Sunday, October 5, 1986

The Gentlemen’s Clubs of London


 Written for Northwest Orient in 1986; re-published by Forbes-FYI in 1993

Nothing is more English than the Club. When Phileas Fogg, that imaginary London gentleman, set off around the world in eighty days, he started from the Reform Club. Just around the comer, in St. James Street, Britain’s finest young men used to while away an afternoon after a club lunch by playing golf, teeing-off and holing-out from the steps of one club to the next. Trollope scribbled away in one, as did Dickens, Thackeray, Stevenson, Burton, and Kipling. Lord Glasgow threw a waiter through the window of his club and ordered him “put on the bill.” The father of the current Duke of Devonshire, ill-tempered late in life, filled the end of his walking-stick with lead and terrorized the shins of fellow-members of Brooks’. As Dr. Johnson wrote, “A man is good for nothing unless he is clubbable.”

If the idea of the British Empire begins at Camelot, then the origins of the gentlemen’s clubs lie in the Round Table. At the turn of the century, London’s West End (principally Pall Mall and St. James) could boast two hundred such clubs, exclusively male. Now, with the Empire in tatters, most of the forty surviving clubs admit wives for lunch or dinner: Britannia waives the rules. Though today’s clubs are financially better-run than before, the waiting lists shorter and membership fees higher (averaging about $900 a  year), the character of these “mausoleums of inactive masculinity” has not changed much. The dream of Empire still lives on within.

They began as coffee-houses in the 18th century, gathering-places where the politically like-minded could discuss politics freely, read a paper, hear gossip, perhaps gamble, and fuel up for the stagger or horse-carriage to the next. (Some of these coffee- and chocolate-houses became literary, lawyers’, or merchants’ clubs instead; one became Lloyd’s of London.) “We now use the word ‘club’,” wrote Pepys, ”for a sodality in a tavern.”

Many clubs took their names from the servants who started them, like Boodle’s, Brooks’, or White’s (the oldest gentlemen’s club in London, named for an Italian, Bianco, who founded it as a very exclusive chocolate shop in 1693). Some clubs were militarily inclined, like the Guards’ and the Cavalry, which merged a decade ago. Some, like the Beefsteak, were originally so secretive and private that a team of unknowing bobbies could raid it mistakenly as a brothel and find seated at an upstairs table the Lord Chancellor, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Governor of the Bank of England, and the Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour.

According to V. S. Pritchett, in London Perceived (1962), it was only in the late 19th century, when industrial wealth took hold, that the clubs (like the public schools) became pretentiously exclusive. The fashion was to be a member of more than one. To somebody like Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother, the club could be relied on as a home away from home, where a man might spend the day eating, drinking, reading, and sleeping, with a night valet to turn him over and make sure he hadn’t died in his armchair. Men returning back from the farthest corners of  Empire could instantly catch up in their club. For the aged it was a solace; one old duke passed his days seated in the high box-window of Boodle’s whenever it rained because he so loved “watching the damned people getting wet.”

And there is some strain in the English gentleman’s soul that does not love a wife. As one wag put it, “The French and Italians seek solace by taking mistresses. . . the British retreat into a world of leather-bound misogyny.” But the history of the clubs is more a full-blooded charge than a retreat. A Victorian lady noted in her diary, “We have now been married exactly a year during which time my husband has dined with me but once. Every other night he dined at Mr. Brooks’ club.”

What the wives could not have understood—because they were never allowed in—was that in their clubs gentlemen could behave like schoolboys, grumbling and shouting and throwing food at the waiters and each other. “London is made for males,” as Pritchett puts it, “and its clubs for males who prefer armchairs to women. . . The boredom that hangs like old cigar smoke in the air is a sad reminder of the most puzzling thing in the sex war: that men like each other, rather as dogs like each other. The food is dull, but a point the ladies overlook is that the wine is excellent and cheap.” It took a Frenchwoman at the turn of the century to say the unsayable: that, obviously, so many gentlemen’s clubs exist because English women are unbearable.

