Dinner at the Club, Darling?
Private clubs lock their doors to keep out the riffraff. Will they throw open the windows to survive?
Photographs By Dilip Vishwanat
“The world’s changed,” says a Racquet Club Ladue member. “People are used to a blended society. In order to survive, clubs are going to have to mirror that society.”
The flaw in that argument? It’s the middle-tier, increasingly egalitarian clubs that are scrambling for members. The frankly elitist private clubs still have years long waiting lists. They’ve softened extreme policies about women and children, race and religion, but they still discriminate on the basis of bloodline, legacy, character, accomplishment. Their goal, after all, is not to mirror society but to create a world apart, ordered and serene, marked by excellence, graced with privilege and filled with people who laugh at each other’s jokes.
What’s the fun of belonging to a club that doesn’t give you a secret password?
Anyone who has passed beneath the porte-cochère of one of St. Louis’ private clubs can recite the hierarchy. At the pinnacle: St. Louis Country Club for WASPs, Westwood for Jews. Next, Old Warson, more Catholic, formed to cut business deals that were considered too vulgar for SLCC. Then Bellerive, old money gone corporate.
Select members of the Big Four also belong to one of three tiny, deliberately rustic, quietly clubby clubs in Ladue: the Deer Creek Club (lunch, dinner and parties) or Bogey Golf Club or Log Cabin Club (which share adjacent nine-hole courses so that their members, mainly corporate titans and bluebloods more interested in Republican politics than in golf, can say that they’ve played 18 holes.)
The second tier of country clubs includes Forest Hills in Clarkson Valley; Meadowbrook, a newer, less and less Jewish club in Ballwin; and the cluster south of Ladue—Algonquin, Sunset (formed by August A. Busch Sr. after SLCC repeatedly rejected him), Greenbriar Hills and Westborough. Geographically less fashionable (and therefore great buys) are the historic North County country clubs, Glen Echo and Norwood Hills. Then come the upstarts—lush far-west clubs such as St. Albans, Whitmore and Fox Run, and anything else far from Ladue.
More narrowly focused clubs range from the St. Louis Woman’s Club’s cultured decorum and the St. Louis Club’s elegant dining to the genteel bloodlust of the Bridlespur (also founded by Busch) and Strathalbyn Farms hunt clubs.
Athletic clubs start with the quintessential gentlemen’s club, the squash-obsessed Racquet Club on Kingshighway, a favorite for authenticity and still a back door to membership in SLCC. The Missouri Athletic Club, one of the largest clubs in the country, lost cachet after admitting first women and then anybody who could pay. The old guard remember the days when the MAC New Year’s Eve gala was broadcast on KSD-TV and men lunched at the Gas and Oil Table, the Steel Table or the Wall Street Table. But the power-brokering days are over.
“About the only civic thing at the MAC is that the Rotary Club meets there,” one member says dryly. “The money’s gone elsewhere.”
An outdated SLCC roster and bylaws, cover removed, is left for St. Louis Magazine in a neutral public place, tucked inside a plain brown envelope marked “Confidential.” That directory lists the initiation fee as $25,000, but a member later whispers that it’s higher now.
“More than $25,000.”
“Er ... you’re in the right area.”
The 2005 directory—obtained through even more elaborate subterfuge—lists the initiation fee as $50,000.
Long a bargain compared to less exclusive, more opulent clubs, SLCC has old money’s fusty charm: white stucco, red tile roof and black shutters, antiques and chintz, a pink-and-green color scheme and an old-fashioned Scottish-style golf course. “There’s less demand by the members for fancy improvements,” says a longtime member. “The club was bought and paid for a long time ago, and it has no need to prove itself.”
We wouldn’t expect the Log Cabin Club to disclose its fee, but perhaps the year it was founded?
“We don’t want to be in your article,” says an employee. “You’ll need to remove us.”
At Westwood, general manager Tony D’Errico, who has something of a rock-star reputation in the industry, refuses to disclose so much as the slope rating of the golf course. “We do not participate in things like that, because Westwood is a very, very private club,” he says politely. “I don’t think the members would want their club featured with any type of prominence. It’s just not consistent with who we are.”
Westwood has no sign at its entrance, just the club seal on the stone gates. SLCC does not list its address (400 Barnes) in the telephone book. Members of the St. Louis Woman’s Club were beside themselves when a Post-Dispatch photographer showed up at one of their events.
How one gets into the more exclusive clubs is the biggest secret of all. “There’s a committee, but nobody knows who’s on it,” says an SLCC member who does not wish to be identified. (As another member puts it, “You could say all good things, and it would still be bad.”) Knowing “the right families” helps, but a legacy—a family member who belonged—helps even more. Then there’s membership in the Racquet Club: “That’s where you make your friends,” says someone who’d know, “and the key is to do it while you are a junior member, because the longer you’re in business, the more enemies you make.”
Most candidates wait years to be accepted (a perfect resolution for Groucho Marx’s paradox: “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”) Just what is being assessed, beyond lineage, money and the assurance that you’ve never had a tryst with a member’s wife or burned a member in a business deal? “Good question,” says someone who recently passed SLCC’s inspection. “They see who knows not only you but your family. They gauge you and see if there’s a comfort level with you. It’s not especially political; I think it’s more based on whether there has been, or could be, a friendship established.”
