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Thursday, 1 January 2009

Clubbed-Up

Racquet Club lobby, right

Philly's Clubs Want a Few Good Men --
and, Sometimes, Fewer Good Women

By Richard Carreño
Junto Staff Writer
I'm sitting in the lounge of the Racquet Club, restfully soaking up the privileged atmosphere of the five-story neo-Georgian men's club and feeling like a character out of the pages of John O'Hara. (Samuel Eaton, anyone?) I'm scanning the oil pictures on the walls (one a lascivious 1908 nude by James Bertrand), savoring a claret; and taking in the day's Wall Street Journal. On a building across the street, I see inscriptions chiseled into the stone for the Yale Club and the Haverford Club. (Wasn't the old Pen & Pencil Club just a block away, as well?) On the pavement, just below from my window perch, walk pass the working hoi-polloi rushing to catch evening trains to Jersey....

Whoa! Snap out of it!

A woman wielding a BlackBerry and striding into the lounge pulls me up short from my reverie of that time long ago. Despite appearances and little physical change at 215 South 17th Street, the site of the RCP's brick pile, it's no longer 1958, and Richardson Dilworth is no longer mayor.

In the the 21st century, the Racquet Club of Philadelphia, founded in 1889 by Strawbridges, Biddles, and the Wideners (you know, the usual gang), is hardly the men's club of yore. Think city club, or as the RCP puts it in today-speak, 'a private athletic and social club.'

If you're old enough to remember Dilworth, even Frank Rizzo, for that matter, you're also old enough to recall the day when Center City's men's clubs -- once there was more than a half-dozen, or more -- said conservative Philadelphia all over: a stasis that spelled 1-9-5-0. The clubs, from the politically-grounded Union League, to the sporting Racquet, to the rarefied exclusivity of the Philadelphia Club, were the time-warped preserves of fossilized Philadelphia lawyers and bankers, whether they were R-5'ers from the Main Line, cliff-dwellers from Rittenhouse Square, or home-owners from Chestnut Hill. In short, the clubs were fusty male bastions of the city's Republican -- and WASP -- Establishment. 'Proper Philadelphians,' sociologist E. Digby Batzell called them. That was then.

After a shakeout that signalled the death of several clubs in the 60's and 70's -- some still remember the Rittenhouse Club (now just a façade on Rittenhouse Square), and even when the Penn Athletic Club was in Center City (its vestige is now a rowing club on Boathouse Row), Philly's venerable 'men's' clubs morphed into city clubs. Male-only sexism was jettisoned. Ugly racism and religious bias (Jews once a had a club of their own, the Locust) were shamed away. Today, Groucho could even find a club he could love.

Was the change just new-age enlightenment? In part. But plummeting membership in the last half of the last century also played a significant spear-carrier role. It didn't take a math whiz to bottom-line that females and minorities could boost the membership take.

In the end, not all clubs were equal.

City clubs -- former 'men's clubs,' that is -- were the ones that took the hit. Other affinity-related clubs in Center City, say, the Franklin Inn Club, an eating club with a lit'ry flair; the Pen & Pencil, the nation's oldest press club; even the Acorn Club, the city's most prominent women's club, just rolled along. Over the years, I've been a member of the Penn Club (no clubhouse in Philly) and the University Club at Penn (strictly dining), but, well, these places aren't the same thing.

Today, Philly's top three clubs are the Union League, the Racquet, and the Philadelphia Club, and they survive and thrive. But with different missions and cultures.

If you're all business, strictly business, the Union League, founded in 1862 to support the Northern Republican cause and its father figure, Abraham Lincoln, is the place for you. But don't worry. Even if you're Democrat, today the club is 'non-partisan,' and there's a strong likelihood that among the club's 3,000 members, you'll find a non-Republican among the bunch.

The Racquet has more than 1,000 members, is jock all over, and, depending on your membership category, costing from $1188 to $2187 yearly. The RCP has got the best athletic facilities in town -- as well as one of only five court tennis venues in the country.

The Philadelphia Club started out in 1834 as a coffee house, was once sited in the Bonaparte House, and is now located, since 1865, at 13th and Walnut, on the northern edge of what today is the Gayborhood. (Ahem, that's different!) The club also claims to be the oldest in the United States. Yea, verily, even older than some the venerable London clubs in St. James's.

Let's make that the most exclusive, as well.

Pennsylvania novelist John O'Hara was instructive in these things.

Interestingly, many of O'Hara's fictionalized characters were Philadelphia Club members. Yet, O'Hara's own pathetic attempts at membership, in the 1950's, were black-balled. Sorry, John. Irish. Catholic. Hardly the ticket.

O'Hara understood the fine distinctions among Philly's clubs. It was a world that fascinated him. In one case, one of his characters asks whether the son of his scandalized father could ever get the nod at the Philadelphia Club. 'No, Locky, he won't,' he says. 'Memories are too long.'

In a letter to his pal, Richardson Dilworth, O'Hara made it personal: 'I personally have about much chance of getting a Nobel as I have of being made chairman of the Sniff Committee at the Philadelphia Club.'

Thanks to another Philadelphian, his long-time friend and socialite Edgar Scott, O'Hara finally got the acceptance he wished for at the Racquet Club. Not surprisingly, thereafter, many of O'Hara's most prominent characters -- Samuel Eaton of From the Terrace, for one -- were clubbed up at the Racquet.

Most amazingly, the Philadelphia Club today not only retains its exclusivity, it remains as the city's last men's club. Yes, men's club. As in women, forgetaboutit.

This last point resonates for me, at least, for it shows that Clubland's Luddites extend beyond Philadelphia. Several years ago, while on a business trip to London (I'm a book-buyer for @philabooks::booksellers), I arranged through a reciprocal relationship to eat at the Garrick Club. And have drinks. Well, almost.

It turned out that the Garrick refuses bar service to females, and later, in an article I wrote I stated my displeasure that my friend couldn't join me at the bar. I suppose I violated one of the Ten Commandments of Clubland: 'Thou Shall Not Speak Ill of A Fellow Club.'

All hell broke out. Letter after letter condemned me. Of course, that other troglodyte, Frank Rizzo, would have been very pleased.

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