The literary anecdotes are legion. Swinburne was asked to resign from his club when, not being able to find his top hat in the cloakroom, he jumped on all the others until a porter reminded him he’d come hatless that evening. Evelyn Waugh, grumpy as ever, violently dressed down a club employee who couldn’t get him a taxi in the rain. It was in Trollope’s club that he was persuaded to kill off the character of Mrs. Proudie by overhearing two clergymen complain about his overuse of her.

Henry James lived for over twenty years at the Reform Club and had his bedroom drilled with a spyhole (still there) so the night porter could be sure not to disturb the Master in his sleep. “The Club question has become serious and difficult,” James wrote in his notebooks. “A club was indispensable, but I had, of course, none of my own. . . At last, I forget exactly when, I was elected to the Reform. . . This was an excellent piece of good fortune, and the Club has ever since been, to me, a convenience of the first order. I could not have remained in London without it, and I have become extremely fond of it, a deep local attachment.”

All clubs were rivals, usually over which had the worst food—one’s own always had the best members. A Guards’ clubman who’d been given hospitality at the Savile was asked what he thought of them. “They were quite decent little fellows,” he replied. “No trouble there. Make their own trousers, of course.”

Architecturally the great surviving clubs are of a type: their façades of Italianate palazzi, so popular in the early 19th century; the enormous interior staircases, morning rooms, drawing rooms, and classical libraries. The dining rooms tend to resemble those of the public schools, which is hardly surprising. Sometimes they have been used as literary settings, from P. G. Wodehouse to Graham Greene (The Human Factor) to one of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories (The Queer Feet), in which the crime rests upon the singular fact that the particular club insists that its waiters and gentlemen dress identically. This sounds like sheer fantasy, but in Pratt’s all the waiters are called “George,” and at the Beefsteak, “Charles.”

A short list of illustrious clubs might include the Athenaeum, Boodle’s, the Garrick, the Travellers’, and Whites. All avoid publicity of any sort, and admit to admitting between one thousand- and fifteen hundred-odd members. Only the Travellers’ agreed, very courteously, to show me around.

The Athenaeum (founded 1824) has never been known for its fine cuisine. Sir Ralph Richardson, a member, suggested bringing a box-lunch; Sir Edwin Lutyens criticized “a piece of cod which passeth all understanding.” Years ago, the chef of the French Ambassador, learning that his master was going to the club for dinner, murmured, “Alas, we shall never see him again.” The Athenaeum is esteemed, rather, for intellectual dignity, grave silence, an enormous library, and for being the haunt of many a peer, aristocrat, and archbishop. Members are expected to be “established” professionally, so much so that in Nöel Coward’s Present Laughter, when a character is accused of becoming pompous after having joined, he replies, “I’ve always been too frightened to go into it.”

Kipling described the Athenaeum as like “a cathedral between services.” A more recent visitor portrayed it as full of fogies who “hobble from room to room muttering about the decline of The Times.” Like most clubs, it has a dozen-odd bedrooms for members who come down to London for several days’ business. In the mid-19th century it was so difficult to get in that there was a sixteen-year waiting list of prospective members. But, as one member complained at the time, “They crept in unseen at the doors, and they crept in under the bishops’ sleeves, and they crept in in peers’ pockets, and they were blown in by the winds of chance.”

Boodle’s (founded 1762), in the good old days, used to iron the newspapers and boil the shillings and pence before bringing them to members. Servants wore black knee-breeches, in what the writer R. S. Surtees called its “proverbial serenity.” Another Victorian described it more affectionately as “a sweet old mahogany and wax candle kind of place.” The popular story within was that if a servant in the smoking room called out, “Carriage for Sir John!”, a good portion of the members present would glance up. It is famous for a painting by Stubbs and a membership of country gentlemen, knights, the late Adam Smith, and Beau Brummel. Churchill used to smoke his cigar at the bow window. It is still considered perhaps the most tranquil and discreet of all the clubs.

