THE LOUNGE OF Albany’s Fort Orange Club has the elegance of an old London hotel. You wouldn’t be surprised to see a tall red bus pass by the high windows just beyond the stately leather chairs. The pleasant aromas of good cooking drift in from the dining room and mix with the odor of tobacco and old furniture. If tradition has a scent, you’re sniffing it.“No women, no dogs, no Democrats, no reporters.”
– attributed to New York's Union League Club.
For several hundred area men—and, lately, some women—the four Capital Region city clubs signify social status and serve as a haven from hoi polloi. Membership is by invitation and the dues are expensive. These clubs, survivors of a time when downtowns were the unquestioned centers of civilized life, are each located in the heart of one of the Region’s three old cities. The Troy Club is in the former Hendrick Hudson Hotel on Broadway. Schenectady’s Mohawk Club is in the historic Stockade area. In Albany, the University Club and the Fort Orange Club are at the top of Capitol Hill.
At lunchtime the clubs serve up a tradition that goes back over a hundred years, a tradition of comfort, personal service and good fellowship in pleasant surroundings.
The dining room at the Fort Orange Club is reached through a huge double door. Three rows of tables, each topped with white linen and sparkling glassware, are arranged beneath gleaming chandeliers. The walls are of dark mahogany. Pastel-striped valances and matching drapery decorate the windows.
The essence of membership, of “belonging,” is revealed in the journey from doorway to table. Imagine you are a member and come along for lunch. As you pass your fellows, each gives a nod or speaks a greeting. You are complimented on last week’s party; you are promised a phone call.
The waitress knows you and anticipates your needs. As you settle into the leather cushioned armchair, she places before you a Gibson—just the way you like it—with two pearl onions. (In P.G. Wodehouse’s Drones Club, the members were identified by their various cocktails; thus a Whiskey-and-Splash would be found in conversation with a Lemon Sour.)
The menu changes daily. It is an old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes bill of fare, prepared somewhat blandly to soothe the palates of elderly members. Yesterday you confessed you could happily eat the chefs shepherd’s pie every day of your life. But today, for fun, you’ll try the fish. Although it is offered broiled, you prefer it fried. That’s no problem, sir. You order a split of a New York State seyval blanc and reach for a warm roll. Service is deft and tipping is forbidden.
While you dine, you chat with your companion about the new play you have just seen and your upcoming skiing vacation to Vail during your children’s spring break. As you both settle into the conversation, you mention a deal you are trying to put together and your companion expresses an interest. He also thinks he may know a couple of others who might want to participate. He promises to get back to you by Friday. Then he tells you a funny thing his toddler daughter did the other day and you make a plan to meet for a game of squash. The waitress clears your plates and you both order coffee.
|Photo by Martin Benjamin|
“Members, when they join,” it goes on, “are purchasing promises of exclusivity and personal attention which, in large part, are not provided in the commercial sector.”
Fort Orange Club president Albert Hessberg 2d explains that the club has always been primarily a gentlemen’s social club. “For me,” he says, “it’s pleasant rather than important. It’s a comfortable place where you can socialize with friends. Members can eat in pleasant surroundings and they can use the athletic facilities as a place to improve the body or the library for intellectual stimulus. It adds a dimension to the lives of many of us here in Albany.”
Among the athletic facilities are a swimming pool, squash courts and an exercise room with Nautilus-style equipment. Perhaps you spend a half-hour working out.
You leave the club after selecting a Macanudo from the cigar display in the lobby. You feel physically and emotionally invigorated.
“THE HISTORY OF American clubdom is actually the story of Social Security—with capital S’s’ writes Cleveland Amory. “From the very beginning clubs were formed not primarily to get people in but to keep people out.” People, that is, who might make one uncomfortable. The city club, that most exclusive of organizations, has a tradition of denying membership to men of unacceptable social or religious standing, and, of course, to women, who were excluded from most of public life until after World War II. These traditions were upheld neatly through the requirements at most clubs that new members must be proposed and seconded by current members, that their names be posted publicly at the club for comment by any member and that they be approved by the vote of the club trustees.
