The Cosmos Club on Massachusetts Avenue NW. (Roxanne Roberts/The Washington Post)

After the abrupt exit of its longtime general manager in September, some members of the elite private club near Dupont Circle are challenging the board over its hush-hush decision.

More than 140 of them signed a petition that they hope will force the board to hold a special open meeting — at which they want to order the board to explain why they parted ways with William Caldwell, and order it to reinstate him.

Phyllis Scalettar, one of the leaders of the campaign, said Caldwell — the GM for 22 years and a club employee for 32 — was “very well thought of by the members . . . very well respected,” and that members got no explanation for his departure. In a letter to fellow members, former board president Tedson Meyers complained that Caldwell had been dismissed via voice mail.

“The real questions circulate around process, rationale and honesty,” Scalettar told us.

Board President Barbara Culliton declined to discuss Caldwell or the petition campaign. “The only thing I can say, and anybody in any organization can say, is that out of respect for everyone involved, the club will not comment on internal matters.”

Culliton told us that Caldwell resigned. But an Oct. 17 letter from the board to Cosmos members described his departure as a “separation” that it could not discuss further, noting that Caldwell had a lawyer and “the possibility of litigation has been raised.” The former GM did not return our calls for comment.

Founded in 1878, Cosmos has boasted presidents, Supreme Court justices and Nobel laureates among its members; current A-list members include pundit Mark Shields, historian Michael Beschloss and Librarian of Congress James Billington. But since its tumultuous 1988 vote to admit women, it has been fairly quiet, except for when Monica Lewinsky’s lawyer set up shop there in 1998, briefly turning the grand Beaux-Arts mansion into a paparazzi magnet.

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