Years ago, a young Bostonian’s quest for status began the moment he enrolled at Harvard. He needed to enter the right final club, the right country club, the right Boston club, the boards of the right charities and finally, if he reached the ziggurat of Boston society, Harvard’s almighty Board of Overseers. His children would, in their turn, need to go to the right boarding schools, join the right societies and know whether or not the right wines were being served at the right time.
Final clubs were anything but final. After graduation, Harvard society moved on to the plethora of elite clubs that still draw an exclusive membership in twenty-first century Boston.
The Somerset, Union, Tavern, Algonquin, St. Botolph and—for women—Chilton Clubs represented the hub of The Hub. The stature of these clubs was so elevated that no one could aspire to the city’s first circle of power without joining one, or better still, several.
Today, in Beantown, the rules have changed.
As institutional stability vanishes, one no longer need frolic through WASP theme parks to claw one’s way to the top. Other avenues to power and high society avail themselves. And while identity politics have by no means demolished these hallowed institutions, “diversity” is upon them. Just over a generation ago, Irish Catholics, Jews and blacks were not considered worthy of membership. A woman’s place was, well, in her own club, the Chilton-—not in the den of men, in any event. At Myopia Hunt Club on Boston’s North Shore, women golfers were forbidden to enter through the main door or linger in the lounge.
More than a century ago, these reservoirs of blue blood began as a mansion away from one’s mansion, the alternative to the city’s less-than-appealing selection of restaurants and too-public hotels. These were places where men could smoke the mild cigar and sip a fine brandy while playing cards and catching up on the news from Europe. “There was a whole class of people that didn’t have to work,” says Hugh Davids Scott Greenway ’71, a member of both the Tavern and the Somerset.
Among their descendents in today’s fast-paced urban Boston, the old ways, though not entirely extinct, are fast fading. “Lifestyles have changed,” says Robert Minturn ’61, a member of the Somerset Club. “Young people work-they have a sandwich at their desk and then go to the gym for 40 minutes. They won’t spend an hour and a half at the Somerset in the middle of the day.” Even the older crowd is more likely to power-lunch at Radius and later cap the day by working it off on the squash courts at the Harvard Club. And dinner? If anywhere, it will be back in suburbia with the kids. “It is very difficult for the Somerset.” says James Righter ’58. “There are no sports, no games...The Somerset is great for retired people.” Indeed the average member of most of these clubs is in their late fifties and sixties. Years ago, former Somerset President Richard S. Humphrey ’47 was once quoted as saying, “One hundred years from now, we’ll all be out of business and long forgotten. I just don’t think that there is going to be
a need for a place like this.” From Humphrey, the pessimism may be understandable. As Minturn put it, “Rickey said that? Well, yeah, he’s A.D.”
To gain admission to one of Boston’s clubs, candidates attend a number of dinners over the course of several months. “Membership selection is an elaborate process,” says Minturn, “They sound people out and don’t officially propose them until the very end. This is partly to avoid an embarrassment.”
Members use the clubs for both business and social purposes. The intimate old-Boston ambience appeals to out-of-towners who are often brought up as guests. “At the Somerset,” St. Botolph members have long chuckled, “they have the money; at the Union, they manage it; at the Algonquin, they’re trying to make it; and at the St. Botolph, they enjoy it.” The Chilton and Somerset are primarily social. Even discussing business in the morning room used to bring a waiter with a silver platter and a small card asking the offender to refrain. “Even now,” says Minturn, “flagrant displays of briefcases and papers, are frowned upon.” Cell phones are a cardinal sin. At the Algonquin, on the other hand, there are no such qualms. “It is a business club,” scoffs one member of the Tavern. The St. Botolph and Tavern Clubs are considered “artsy,” and the Union “is full of business lawyers.” Boston’s British heritage gives the town, for better or for worse, a distinctly clubby, if stratified atmosphere. Though many of the traditio
ns and aims of these clubs were laudable in their own day, they have inherited a dubious legacy of snobbism and exclusion.