The vagaries of social fashion have resulted in some curious decisions on membership over the years. A particularly remarkable case involves the current president of the Fort Orange Club himself. One of Albert Hessberg’s ancestors by marriage, Simon Rosendale, was a prominent Jewish attorney in Albany during and after the Civil War and was one of the founding members of the Fort Orange Club in 1880.
Sometime after the turn of the century, however, during the time when the massive immigration of eastern European Jews to this country brought about an ugly wave of anti-Semitism, Rosendale became unwelcome at the club. With the exception of Governor Herbert Lehman, no Jews were welcomed in the Fort Orange Club again until the mid-1960s, when several members pushed to have Hessberg himself invited to join as the first Jewish member of the new era. Today, club members generally find they can be comfortable with a civilized man of any race or religion and most would probably be startled at the suggestion that things ought to be some other way. And after all, comfort is the issue.
Keeping women out, however, is a tradition that goes back long before religion was invented, but during the last few years the clubs have come under public scrutiny as the century-old tradition of men-only membership is questioned. Two of the clubs—the University Club and the Troy Club—subsequently elected to admit women. The Fort Orange Club and the Mohawk Club have not and Governor Cuomo has issued an executive order prohibiting state employees from conducting state business at any club that discriminates.
There are other problems. Dues, high as they are, aren’t always enough to meet payroll and expenses, prompting many clubs across the country to launch unprecedented membership drives. (Such is not the case at the Fort Orange Club, which has a waiting list.) Lines of social status are not as well-recognized these days, thus taking away some of the snob appeal. And a man with a career and a family just doesn’t always have enough time to make club membership worthwhile.
The issue of women as members is probably the thorniest of the problems. Becoming comfortable with females appears to be an adjustment of a different order from getting along with men of a different race or religion; to some it threatens the essence of club life. To understand why, one has to examine the reason such clubs came to exist in the first place.
The perspectives I collected provide an interesting and sometimes amusing commentary to the portrait we’ve just seen of a proud and stately club.
|Photo by Martin Benjamin|
Anthropologist Marvin Harris describes primitive societies in which “ ... males menace women and children with bull roarers [noisemakers whirled on a string], masks and other paraphernalia whose nature is kept secret from the women. Men’s clubhouses, in which these items are stored and from which women are excluded, are also part of the same complex.” Harris would find it no accident that some of the well-known fraternal lodges dress in the feathers and skins of the animals from which the clubs take their names.
The very act of excluding women is one bonding ritual; competition within the group, or between a pair of groups, is another, hence the stress many clubs place on their sports facilities. Sports provide an important opportunity for bonding, whether in individual pursuits (swimming, weightlifting) where the gym itself is the bonding environment, or in team activities. Tiger proposes “that sport behavior is functionally equivalent to the hunting pattern with which the human male has been endowed by evolution.
“While there may be fellowship between teams, more intense immediate bonding occurs between team members than among players of the same game. ... An intriguing aspect of the naming of sports teams—this applies particularly in North America—is the frequent use of huntable animals’ names—the Lions, Bears, Tigers, Hawks, Cubs, etc.”
Ask any clubman why he belongs to his club and the quick answer is “comfort.” Beyond the obvious comfort of the place itself, he is talking about the comfort of associating with people like himself and, probably, the comfort of knowing that he is special enough to have been chosen a member. This is what class distinctions are all about.
Social historian Max Lerner decided that the elite use clubs “chiefly as instruments for the strategic manipulation of the life of the community—through their control of the country clubs, the eating and discussion clubs, the civic associations, the fund-raising drives.” The tradition was started in 18th-century London, source of so many of our images of what constitutes an “upper class.” What did not cross the Atlantic as well was an ability to impose sharply defined class distinctions upon a young country founded, in theory, to discourage such thinking.
With no aristocracy of lineage such as the English have so lovingly evolved, we must look for other standards with which to class ourselves. The clubs offer recognition of worthy occupations, and many prestigious corporations return the compliment by underwriting all or part of an executive’s membership dues.
