January 31, 2012

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.

The Gaming Room - Brooks' Club, London.

Authenticity, Lyford Cay & The Prole Gape

January 31, 2012

Yesterday’s post, an article concerning the fears of decline surrounding an influx of vulgarity to the staid Bahamas enclave of Lyford Cay, occasioned today’s rig, a belated memorial to William F. Buckley, Jr., in which his death is described as an ascendancy to that great Lyford Cay Club in the sky.  

When William F. Buckley Jr. went to the great Lyford Cay Club in the sky a year ago today, an era of authentic WASPy style died with him. If you want to get technical about it, Buckley wasn’t really a WASP (because he was Catholic, not Protestant), and his wasn’t so much style as anti-style, but in the decades when he rose to prominence as a conservative provocateur par excellence, such distinctions waned in importance.

“Being a WASP has nothing to do with religion or money,” author Susanna Salk declared last year in her preppy-stuffed picture book A Privileged Life: Celebrating WASP Style. [Editor’s Note: Sure, in the same way driving a car has nothing to do with being licensed.] Rather, she said, it’s all about getting the look right. Whether Buckley would have agreed is debatable, but there he was on page 84, clutching a copy of God and Man at Yale, his button-down rumpled and repp tie askew, a picture of pure prep imperfection.

Old clothes “advertise how much of conventional dignity [the upper classes] can afford to throw away,” author Paul Fussell noted in Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. “The wearing of clothes excessively new or excessively neat and clean suggests that your social circumstances are not entirely secure.” That was, of course, never a problem for Buckley, whose “pleasantly disheveled and informal” look (as described by protégé Gary Wills) was rivaled only by that of his fellow patrician and friend, George Plimpton.

That’s not to say Buckley’s clothes weren’t well made. Fussell points to an episode of Mr. Buckley’s long-running show Firing Line, in which he interviewed an oafish Texan of decidedly humbler origins. The Texan’s jacket collar “gaped open a full two inches,” Fussell writes. “Buckley’s collar, of course, clung tightly to his neck and shoulder, turn and bow and bob as he might.” His genteel shabbiness, thankfully, did not extend to an inclusion of “prole gape.”

Paradise Nearly Lost, Certainly Devalued

January 30, 2012

From the archives of The New York Times, presented here, abridged:

PAUL HALLINGBY JR. loves this Caribbean enclave’s coral-colored houses, its worn chintz, engraved stationery and imported household help. He treasures what he calls his ”old-fashioned beach house”: a $9 million, 6,500-square-foot villa with two circular driveways and a private beach.

Then there is the always-reassuring sight of the neighboring Lyford Cay Club, a pink mansion with Tara-style white columns, where Mr. Hallingby, a managing director emeritus of Bear, Stearns & Company, has been a member for 16 years. He and his friends Sandra McConnell, an Avon heiress, and Bill Paley Jr., a son of William S. Paley and his wife, Babe, appreciate the club’s conservative prohibitions. Couples must be married to stay overnight, public displays of affection are frowned upon and bikinis cannot be itsy-bitsy. Everybody still chuckles at the scolding Sir John M. Templeton, the British philanthropist, received for wearing white bathing trunks that went embarrassingly transparent when he hit the water.

The Lyford Cay Club.

”It’s a very pleasant social life,” Mr. Hallingby said of this thousand-acre gated resort community 12 minutes from Nassau. Here on ”Lifeless Cay,” as many residents have called it, there are no stores, no restaurants, no Manolo Blahniks.

At least, not at the moment. But the clicking of those sky-high heels is getting closer. The worlds of fashion, celebrity and, gasp, shiny new money, are invading this part of the paradise where the Duke of Windsor once reigned as governor. Where reasonable-sized villas once ruled, 50,000-square-foot houses are springing up. ”Who needs that?” Mr. Hallingby said. He is considering selling up and moving out.

Is the last bastion of civilized society in danger of becoming extinct? Like Southampton, N.Y., Greenwich, Conn., and most recently Palm Beach, Fla., Lyford Cay is being invaded by the young and the feckless. And almost nobody likes it.

So habitues of this Eisenhower-era retreat for the uber-moneyed set — Nicholas F. Brady, the former Secretary of State; the Bacardi family — now confront party-hearty spillover from nearby Paradise Island. That’s where Sol Kerzner, a South African developer, has built Atlantis, a gaudy $850 million resort, and revitalized the Ocean Club, an estate once owned by the Old Guard grocery heir Huntington Hartford. Beaches where Mr. Hartford once sunned in Bermuda shorts now host Leonardo di Caprio, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan and the thong-clad Gloria Estefan.

”I have my own set of values,” said Peter Nygard, an outsider whom some call the Canadian Hugh Hefner. His hotly debated home is a 150,000-square-foot ”hut” — a Polynesian village by way of Robinson Crusoe with flocks of 300 peacocks, parrots and cockatoos free-ranging indoors and out, and a lagoon through the house. The spread is growing; he’s pumping sand daily to expand his stretch of beach on his five acres.

