An Outlook article on Dec. 16 misstated the annual squash membership fee at the Capitol Hill Squash and Fitness Club. It is $708. (Published 12/30/90)
Readers of Outlook one Sunday last summer could hardly have avoided a large front-page caricature of Grant Wood's "American Gothic." The original depicts a grim, straightlaced Iowa farm couple, he grasping a pitchfork. In the caricature, this demeanor remains, but the couple are now yuppies -- she clasping a bottle of Evian spring water and he brandishing a squash racquet. An accompanying article was even more explicit: Yuppies in Washington are sexually repressed, boring workaholics.
I didn't mind the Evian bottle, but that squash racquet bothered me. The game has had this class-conscious monkey on its back for 70 years, and it deserves a better fate. After all, squash long ago attempted to democratize itself -- which is more than polo can say.
The myth that squash is a snob-infested sport played exclusively by rich Ivy Leaguers with names like "Chip" and "Ham" can be traced to its aristocratic origins in England and the transplanting of the Old School Tie mystique to America. Although the game was said to have originated in the prison yard of Fleet Prison in London, it quickly established its social roots around 1850 at Harrow, a school for children of the British upper classes. From there the game expanded, not to the masses but to such bastions of privilege as country estates and men's social clubs.
Inevitably, the game was taken up by anglophilic Americans and was officially introduced in 1883 at St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H. The game spread to other British-oriented private academies in New England, and the squash activists in these places carried their enthusiasm for the game to Harvard, Yale and Princeton.
The game got its biggest push in this country in the 1920s, when a wealthy Yale alumnus left a fund to his university for a 50-court squash complex. The installation of similar complexes, on a lesser scale, soon followed at Princeton and Harvard.
It should be obvious, then, that no group of people sat around a table somewhere and said, "Let's make squash a game for the rich and the well-born." The popularity of the game in the Ivy League developed because the facilities were there, not the other way around. However, the elitist albatross was now hung from the neck of any Ivy Leaguer who ventured onto a squash court. The problem was not helped when prominent athletic clubs in New York, Boston and Philadelphia -- clubs whose membership was made up largely of Harvard, Yale and Princeton graduates -- encouraged squash playing but at the same time excluded Jews and blacks from membership.
What is often overlooked is the fact that by the 1960s squash had broken out of its effete-Eastern-snob syndrome and had gone national and public. Large commercial squash complexes were built in metropolitan areas from coast to coast, and the names of Jews and Pakistanis started appearing on sports pages as finalists in the big American tournaments.
There was one brief shining moment in the 1970s when I thought that squash would become a democratic sport once and for all. A mini-boom developed when those commercial clubs mushroomed. No one had to pass an ethnic, racial or religious litmus test to be admitted. All he or she needed was the ability to pay the monthly fees and the court fees.
When this democratic mini-boom took off, Washington, which had formerly been considered a squash backwater, took a gigantic leap forward with the construction of two excellent 10-court commercial facilities -- The Washington Squash Racquets Club (now the city Sports Squash and Fitness Club) and the Capitol Hill Squash Club (now the Capitol Hill Squash and Fitness Club). During most of the '70s these clubs, in concert with newly built facilities in Virginia, were crawling with non-elitist squash players. And there was even a touch of elegance when the Washington Squash Racquets Club installed a wonderful bar (later, unfortunately, to be replaced by Nautilus machines).
But the boom began turning to bust when high rents and profit considerations forced these clubs to raise their fees to the point where a twentysomething squash buff on a medium salary had to shell out $1,000 a year to enjoy the game on a regular basis. At one point, there was a mass exodus from one club when, in addition to charging the members a heavy yearly fee, they imposed a $12-an-hour fee for renting the court.
Thus began the third stage of squash: economic elitism, a spin-off of the new monied class that emerged from the Reagan era. The standard was: Anyone can play as long as he or she has a large disposable income. Squash had now come full circle with a twist: It became a symbol of yuppie affluence and self-indulgence.
But all is not lost, say some. There is still the Toronto model, which falls in between the American extremes of exclusionary privatism and pay-through-the-nose commercial recreation. As all squash buffs know, Toronto is a squash paradise because the game is heavily supported and subsidized by the government, which has seen to it that plenty of courts are built and that everyone has a chance to participate at a nominal fee. No one in Canada thinks of squash as an investment for profit.
Immediately, the question is raised: If Canada succeeded in democratizing the sport, why don't we imitate them? My answer is that we resist for the same reasons that we resist copying the Canadians' humane and relatively inexpensive national health-care system and their ability to absorb millions of new immigrants into their society with a minimum of tension and chaos.
As social commentators Lewis Lapham and Paul Fussell have demonstrated in recent books, America, in spite of hyped-up Fourth of July oratory from the halls of Congress and the White House, is a class-conscious society. We love all the trappings that symbolize our status in the social and economic pecking order. What was the first thing the narcissistic protagonists of the movie "Wall Street" and the novel "Bonfire of the Vanities" did when they started rolling in dough? Right -- they took up squash.
Burling Lowrey is a Washington writer. His next book is tentatively titled "Prose Styles in America."