But maybe, after all, men need their own clubs for new reasons in this generation. Historian Peter N. Stearns writes, “In a period when articulate women are vaunting their own sisterly unions, and sometimes deriding a male inability to form close bonds, the maintenance and even enhancement of male leisure groupings, even all-male places, can be fully justified. ... Leisure [serves] to give men some regular opportunity to be with their own kind, with the mixture of fellowship and mutual testing that has served to link males since prehistory.” Of course, he is talking about leisure, not work, and that’s the nub of the Big Problem: there are women in the work force today who believe they are being denied important opportunities because they are not a part of some of the clubs. We’ll examine that issue after a look at the histories of the individual area clubs.
THE CITY CLUBS were founded within 35 years of one another. Three already have celebrated centennial anniversaries. The oldest is the Troy Club, begun in 1867, which occupied the same beautiful building on Congress Street for 114 years. A fire in 1903 gutted the place; a fire in 1981 destroyed it. There were financial problems as well. A debt of $50,000 in taxes and close to $14,000 in notes resulted in a levy on all of the members—an embarrassment that clubs prefer to avoid, although one elderly member recalled the days when a clubman would respond to such a debt with the declaration, in the dining room, that he would pay half and expect the other members to make up the difference.
A rod-and-gun-club formed by a group of rabbit hunters was the basis of Schenectady’s Mohawk Club. Sixty-three members signed the charter in 1885 and quartered themselves above a State Street photographer’s shop. The timing was right. The city population would triple within 30 years, thanks to the arrival of the Edison General Electric Company. By then club membership was up to 500, with new and permanent headquarters in what was once the office of the Mohawk Bank. (The old vault in the basement is used for dry storage today, reports one former employee—an intimidating path to travel just to get some rice.) And trust those scientists to circumvent Prohibition in style. During the 1920s, the club bar was closed but bottles were hidden and available on the third floor. Booze was smuggled in from Canada in the coal tender of a Delaware & Hudson locomotive. The club’s house committee met the train in the city yards to receive the contraband.
The Fort Orange Club has occupied the same building, at 110 Washington Avenue, since its founding in 1880. There is a placidness about this club’s history that is in keeping with the image it maintains today. It is the club to belong to; even some prominent Schenectady businessmen eschew the Mohawk Club in its favor.
The University Club is a relative youngster, founded in February 1901 by a group of graduates in the chapel of the old Albany Academy. When they incorporated three months later there were 140 charter members. Their first house was at 99 Washington Avenue; they moved a couple of blocks to the present location, No. 141, in 1907, acquiring the building for $34,000. It was destroyed by fire in 1923; a year later the rebuilt house reopened. A highlight of the Club’s history is the visit paid by William H. Taft during a 1910 dinner at the Ten Eyck Hotel.
The University Club’s attitude toward women during its early years is similar to the former policies of most city clubs. In 1901 a “ladies’ night” was created, allowing a woman to dine in a specially designated room when escorted by a member— having arrived through a specially designated “ladies’ entrance,” as was common practice at most hotels and nightspots at that time.
In 1918, wives were welcomed in the club itself on designated evenings and for no more than two hours. Five years later a weekly ladies’ night was authorized. In 1938, women were no longer required to use a separate dining room.
Thursday was, for years, the “maid’s night out,” and the Thursday dinner at each of the clubs was therefore very popular. New York’s Union Club had very strict rules barring women for years. But as soon as these rules were relaxed, there was a great invasion of the ladies on Thursdays there, too. In Who Killed Society, Cleveland Amory writes:
... The late Union Club wit. Albert Eugene Gallatin, arriving at his club one popular Thursday ... and seeing the ladies, about some of whom he had doubts, could not resist a sly wink at the ancient doorman. “Do you mean to say,” he joshed, “that the Union Club has come to a day when a man can bring his mistress to the club?” Along with the great club revolution, the doorman remembered the great club tradition. “You may, sir,” he replied stiffly, “if the lady is the wife of one of the other members.”
TODAY, WOMEN ARE NOT forbidden to enter the clubs (no stern bouncer ejects them at the door). Wives and family members are welcomed at most functions, and there are many trips and special banquets sponsored by the clubs. Many women (and men) feel, however, that this is not enough.
