- Historic Sites
The Great Club Revolution
What with all this democracy things will never be the same
December 1954 | Volume 6, Issue 1
At the Union the change is the most revolutionary. For a century no lady ever saw the inside of the club unless she were either a female employee or the wife of the club president. If the latter, she was permitted to visit the club once, on some morning when the club was empty, for the sole purpose of seeing her husband’s portrait and where it was hung. Otherwise, literally for 100 years, only one other lady had the honor.
The wife of an inveterate Union Club whist player, she suddenly went berserk one afternoon, pushed aside the doorman in the hallporter’s chair, ran up the stairs and burst into the card room. Immediately there was a deathly silence, and what followed is best recalled by Reginald T. Townsend, president of the Union Club’s Distinguished Visitors’ Committee:
The unfortunate member—whose wife was responsible for this unheard of breach of etiquette—retained his presence of mind. Gravely he introduced his wife to his fellow members at his table. Then he turned to her and courteously and politely asked her to be seated until the rubber was ended. When this had been accomplished he offered his arm to his wife, bowed gravely to the other members and left the Club—never to set foot inside the clubhouse again.
Such a club did not give in to the new era without reluctance. All men’s clubs have strict rules that the ladies who enjoy signing privileges, and hence may use the club without benefit of male escort, must be in the immediate families of members. The Union’s rules have been perhaps the strictest in this regard—but still not strict enough. The late Union Club wit, Albert Eugene Gallatin, arriving at his club one popular Thursday “maid’s night out” and seeing the invasion of a stream of ladies, about some of whom he had doubts, could not resist a sly wink at the ancient door-man. “Do you mean to say,” he joshed, “that the Union Club has come to a day when a man can bring his mistress to the club?” The doorman remembered, along with the great club revolution, the great club tradition. “You may, sir,” he replied stiffly, “if the lady is the wife of one of the members.”
Along with their own decline and fall, the great men’s city clubs have been forced to witness, as insult added to injury, the rise and shine of the great women’s city clubs-the Colony, the Cosmopolitan, the York and even the socio-charitable Junior League. In the past century such a movement would have been regarded as unthinkable, and Mrs. J. Borden Harriman, who with a few Astors, Vanderbilts and other Newporters, founded the Colony Club in 1903, was forced to take all sorts of slings and arrows in the early days. Her own husband told her, “Daisy, I don’t think you can make it pay,” and the Princeton Club put its new house plans in abeyance on the theory that the Colony would soon fail and be for sale at a bargain price. But such was not to be the case. “Anne Morgan sent word that she was keen,” recalls Mrs. Harriman, “especially if we included a running-track in our plans,” and soon there came that memorable night when “that valiant spirit Mrs. Perkins-herself a mother of club presidents” —sailed into the Colony dining room. “I’ve waited for this evening all my life,” she said. “I’ve just telephoned the boys, ‘Don’t wait dinner, I’m dining at my club.’ ”
Today old Colonyites particularly enjoy chuckling over the men’s complaints that their club would become nothing but a rendezvous for clandestine letters. “They were jolly well right,” says the ever-charming Mrs. Margaret Emerson. “Anyway, I know that’s where I got mine.” And, again, the club wheel finally turned full cycle when the Colony boasted, within its own membership, the so-called Sabbatical Club. Founded by the irrepressible Ethel Barrymore, it was originally composed of just seven ladies; seven times a year they met seven men not their husbands for dinner at seven o’clock. Not until 11 o’clock were their husbands allowed to call for them.
Although, as men’s clubs well know, it is an integral part of the great club tradition to exaggerate entrance difficulties, it is particularly galling to men clubbers to face the fact that the Colony and the Cosmopolitan are more difficult to get into than, for example, the Union and the Knickerbocker. Probably the Cosmopolitan has the strictest requirements. Founded in 1911 for women “engaged in or interested in the liberal arts or professions,” it has gradually come to include, along with members like Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Helen Keller and Mrs. Richard Rodgers, a large membership category which is called “attractive generals,” but this is, to the misfortune of a large waiting list, so loosely applied that it is now filled to over-flowing.