Ian Fleming, who usually lunched at Boodle’s, made M.—the head of Her Majesty’s Secret Service in the James Bond books—a member and frequent luncher, fictionalizing the place as Blade’s. (Fleming had left White’s “because they gas too much”; he wanted a dull club.) In The Man with the Golden Gun M. eats “his usual meager luncheon—a grilled Dover sole followed by the ripest spoonful he could gouge from the club Stilton. And as usual he sat by himself in one of the window seats and barricaded himself behind The Times. . . .” The head waiter guesses some game is afoot, for as “father confessor to many of the members, he knew a lot about all of them and liked to think he knew everything, so that, in the tradition of incomparable servants, he could anticipate their wishes and their moods.” M. ignores what Fleming soberly calls “the finest cold buffet on display at that date anywhere in the world.”

The Garrick (founded 1831) is famous as the most bohemian and the least misogynist of the old clubs, and it reputedly possesses the finest dining room, candlelit and decorated with old theatrical prints that portray a membership traditionally favoring writers, actors, and directors. It is also said to have the finest dinner conversation and, not surprisingly, the most women guests. Princes Charles joined a few years ago, leaping ahead of the others on the ten-year waiting list to sport the salmon-and-cucumber striped tie. One of the more financially secure clubs, the Garrick lives off the royalties of the late member A. A. Milne. As long as Winnie-the- Pooh collects honey, the Garrick is safe.

The Travellers’ Club (founded 1819) began as a kind of explorers’ society—only gentlemen who’d journeyed at least 500 miles in a straight line from London were eligible, though members of foreign diplomatic missions were received as honorary visitors. Both these precepts still hold today. There is an apocryphal story about an African guest indicating a glass of fly-catcher (a poisonous syrup thick with dead flies) and saying, “Bring me some of dat.” It is a fact that when, in 1825, a member stole the club candlesticks, his life was spared by the King and he was deported instead (thereby, perhaps, increasing his eligibility).

Most great travelers are great readers, and the Club library is enormous and well-tended. At the top of the great stairs a plaque honors “members and staff who fell in the Great War” in a democracy of the dead. In mid-afternoon the husbands and wives are just coming, arm in arm, from the Coffee Room, past clicking clocks and 18th century foreign landscapes. Another lunch done. Over the years there have been two suicides, both by gunshot in the Billiards Room. One was a member who’d lived many years in Japan; this officially explained his “characteristic indifference to life.” The Travellers’ Club chairman at the time, a Colonel Baring, stated firmly, “I’ll take damned good care he never gets into any other club I have anything to do with.”

White’s (founded 1693) is probably still the stuffiest and snobbiest of the clubs. Anthony Lejeune, in The Gentlemen’s Clubs of London (1979)—a careful, authoritative, adulatory work, many of whose entries now read as obituaries—calls White’s “the archetype and model of what a gentlemen’s club should be.” He goes on to point out, though, that Swift described it as a “common rendezvous of infamous sharpers and noble cullies.” Its members tend to be friends of Royals if not royalty themselves, like the Dukes of Kent, Edinburgh, and York. A club historian four decades ago referred to it as “an oasis of civilization in a desert of democracy.” Kirn Philby and Evelyn Waugh were both members; I was unable to determine whether Philby was asked to resign when he resigned, in a sense, from London itself. (One assumes he continued to be a gentleman.) White’s is responsible for my favorite story of club exclusivity: a would-be clubman inquiring how to apply for membership was told, “This is not a discotheque, sir.”

If the gentlemen’s clubs seem antiquated and a bit dismal, they are healthier today than a decade ago. Many clubs collapsed: members stayed in the suburbs, or quit; the eligible young men weren’t interested. In 1974 the IRA bombed ths bar of one club and machine-gunned the facade of another. Now they seem to be back in style and gaining, their appeal on the rebound for a terrorized younger generation in a terrorist age. As Jonathan Raban wrote in Soft City (1974), “Suddenly, through the swing doors of the club, I am a Gentleman; I have things I had forgotten. . . an old school, an awkward nodding bonhomie, the gentleman’s ducklike walk, waddling over swathes of maroon carpeting.”

And the clubs are increasingly run not as gentlemen’s kingdoms but as business establishments, with smart management and computerized bookkeeping. The Reform recently rented itself out for a series of nude shots with a female model disporting all over the historic leather armchairs and upright marble columns.

