It's Still a Man's World at Some Clubs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Aquietude settles in the vast rooms, over the fruniture with its heft and antique texture; it invests the dark bar and bright reading room alike and even governs the movements of the servants as they glide through. Motes drift in the sun by a window. Time is kept outside, at bay.

There are only men here. The sense of caste is thick among them. It is a lair of men, and those excluded from this company often believe the strangest things about it. That its members have limitless influence and wealth. That they inherit social knowledge it takes most of us our entire lives to acquire. That they get it at birth, the way giraffes get long necks.

Men's clubs, like, say, the Maryland Club, still exist in America, but not easily. They refer to a time long past and eventually will probably sink away into the deeper reaches of the nation's cultural memory.

Back when they thrived, no expectation about them was too preposterous. These clubs, and the life they reflected, spawned a deep envy, as Nelson W. Aldrich Jr. pointed out in his book "Old Money." People just had to get in. Everybody wanted long necks.

Today, he said, these clubs "are totally destroyed."

They have been swept away, most people believe, by the tide of litigation instigated by women's groups during the last decade. The women had argued that business went on inside; opportunities to advance careers presented themselves. Because they were excluded, women were denied.

"Men's clubs?" asked Elizabeth Hart, the vice president of the National Club Association, which represents clubs throughout the country. "They tend to be a rarity these days."

Which is not to say the issue is entirely without sting. David Gergen, President Clinton's new handler, felt it recently when it was disclosed that he had just joined the all-male Bohemian Club, only to resign to put himself "in keeping with White House tradition."

So rare they are, but certainly still with us. The Maryland Club in Baltimore endures without women members, as do the Bohemian Club, Gergenless, out in San Francisco, and more obscure ones as well. The Hagerstown Moose Lodge, for instance, has more than 9,000 members, with no blacks or women among them, according to Susan Goering of the Maryland ACLU. It is being sued, Ms. Goering said, but on grounds of racial rather than gender exclusion.

But for most American clubmen the pleasures they derived from gender exclusivity are gone. Bob Chandler, a newspaper editor in Bend, Ore., lost them in one of his clubs, the Arlington Club in Portland, which opened up under threat of legal action.

"Now it's everybody's club," with just a faint touch of regret.

The nature of those pleasures lost to Mr. Chandler is not easy to define. Mr. Aldrich attempts with the term "pure sociability," suggesting a situation where no one gains materially from being in the group, but might gain in other ways.

Other members of existing or previously all-male clubs tend to cite practical motives, or reasons of convenience, for their membership rather than admit to sentiments inappropriate to our times. Such men as J. Michael McWilliams, who is a Baltimore lawyer and member of the Maryland Club, and has been for 27 years.

"The only thing I use it for is to play squash," he insisted.

Mr. McWilliams just stepped down as head of the American Bar Association, which supposedly discourages its members from belonging to discriminatory clubs, evidently without success in Mr. McWilliams' case.

He describes the Maryland Club as not a place where business is done.

"There's an unwritten rule. You're not allowed to spread papers on the table," he said, though he allowed "that doesn't mean they can't talk business at the table."

The administration at the Maryland Club declined to return phone calls, or thus answer any questions about the lack of women among its members.

The Maryland Club nicely fits the ideal of the traditional men's club. It is 135 years old with an atmosphere one might describe as plantation retro. Its rooms are wide and high and baronial. The "Dictionary of National Biography" is available in the reading room; copies of Country Life and Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred are arranged neatly on a table in the Stranger's Room, enhanced by Aubrey Bodine photographs.

The heads of long-dead animals (presumably shot by long-dead members) complete the decoration. And marching up the stairs are portraits of past club presidents with expressions on their faces ranging from the dignified to the glacial.

Such nostalgic references are important to places like this.

Exclusive

Not all men's clubs were formed for the invidious purpose of excluding women, according to Mr. Aldrich, though that was always one certain result. Such clubs routinely excluded blacks, and Jews in many cases.

"Years ago they presented a sort of space for social life. Pure social life. These clubs used to be about friendship among men."

Mr. Aldrich refers to their "sense of remove," the disinclination of the club members to engage in shoptalk or do business in the club. They were places of retreat from the world rather than engagement or commerce.

But, as he admits, most men clubbed up for reasons quite opposite to that.

For the most part in America, men's clubs were haunted by the spirit of George F. Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis' fictional character who personified all the acquisitive and hypocritical attitudes of the small-town, small-bore businessman.

