September/October 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 6
For a century now it has been a haven to some, an outrage to others—and it is one of the very few social institutions that have survived their founders’ world
I‘m sorry, son,” said the father to his young offspring in a New Yorker cartoon some years ago, “but we WASPs have no tribal wisdom to pass on.”
Nevertheless (and at the risk of stepping on a joke), no ethnic group capable of developing a social institution as durable, adaptable, and now universal as the country club could be wholly lacking in tribal wisdom.
The country club was invented a little more than a century ago by affluent Americans, the overwhelming majority of whom were then Protestant and of British (or Dutch or German) ancestry. Today the country club has spread to virtually every ethnic and religious group in this heterogeneous country and to most other nations around the world. The country club has had a profound effect on the development of American society and on the most dynamic part of the American social scene in the twentieth century, the suburbs. Thus it is no surprise that the country club has fascinated the American creative establishment since the days of the novelist Henry James, who saw the clubs as the very essence of the American upper-class scene in 1907, and the composer Scott Joplin, who wrote “The Country Club Rag” in 1909.
Ironically, the country club got its start because the mostly British-descended American rich of the post-Civil War era, who tried so hard to adopt the manners of the British aristocracy, lacked one of Britain’s central social institutions: the country house. The British upper class had been centered in the country since feudal days, and while its members often went up to London for politics, business, or “the season,” they lived most of the year on the vast estates that were the source of their wealth, and they entertained one another lavishly there.
The American rich had no such deep rural roots. For the most part their fortunes were no more than a generation or two old and had their origins in commerce, manufacturing, and transportation, not land. America’s was an urban elite. When the Civil War and the consequent rapid industrialization of the country began to produce the vast rush of wealth that fueled the Gilded Age, the country’s rich began to look about for ways to display it and enjoy it.
Earlier, going to the country had meant going to resorts such as Saratoga Springs, Newport, Bar Harbor, and Long Branch, usually staying at hotels and boarding establishments. Even when families began to build their own “cottages” at these resorts, some of them among the most elaborate private dwellings ever erected, there was often not enough land attached for the outdoor sports that were becoming increasingly popular: croquet, lawn tennis, fox hunting, and polo.
During the early 1850s the more affluent had adopted cricket in imitation of the British, and several cricket clubs opened on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Boston, and other American cities. Also among the popular activities of the day were coaching—the equestrian equivalent of the Sunday-afternoon drive—and amateur trotting races. The participants in these races would drive out from their city stables on pleasant afternoons, and as the New York Herald reported: “It would seem as if all New York had suddenly become owners of fast horses, and were all out on Bloomingdale [as rural upper Broadway was then called] on a grand trotting spree. This rushing to and fro of ship commodores, book and newspaper publishers, bankers, merchants, gamblers, and fast men generally, continues until the sun in its daily course has gone to visit the antipodes.”
William H. Vanderbilt was so passionate about his champion trotters that in order to keep an eye on them from his office in the Grand Central Depot, he stabled and even pastured them on the square block that would later contain the Biltmore Hotel in midtown Manhattan. But as American cities grew by leaps and bounds after the Civil War, the need for permanent facilities outside the cities increased, and the idea of a club in the country, devoted not to one sport, such as cricket, but to many sports, was born.
Exactly which was the first country club is an argument that has long raged among those who have nothing better to do. It soon degenerates into a semantic quibble about what, exactly, constitutes a country club, as opposed to, say, the facilities attached to a cricket field or a hunting ground. One institution that has long claimed the honor, and its claim is probably as good as any, is The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Early in 1882 a wealthy Bostonian named J. Murray Forbes called together some friends to meet in the dining room of his Boston town house. There he proposed renting Clyde Park, a farm on which a horse-racing track had already been laid out in then-rural Brookline. The group assembled by Forbes liked his idea and put out a terse prospectus among their friends. “It may be stated, briefly,” the invitation read, “that the general idea is to have a comfortable club-house for the use of members with their families, a simple restaurant, bedrooms, bowling-alley, lawn tennis grounds, &c.; also, to have race-meetings and, occasionally, music in the afternoon, and it is probable that a few gentlemen will club together to run a coach out every afternoon during the season, to convey members and their friends at a fixed charge.”