Election committees today struggle to attract a politically correct pool of candidates. Minturn insists, “there are plenty of people who are eager to enjoy a great meal and good conversation.” The difficulty, though, lies in diversifying their membership. “There just are not too many takers,” says one club member, who asked not to be named, “but it’s understandable. If you were black, you wouldn’t want to stick out like a sore thumb. My instinct is that the Somerset would be delighted to have more, but my guess is that [minorities] would not be too interested.” A Taverner, gave another explanation: “These clubs are slow to reach out, but they’ve gone a long way in that direction. The turnover in a university, for example, occurs on a yearly basis. At the Boston Clubs, on the other hand, the turnover is one generation. People are there for 40 years—it takes time to build under those circumstances.” Insiders contend that they are not attempting to mimic the city’s meritocracy in any way. “Is it a meritocracy?”
one Somerset Club member asked. “Not completely. Are [the clubbies] the people with the money? No. Are they the dot.com barons? No. They are the people who are thought to be interesting.” He continued emphatically: “It isn’t just Brahmins. I mean, my God! They’ve had New Yorkers and Yalies as presidents!” Has it come to this?
In July 1987, the Boston Licensing Board strong-armed the elite Brahmin fraternities. They adopted a rule calling for the revocation of the food and liquor licenses of clubs that have more than 100 members, are used for business or professional purposes and choose members on the basis of sex, race, color or religion. The rule is worded to cover only those few clubs that were used by members primarily to conduct business over meals. Private clubs with a social orientation, like the all-male Elks clubs or the Knights of Columbus, are exempt. Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 specifically exempted private clubs. And since private clubs traditionally have been acknowledged as possessing First Amendment protection from public-accommodation laws, efforts to open their membership to women met with little success in previous attempts. At the licensing hearing, some of the haughty practices of these all-male clubs were revealed. Alice Richmond, former president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, testified at
the time that she had been “humiliated” twice by the practices of the all-male clubs. One time she was forced to eat in a pantry while her colleagues dined in elegance.
Licensing Board Chair Andrea Gargiulo did not threaten to have any liquor licenses revoked until a year later, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a challenge to New York clubs over a city rule barring membership policies that were discriminatory. This gave Gargiulo the green light. Once the gates swung open, there was no stampede of high heels, however. These bastions of maleness are, it seems, a bit too male. The parking is a hassle. There is too much booze. And while women are, in fact, welcomed, they often do not feel comfortable. Many of the first women who joined resigned, citing a lack of time and other priorities. Even so, many old-line members place their hopes in sexual integration, praying that it will keep these celebrated institutions from fossilizing into their Beacon Hill and Back Bay perches.
THE SOMERSET CLUB
42 Beacon Street
So exclusive is the Somerset Club, that one night in January 1945 when the club caught fire, the firemen ran through the front entrance before Joseph, the club’s legendary majordomo, ordered them to go around back though the servant’s entrance while he continued serving members their dinner. According to The Boston Post, “Although the fires created considerable excitement among the firemen and police who were detailed there, the club members were not disturbed in their dining room. They sat at dinner while the firemen fought on the first, second and third floors. The only recognition of the fire was the opening of one window in the first floor lounge in the front of the club to let some of the acrid smoke out. Otherwise there was no sign about the tightly curtained windows that anything unusual was happening inside. The club members continued to come and go, swinging their canes, undisturbed by the mass of fire-fighting apparatus outside. One, more curious than the rest, came out to the door with a glass of w
hat looked like scotch and soda in his hand, but he did not remain long.”
The elegant Somerset Club, founded in 1851, occupies the mansion of David Sears, Class of 1807, designed in 1819 by Alexander Parris and built on the site of the farm formerly owned by John Singleton Copley. Four large oval rooms, two private dining rooms, a “morning room,” a library and an immense living room in the Directoire style make up the core of the building. Beyond this resplendent salon are the ivy strewn walls that surround the Somerset’s garden and terrace, known as “the Bricks,” where members and their guests can relax and sip single malt scotch in utter tranquility. The Somerset has traditionally been the haughtiest and most prestigious of clubs, one in which social pedigree is, ehem, de rigueur.
Some of the prominent members of the Somerset roster include former Harvard Business School Dean John H. McArthur, former Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy Dean Theodore Eliot ’48, former Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox ’34 and an aging roster of heavy-hitting Yankees—including retired industrialist Louis Cabot ’43, former GOP gubernatorial candidate John Winthrop Sears ’52 and former state senator William Saltonstall. They are always looking up and down the Charles for suitable academicians and physicians.
The 570 or so members have no use for parvenus and get-aheads trawling for business connections. Applying directly is the surest way never to be invited back. You will be “tapped” accordingly, if they decide to show an interest in you. During elections, it takes two black balls from the governing board to earn a rejection. “You really do have to know people,” says Minturn.
