Members Only: What Makes a Proper Club?

 

Bloomberg Pursuits has proclaimed the dawn of a new golden age of “members club(s) that combine the age-old desire for exclusivity with a more relaxed atmosphere tailored to contemporary lifestyles…” This assertion was prompted by the success of 5 Hertford Street, a club started some five years ago by Robin Birley, son of Mark Birley, the founder and moving spirit of Annabel’s, Mark’s Club, Harry’s Bar, and other choice social venues. 

This has got me thinking about clubs, and pondering the question, “What makes a proper club?” And, for that matter, “What makes someone clubbable?”

By way of expertise, I think I can fairly claim that it’s a pretty wide and varied “clubscape” that I’ve been wandering around in lo’ this half-century and then some. Start with the four fine old institutions to which I still belong, of which I’ve been a member for 60, 58, 53, and 37 years respectively. There have been highly touted clubs from which I’ve resigned, including one London establishment whose adherents proudly boast that a recent Prime Minister is the only member ever to have resigned in the place’s 200-year history. Wrong: I quit the place in the 1990s. Then there was a club from which, in consequence of a divorce proceeding, I was compelled to resign only a few months after I’d been elected! And there’ve been those where I’ve been blackballed (I can think of at least two). Add to this the memberships I’ve dropped thanks to my deterioration both fiscal and physical, not to mention those where the practical, logistical, or recreational point of belonging dwindled away—and, finally, a couple that simply folded. All in all, a pretty fair representation on which to base a few benchmarks. Let’s start with what I think of as “The Law of Inverse Exclusivity.” In my experience, institutions where the word “exclusive” (and its predicates) features in descriptions of the place by members or outsiders will often prove to be anything but. Here is the Anglo-Australian man of letters Clive James on the subject (in his immortal 1980 review of Princess Daisy by Judith Krantz): “Mrs Krantz, having dined at Mark’s Club, insists that it is exclusive. There would not have been much point to her dining there if she did not think that. A bigger snob than she might point out that the best reason for not dining at Mark’s Club is the chance of finding Mrs Krantz there.”

A proper club, by any socially cognizant person’s standards, will be much more about the who than the what. In my way of thinking (which also goes for restaurants), who’s next to your table is infinitely more important than what’s on it. In keeping with this philosophy, I ended a 20-year-plus affiliation with one of Manhattan’s most self-regarding clubs when it admitted to membership a public figure the very sight of whom at the club table promised to curdle my chicken hash. And very good chicken hash it was, so this was no small act of principle on my part. 

Since we all take comfort in the familiar, a club whose character is determined by its members, and not some mass-mailing promoter backed by investors and real-estate types—no matter how gifted, convincing, and tasteful he or she may be—will tend to have a more private character than one whose main requirement for membership is a black American Express card. A true club is never identified by its members (or their guests) in press accounts, or—God help us!—on social media. The strictures of omertà along with other values will be passed from generation to generation, and although it is impossible for any institution to completely hide from history and the manners and morals of a given age, in such a place the members will find a downy comfort and consolation in the sort of people their fellow members are—people who incarnate what’s called “clubbable”—as well as other key hallmarks of social probity ranging from the quality of staff to the cooking. Stuff that bespeaks tradition, continuity, discretion, and discrimination, which some of us find to be essential components of the examined life.Which is not to disparage Birley-style establishments. No one does the what better. If ever there was a joint that better defined elegance than Annabel’s when Mark Birley was still with us, I don’t know what it might have been. Just to go downstairs into the club made one feel socially and aesthetically uplifted. But over time, the proper who is tough to maintain. The last time I was in Annabel’s—it must have been 15 years ago at least—I looked around, then asked the incomparable Louis Emmanuelli, who guarded the room in which one dined and danced and flirted, “Louis, Who in God’s name are these people?” “Mr. Thomas,” he replied, “I haven’t the slightest idea!”

I have not a scintilla of doubt that Robin Birley has inherited his old man’s sense of style, and that 5 Hertford Street is classy in every externality. And yet, and yet…well, frankly, there’s something that bothers me about a place whose members are willing to tell a Bloomberg journalist that “5 Hertford Street is the best place to network in London.” Of course, I suppose much depends on the object of that networking: the favors of a beautiful duchess, OK; the good opinion of a Middle Eastern royal with acres of hedge-fund money to allocate, not so much. 

At the end of the day, I guess it all comes down to what everything else in modern life seems to devolve upon: the influence of money and property, the wealth effect. Great clubs—proper clubs—derive their character from their membership, not their membership’s bottom lines. They’re private, discreet, tight-lipped. At least in theory, no member is more equal than any other. Inside the club walls, a billion is just another number. 

But other places that call themselves clubs are basically establishments one might categorize as “entertainment” or “retail.” They have press agents. Cultivate gossip columnists. Have tables set aside for big hitters. Money talks loudest. Some admittedly carry the private-club pose off better than others. There never was a place in Manhattan that comported itself more like a true club than the old “21.” But we were under no illusions that we were anything other than customers of a profit-making enterprise owned by the Kriendlers and Bernses. Still, “21” did its thing with real flair, which is more than one can say of a number of “clubs” one reads about today. The problem is, you see, that the elusive quality called “flair” isn’t in the chintz or the menu or the sporting paintings on the wall, or the members’ Dun & Bradstreet ratings—it’s in the character and comportment of the members.