The typical Lyfordian blue blood, ”is afraid to step out of the box,” Mr. Nygard said, adding ”I’m part of a new generation.” Indeed, and it is taking root inside the gates, just half a mile from the Lyford Cay Club. Mr. Nygard, who is a self-made clothing designer and ”is somewhere over 50,” said he grew up in poverty in Finland, the son of a seamstress mother and a father who worked in a bakery. Now, he is worth more than $500 million.

”I have no choice whether to be old money or new money. I’m new money, based on a new set of values, and that’s based on merit,” he said, looking over a stream of purple steam belching from two 40-foot urns.

Hospitality chez Nygard is eye-popping, too. Where Mr. Hallingby’s housekeeper offers a cocktail to guests, Mr. Nygard offers a masseuse. He has four housemen who cavort on trampolines anchored in the ocean. He has a 40-foot dining room table that drops down to become a disco dance floor once dinner (and bird droppings) are cleared. On karaoke nights, scantily clad young women dance while he sings ”I Did It My Way” (his favorite song) until 5 a.m.

”Nygard Cay is a perfect neighbor for Lyford Cay,” he said, standing on his beach with a red and green parrot on his shoulder.

E. P. Taylor, a Canadian brewer and racing magnate, bought Lyford Cay in 1954 from Sir Harold Christie, a powerful Bahamian developer, for the purpose of creating the ultimate international country club. Then he hired Henry Montgomery of Britain’s Bass-Charrington brewery fortune, who had serious European connections, to offer lots to the right people: Prince Rainier III of Monaco, Stavros Niarchos of Greece, Henry Ford II, the Aga Khan.

Mr. Taylor ran Lyford like his own private club until 1971, when he sold it to the members, ensuring that its standards would continue after his death. His dictatorship was replaced by committees on everything from croquet to decoration.’

Samantha Gregory, a Manhattan socialite who has spent holidays [on the Cay] since she was 8[:] ”It’s like the 1950’s,” said Ms. Gregory, who was born in 1974. Fifties is code for ”really boring,” she admitted. Still, she added, ”it’s a timeout.”

She, too, has noticed cracks in the pink-stucco facade. At the club, where she sees the same people who have been serving her ice cream since she was a little girl, she also notices a lot of faces she doesn’t recognize. And a lot of un-Lyford-like behavior, too.

As one 30-something member of the club put it, ”The newer people can be very aggressive, very loud and really mean to the staff.” Not to mention, they seem lightfingered. Last year, more than $30,000 worth of towels bearing the club crest were stolen. (The total hasn’t come in yet on purloined club-crested glasses.)

”It’s happened everywhere,” said Letitia Baldrige, the maven of manners, who first visited Lyford Cay in the 60’s. ”Palm Beach certainly. Greenwich. Conn., Southampton. I shouldn’t be so regional. The Riviera, my goodness — when I first knew it, it was very straight-laced, well behaved and well manicured. Now, thanks to the new colony, anything goes — nudity, sex in public.”

Last year, many Palm Beach residents, worried that their own posh sandbox was becoming overcrowded, headed for the rigid structure of Lyford Cay, where club membership has grown to 1,000, from 100 in the 60’s. Even if they can patiently handle the two-year waiting list and afford the $65,000 entrance fee, plus $7,000 a year in dues, the Floridians aren’t entirely welcome. Old Guard Palm Beach just isn’t Old Guard enough for Lyford Cay.

”It’s getting much more like Palm Beach,” sniffed Elizabeth Moffett, a septuagenarian who vacationed here with two husbands and is now a frequent guest. In the early days, ”everyone had money, and no one talked about it,” she said, adding, ”Now, it’s who has the most caviar and the biggest bottle of Champagne.” Her host, who asked not to be identified, said she saw visitors from Palm Beach renting houses in the compound for $5,000 a day. ”They were all overdressed, wearing all their gold jewelry and always asking where the next charity party was,” she said.

Here, life is purposefully low key, in a way that seems oddly normal and strangely suburban given the trust-fund babies lurking behind every bush. People set great store by the club’s greasy hamburgers and slow service. There are family barbecues and limbo parties, and members travel the roads by golf cart.

”The reason people are fleeing back to Lyford from Palm Beach is because of the infusion of vulgarity that’s creeping up from Miami and down from the newly rich New York crowd,” said R. Couri Hay, a Couristan carpet heir and the society editor of Palm Beach magazine and Hamptons magazine.

Yet, Mr. Hay acknowledged, ”it’s the only haven of gentility and etiquette and family life left.”

Strong words, but perhaps true. Why else would the tempestuous actor Nicholas Cage drop by, pulling up to Mr. Hallingby’s driveway in a white stretch limousine accompanied by beefy bodyguards. Mr. Cage was house hunting in the Bahamas, and if the vehicle didn’t make his outsider status perfectly clear, his Rodeo Drive wardrobe did: orange pants dripping with crystals, a lime-green shirt and a straw sombrero.

Mr. Hallingby said he was certain the actor wouldn’t buy. He said, ”We’re not happening enough for someone like him.”

Editor’s Note: …and hopefully remain that way.