It's only a small, brown, wooden sign but in the last few years it's been stolen three or four times, so Elizabeth Gordy takes it down once the summer season is over. She can't understand why the sign has become something of an Ocean City collector's item. All it says is "Berkeley Guest House; Young Ladies Only." What's so unusual about that?
Berkeley Hall House Rule Number 8: Management insists--do not loan and do not borrow clothing.
"I used the same rules I had in college in the '40s when I set up this whole system in '52, or was it '53?" Berkeley Hall founder Gordy says. "Anyway, since then it's been operated that way. We have nice personable girls who are really earning their money for school. Some of them hold down two or three jobs. That's the type of girl we like."
On an average weekend in July Ocean City's population increases from a winter low of 6,600 to more than 280,000. Most of the 280,000 are vacationers drawn to the ocean, boardwalk and bars. But for some, Ocean City isn't a place to spend money--it's a place to make it. Nearly a thousand high school and college students descend on the resort each summer to mix the drinks, guard the beaches and fry the funnel cakes. They rent houses, usually in groups of six or more, and spend their days on the beach, their evenings behind the counter and their nights close to a can of beer. In Ocean City they find two things: the jobs their hometowns in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia can't offer, and, perhaps even more important, the chance to get away from home.
Or that's what most of them find. For 45 young women, a summer in Ocean City is a summer at Berkeley Hall, a rooming house whose managers characterize it as "a decent place for decent girls." A place where the landlady prides herself on the "safety and supervision" she can provide.
"I had no idea it was a 'young ladies' house when I came here looking for a room," says one Berkeley Girl, as Gordy calls them. "I thought it sounded crazy. But I stayed because it was so cheap. I had a hard time adjusting." She looks over at Gordy's niece, Margaret Whittington, who now runs Berkeley Hall, and they both smile. "I'm adjusting now." She pauses, glances back at the laughing Whittington. "I might be adjusted by August."
There are scores of boarding houses in Ocean City but Berkeley Hall, Gordy claims, is the only one run "like a family" and the only one entitled to be called a "ladies residence." Only Berkeley Hall gives its residents maid service, baby-sitting referrals and a message service in the form of the founder's niece, all for $28 to $44 a week. And, in a town several Berkeley guests characterize as "wild," only Berkeley Hall has a neatly graying, tennis-outfitted Elizabeth Gordy to insist, "The girls are safer here. We do everything for the benefit of the girls."
And only Berkeley has those rules, 25 of them, which the residents have to agree to follow before they can move in. No visitors upstairs. No "callers" after 11 p.m. or before 10 a.m. No kitchen privileges. No borrowing of clothes. No sandy feet inside. The rules, and 45 signatures of compliance, are posted on the bulletin board in the lobby, right next to the church listings, phone messages, newspaper stories about Ocean City rapes and soap opera viewing schedule (Monday: General Hospital. Tuesday: The Guiding Light.)
The bulletin board is Berkeley Hall's central shrine. The Coke machine, TV, upright piano and pay phone scattered around the lobby all have their worshipers, but none inspire the same devotion. As each woman trundles down the steps and out the door of the four-story, shingle building, Gordy or her sister, Margaret Hall, or Hall's daughter, Whittington, calls out, "Read the bulletin board! Always read the bulletin board!" The three look at each other with sour expressions of disgust if the resident runs out the door without stopping. Berkeley Hall House Rule Number 5: If a room becomes so untidy that it is necessary to remove clothing, articles may be claimed by paying management $ .10 per article.
Gordy created Berkeley Hall in its present incarnation because her mother told her to. "Mother rented the house to families, then she ran it as a rooming house--not just for young ladies--but it was not always the operation we wanted it to be," Gordy says. "So my mother said to me--I was just widowed at 29 and with two small children--'I want you to run it. I want it operated properly.' "
Thirty years later, Hall, who joined Gordy as comanager when their mother died five years ago, finally persuaded her sister to retire. The sisters asked Hall's real-estate-agent son-in-law to sell Berkeley Hall, but the more Gary Whittington showed the house to potential buyers the more he and his wife Margaret liked it. So last winter they decided to buy Berkeley and run it in the Gordy tradition. Even so, when people want to know more about Berkeley than the simple facts of rates and rules, the Whittingtons refer them to Gordy. It's her place, she made it, they say, although Gordy insists she gave her niece a full lesson in Berkeley etiquette, beginning with the most basic ground rules.
"When Margaret Ann took over I told her she has to have the girls call her 'Mrs. Whit' or 'Mrs. Peggy,' not just Margaret Ann," Gordy says. "You need to have that distance. When I was Margaret Ann's age I was running the place like a sergeant."
Notice on Berkeley Hall bulletin board: There is food missing. If the guilty party persists in taking someone else's food, I will be forced to take drastic measures! and the guilty party will be asked to leave! --Mrs. Whit. (Put your name on your food.)