Forbes and his friends hoped to sign up 300 subscribers, but the idea was greeted so enthusiastically that they soon had 404 who agreed to join and pay dues of thirty dollars a year. By the fall of 1882 The Country Club (always rather ostentatiously spelled with a capital T ) was a going concern. The next year it took in another 200 members.
The original membership was from the very heart of Boston Brahmindom, with names like Abbott, Adams, Cabot, Hovey, Hunnewell, Peabody, and Saltonstall. Indeed, so narrow was the group from which the membership was drawn that of the thirty-five men assembled by Forbes at the initial meeting, thirty-four were members of Boston’s Somerset Club, the city’s oldest and most prestigious men’s club. This conspicuous lack of ethnic diversity was to be a fundamental characteristic of country clubs.
Almost immediately, similar clubs sprang up on the outskirts of other major American cities, drawing their original members from each city’s wealthy, largely WASP elite. The Westchester Country Club in Rye, New York, organized in 1884, was first proposed as a tennis club but soon developed into a place where all country sports could be enjoyed. The original facilities included tennis courts, a polo field, a racetrack, a baseball diamond, traps for live pigeon shooting, boats, bathhouses, and a pack of hounds.
The Merion Cricket Club of Philadelphia, founded in the 1850s, evolved rapidly at this time into a full-fledged country club, as did several other cricket clubs. In 1882 the Myopia Hunt Club (so called because all the founders happened to have been nearsighted) was established outside Boston, as was the Chevy Chase Club near Washington, D.C. The latter was formed ostensibly “for literary purposes, mutual improvement, and the promotion of social intercourse by the encouragement and support of all outdoor sports and amusements.” Chevy Chase soon became an indispensable social, political, and sporting institution of the nation’s capital. Theodore Roosevelt didn’t approve of golf (he thought it effete), but William Howard Taft was so fond of it that he built a cottage at the club. Woodrow Wilson courted his second wife there while serving as President, and he was playing golf at Chevy Chase when he was first informed that the Lusitania had been torpedoed.
In 1886 one of the more unusual country clubs was founded near New York City, the vision of a single man, Pierre Lorillard III. Heir to a great tobacco fortune, Lorillard owned no less than six hundred thousand acres of undeveloped land in New York’s Orange and Rockland counties, across the Hudson River and about an hour’s train ride from the city. At first Lorillard envisioned only a hunting and fishing lodge for himself and his friends, but this soon grew in his mind into a large clubhouse, cottages, and sports facilities surrounding a body of water long known locally as Tuxedo Lake.
Lorillard decided to surround two thousand acres abutting the lake with a fence, guarding the entrance with a large gatehouse and calling the establishment Tuxedo Park. He invited his friends to buy the cottages and build more of their own, and soon Tuxedo Park was a pleasure ground for Astors, Iselins, Millses, Havemayers, and Vanderbilts. Just as The Country Club’s membership had come largely from Boston’s Somerset Club, so Tuxedo Park was largely populated by members of New York’s old-guard Union Club. Because so many of these families summered at Newport and elsewhere, the Tuxedo Club was at its liveliest in the spring and fall, when people would come on short visits from their city residences.
At the first Autumn Ball held at the Tuxedo Club, in 1886, the founder’s son, Griswold Lorillard, appeared not in white tie and tails like the other men but in a short jacket with black tie, a fashion he had observed being worn by the Prince of Wales in England that year at the Cowes Regatta. The new fashion for informal evening wear immediately caught on, and, ever since, most Americans have called it a tuxedo. (In Tuxedo Park itself and other bastions of what was once called New York Society, the costume is never called a tuxedo, but rather a dinner jacket.)
The Tuxedo Club has two other minor claims to fame. It was the first place that women could ride astride without causing a scandal. And it was where the game of bridge was first played in this country, in 1893.
By the turn of the century, country clubs were well established near every major American city and in every fashionable resort. Among them were The Country Club and the Myopia near Boston, the Meadow Brook and Rockaway on Long Island, the Westchester Country Club and Ardsley Casino in Westchester, the Morris County Golf Club in New Jersey, the Merion Cricket Club in Philadelphia, the Baltimore Country Club, the Chevy Chase, and the Burlingame in far-off San Francisco.