In a conservative age, then, the ideal of the Club should gain strength and favor again. Thus the eloquent description of the Perfect Clubman in Ralph Nevill’s London Clubs (1911) may yet prove contemporary:

“The life of such a man, as has been said, is centred in his club, and he sees members cane and go, hears of their prosperity or ruin, marriages or deaths, with imperturbable equanimity; indeed, it would require an invasion or an earthquake to make him effect any change in his habits.

“So he lunches and dines, dines and lunches, till the sands of the hourglass have run out, and the moment comes for him to enter that great club of which all humanity must perforce become members.”

Thursday, September 18, 1986

Vive la Poupée!


Written in collaboration with Valérie Moniez for European Travel & Life, 1986

The new word among the poupées in Paris this year is “somptueux”—sumptuous. It may apply to an art exhibit, or the latest Duras novel, or an up-and-coming couturier’s new line. It is the equivalent of New York’s “terrible” (what used to be called, approvingly, only “bad”), but given specific social status, the poupée seal of approval. La luxe is in vogue, hence there is a corresponding inflation in the meanings of words. For a poupée, even her tea may be somptueux.

The poupées themselves are somptueuses. They probably invented it. In a highly class-conscious society, they represent a veritable army, yet all this army’s soldiers believe they are unique. The essence of a poupée is that she refuses to recognize herself as one. It is part of the art.

How do you recognize a poupée? She is absolutely immaculate, dressed appropriately, with great inspiration, for the exact place and exact moment when you see her. (This, of course, implies hours of preparation.) She carries her beauty like a public accent. Her looks alone can make you feel you’re eavesdropping on her; you are not. She is almost certainly between twenty-five and thirty-five—older, she’ll have begun changing her approach. Younger cannot qualify. A poupée (which means, literally, “doll”) should not be confused with the twenty year-old tidbits so vivid in American fantasy, strolling Paris’ bridges—though they may, with real work, grow into poupées. A poupée is not a girl, she is a woman. If she’s with a man, he is wealthier than you will ever be.

She is probably not as beautiful as she seems; these women are not model-types. Their beauty is not nearly so fragile, so evanescent. As one poupée told me (discussing all the others), “What’s the miracle? Any woman who isn’t fat can be beautiful.  It’s not difficult. If it were, she couldn’t do it. You can cover up anything with clothes, makeup, manners.”

What are they after, the poupées? In the States we don’t really have their equivalent. They are most emphatically not mistresses; their ultimate function is that of a wife. These are women in search of great financial security. They want to be wives, but they do not seek a life of sloth.

In fact, you see them hurrying around constantly, from club to exercise to tea to couturier. A poupée gives the opposite impression from one of those well-coiffed giraffes lurching along Madison Avenue in the upper 60s, shopping bag in hand, with the tired tolerance of somebody who has seen it all before—those women are full of empty time. A poupée seems to have no time at all, so fervently does she feel the active newness of life pressing on her.

Thus the immediate, clichéd American associations—the peroxide Vegas blonde of glycerine warmth, the ex-model turned Yuppie wife—do not carry. A poupée is never vulgar and never only decorative. They serve an extremely important function in the society: they connect. For there are always the grand diners to be planned.

This is an occupation in itself. To the Paris society in which the poupées move, the world of lawyers and bankers and international financial advisors and executives, these dinners are nearly everything, planned with a meticulousness that we in America associate with state dinners or convocations of the ridiculously wealthy. They are the equivalent of our “power lunches” but given a more sociable setting. The poupée’s function is to lubricate each aspect of the event for her man, not just by choosing the extra guests (besides the more important ones), or making culinary decisions. She must ensure that all the poupée-less men who have been invited will each have their men-less poupées.

What will they be expected to do at these diners? Beautify, for one; be enthusiastic, happy; say nothing of any consequence; discuss what latest marvel they have just experienced. It might be the current novel by the current author. One poupée will say, “It’s certainly her best.” Another will agree. The author might be, say, Francoise Sagan; it would not be Marguerite Yourcenar.

If you have somehow been invited to this diner, and like a typical rude American ask which other novels of that author the poupée has read, she will say, with slight dismissal, “I’m reading several at the moment.” You have made a bad move. She has not read any of the others; that is not her job. Her job is to be able to speak of the current only. Not for her Hugo, Baudelaire, Proust. Into the oubliette goes Stendhal. After the dinner she will certainly comment on your rudeness; a Parisian man would know better than to ask if she’d read any others.

