Anthony Lejeune once wrote a survey of some of the more (and less) notable clubs in New York City, and at the outset of it he paraphrased Engligh wit P.G. Wodehouse’s fictional Bertie Wooster, and absent-minded fop: the convenient thing about New York is that it’s right there when you get off the boat. Mr. Lejeune travels to the city by airplane, not boat, but reaquaints himself with the city as quickly as if he walked down a gangplank onto cobblestones. Foremost among those things with which to be reaquainted: Coca-Cola.
The soda is an especial treat to an English clubman like himself, he writes, because most English clubs have purposefully little to do with it. Some refuse even to stock it. “Two members of the Cavalry Club in London, after idly discussing [whether that club carried Coca-Cola], decided to put it to the test. Summoning the wine waiter, they asked if there was any Coca-Cola in the club. Drawing himself up to his full six-foot-two, he replied freezingly: ‘For drinking purposes, sir?’
New York has almost as many clubs as London – clubs for the old upper-class, clubs for alumni of Ivy League colleges, clubs for actors, clubs for writers, predominantly sporting clubs, small intimate clubs like the Coffee House and the Leash, [and] architecturally magnificent clubs like the Metropolitan.”
That predilection for Coca-Cola aside, Mr. Lejeune finds a good deal of commonality between clubs this side of the ocean and that: “The founders of the Union Club [Editor’s Note: formerly discussed in these pages] in 1836 specified that it should be similar in its plans and regulations to the great clubs of London, which give a tone and character to the society of the British metropolis. Like their British originals, some of the older New York clubs evolved from groups of friends who met in coffee houses and taverns. But if the clubs of St. James’s Street are haunted by the ghosts of Regency bucks and dandies, the New York clubs always seem… redolent of another period – the confident, firmly-rooted, literate, polite society of Henry James and Edith Wharton.”
American clubs, he pushes on to note, tend to be more well-appointed than their monarchist forebears: the leather chairs are less shabby, though the portraits on the walls – being newer – are generally worse. He typically feels comfortable at American clubs, and appreciates their efforts to foist company on any man solitary. The exception, Mr. Lejeune writes, is the lunch hour. “The Lotos Club may have been named, in 1870, after Tennyson’s Lotos-eaters, who came to a land ‘in which it seemed always afternoon,’ but I have found myself alone in the Knickerbocker at two o’clock because everybody has rushed back to Wall Street.”
Despite the cheerful welcome, the rules remain rigid at the better American clubs, and the social hierarchy a complicated gridwork of connections and chains to rival the Brooklyn Bridge. Certainly, the issue of pedigree is hardly unique to the Manhattan clubs: a notoriously cantankerous aristocratic member of White’s Club, in London, complained in the nineteenth century that what he called “my tradesmen” were being elected to the club – by which he meant bankers and lawyers. Bankers and lawyers have always been socially acceptable in New York (not all lawyers, of course, and fewer bankers these days), but still Sumner Welles grumbled in the 1950s that “there’s no such thing as Club Society anymore. They can’t even keep in the men they used to keep out.”
The Old Guard, though it sometimes can’t even keep in the men it used to keep out, nevertheless retains its prim passivity: one member of The Brook, an old and much respected New York club, eats lunch at that club’s long communal table daily. The club allows no other tables, such that members must eat socially with one another. In protest, the old patrician insists on silently rising whenever a particularly gauche member arrives, and leaving. “He’s had a great many Brook Club soups,” observed a fellow member, “but he’s never yet gotten to the demitasse.”
Of coure, the menu has never been a reason to join any good club, and clubs have prided themselves perversely on serving the likes of what one clerical member once called “that piece of cod which passeth all understanding.” The point is conviviality, and a second point is the ability to take refuge from the vulgarities outside, where things are shiny and hard instead of muted and dark. As a result, many clubmen require at least two clubs, writes Mr. Lejeune: one in which to talk, and one in which to hide grumpily behind a newspaper.
The employees of a club also contribute to its fortunes. “The atmosphere of any club depends greatly on its servants, and the courtesy of an old-fashioned staff is particularly pleasing in New York, where the headwaiters in fashionable restaurants have been allowed – or so it strikes a visitor – to become extraordinarily autocratic and offhand.” A retreat from that brusque incivility is one of the most enticing aspects of any club, but even the alure of gilt-framed isolationism has run up against modernity, Mr. Lejeune writes.
“Rising costs, staff problems, and changing patterns of urban life have affected [clubs in] both New York and London. Bar profits are falling because of the current wave of puritanism, which is bad news for club treasurers. One reason why ladies’ clubs have never really worked is that women do not drink or lunch seriously enough for the clubs’ financial well-being.
This is no loss; the point about a club is that it should be private. Publicity is anathema. But the clubs themselves are still there, offering the quiet conviviality, the civilized manners, the refuge from uncongenial modernity that true clubmen seek. The surprising thing really is not that they have survived, but that there aren’t many more of them and that they are not more heavily used. Where else can a bachelor, a widower, or merely someone whose wife is engaged elsewhere, or a stranger in town—any solitary man who prefers not to eat and drink alone—go without embarrassment or prior arrangement to enjoy the company of his peers? Does any hotel now provide the simple amenity of a communal table, which every English coaching inn and every staging post on the Western trails used to supply?”
In closing, Mr. Lejeune recalls meeting an elderly American once in London’s Brooks’ Club. He said that when he was in London, he always stayed at Brooks’. When he was in Rome, he stayed at the Caccia. In New York, he stayed at the Knickerbocker. Since he didn’t much care for today’s world, he hardly ever went outside and was therefore never quite sure in what country he ever actually was.