One sport conspicuously absent from the early country clubs is the one today most associated with them, golf. Golf, an early version of which had appeared in Holland, was played in this country in early colonial days but practically disappeared around the time of the War of 1812, not to reappear until the 1880s, just when the country club was coming into being.
As with country clubs, the argument as to which was the first American golf course of the modern era is hotly contested. The very first seems to have been built in Foxburg, Pennsylvania, in 1885. The first important golf club, however, was founded in 1888 in an apple orchard in Yonkers, New York, and named St. Andrews after the Scottish course. This club moved several times in its early years but has been in Hastings-on-Hudson since 1897.
The early days of golf at American country clubs were very informal. The tools of the game, which originally had to be imported from Montreal, the epicenter of golf in North America, had wonderful names like cleek, midiron, and mashie instead of numbers. The courses were small and rough: the five-hole course at Tuxedo had no bunkers or hazards because, as one of the members explained, “the course [itself] was one big hazard.”
Often golf furnished an excuse for serious drinking before, after, and even during the game. The nineteenth hole, a phrase coined in the 1920s, is still a prominent and highly profitable part of most country clubs. This in turn encouraged gamesmanship of a sort that would not be tolerated among most of today’s more formal and vastly more serious golfers. At Tuxedo Park an early member named Walker B. Smith was a master of such dubious tactics.
At one home-and-home match with St. Andrews, Smith took on John C. Ten Eyck. “After we had played three holes,” Ten Eyck recalled, “Walker B., that most gracious monster, turned to me and said, ‘Golf requires two things, courage and the ability to keep your eye on the ball.’ Whereupon he drew a large flask of Scotch whiskey from his pocket. This whiskey,’ he said, ‘supplies the courage. Will you have some?’ I declined and Walker B. without apology took a copious draught himself. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘I will keep my eye on the ball,’ and producing a glass eye from his pocket [Smith had lost an eye in a childhood hunting accident], he balanced it carefully on his ball and proceeded to wallop both the ball and the eye down the fairway.”
By the spring of 1895 some forty country clubs featured golf courses. Then suddenly golf exploded in popularity, and by the summer of that year more than a hundred courses were in operation. The upper middle class of successful, often self-made businessmen, loved golf. Indeed, the popularity of golf was probably the most important factor in keeping country clubs from being solely the preserve of the leisured upper class characterized by “old money.”
In the first great business deal of the twentieth century, Charles Schwab, at the St. Andrews course in Hastings-on-Hudson, persuaded Andrew Carnegie, a Scotsman and passionate golfer, to sell out to J. P. Morgan in 1901 and allow the formation of U.S. Steel. While many clubs have maintained strict rules against bringing out business papers in the clubhouse, what conversations go on on the golf course is up to the golfers. In the 1950s a prominent Seattle law firm candidly admitted that one of its partners was in the firm not because he was so great a lawyer but because he was a first-rate golfer, particularly adept at gaining new clients on the links, and belonged to a couple of very prestigious country clubs.
The early urban clubs in this country, such as New York’s Union Club and Boston’s Somerset, out of which the original impetus for country clubs had come, had been modeled on the great London clubs that developed in the eighteenth century. These clubs were strictly for men and would remain so until after the Second World War. They existed, in fact, so that their married members could get away from their families and the often stifling proprieties of the Victorian home. But the country club, as the one in Brookline’s prospectus stated, was “for the use of members with their families.” The inclusion of women and children in the activities of the country club was revolutionary and separated country clubs from all other kinds, for the country club immediately became a social center as well as a sports center.
In Britain there had long been sporting clubs devoted to particular sports rather than country sports in general. “There are … all over England,” wrote George Birmingham, a British social critic, in 1914, “clubs especially devoted to particular objects, golf clubs, yacht clubs and so forth. In these the members are drawn together by their interest in a common pursuit, and are forced into some sort of acquaintanceship. But these are very different in spirit and intention from the American Country Club. It exists as a kind of center of the social life of the neighborhood. … But neither golf nor tennis, dancing nor sailing, is the object of the club’s existence. Sport is encouraged by these clubs for the sake of general sociability. In England sociability is a by-product of an interest in sport.”