This is not to say a poupée mustn’t know a great deal. She must be far ahead of the fashion magazines on the couturiers. (The popular ones this year among the poupées are Alaia, or perhaps Sonia Rykiel, whose lissome clothes demand a perfect body, of course.) And the way an intellectual has to have read Sartre or Camus, a poupée must know intimately certain great hotels of the world: the Plaza in New York, the Cipriani in Venice, La Mamounia in Marrakesh. At St. Tropez she must have a house, or friends’ houses, to stay at—one must not be incarcerated there with tourists.

The function of a poupée is to beautify and to link; her aim is to hold, to secure, her position. Married, poupées may have affairs, but always with others of the upper class, looking for a better situation in case their present man leaves them. Their men all know this; it is accepted implicitly.

Ask a poupée how she got that way and you will not get very far. Like most people who know exactly what they want and are well on the way to attaining it, she seems to have sprung full-grown from her own imagination. She might not be from Paris, but she certainly studied arts or letters at a Paris university—the Sorbonne, or L’École du Louvre. For a couple of years after, she worked at little jobs like public relations, or in a friend’s office, perhaps at a fashion house. Not for long—two years is perhaps too long.

For a poupée there would never be much need to work. They have to be completely available. They are not expected to speak of what they’ve done. If a man cannot come to her with money, he must at least have a name: socially he must be able to present something. An insolvent baron is acceptable. A poupée’s first step is to try to move in with the man, or vacation with him—poupées must be, always are, tanned. Were she thirty, she might give you six months after moving in to propose marriage; were she twenty-five, you might get a couple of years. Not much more—a poupée is not a creature of sentiment. She is not after love; she is after an address, a tenure.

Nor is she a creature of sensuality. She is not a sex-symbol—nothing forbidden or lustful there. Brigitte Bardot, a true doll, was never a poupée, nor did she ever convince as one in her films. Poupées cannot be dancers or actresses in their spare time; they have no spare time. Nor is what they do an act. They are like politicians who have convinced themselves that every word they say is true. Hence their sense of being unique, an authentic self-creation, an original. A society chooses its own myths.

The great poupée, then, is not Bardot, but Catherine Deneuve. A fine actress, we no longer look at her and see the actress: we see a public beauty who is part businesswoman, part warm reserve, part icon. It is no surprise that she represents France to the French. And the poupée, this one in particular, is our ideal of French womanhood as well: a coquette grown mature, beautifully coiffed, a vision of grace, ease, dynamism, and joie d’esprit. She is the European woman whom American women wish to live up to and American men wish to be worthy of. She is a woman’s woman, clearly equally at ease with men. She is like an orchestra that chooses to play in their concert-hall.

Ultimately the poupée is an image not only flattering to the man she is with, but self-flattering to the society. She is always beautiful, always cheerful, always energetic, always well-prepared; her reliability is eternal. She brings people smoothly together in ways that are not just amicable but profitable. She represents the legal, the conventional, the reassuring. She need only be au courant because it is thus that a culture convinces itself it is on top and ahead of the rest. No need for the masterpieces of the past when the art of the present is as vibrant, as worthy, as somptueux. The poupée represents, in a word, the French super-ego, relating itself continually to the rest of the world.

You will see the poupées running, running, running from place to place in Paris: the Racing Club (for swimming, tennis, meeting people), to a salon de thé to take petits fours with friends, to home for a workout with their visiting professeurs de gymnastiques. If you should happen to hear two of them talking in the street, their chat will be of their own little universe: probably of other women like them, “insupportable” because they are poupées. And how so-and-so has aged! Poupées are never extravagant or shrill in conversation; always a little haughty, they speak with great assurance. Of husband, children, couturiers: their world. If you spy a couple of them in the Place de Victoire, from a distance they may seem a pair of highly refined Barbies.

Do not be misled by the seeming nothing going on there. I once asked a poupée what she would do after, say, the age of thirty-eight. She already knew; it amused her. “Go back to being intelligent,” she said.