A bill was passed last year in New York City that takes a tough stand against any public accommodation that denies entrance on the basis of race, sex or religion. It states that a club is not considered to be private if its membership exceeds 400, if there is a regular food and beverage service, and if it derives a substantial part of its income from non-members who use it for business or trade purposes.
“If you are truly a social organization,” says Manhattan attorney Lynn Hecht Schafran, who helped design the bill, “then the law can’t reach you. But if you’re largely a commercial enterprise, or a place where someone goes to take a business colleague to lunch and then puts in a chit for it, or if you rent out space, you’re not considered private.
“The bill was challenged by the New York State Club Association, which lost a preliminary injunction and a summary judgment by the State Supreme Court. They’re now going to the Court of Appeals to challenge the constitutionality of the bill.
“There is similar legislation,” Schafran goes on, “that was introduced in the State Assembly and never got out of committee. It’s not surprising when you consider who is in the Assembly and what club they belong to.”
What is at legal issue is the nature of business conducted on club premises. Are there transactions occurring in which professional women should have an equal share? And how much of a given member’s expenses is picked up by his employer?
Although General Electric has cut back on its support of Mohawk Club membership for its executive employees, it has footed much of the bill for years. But the Mohawk Club has the distinction of being the only area club that never forbade female members in its charter.
“That doesn’t matter a damn,” a member admits. “There’s an unwritten rule in the club that says you just don’t nominate any women.”
Things began to change at two of the clubs in 1980 when a state policy was instituted forbidding many officials of state government from conducting business in clubs that excluded women. That ban quickly spread to the State Court of Appeals and the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations.
That same year, a University Club constitutional amendment to admit women failed to get the needed two-thirds majority, in a vote of 146-142 at one of the largest turnouts to a club meeting.
In 1981, the State Assembly voted 78-63 against a similar antidiscrimination bill, with all but one of the Capital Region Assembly members voting no; the Niskayuna representative was absent.
During that meeting, Assemblywoman May Newburger of Great Neck, sponsor of the bill, quoted an article by Smithtown Assemblyman Robert Wertz praising the hominess of the Fort Orange Club. “If it’s so comfortable and homey,” she went on, “don’t deduct it as a business expense.”
Wertz interrupted her by shouting, “We’re not going to let you in!”
Agitation continued at the University Club. Most of the Court of Appeals judges resigned their memberships over the issue, but it continued to be defeated for the next three years in emotional and well-attended meetings until, in March 1983, the two-thirds majority was obtained.
Across the river, the Troy Club, still reeling from the destruction of its building, was faced with similar pressures. The late George M. Low, president of RPI, resigned from the club and instituted a policy at the school forbidding faculty and staff from making use of any club that discriminates.
Two months after the University Club changed its policy, the Troy Club did the same.
Questioned about the ban on women, Troy Club president Thomas O’Donnell was content to say, “You’re asking about something that was before my time.”
BUT AT THE Fort Orange Club and the Mohawk Club, change still seems a way off. “People know the club the way it is,” says Fort Orange Club president Hessberg. They enjoy it and they don’t want to change it. “It started as a men’s club in an age when there was nothing unusual about it and it has never reached a point where there was enough feeling that it was wrong. I’m not going to say it will not change. It may. I just don’t have very strong feelings about it one way or another. It’s a pretty good club the way it is now. And I guess I feel that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Male societies—with their bull roarers and their initiation rites—come from a time when the men who had power were hunters and warriors who fed and protected their communities. To a large extent, this was still true in the late 19th-century world of soldier-aristocrats, when most city clubs were founded. But this is no longer true today, and clubs, should they survive at all, may find that the comfort of civilized society in pleasant surroundings is possible for men and women together.
The original clubs bill—local law 63 in New York City—is being reviewed by the State Court of Appeals to see if its jurisdiction applies. “I would guess that it won’t hold up,” says Hessberg, an attorney. “But if it is upheld, I don’t think most people would go into deep mourning.”
– Capital Region, March 1986