The country club was a revolutionary idea also because it was a most un -Victorian institution. The very word Victorian was first applied to the era now associated with it in 1875, a sure sign that the era itself was beginning to slip into the past.
The Victorian era had been characterized above all by the vast expansion of the middle class and its rise to economic and political powwer in the Industrial Revolution. These nouveau riche masses, especially in America, were prudish and socially conservative in the extreme. Among the unquestioned tenets of Victorianism was that men and women were profoundly different beings, destined by Providence to fulfill different roles in God’s plan. Men, it was held, were supreme in the intellectual and physical spheres, while women were morally and emotionally stronger. Thus the great world of politics and business was properly a masculine preserve, while women ruled supreme in the home. And it was at home that upper- and middle-class women largely stayed.
But only twenty years after the first country clubs were established, Frank S. Arnett wrote in Munsey’s Magazine , a popular journal of the day, that “the country club has practically changed the entire social life of America. It has to a certain extent modified our ideas of right and wrong. It has been chiefly responsible for the development of gentlemanly sports. It has taught our men the value of healthful pleasure. It has brought our women out of stuffy houses and out of their own hopeless, aimless selves, has given color to their cheeks, vivacity to their movements, charm and intelligence to their conversation. The influence of the country club has been almost wholly for good.”
This may be overstating the case a bit (and it certainly contains more than a whiff of male chauvinism), but even Henry James, that profound observer of social mores, was impressed with the country club’s “extension, its whole extension, through social space.” As women and children began to use country clubs for social purposes, however, the difficulty of chaperoning them increased sharply. It became more and more important to see to it that they did not meet “unsuitable” people outside the home. James realized that “even the most inclusive social scheme must in a large community always stop somewhere.”
The country clubs established by WASPs, in other words, were for the WASP establishment. Still, American society has always been less rigid and exclusionary than society in European countries, and Europeans have often looked upon American social institutions far more kindly than have Americans. In 1914, when Tuxedo Park was inhabited almost exclusively by wealthy New Yorkers of British and Dutch ancestry, a British social critic wrote that “Tuxedo society, instead of becoming, as might have been expected, a very narrow clique, seems to be singularly broad-minded and tolerant. … The fact that the experiment was not wrecked long ago on the rocks of snobbery goes to show that society in America is singularly fluid compared to that of any European country. That a considerable number of people should want to live together in such a way is a witness to the sociability of America.”
Until the First World War there was not much pressure from below. Country clubs, obviously, are only for those with disposable income. In the early days of the country club, that group was mostly made up of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The occasional Montant, Onativia, and Zabriskie (all old and distinguished names in New York Society) were absorbed with no problem. But tolerance did not extend, in the country-club era, to the one ethnic group in this country that had families as wealthy and educated as those of the WASP establishment, the Jews.
In the early days of the Republic, anti-Semitism had been virtually unknown (the word itself entered the English language only in 1881). August Belmont arrived from Germany in the 1830s, made a fortune on Wall Street, married Caroline Perry of the distinguished naval family, and lived the rest of his life in New York’s highest social circle. (To be sure, Belmont converted to Christianity.) New York’s Union Club, the most prestigious in the country by the 1880s, had had numerous Jewish founding members fifty years earlier.
But after the Civil War, as Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe swelled, anti-Semitism began to flourish, and the separation of Jew and Gentile in American society began. When Jesse Seligman, a wealthy banker and one of the founders of New York’s Union League Club, put up his son for membership, the son was turned down because he was a Jew. Seligman, dumbstruck, immediately resigned. The club, with marvelous perversity, refused to accept his resignation (its position was that it wanted no more Jewish members but was happy to have those who were already members). It kept Seligman on its rolls for the rest of his life, although, needless to say, he never set foot in the place again.
This new reality characterized country clubs from the beginning. Denied access to the WASP clubs, Jews decided to form their own. Although institutionalized anti-Semitism began to break up in this country after the Second World War and is now mostly just an unhappy memory, country clubs have largely retained their ethnic characteristics.
