When it comes to clubs and clubbiness, many a good fellow loses all sight of reason and descends into unwitting self-parody. Consider for example the case of the late John O'Hara, whose keen nose for the pretensions of others completely deserted him when it came to his own burning ambition to be the ultimate clubman. Here, for example, he grovels before an acquaintance in the hope of enlisting that gentleman's assistance in his endeavor to scale yet another Olympus:
" . . . do you still belong to the Philadelphia Racquet Club? If you do, would you consider putting me up for non-resident membership? I now belong to the Century, the Leash, the Coffee House, the Nassau Club, the Quogue Field Club, the Shinnecock Yacht Club, the National Press Club and the Beach Club of Santa Monica . . . I have an old P.R.C. roster and I know quite a few members, but I don't think any of them would carry as much weight as you. Certainly none I'd rather have go to bat for me."
It is significant, no doubt, that O'Hara listed the Century Club first among these high honors, for membership in that august association was something for which he had labored with shameless persistence. His friendship with the playwright Philip Barry was nearly sundered by Barry's initial reluctance to put him up for membership in the Century, out of the entirely reasonable conviction that the obstreperous O'Hara most surely would be blackballed--as in fact he was once Barry capitulated. O'Hara's biographer Matthew Bruccoli writes: "When Barry refused to resign from the Century in protest, O'Hara refused to speak to him for a time." At last, many years later, O'Hara was granted admission to paradise, and remained a proud, steadfast member for the rest of his life--which granted him the privilege to grouse, in 1962, about "the number of creeps who have been creeping into the Century."
They were of course creeps of the male persuasion. One shudders to imagine how O'Hara would thunder and rage were he around to witness a move now afoot to open the Century to creeps of the female persuasion. This undertaking was reported last week in The New York Times, which published the text of several documents relating to the identity crisis through which the Century is suffering--coverage such as is ordinarily accorded only to presidential news conferences and Middle Eastern wars.
On one side in this donnybrook stand the rebels, some 300 strong, who advocate the admission of women to the Century, which was founded in 1857 for "authors, artists and amateurs of letters and the fine arts"; they describe the club as "a gathering place for cultivated people" and contend that accepting women "seems appropriate in view of our club's principles." On the other side, evidently much in the majority, stand those who treasure "the effortless, unconstrained companionship among men and the casual freedom of association which over all the years has characterized the Century," and who, need it be said, are manning the barricades against the dreaded invasion of bimbos.
What is rather mysterious about this business is the assumption, on the part of these self-described "cultivated people," that any self-respecting woman would want to enlist in their numbers. There is much to be said for Groucho Marx's oft-cited observation that "I wouldn't want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member," but there is also much to be said for the logical variation on that theme: Who wants to be a member of a club that does not want him as a member?
And why--here we are really getting to the nitty-gritty--would any woman in her right mind want to be a member of a men's club in the first place? Have any of the ladies visited one of those places lately? If they have, and if they still want to join, then membership is certainly the fate they deserve.
There are, so far as I can tell, only four reasons to abandon one's dignity and sign on at a club: It offers a pleasant place to sit and read, friendly and personal service, a good meal and a good drink. Yet in no men's club of my acquaintance is even one of these amenities remotely approximated. The seating in these establishments, to begin with, invariably consists of ancient chairs of immense girth in which the stuffing has gone lumpy and the leather has acquired a distinct odor of stale tobacco; the reading matter consists of last month's magazines and copies of today's newspaper in which some other geezer already has demolished the crossword puzzle.
The member who lurches out of his chair and makes for the dining room or bar has in store a style of service that seems modeled after the comedy of Don Rickles or Phyllis Diller. One might expect, after the expenditure of many thousands in initiation fees and annual dues, a certain obsequiousness on the part of the hired help, but it is nowhere to be found. Instead the barman gazes into space, calculatedly ignoring one's increasingly desperate signals, and the waitress slams one's food about with gestures that travel the short distance between indifference and contempt. This is perhaps as it should be, but surely it is not what the clubman bargained for.
Surely, too, he cannot have bargained for the food, though forsooth it may remind him of the fare served up during his halcyon days at boarding school. Not long ago I dined with a friend at a noted Washington club where the powerful gather to cast melancholy gazes at food that defies description. He remarked, as the waitress menaced us with the menu, that there was a standing rivalry between his club and another across town to see which can serve the least edible food; my experience has been that the winner of this competition is whichever club I happen to be a guest in at the moment. Once, I must confess, I was served a handsome lamb chop at a men's club--but this noble effort was quite defeated by the cold, canned peas and potatoes with which it was surrounded.
And then there are the drinks. Surely a chap could expect of his club--his sanctuary, his home away from home--a proper drink. But no. A clubman's Bloody Mary is compounded of a dribble of vodka, tomato juice that has been cut generously with water and last week's celery stalk; it is served after sitting, on ice, for several hours. As for the clubman's martini, it hardly deserves the name. Poke through the ice--poke quickly, as it's rapidly melting--and you'll find a concoction vaguely reminiscent of the "martini" assembled with inexplicable pride by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a drink the mere mention of which struck terror among his associates; FDR mixed two parts vermouth (sometimes three) to one part gin, and in his honor this is still done in clubs from Boston to San Francisco.
That these pleasures could be the aspiration of any civilized, much less "cultivated," woman is quite beyond my comprehension. Surely the efforts of Steinem, Millet & Smeal have gone for something loftier than Breaded Veal Cutlets a la St. Grottlesex.