After voting to admit women in the wake of the licensing board decision, the Somerset Club started by offering memberships to widows of past members. As the wives of members played a large part in the club, “the changes went almost unnoticed,” says Righter, “there were always women around, women without men. The widows were always invited.” Some of the women who joined the Somerset in the last several years include the usual old New England families—Spauldings, Sargents, Storeys, Lymans, Gardners, Saltonstalls. In fact, two women now serve on the club’s board.
“Any club is by definition elitist. Even if it’s the Irish American Hiberian Hall. You are there because you have something in common,” Mintum says.
THE UNION CLUB of BOSTON
8 Park Street
The oft-recounted legend of the founding of the Union Club begins during the Civil War. In 1863, as Col. Robert Gould Shaw, Class of 1860, and the 54th all-Negro regiment was marching past the Somerset Club, the members pulled down their blinds and hissed in disapproval. Shocked and horrified, Norwood Penrose Hallowell, Class of 1861, second-in-command of that regiment, reportedly led a group of his friends out the front door and formed the Union Club just down the street. Not until 1952 would a Hallowell finally agree to join the Somerset.
This tale is greatly exaggerated. In fact, the greatest number of defections from the Somerset occured, not in 1863, but in 1865, following the death of Lincoln. Throughout the Civil War, a faction of the club was upset by the unpatriotic sentiment of their fellow clubbies who attacked Lincoln for his policies and ridiculed his person. Though there is no hard evidence pertaining to this great walk-out, Alexander Williams, chronicler of the Boston clubs, hypothesizes that an impolitic member may have risen and given a toast to John Wilkes Booth. As one of the founders of the Union Club would later remark, “We wanted a place where gentlemen could pass an evening without listening to Copperhead talk.”
Since then, the story has been the Union Club’s gradual slide down the slope of Boston society. It has long been described as the “Rodney Dangerfield of Clubs.” Today the club is overrun by lawyers. The Union Club occupies the original mansion of Amos Lawrence on No. 7 and 8 Park Street. The upstairs dining rooms each have a magnificent view of the Commons to the west.
THE ALGONQUIN CLUB
216 Commonwealth Ave.
The Algonquin is the most grandiose of the city’s clubs, the only one with a house designed especially for its own use, rather than a converted residence. Its massive granite exterior displays two stories of porticoed balconies. The inside boasts an enormous second floor reading room and a massive formal dining room on the fourth floor with 50-foot vaulted ceilings. The fifth floor offers sleeping accomodations. Unlike clubs like the Somerset, the Algonquin Club, since its founding in 1886, is all about business. The Club was founded by General Charles H. Taylor, the same man who resurrected the Boston Globe.
Prestige-wise, the Algonquin ranks second to the Somerset. Family bloodlines are not as consequential as the corporate credit lines. Capitalism proves itself in the Algonquin to be the great equalizer—in the early ’80s, the club’s membership was predominantly WASP, but today its thousand members reflect the growing racial diversity of the city’s corporate population.
Some of its prominent members include former President of Boston University John Silber, former Bank Boston CEO Ira Stepanian, former Boston Herald GM Patrick Purcell, nightclub owner Patrick Lyons, hotelier Roger Saunders and P.R. consultant Pamela McDermott. They admitted their first black member in 1986. Despite being one of the first of the clubs to admit women, women still comprise a very small portion of its the overall membership: fewer than 100 out of 1,000 members.
THE St. Botolph Club
199 Commonwealth Ave.
The St. Botolph and the Tavern are both seen as “artistic” clubs. They are considered more intellectual, and their purpose is to reach into those realms beyond the mere conviviality of the clubs down the street. Much like the Tavern, the “St. B” brings together some of the city’s leading personalities in the fields of academia, business, journalism and the arts. The bonhomie of the St. B is legendary. “It is like the Signet and the Faculty Club,” says former Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III, a former member. Since 1880, when John C. Rope and Henry Cabot Lodge, Class of 1861, among others, signed the charter to initiate the club, men of the arts and letters have gathered for the promotion of “social intercourse among authors, artists and other gentlemen.”
A poem, read at Christmas dinner in 1942, gives some sense of who these gentlemen have traditionally been:
Twelve hundred years ago and more
St. Botolph, Saxon to the core
With Saxon name and Saxon wit,
Moved sweetley in his floruit.
“The blueblood is no longer too visible,” says former Atlantic Monthly editor Robert Manning, who is also a member of the Tavern.