Members of these clubs told the world they were purely social organizations, but women insisted they were a part of the market place, a part being monopolized.

In successive rulings in 1984, 1987 and 1988, in cases involving the Jaycees, Rotary International and several New York clubs, the Supreme Court agreed.

Thus, these all-male bastions were penetrated all over the country, though not fast enough for some.

Lynn Hecht Schafran, an attorney for the National Organization for Women, who was involved in two of the cases, complained about "the holdouts." She cited a survey of women lawyers taken last winter in which nearly 23 percent said restrictions on memberships in private clubs was a barrier to their careers.

"I must tell you I was surprised. It's not a huge percentage, but it is close to a quarter of these women saying this is an issue." She expects more litigation.

Robert L. Kyler, a labor arbitrator in Philadelphia, makes it clear right away what he likes about the Vesper Club.

As he sat down in the club dining room recently the waiter approached and asked him if he wanted a drink, and if so what would it be?

"Tell Mike, the bartender, it's for me," he said, nothing more.

A few minutes later a cocktail the color of iodine was placed before him, an Old Grand-Dad Manhattan. He smiled.

That's what Mr. Kyler likes about the Vesper Club.

He calls it "the service," but really it's the familiarity. Here everybody knows your name and they're always glad you came.

The Vesper Club has survived on a narrow street in center-city Philadelphia for a little over half a century. It has one of those little peek-a-boo doors so emblematic of the Prohibition years. After getting the nod from a doorman in a red blazer you come into a long room with a red leather-bound bar that proceeds toward the dining room, where the leather motif goes green.

The men at the bar have the proprietary slouch of habitues. They belong there, maybe even more than they belong at home. Maybe they are at home.

The Vesper Club is unabashedly a businessmen's club. None of that Olympian remove Mr. Aldrich talks about there; none of that retreat from the clash of commerce. They expect you to deal. "I honestly believe there is more business conducted here at our lunches than in all the City of Philadelphia," said Bernie Cunningham, the maitre d'.

Mr. Kyler agrees.

This is a city club, full of lawyers and politicians and their retinues. The walls hold pictures of old Philadelphia houses. A vast mural of Philadelphia's port spreads across a back wall. It is strangely lighted; it seems to glow.

Bucolic touches are scant; no sailboats, no taxidermy.

Mr. Kyler is proud of his club: "I've never had anyone refuse me when I invited them to lunch."

The Vesper Club used to be a men's club. In the 1980s women knocked on the door as they did elsewhere. "We saw what was happening in the business," said Jim Maugeri, the club's comptroller. "We saw no need to fight it."

Today the Vesper Club has about 300 women among its "few thousand members," said the comptroller. But it hasn't changed all that much. The dues are still low, about $100 a year (Dues and initiation feels run well over a thousand dollars in the Maryland Club, and up to $1,500 a year in Washington's Cosmos Club.) To join you must still be endorsed by one or more members, the system that prevails on most men's and former men's clubs. It still has the great service, the great food, the "ineffable sense of belonging and recognition" that is the ideal intent of clubs, men's, women's or mixed.

Dead

There is an anecdote about Washington's Cosmos Club, of the day they found one of the members dead in his chair. When the stretcher-bearers arrived, one of them entered the library, looked around and asked, "Which one is it?"

The Cosmos Club is the Mount Olympus of men's clubs. Neither money nor high birth will get you in. It is a diverse collection of maximum achievers: in the arts, sciences, politics, the law, and other traditional fields. There have been black members in the club since the 1960s. Jews have been in much longer.

Three presidents have been members; two vice presidents, a dozen Supreme Court justices. It has 50 Pulitzer Prize winners on its rolls and 29 Nobel laureates. Some of its members have had their pictures put on stamps, even on foreign stamps.

So why did this league of enlightened men persist for 110 years in the unenlightened exclusion of women?

According to Merrimon Cuninggim, a member for about 30 years, "This club goes back to the days when men didn't think there were women who could belong; these were men who delighted in the friendship of men and accepted the absurd proposition that men are different and superior to women.

"It comes from the old custom in Britain of the women excusing themselves while the men sit around and have drinks and talk things over. They believed that women had nothing to contribute to a discussion of international relations, for instance, or the problems of running a government."

In any event, today, according to Mr. Cuninggim, "It is a lot less stuffy than it used to be."

