Third Thursday of the month, in season, is club night — the meeting, that is, of my gents’ dinner club in New York City.
We are a heterogeneous crowd: lawyers, doctors, writers, academics, a violinist, an ex-diplomat, some business types. The club’s been in business for decades. Bill Buckley was a member, showing up at our meetings almost to the end of his life. Occasional drop-ins include a famous novelist, a bestselling historian, a local politician. We gossip, trade political speculations, and generally have someone interesting as an invited guest speaker. It’s a fun evening. Everyone should have a club.
The origins of modern Anglo-Saxon clubmanship were conservative. The first clubmen came up in the English civil war of the 1640s. They were country people, banded together and armed with clubs to defend their land against rampaging soldiers from both armies. Says Austin Woolrych of these clubmen in his book Britain in Revolution: “They were moved by an attachment to old ways and to the rule of law.”
When, having had their fill of revolutionary politics, the English of the later 17th century settled down to commerce and private pleasures, modern club culture had its first growth spurt in the coffee houses of London. This trunk eventually put forth branches and twigs as varied as Lloyd’s of London (originally a coffee house, as was the London Stock Exchange), the American Revolution (percolated in the coffee houses of Philadelphia and Boston), and the modern Starbucks.
Dr. Johnson seems to have coined the word “clubbable.” His notion of clubbability was wide indeed:
One I have known who has been for fifteen Years the Darling of a weekly Club, because every Night precisely at Eleven, he begins his favourite Song, and during the vocal Performance by corresponding Motions of his Hand chalks out a Giant upon the Wall. Another has endeared himself to a long Succession of Acquaintances by sitting among them with his Wig reversed. . . . Such are the Arts by which Cheerfulness is promoted, and sometimes Friendship established.
Peter Ackroyd, in his history of London, records a sensational variety of clubs for every class and taste in the 18th century, including even “a Farting Club in Cripplegate where the members ‘meet once a Week to poyson the Neighbourhood, and with their Noisy Crepitations attempt to outfart one another.’”
The 19th century brought forth the purpose-built gentlemen’s club, child of a marriage between coffee-house culture and the London hotels where sporting squires and lords from the country would congregate when in town. The highest levels of English society disdained the clubs at first. Regency man-about-town Captain Gronow tells us that in 1814 “there was a class of men, of very high rank [he names some], who never frequented the clubs. The persons to whom I refer . . . used to congregate at a few hotels.”
#page#The prejudice soon faded. From the mid-19th century on, a man was known by his clubs, and they by him. To be horsewhipped on the steps of one’s club was the ultimate in social chastisement. It happened in 1877 to James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald, after the scandalous breaking-off of his engagement to Caroline May. Bennett had arrived late and drunk to a party at his fiancée’s house, where, in full view of the company, he had proceeded to mistake the fireplace for a urinal. The subsequent horsewhipping was performed by Ms. May’s brother.
By the 20th century the clubs were enforcers of gentlemanliness. George Apley, John Marquand’s fictional Boston gentleman, takes a stand against admission of a member who, he fears, might use the club as a place to — oh, horrors! — do business: “If Mr. Ransome is elected, I myself shall be obliged to resign from the Province Club.” The late Bill Deedes, editor of the London Daily Telegraph, told me the following story about his 1920s childhood. A well-born Englishman had been unmasked as the principal in some financial scandal. Bill’s father read out the details from his newspaper at the breakfast table one day. Then Deedes Sr. added a postscript of his own: “He will have to resign from all his clubs, of course.” Of course.
The most famous club of that period was unfortunately fictional: the Drones Club of P. G. Wodehouse’s short stories. There spats-wearing young idlers like Cyril (“Barmy”) Fotheringay-Phipps, Reginald (“Pongo”) Twistleton-Twistleton, and of course Bertie Wooster amused themselves by throwing sugar and bread rolls at each other. Whether there really was anything like the Drones Club, I don’t know, but I can’t help thinking there should have been. Very occasional outbreaks of Drones Club horseplay are not unknown at my dinner club.
The splendid old clubs of New York City seem to have survived pretty well into the modern age. I think I have attended functions in all of them at one time or other — Grolier’s, the Union League, the Metropolitan, the university clubs. They were shaken by two great cultural storms these past 30 years: the admission of women and the prohibition of smoking. The former was sour grapes on the part of feminists, whose attempts to set up women-only clubs in the 19th century failed for lack of interest. The latter was imposed by municipal authorities in the 1990s, on the pretext of protecting the health of club employees, who now have to smoke their Marlboros in the inner courtyards.
Here is a club story from Britain. One of the most exclusive of London clubs is Pratt’s (whose members, by tradition, address all club employees as “George”). In the mid-1990s, Pratt’s blackballed Michael Heseltine, deputy prime minister to John Major. Though Heseltine was a Tory from a respectable family, had made himself rich as a magazine publisher, and had a fair shot at being prime minister, he was apparently considered an unacceptable arriviste by the Pratt’s membership. The story went around that Heseltine, encountering a club member who had witnessed the balloting, demanded to know how many black balls were in the box. “Well . . .,” replied the member, “you are familiar with the appearance of caviar, I’m sure . . .”