Some of the more well-known members include cellist Yo-Yo Ma ’76, opera diva Phyllis Curtin, Noel Stookey, the “Paul” of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, acclaimed author Ward Just and poet Peter Davison. Every year, the club puts on its own rendition of “Twelfth Night.” The club is home to the Litero-Culturati of Boston. Many are art collectors. In fact, years ago, the Club used to host a number of exhibitions. Boston’s first Monet exhibition was at the St. B.
At the turn of the century, the Women’s Temperance Union squared off with them, presenting petition after petition, but to no avail. The St. B would live up to the reputation of their namesake St. Botolph, the hard-drinking patron saint of the Saxons. Nowadays, younger members are setting a new example—hard liquor is no longer a staple. Litero-Culturati and other such cognoscenti prefer wine.
THE TAVERN CLUB
4 Boylston Place
The Tavern (1884) is said to be so exclusive that the man who proposed forming the club, a teacher of Italian descent, was denied admission. Sort of. Another story tells how a man who ate with his toes created the club. Not quite. In fact, a group of young artists and like-minded Gilded Age Bostonian gentlemen would often meet together to dine at some of the restaurants in the Park Street area. One day a troup of vaudville freaks shoved their way through the entrance of the restaurant and demanded service. The “armless wonder” ate from his plate with his toes. The founding Taverners were appalled. One man, an Italian teacher, proposed that they find their own room. The group liked the idea, not him.
The Somerset was too posh and the Union too dull, they decided, and the Tavern filled a certain demand in the Boston social landscape. The Tavern has always recruited members with an inclination toward the arts, especially the performing arts, in order to replenish the talent pool for the yearly amateur theatrical production. The Tavern produces an unparalleled spirit of loyalty amongst its members.
The club’s exterior is deceptively small. Inside, the Tavern houses a theater, a billiard room, an outdoor dining area, a big dining area and bedrooms. Enthusiasm, hospitality and the rich tradition of songs, remain undiminished by the overall atmosphere of gloom and darkness. “Incredibly pleasant,” exclaims W. Shaw McDermott ‘71. “I love the place! It is a great place. There is an interesting cross-section of people who love the exchange of ideas.”
In the exclusive Tavern Club (200 members), founded by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Class of 1861, William James, Class of 1869 and William Dean, it is traditional to wear yellow, light blue, purple, pink or green evening waistcoats to signify the number of years a member has belonged to the club. The club was founded to promote “literature, drama and the arts.” Today it more or less pursues that mission. The club is notorious for its formerly all-male musicals. Much like the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, members submit plays every season for selection and the winner is staged and performed by the members. In the late ’80s, the Tavern was perhaps the most vocal opponent to sexual integration. One production, included a song entitled, “We love the ladies.” Its final refrain: “But we’d rather have the place in embers/ Than see them as regular members.” At the time, Globe editorial page editor H.D.S. Greenway was quoted as saying: “There should be clubs for men, clubs for women, and, in this case, clubs for men who dress
up as women.” But McDermott insists that the atmosphere has not been lost with the admission of women: “The chemistry hasn’t changed much. In fact, [sexual integration] has been a positive thing all the way. For men and women.” “The Tavern,” says James Righter, whose wife is a member, “is very much alive.” The plays, which now include women, “are still funny,” Greenway says.
Admission to the club can be dicey for the club’s small membership. “The first criterion is that the man be a jolly fellow,” says Greenway, “you don’t have to be a captain of industry.” The club that counted John F. Kennedy ’40 and Eliott Richardson ’41 among its members, now still attract some of the most vibrant intellectuals of the city. New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis ‘48, author James Carroll, a substantial contingency from the Globe including former Globe publisher Benjamin O. Taylor and former editor Tom Winship ’42. There are the academics, including Professor of Social Anthropology emeritus Evon Vogt, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals Peter J. Gomes, and many other Harvard and MIT professors. The club is full of artists, professionals, musicians, judges and the like. Former Mass. Governor William F. Weld ’66, believing the club to be a political liability, resigned before he ran for office.
THE CHILTON CLUB
152 Commonwealth Ave.
The city’s most exclusive women’s club, the Chilton Club, was founded in 1910. Mary Chilton, the club’s namesake, was the only Mayflower passenger to leave Plymouth and settle in Boston. The club began in response to the Mayflower Club, another women’s club but with a strong temperance majority. The founder of the Chilton, Mrs. Nathaniel Thayer wanted a club where wine and liquor would be available and where a gentleman could be invited to dine. The women who defected from the Mayflower were weary of the puritanical restrictions. When the Chilton was granted a liquor license in 1911, it was denounced by Rev. Cortland Myers as a “pest” and the “vestibule of Hell.” “Drinking and smoking cigarettes by women,” he said, “is the most disgusting influence in this city.” The ladies pondered legal action, but nothing came of it.
