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Old Boys' Clubs

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

(continued from page 2)

In summing up the unwritten qualifications for membership at Buck's, Captain Murison says, "Well, a chap has to be the right sort [obviously, volumes can be read into that line], but basically we look to see if he is what we call a good egg." As an afterthought, he says with a grin, "As long as he doesn't eat his peas off his knife."

Storey, who has an impressive background in club management, firmly believes that the salvation of London's gentlemen's clubs lies in savvy administration. It used to be that many of the clubs were run by terribly tweedy codgers who juggled the books between pheasant shoots. "There are more and more trained professional people coming in to supervise the clubs now, because it's a business," says Storey. "They're finally getting smart about that."

The decreased popularity of gentlemen's clubs by no means suggests that the English have become less club-oriented. Heavens no! Clubs are simply taking on new forms. Socially charged mixed clubs, where the sexes merrily mingle, are a hot trend, springing up at such a rate that they may someday eclipse the traditional male bastions. About these upstarts, Lejeune sniffs, "They wear jeans and they do all the things that people are not supposed to do at their clubs--they do business and sign contracts and suck up to their agents. They're quite a different animal."

Different indeed. At the outrageously successful Groucho Club in Soho, a hangout for media types, from public relations executives to film producers, where the glitzy likes of Kevin Costner and Goldie Hawn have been welcomed in for a tipple despite their non-member status, where aspiring novelist Amanda Hemingway (no relation to Ernest) smokes gigantic cigars and the fetching female manager often wears low-cut black lace in the evenings, the mood is Bohemian-chic. At the posh, recently unveiled Monte's in Knightsbridge (see Cigar Aficionado, Spring 1996), the Art Deco motif complements the severely sophisticated, designer-labeled international members. Here, the tastes of the connoisseur are sated. Amenities include a gourmet restaurant with a famed French chef and a buzzing nightclub and an adjoining lavishly stocked cigar shop.

If there is one club that combines the best of two worlds--the deep tradition of the gents' clubs and the easy blending of the sexes, it is the Sloane Club. In its first incarnation, this tranquil retreat in the heart of Chelsea was for women only, established in 1922 for the use of distaff former officers of the armed forces. Today, after a massive restoration, the club invites both genders: some rooms are done in pastels while others are determinedly masculine, replete with rich oak paneling and well-endowed bookshelves. Redolent of gentility, this club has a membership that is 60 percent titled. There is a fondness for roasts carved from the trolley, and the attire leans heavily toward ascots and pearls. It's not unusual to see an impeccable woman asleep in an armchair, newspaper and sherry at her side--a refreshing twist on a classic tableau. As one new member confided to her daughter, "This is my bolt-hole from your father."

Clearly, London's burgeoning crop of new clubs offers great diversity. But for all their outward conformity, so do the traditional gentlemen's clubs. In fact, they are markedly individual, each priding itself in its singular qualities. Opines the redoubtable Lejeune, "You can, to a very considerable extent, judge a man's tastes, possibly even his character, by the club to which he belongs."

A tour of four august gents' preserves uncovers the real contrasts that exist in Clubland. The tour starts at the Traveller's, conceived to bring together distinguished globe-trotters. Founded in 1819, the club accepted as members only gentlemen who'd traveled at least 500 miles in a straight line from London. That requisite has since been expanded: now you must have visited four countries outside Europe and the United States. The sartorial membership is composed mainly of diplomats, foreign dignitaries, eminent war veterans and reputed travel writers. Pompous portraits of past club chairmen--bushy of brow and spruce of mustache--abound. The Traveller's, whose Pall Mall clubhouse is immense and regal, has an extremely formal and hushed atmosphere, perhaps partly due to the ardent reading that goes on there. The drawing room is chock-full of newspapers and periodicals, and upstairs there is a magnificent, well-tended library (one of the few in Clubland).

It's an entirely different scene at the more modest Savile Club, a chummy, egalitarian retreat founded in 1868 by gentlemen who sought to escape the oppressive tenor of traditional Victorian clubs. Here, animated conversation reigns supreme; raconteurs hold forth in a fireside area called the Sandpit. At the Savile, an out-of-work actor might find himself dining next to the chairman of a multinational corporation, and they'll get on swimmingly. The title of the club's official history says it all: "Hang Your Halo in the Hall."

Brooks's, on the other hand, is an archetypal London gents' club. Conjuring up a ducal country house, it contains a dramatic winding staircase, marble busts, vaulted ceilings, elaborate gilt-framed paintings of historic club gatherings, luscious molding, heavy burgundy drapery, forest-green leather chairs, a splendid wine cellar and the obligatory long mahogany rack in the foyer for the temporary storage of walking sticks and umbrellas. This is a particularly somnolent club, what with those fluffy bed pillows scattered about in the handsome library. One of the art objects on display is a bronze death mask of Napoleon, which rather sets the tone. Formed in 1764, Brooks's is profoundly rooted in ancestry. As many as eight generations of the same family have been members.

And then there is Buck's, the coziest of London's gentlemen's clubs. Tucked away in a small townhouse in Mayfair, it reeks of mildewed old money. The sofas are lumpy, the leather is cracked, the drapery is faded, the carpeting is threadbare, the floors are creaky--it all adds up to a mellow charm. Buck's was started after the First World War by a feisty officer named Herbert Buckmaster, who insisted that the mood at a club should be that of a private residence. He was still living upstairs when he was past 80, ruling with autocratic fervor. The current membership consists largely of businessmen, barristers and doctors, with a healthy sprinkling of royals. Prince Edward recently deigned to join, but not before sampling lunch. All Conservative prime ministers are made honorary members. Vintage engravings and photographs are neatly arranged on the walls, the most riveting image being that of the club's first president, in full military regalia. His name brilliantly captures the flavor of Clubland: Lt. Col. Lord Tweedmouth.


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