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Old Boys' Clubs

Jolee Edmondson
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

The gentlemen's club has proved a durable thread in the tweedy fabric of English society. It was born some 300 years ago in London, and even today, as it wobbles in the maelstrom of a swiftly changing world, its numbers gradually dwindling, it somehow holds onto its formidable dignity and mystique. Like all tradition-bound British institutions, it is dead set on survival. Most of the predominantly palazzo-style buildings that house these exclusive, time-honored fraternities are located in the West End, along St. James's Street and Pall Mall--an area still fondly referred to by blue-blooded brethren as "Clubland." At night, in the glow of original eighteenth century gaslights, these grand, anonymous edifices--described by one astute observer as "mausoleums of masculine inactivity"--exude mystery. Their tall windows often reveal a gray-haired figure creeping about in a dimly lit room, ghostly shadows playing on portrait-lined walls. The passerby is suddenly gripped by age-old images: snoring octogenarians in leather armchairs, mahogany tables supporting smoldering cigars and glasses of Port, stork-legged servants balancing silver trays, ruddy-complected curmudgeons nicknamed "Stinky" and "Piggy" mourning the demise of the Empire, an antique clock ticking away against deafening silence.

The amazing thing is that all these blatantly stereotypical perceptions are absolutely correct. While London's gents' clubs have grudgingly ceded to a few alterations over the decades, their character--and most of the platitudes that go with it--remains stalwartly intact.

The English, of course, have always been besotted with the idea of clubs. The genesis of this trait is difficult to pin down. But Anthony Lejeune has a couple of theories, as well he should. An old-guard clubman, longtime member of two of London's most venerable strongholds (Brooks's and White's) and a trustee at the Beefsteak Club, he is also a distinguished journalist and author of two books on the rarefied province of gentlemen's clubs. "I suppose it had something to do with Empire," he muses in an accent so clipped and patrician that it almost sounds like a foreign tongue. "I mean, if you're stuck out in the remote parts of India, you've got to create a club where you can go to. Another reason is that if you were going to gamble, it was highly desirable to know whom you were gambling with." In fact, gambling was the raison d'être at several of London's early male bastions.

Most of the clubs began in the late eighteenth century as coffee houses, gathering places where the politically like-minded could harangue about been the admittance of women as guests. Policies regarding female visitors vary dramatically. The Traveller's has opened a separate dining room for women who wish to have a meal there. Buck's built a ladies annex, the mandatory entrance for females arriving for lunch. The Savile Club offers candlelit dinners for members and their wives every Friday night. The Reform Club has really gone off the deep end, allowing women to become full members, while that old bulwark White's doesn't allow them under any circumstances, period.

government, read, swap, gossip, imbibe and play cards. Their names were often curious: The Lying Club, the Odd Fellows Club, the Humbugs. While these budding institutions increasingly regarded themselves as the embodiment of high civilization, many of their activities bordered on infantile. At the Golden Fleece, the members gave each other such giggle-inducing sobriquets as Sir Talkative Dolittle, Sir Timothy Addlepate, Sir Boozy Prate-all and Sir Nicholas Ninny Sip-all. A rather notorious clubman named Hughie Drummond, member of the erstwhile Pelican's at the turn of this century, was accused of having thrown a boar's head at a peer of the realm, which sent him crashing into the fireplace. "Nonsense!" Drummond protested indignantly. "It wasn't me. Not me at all. I've thrown nothing but jelly all evening."

As time went on, gentlemen's clubs became decidedly more subdued, their members trying their damnedest to behave like...well, gentlemen. There is still the random outbreak of juvenile delinquency. But oh, for the good old days of unbridled spontaneity, when boys could jolly well be boys, when Britain's finest young men whiled away afternoons by playing golf shots from the steps of one club to the next and the Duke of Devonshire whacked the shins of fellow denizens of Brooks's with the lead-filled end of his walking stick. Back then, no respectable woman set foot in Clubland, dangerous turf where footpads (muggers) lurked and high-born cads sat at windows and ogled anything remotely female that walked by.

Many aristocrats became so caught up in club life that they forgot they had a home. An elderly member of Brooks's once told Lejeune that he had discovered his grandmother's diary, wherein she grieved, "We have now been married exactly a year, in which time my husband has dined with me but once. Every other night he dined at Mr. Brooks's Club."

Certainly no stauncher advocate of the male refuge ever existed than Dr. Johnson, the immortal author and lexicographer, who pronounced, "A man is good for nothing unless he is clubbable."

By far the most revered (and oldest) of London's gentlemen's clubs is White's, founded as a chocolate shop in 1693 by an Italian, Francesco Bianco, who had changed his name to Francis White. At the outset, White's was primarily a gambling hub, its members habitually engaging in high-stakes card games and obsessive betting. The least difference of opinion invariably spawned a wager; a book for recording particulars was always laid open on the hall table. One day a man collapsed outside the club's door. Odds were immediately given and taken as to whether or not he was dead.

Save for the odd spirited poker game, the rambunctious gambling sessions that once ignited the inner recesses of Clubland have been replaced by quiet games of bridge and snooker.

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