- 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 Colony, where no one, including a severe board of male advisors, has ever known just what the qualifications for membership are, there is, in addition to the usual proposing and seconding letters, a final so-called “Inquisition.” This consists of the Chairman of the Board of Admissions and three lorgnette-type assistants. Candidates, facing this group, are never permitted to talk about the subject at hand but spend half an hour discussing the servant problem and namedropping such formidable Colony Club names as the late Mrs. Hamilton McKown Twombly, last granddaughter of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. “Since the death of Mrs. Twombly,” says Miss Mabel Choate, daughter of the great club wit, Joseph H. Choate, “the Colony has had very little to talk about anyway.” In any case, if the candidate passes, she receives a handsome letter telling her so, together with a bill for initiation fee—$250 plus tax-and a bill for a year’s dues—$150 plus tax. If the candidate fails, she doesn’t hear anything until she hears of someone who received such a letter who she knows faced the Inquisition after she did. Then she knows she was blackballed or voted down.
If the whole club situation looks dark from the point of view of men clubbers, they can at least take heart from some recent goings-on at the Colony. In the opinion of the oldtimers the club, like Society itself, is far from what it used to be. “They’ve spoiled it completely,” says founder Mrs. Harriman, while Miss Jessie Fanshawe, New York’s premier social secretary, seconds the motion. “Frankly it’s stuffy,” she says. “I’ve resigned twice.” At present the club is rocked with dissension over how to overcome this stuffiness and over which rooms male guests should be permitted to enter. Two years ago a member had to be suspended for drinking and last year the entire club was in a virtual state of siege because of the action of one member who insisted on spending the night in the lounge. In the midst of it all Mrs. Thomas K. Finletter, wife of the Secretary for Air, about to deliver a talk to- the club, asked how long she should go on. “Talk,” she was told, “until you hear the canes rattle.” Nor was this an idle boast; the age bracket in the club is so high that no one thought it particularly unusual when a cleaning woman was found drowned in the swimming pool. “After all,” said a member of the Committee on Baths and Athletics, “she was over eighty.”
Present-day Colonyites take out their troubles by carrying on a cold war with the up-and-coming Cosmopolitan—a curious state of affairs since there are quite a number of ladies who belong to both clubs, who are called “ambi-clubsters” and who include, among others, Mrs. John Foster Dulles. “The Cosmopolitan,” says Miss Emily Post sternly, “was once a club for our governesses,” while Miss Katharine Beach cannot forgive the fact that Cosmopolitanites insist on calling their club the “Cos.” “Whoever heard,” she asks sharply, “of a Harvard man saying he was going over to the Har?”
Many male club philosophers believe that this sort of defection will result, ultimately, in the same kind of revolution which has overtaken their clubs. Whether or not this is true, there have already been unmistakable signs of change in the whole idea of city clubs for both men and women. One of these changes is in the matter of anti-Semitism, and in this respect it is worthy of note that the Harmonie Club, most distinguished of Jewish clubs, was not only the fourth oldest of all social clubs —founded in 1852, it was preceded by only the Union, the New York Yacht Club and the Century—it was also the first club to admit ladies. Anti-Semitism reached its peak in the Colony Club’s blackballing of Mrs. Henry Morgenthau, a cause célèbre which occasioned the resignation from the club of Mrs. Roosevelt. Today it is significant that the most successful social clubs —the Century, the Cosmopolitan, the River and the Regency, as well as the socio-theatrical and literary clubs like the Players and the Coffee House—all admit Jewish members.
So, too, do the extraordinarily successful college clubs. Membership in these latter clubs does not merely require previous attendance at the colleges, it also requires being proposed, seconded and voted on like any other social club. Once minor league citadels of sentimental snobbery, they are now easily the most desirable and utilitarian of city clubs. The Yale Club, located across from Grand Central, is so popular that it is difficult to tell where the station leaves off and the club begins, and the Harvard Club’s membership of 7,000 is exceeded only by the New York Athletic Club’s 8,000. Nonetheless, these clubs are the order of the day. Lawyer John Reynolds, who resigned from the Union Club after 22 years of membership, now belongs to just the Century and the Harvard. “I want a club,” he says, “where I can take a couple of friends without producing a birth certificate, a marriage license and a blood test.”