays and Sundays, with no boat at all, while the Metropolitan Club allows ladies every day all day and even has fullfledged lady members who can do anything except spend the night. The two most active of today’s clubs, the Regency and the River, the former a bridge club and the latter an East River tennis club, are now completely family clubs. “At the River we have very few what I call ‘tea cozies,’ ” says Mrs. William Grace Holloway, Sr., “except me. But we’re a very successful club for nowadays.”