Club historian Alexander Williams ’44 recounts the naming of what social critic Cleveland Amory dubbed the “Female Somerset.” One of the founding ladies lamented to her husband that they could not find a suitable name for their Puritan alternative. “Why not the Chilton?” said the husband. “Why the Chilton?” asked the wife. “Because Mary Chilton was the first to leave the Mayflower.”
Before the Supreme Court ruling and the opening of the club to men, the Chilton kept three entryways. One front door on Commonwealth Ave. for members only, another for the members and their guests off to the side and a staff entrance in back. Soon after the club opened, railroad magnate Charles Francis Adams ’32 was barred from ever entering the club again after shoving his way through the front entrance before declaring: “I never use side entrances.” Husbands have always been invited.
Life at the Chilton has always been about pleasant conversation and intellectual discourse. Lectures, luncheons and theatre nights are the usual. Williams describes the eccentric Eleanora Sears during a ladies’ luncheon in 1932. The subject of the conversation was the personality of Hitler. Ms. Sears finally lost her patience and demanded that someone tell her who this Hitler was. The other ladies expressed amazement that she did not know. To this she responded indignantly, “I can’t be expected to know right off the bat the names of all the sophomores in the Porc.”
“The club is thriving,” said Ms. Louisa Deland, who joined just four years ago. “Especially now, with the economy booming.” The Chilton has always had a continued devotion to gardening, debutante teas, the Winter Ball and charity work for local hospitals, museums and other cultural institutions.
The Chilton was the last to hold out in the ‘80s brouhaha over sexual integration. All set to seek an exemption, they made a sudden about face and admitted men, though only a handful. To date, no blacks, Hispanics or Asians have joined. But, says Deland, “It isn’t elitist. It’s just a group of like-minded people. I don’t see it as a snobby or high brow organization.”
These clubs share at least one documentable feature in common—the era of their founding. Somerset was founded in 1851. The Union in 1863. Beginning in the 1880s, America’s most English city saw the unleashing of a torrent of clubs: The St. Botolph, Tavern, Algonquin, Puritan, University, Odd Volumes, India Wharf Rats, Country Club (Brookline), Myopia Hunt Club (Hamilton), Dedham Polo, Boston Athletic (BAA), City Club Corporation, Nahant, Mayflower (women) and Essex County. Many are now defunct. These clubs flourished only partly due to the town’s scarcity of fine restaurants. Up until just a couple decades ago, dinner at the Somerset, the Algonquin or the Chilton was considered infinitely superior to the Ritz, Locke-Ober, Maitre Jacques or any of the other fashionable restaurants of the time.
According to the scholar Nathan C. Shiverick ’52, the leisure bred by wealth creates a demand for an outlet to pass the time and expend energy and aggression. The conclusion of the Civil War ushered in great fortunes for some Bostonians. But Shiverick argues that more lies behind the phenomenon. In the 1880s, when the Irish gained municipal control of the city, the Brahmins were politically disenfranchised. The former ruling class of Boston reasserted itself by creating private charitable corporations and a network of hospitals, schools, almshouses. It was more than nobless oblige; it was a desire to recover some control over the city. Boston’s clubs were [and still are to some extent] the “caucus rooms of the city’s financial and charitable leaders.” The Brahmin establishment felt impelled to play some part in local government. As they had lost control of municipal institutions, they also lost their trust in them. It was this distrust that led to the incorporation of museums, orchestras and other charitable ventures. It was this power grab that lay behind the founding of the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Public Library.
The creation of the private corporation is essential to the structure of the clubs, says Shiverick. It allowed for the formation of partnerships with limited liability: each partner would not have to risk his whole fortune if disaster struck in the case of, say bankruptcy or lawsuits. In short, the corporation could be used not only to finance a railroad, but also, an orchestra, an orphanage, a polo club equipped with an imported, famous French chef or, as Shiverick notes, a “caucus room.” Thus, business, charitable and social interests all merged into a giant Brahmin front at the turn of the century. That front, moving with the intention of regaining some control of the city, mobilized itself in the clubrooms of Beacon Street mansions. And the old boys’ network, still unassailable, was born.
Samuel R. Hornblower ’02 is a History and Literature concentrator in John Winthrop House who likes to toot his own horn. He hails from Los Angeles and will admit most anyone.