One reason for that is Dr. Kay Jamison. She is a cheerful 36-year-old Johns Hopkins psychologist, a student of manic depression. She came into this abode of eminent men as an equal "about four years ago." She loves the place.

What does she find here? She advances the usual practical reasons: she likes the library; she likes the reciprocity the Cosmos has with clubs in London, places like the Reform Club. But she also admits to reasons slightly more revealing of her tastes and personality.

"I am very 19th century. My sentiments, my references are in the 19th century," she said. "I like to surround myself with old things; I love old buildings like this."

Such references are plentiful in the Cosmos Club. It was built at 22d and Massachusetts Ave. N.W. in 1873, and is one of the most architecturally sumptuous structures in the capital, at least as far as its interiors go.

The Warne Lounge seems to refer to an even earlier time than the 19th century. It resembles a baroque mirrored hall at Versailles, with its gilt walls painted ceiling and soaring windows. There are rooms with ceiling murals, others encased in fine cherrywood. Staircases in rich red carpet ascend to the lodging rooms above, and walls are hung with ancient Chinese prints. A painting by John Singer Sargent dominates a small room near the library Dr. Jamison loves so much, itself a panelled room adorned with paintings of ships at sea, a carved stone fireplace.

The library includes many books by the club's members. Dr. Jamison's own study of the link between depression and artistic creativity, "Touched With Fire," is among them.

Dr. Jamison stands by a window in another painted room; she looks out at the traffic building up in the morning -- through power city. The place, she admits, gives her a "protected feeling," a sense of remove from all the mad rush outside.

Sociability

Mr. Aldrich, a maven in such matters, laments that a true sociability can be achieved only in a men's club based on birth. "Birth is the key," he said, "only because it is something you either have or haven't got." Like a long neck. It assures a commonality among the club members, of class, of values.

So is this "pure sociability," as he calls it, achievable without the byproduct of invidious bitterness felt by those left outside?

Maybe. But where? Perhaps in places like the Apex Men's Club of Dundalk. Even Mr. Aldrich sees felicitous possibilities in the suggestion. "You do find pure sociability among working-class people," he said, without a trace of condescension.

Admittedly there are no Nobel Prize winners among this assembly of 42 men in Turners Station. Nor has any member's face appeared yet on a postage stamp.

Actually, the Apex Men's Club didn't start out that way. It was founded as a mixed club in 1963 as the Apex Social Club. But after a couple of years the women who were in it left.

"Now we have an Apex Men's Club and an Apex Ladies' Club," said Richard Brown, vice president of the former.

Mr. Brown, a Sparrows Point steelworker for 30 years, doesn't regard this situation as satisfactory: "I have suggested many times that we don't need two clubs, but that's like beating a dead horse." He said it's the women who resist the reintegration.

It is not all that difficult to join the Apex Men's Club. You don't have to be rich. You don't have to be famous, or to have won a medal or anything like that.

"You become a member by just coming in and letting it be known you want to work in the community," said Mr. Brown, adding: "Free of course."

Which is not to say there aren't some necessary qualifications.

"You got to have a good moral character," said Mr. Brown. "We question all potential new members carefully. Thieves and crooks, we don't want 'em."

Just about every day some members of the Apex Men's Club wander in and out of the gray two-room clubhouse at 107 William Wade Ave. Most, but not all, live in and around Dundalk, or Turners Station, a traditionally black neighborhood just in from Bear Creek. They play dominoes, some cards. Occasionally they gather before the big-screen television for events like the Super Bowl.

There's not much else to do. There's no bar, just a few tables and folding chairs. There's a kitchen, and out back an enormous cinder-block barbecue pit and picnic tables.

Sociability, the ineffable pleasures of good-fellowship, is not the aim of the club, just a byproduct of its main purpose, which is to further the interests of the Turner Station community. To this end, they paint and fix up buildings, sponsor Little League teams, create Head Start programs and help make life a little easier for the local senior citizens.

Asked what he gets from the club, Mr. Brown, a relaxed and congenial 48-year-old man in a baseball cap, considers the question for a moment, then answers for the group: "Basically we don't do nothing, but we have the sense that we have something to do." Somehow it makes sense.

And they give things to each other.

To Ranier Harvey, for instance, a Baltimore County policeman and the club's youngest member at 26. "What do I get out of it? Being around other African-American men who offer me a positive image. Men who have wisdom and experience."

Not a bad payoff, especially since in this club you don't have to pay dues.

Richard O'Mara is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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