"They always take each other's food from the refrigerators upstairs, even if they would never steal, never touch another thing," says Gordy. "It drove me crazy. I'd try to trick them, would make brownies with laxatives in them . . ."
" . . . Soap flake peanut butter sandwiches . . . " her sister remembers.
"I waited for someone to get diarrhea," Gordy says, "but no one ever did, or no one said anything about it."
Berkeley Hall House Rule Number 20: The management reserves the right to request any girl to leave--at her discretion . . . not necessarily giving any reason."
"I read it to them, Rule Number 20, before they move in," Gordy says. "We interview the girls before we accept them. The girls have always enjoyed a good reputation at Berkeley Hall. But even though I've been interviewing all these years, I make some mistakes. We have a list of girls we just as soon would not have back another year, even though we don't go to the extent of turning them out. The girls get in the wrong crowd, they get drinking. A girl can change entirely--she just can't handle Ocean City."
"There are some pretty wild people in Ocean City," 18-year-old Lisa Baynard of Trappe, Md., says. Baynard attends a community college and lives with her parents. This summer at Berkeley is her first time away from home. "My parents weren't too thrilled about me coming to Ocean City for the summer. This place kind of softened them up."
Gordy won't accept anyone she doesn't think is old enough or mature enough to survive in Ocean City. "I just can't get over the parents who let these 16-year-old girls come down here," she says. "I tell them, 'Keep 'em at home. That's where they belong.' We're not baby-sitters. That's why we don't have a curfew. We lock the door after 11 but every girl has her own key. Look at Ellen here." Gordy calls over a small, red-haired young woman, pats her on the back and keeps her hand firmly set on her shoulder while she speaks. "She was barely 17, barely, when she came to us last year. We don't usually like to take them so young." Ellen smiles and squirms; if she also blushes, one can't tell because her face is already bright red from the sun. "We took her strictly on trial. She worked hard, was pleasant, obeyed the rules." Gordy releases Ellen and she dashes up the stairs.
"We had two darling little girls come, what were they, 16 or 17?" Gordy looks at her sister who frowns and calculates. "But when they arrived for the summer they were painted up to a fare-thee-well!"
" . . . makeup, high heels . . . " Hall mutters.
"The high heels didn't matter on their own . . . " her sister says.
"They did make a lot of noise on the stairs," Hall insists.
"Well, some girls wear more makeup than others, and that's all right, but this was ghastly, it didn't look right. And they were night owls, they stayed out late--which is their business. We don't have a curfew and we're not baby-sitters--but they made a lot of noise when they came in. So I had them on the carpet. 'It's got to stop,' I said. I dressed them down twice. The third time I said, 'Pack up.' It was not a question of the makeup or of them drinking. It was this complete independence, thinking that they could do anything."
Out on the beach, a mere 175 feet from the house, as Gordy's flyers explain, several evenly tanned Berkeley women lie on the sand. They flip from stomach to back, back to stomach, every few minutes. "Most of the problems in the house are taken care of pretty quickly," one of them says. "They kicked one girl out last week. When she says she'll kick you out, she means it."
Berkeley Hall House Rule Number 15: No consumption of alcoholic beverages, or any form of drugs on premises.
Rule 15 is one of the few things that has changed at Berkeley since Gordy founded it. She added the drug prohibition a decade ago. But all of Ocean City hasn't managed to preserve its past as successfully as Berkeley, and Gordy is saddened by some of the changes. She misses all the old hotels along the Boardwalk with their porches full of guests peacefully nodding in their rocking chairs. "All those T-shirt stands . . ." she says. "I don't want to say anymore. It's just an overabundance of certain things."
And, Gordy explains, it takes a little longer to fill Berkeley each year, to find the "caliber of girls" Gordy demands. More and more of them want to rent an apartment with friends, be on their own.
"So they go and get their own apartments," Gordy says. "And then one of their roommates disappears and they're saddled with the rent or something else happens. They're completely disillusioned and come here and beg us to take them in."
Why? Because at Berkeley Hall Gary Whittington promises he'll "go after" anyone who bothers the girls. Because, while the rules may be a little stricter than at home, Berkeley Hall still is a friendly place to live. "You get 43 sisters when you come here," says Ellen Hope, 18, of Alharetta, Ga. "And mostly because it's cheap."
But what about the rules?
"Really, it's only the place you sleep," says Ellen Dodd, 18, of Salisbury, Md. "You know you've got that place to go and that it's safe. The rules aren't as bad as they sound. You're really on your own. You can do whatever you want outside the house. And down here by the boardwalk, there's a party every block." She giggles and wonders if she should have said that.
Is Berkeley Hall a little behind the times? All of the girls giggle and nod. Their landladies just smile. They already have some reservations for next summer.