In 1962 the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith surveyed 803 country clubs and found 224 to be nondiscriminatory. Of the 505 clubs that were predominantly Christian, 416 had no Jews at all and 89 had quota systems. Of the 74 predominantly Jewish clubs, 71 were exclusively Jewish and 3 had quotas. In the thirty years since that survey, the situation is only beginning to change.
With the Great War and the prosperous 1920s, disposable income began to spread down the social scale. Did the WASPs let these newly affluent, and usually Christian, citizens into their country clubs? They did not.
Clubs, let’s be honest about it, almost always have two purposes, especially those that are limited by their nature to people of means. One is to provide the membership with facilities, services, and a convivial setting for their activities. The second is to distinguish those who are in from those who are out. As more and more people wanted to join the old clubs, there was more and more prestige to be gained by not letting them. So these groups, too, formed their own clubs, and even relatively small American cities often had half a dozen country clubs by the end of the 1920s, each catering to a different membership distinguished by both income and ethnic background.
Some clubs had very specialized memberships. In the 1920s the Mount Prospect Country Club near Chicago was favored by that city’s gangsters, and neighbors joked, quietly, one supposes, about the annual “Mafia Open” held on the club’s golf course. Others were much more diverse, and some were huge and about as exclusive as a train station. Chicago’s Olympia Fields Country Club owned 692 acres, featured seventy-two holes of golf, sixty homes, its own fire department, two thousand caddies, dining facilities that could feed fourteen hundred people, and even an outdoor dancing pavilion. “You weren’t a member at Olympia Fields,” one observer noted, “you were a citizen.”
In California the very prestigious Los Angeles Country Club did not admit Jews or show-business types, limiting itself instead to what its members, oblivious of the oxymoron, considered “old Los Angeles.” Hollywood moguls were more likely to belong to the Hillcrest Country Club. The comedian David Steinberg noted that Hillcrest “is a little like an inverted New York Athletic Club: there is no discrimination, but it sure helps if you’re Jewish and a comedian.” Even Groucho Marx belonged, despite his famous, and probably apocryphal, crack that he wouldn’t want to be a member of any club willing to have him as a member. (When one club offered to waive its no-Jews rule for Groucho, provided he abstained from using the swimming pool, he remarked, “My daughter’s only half Jewish, can she wade in up to her knees?”)
Outwardly the Hillcrest Country Club looks much like any other country club, but inside, its atmosphere is unique. It is housed, David Steinberg explained, in a “graceful colonial building that belies the atmosphere inside, which is more Stage Deli than Burning Tree.” Show business is everyone’s business at Hillcrest. “If Solzhenitsyn and Laverne and Shirley reach the maître d’ at the same time,” one member said a few years ago,” Al waits.” The food is superb. Milton Berle, a long-time member, described Hillcrest as “a dining club with golf.”
As the suburbs expanded in the 1920s, country clubs came to serve more and more as the social centers of their communities. Not only were the big coming-out parties and wedding receptions held there more frequently, but the clubs began to organize regular dances, teas, and young people’s parties to attract their members beyond the usual sports facilities. This, of course, reinforced the tendencies of clubs to stick to one ethnic and income level. If one’s children were more and more likely to find mates at the country club, it became ever more important to make sure that the possibilities were from the “right” families.
At the same time that the social functions of country clubs began to enlarge in the 1920s, the clubs began to have a serious impact on American literature. John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra and Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt , whose plots revolved around country-club-dominated small-town societies, were published around this time. In later decades J. P. Marquand (whose father had been a founding member of The Country Club in Brookline) wrote Point of No Return and Louis Auchincloss wrote The Embezzler . Dozens, probably hundreds, of lesser works made use of the country club to delineate the American social landscape of the upper and middle classes.
By 1929 there were fully forty-five hundred country clubs in the United States. But the Great Depression devastated the membership rolls, and the Second World War greatly reduced the work force available for the very labor-intensive maintenance of club facilities. The number of country clubs fell by half in those years and did not again reach the 1929 figure until the 1970s. But the number at least began to rise immediately after the war, as the suburbanization of America began in earnest. By the early 1960s there were thirty-three hundred clubs with a total of 1.7 million members. The ethnic and class distinctions established in the early history of the country club, however, have largely persisted, even as barrier after barrier in other areas of American life fell.
