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February 10, 2011updated 28 Jan 2016 6:00pm

So Last Century

By William Cash

New York is actually a city whose very fault lines are all about cliques, racist divides, lack of social mobility and despicable prejudices

A friend from New York sends me a report from the front page of the New York Times relating to an ugly Mid-Atlantic fracas in regards to the Century Club in Manhattan who have apparently voted themselves out of the right to enjoy the right to dine and stay at the Garrick Club – which has one of the very best club wine lists in the world – by tearing up the reciprocal arrangement that has existed since the late 1940s.

This is because a faction of the Century Club think that it is a gross affront to the civilised values of polite Manhattan cultural society (which the Century has stood for since 1847) that female members of the Century – who currently include the likes of as the Tony winning actress Marian Seldes and Catherine R (never forget the R) Stimpson, former president of the doubtless august Modern Language Association – are not allowed to breeze up the steps of the Garrick Club and enjoy the club’s facilities unless they are the guest of a male member as the Garrick Club remains an all-male institution.

Much invective, social panic, and hysteria has resulted with ‘speeches delivered in black tie’ and the names of Isaiah Berlin (much happier holding court at All Souls rather than a London club for hacks, politicians, lawyers and actors) and George Orwell (who was about as unclubbable as Groucho Marx) invoked as if the values of Western Civilization were at stake.

The truth is that this row is really about cultural and social hypocrisy, not equality. America – especially liberal elite New York Times reading culturally aspirant classes – loves to portray itself as the showboat of equal gender, race and sophisticated and cosmopolitan liberal tolerance. But the reality is that a city like New York is actually a city whose very fault lines are all about cliques, racist divides, lack of social mobility and the despicable prejudices and discrimination that makes it all but impossible for a Jew – or Brit for that matter – to get themselves voted into a Good Building (co-op that is) whose board maybe heavily Anglo-Saxon or Wasp; the same prejudice that allows clubs to exist across America that blatantly exclude (not quite true: there is always the odd token member) WASP or Jewish members based on the club’s social DNA.

A good example is the Hillcrest Club – opposite Fox Studios – which was the first Los Angeles country club for the city’s Jewish community. In 1972, the Los Angeles Times referred to Hillcrest as ‘the leading Jewish country club in Southern California’. The club was indeed founded specifically for ‘Jewish folk’ as they were not even allowed to join non-Jewish country clubs such as the LA Country Club. Even now, such appalling prejudices still exist and LA Magazine not so long ago called the latter as having a ‘reputation for being a discriminatory WASP’s nest’.

During the club debate at the Century as to whether they should snub the Garrick by withdrawing the reciprocal rights, defenders of the Garrick noted that many of the East Coast’s finest schools were actually exclusive all-male schools and lamented, in a letter: ‘Should no Century send her children to St Bernard, Brearly or Chapin?’ Likewise, I wonder, do all Century female members cross the road in disgust when they get to the doors of the Colony Club at 564 Park Avenue which has been (or at least was) New York’s most prestigious (ie elitist and exclusive) all women’s club since being founded in 1903.

The point here is that clubs have their own rules, institutions – in a free world – can be what they want and do what they want and it is nothing less than a feeble act of arrogant social imperialism to try and tell another club – thousands of miles away across the water whose members don’t give a hoot about the Century anyway – how they should conduct their own affairs.

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I can guarantee that hardly a single member of the Garrick will even be aware of the fracas, and secretly will no doubt be delighted that it will be just that little bit easier to get a table for lunch in the club’s main dining room which has been happily admitting women happily for years. I do feel slightly sorry for those Century members who have been using the Garrick’s heavily subsidised (thanks to a bequest of millions from the estate of AA Milne) club bedrooms as their London address for years. There’s always the St Martin’s Lane Hotel around the corner where a Deluxe Room will cost you around £450 on a strictly equal gender basis.

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