Liability & Membership, Ltd.

April 24, 2012

Lifted from Harvard’s The Crimson, and thereafter chopped up and re-arranged:

According to the scholar Nathan C. Shiverick, Harvard ’52, the leisure bred by wealth creates a demand for an outlet to pass the time and expend energy and aggression. The conclusion of the Civil War ushered in great fortunes for some Bostonians. But Shiverick argues that more lies behind the phenomenon. In the 1880s, when the Irish gained municipal control of the city, the Brahmins were politically disenfranchised. The former ruling class of Boston reasserted itself by creating private charitable corporations and a network of hospitals, schools, almshouses. It was more than nobless oblige; it was a desire to recover some control over the city. Boston’s clubs were [and still are to some extent] the “caucus rooms of the city’s financial and charitable leaders.” The Brahmin establishment felt impelled to play some part in local government. As they had lost control of municipal institutions, they also lost their trust in them. It was this distrust that led to the incorporation of museums, orchestras and other charitable ventures. It was this power grab that lay behind the founding of the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Public Library.

Several of Boston's clubs.

The creation of the private corporation is essential to the structure of the clubs, says Shiverick. It allowed for the formation of partnerships with limited liability: each partner would not have to risk his whole fortune if disaster struck in the case of, say bankruptcy or lawsuits. In short, the corporation could be used not only to finance a railroad, but also, an orchestra, an orphanage, a polo club equipped with an imported, famous French chef or, as Shiverick notes, a “caucus room.” Thus, business, charitable and social interests all merged into a giant Brahmin front at the turn of the century. That front, moving with the intention of regaining some control of the city, mobilized itself in the clubrooms of Beacon Street mansions. And the old boys’ network, still unassailable, was born.

So exclusive is the Somerset Club, that one night in January 1945 when the club caught fire, the firemen ran through the front entrance before Joseph, the club’s legendary majordomo, ordered them to go around back though the servant’s entrance while he continued serving members their dinner.

The Algonquin is the most grandiose of the city’s clubs, the only one with a house designed especially for its own use, rather than a converted residence. Its massive granite exterior displays two stories of porticoed balconies. The inside boasts an enormous second floor reading room and a massive formal dining room on the fourth floor with 50-foot vaulted ceilings. The fifth floor offers sleeping accomodations. Unlike clubs like the Somerset, the Algonquin Club, since its founding in 1886, is all about business. The Club was founded by General Charles H. Taylor, the same man who resurrected the Boston Globe.

The Tavern (1884) is said to be so exclusive that the man who proposed forming the club, a teacher of Italian descent, was denied admission. Sort of. Another story tells how a man who ate with his toes created the club. Not quite. In fact, a group of young artists and like-minded Gilded Age Bostonian gentlemen would often meet together to dine at some of the restaurants in the Park Street area. One day a troup of vaudville freaks shoved their way through the entrance of the restaurant and demanded service. The “armless wonder” ate from his plate with his toes. The founding Taverners were appalled. One man, an Italian teacher, proposed that they find their own room. The group liked the idea, not him.