Springfield, Massachusetts, for instance, has long had four country clubs. The Longmeadow Country Club is the most prestigious, and its membership is mostly WASP. The Springfield Country Club is predominantly wealthy Irish Catholic, the Crest View Country Club is exclusively Jewish, while the Ludlow Country Club caters to the lower middle class.
Many clubs exhibit the stereotypical characteristics of the class and ethnic group they cater to. Old-line WASP clubs are often as genteelly shabby as they are comfortable (and wouldn’t be caught dead in Architectural Digest ), while clubs catering to newer money are often professionally decorated to the nines. Club managers will tell you that they can tell if an establishment is Jewish or WASP simply by looking at the house accounts. At the former far more food than liquor is consumed; at the latter it’s the other way around.
Two new types of country club started after the war. Proprietary clubs are profit-making businesses, and company clubs are owned by companies and often limited to their employees. By the early 1960s there were more than two hundred proprietary clubs, including such well-known ones as the Tarn O’Shanter Country Club near Chicago, owned by George S. May. Probably the largest company club is the Du Pont Country Club in Wilmington, Delaware.
Also in the 1960s country clubs catering to blacks appeared, first in North Carolina. Blacks, of course, suffered from discrimination even more than Jews and for most of America’s history lacked the disposable money needed to aspire to country-club membership. Despite the end of official segregation, the rapidly growing black middle class of recent years has found little welcome. At the Chevy Chase Country Club, near Washington, D.C., discrimination reached such an absurd level that black foreign diplomats were welcome but black Americans most decidedly were not.
There are signs that the situation is slowly changing as the twentieth century draws to a close. Some clubs, notably the Mill River Club on Long Island, have adopted a policy of fifty-fifty quotas for Jews and Gentiles. And some states and municipalities have begun to exert pressure for change, often by exploiting the Achilles’ heel of every country club: property taxes. In 1986 the Burning Tree Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, lost a $186,000-a-year no-development exemption because of discrimination against women.
In the 1980s the generation that had fought the civil rights and antiwar battles of the 1960s was joining country clubs. One might suppose these new members would be a force for change in the clubs, but that does not appear to be the case. “In 1970,” said one member of the Homestead Club in Kansas City, “I thought country clubs symbolized the effete establishment and the Vietnam War machine. But today the club is a safe harbor for my family.” Another of that generation admitted that her club “gives me a sense of belonging and being with others of my kind.” (Her father had a slightly less charitable explanation: “Her generation has decided it’s O.K. to be filthy capitalist swine like me.”)
With the highly prosperous 1980s, people in their twenties and thirties began to join country clubs in growing numbers. Unfortunately for club finances these younger members, far more fitness-conscious than traditional country-club types, are more likely to play racquet sports than golf, which generates higher fees, and much less likely to end up at the nineteenth hole, which has traditionally been a reliable source of income to finance deficits elsewhere in club operations.
Consequently, many clubs have come under increasing financial pressure and increasingly have turned to professional management. ClubCorp is by far the largest manager of clubs in this country, running more than two hundred of them, along with its own proprietary clubs. It has also begun acting as a real estate developer, often locating developments around a new country club for the use of the developments’ populations, an arrangement highly reminiscent of the old Tuxedo Club. Last year ClubCorp had revenues approaching $100 million, and it is growing by 30 percent a year.
As the demand for country-club memberships has been increasing swiftly in the 1980s, waiting periods of five years and longer are not unknown at the old, established clubs. This demand for country-club memberships has boosted the number of proprietary clubs, with entrepreneurs smelling profit. Many of these have sought success by seeking to provide instant prestige to the members. The Brookstone Golf and Country Club, near Atlanta, is only two years old, and the brass plaques with the names of the club champions on the walls are almost empty. But its brochure boasts a “time-honored tradition of togetherness and camaraderie.” It also boasts a fifteen-thousand-dollar initiation fee and professional membership director, who is paid to decide who is in and who is out.
Only in America, probably, could the role of social arbiter become a profession. But then capitalism, like the country club, is as American as apple pie and, like the country club, a WASP invention. The productive merger of these two fruits of WASP tribal wisdom was just a matter of time.