If not, the individual is blackballed, a term that dates back to 19th-century British men’s clubs whose members placed a black ball in a candidate’s box as a denial vote. There are degrees of blackballing, however, ranging from the clear “We don’t want you” to the coy “Give it a few more tries.” Sponsors throw one cocktail party after another, each rejection triggering a new spate of introductions.
At Westwood, “you have to have the right connections,” says William Eiseman, whose family helped found the club. “It’s not corporate at all; it’s strictly social. Although—” he draws the word out—“people from the May Co. got in right away.” The criterion, then? “Whether they think they will have camaraderie with you.”
“Dunc Bauman always considered it one of the greatest things in his life that he was asked to join the Bogey Club,” recalls a friend of former St. Louis Globe-Democrat publisher G. Duncan Bauman. “Well, they did it to enfranchise him.” Now Bauman’s dead, and the intimate circle that commingled blood and status with industry is dissolving. “With all these companies moving out of town and getting bought, who knows who’s who anymore?” the friend continues. “Civic Progress has become a group of branch managers who have nothing to do with St. Louis.” Except to join its clubs.
Times are ... slowly ... changing. The Racquet Club on Kingshighway now allows women into its main dining room. The Bogey Club admitted its first two female members last year. SLCC now has one African-American member, lawyer Stephen Cousins, and several who are Jewish. Westwood has no African-American members, but it does have a few Gentiles these days (mainly through intermarriage), and it’s no longer run by, as one lifelong member put it, “German Jews who wouldn’t let the Russian Jews in.”
In 1988, after a long and bitter fight, Jackie Joyner-Kersee became the first female member of the MAC. Now there’s a women’s locker room two floors above the workout facilities. It isn’t elegant—you feel as if you’re disrobing for a mammogram—and women haven’t ventured onto the squash courts. But they do swim, and the days of old guys swimming naked and sitting in the hot tub (occasionally, it’s said, getting their testicles caught in the drain) are over.
Rumblings about racial discrimination at St. Louis country clubs followed closely behind the gender issue. In 1988, John C. Shepherd withdrew his nomination for the job of second in command at the U.S. Justice Department, in part because of scathing comments about his membership in the then all-white Bellerive Country Club. Two years later, the Professional Golfers’ Association decided to hold tournaments only at integrated country clubs. Rather than expedite an African American’s membership, Old Warson withdrew as a PGA host. Westborough, Norwood Hills, Algonquin, Greenbriar Hills and Glen Echo echoed the message—“We don’t recruit, ever”—as though it were a point of honor far nobler than inclusiveness.
In 1991, Old Warson admitted Frederick S. Wood, a retired executive vice president at General Dynamics who just happened to be African-American.
In recent years, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan has mischievously pointed out all the revenue St. Louis lost when SBC chief Edward E. Whitacre Jr., blackballed by SLCC, picked up his headquarters and went to San Antonio. One of his last acts before his 1998 departure was to name Priscilla Hill-Ardoin president of Southwestern Bell Missouri, thereby bringing an African-American woman into Civic Progress, a group of top CEOs famous for its meetings at the all-white Bogey Club.
In 1927, when Charles Lindbergh needed money to fly solo across the Atlantic, he went to members of the St. Louis Racquet Club. They ponied up $15,000; in return, he named his plane the “Spirit of St. Louis.”
Gather like-minded people with money and power, and things happen. It’s enough to make you fight for the future of St. Louis’ private clubs—which, by some measures, are as endangered as the red-naped sapsucker.
St. Louis has a glut of top-flight public and semiprivate golf courses. Jazzy new community aquatic centers, medical spas and health clubs. Women working. Big corporations leaving town. New tax laws (club memberships can’t be deducted as business expenses). Young professionals with faster, more casual, more mobile lifestyles and niche interests no one club could match.
The McMahon Group, country-club consultants based here, reports that since 1990 about 10 percent of U.S. private clubs have dissolved. In 2004, St. Louis country clubs averaged a net loss of seven regular members. “Attrition has been out of control,” Jim Bollinger, general manager of Meadowbrook, told the St. Louis Business Journal in April. Forest Hills went from a $30,000 initiation fee in 1996 to $20,000 in 2006. Meadowbrook’s initiation fee has dropped by 50 percent in the past decade, and MAC’s offering a threefer: If three friends join at the same time, they don’t pay an initiation fee at all.
The top clubs aren’t exactly discounting their initiation fees: According to the St. Louis Business Journal’s Book of Lists, Old Warson went from $45,000 in 1996 to $80,000 in 2006. But even elite clubs are thirsting for young blood. A few years ago, Racquet Club Ladue halved its initiation fee to lure members under 40, and genteel SLCC turned quietly aggressive, bringing in several members under 40 in one swoop. In 2004, Sunset Country Club was so eager to lower its members’ average age, it found sponsors for 30 younger families and allowed them to pay their initiation fees over five years.
The push for young members exacerbates the traditional tensions between the old guard and the new guard. “The old guard wants everybody to dress properly—in suits and ties,” says a member of MAC, “and the young pups coming in on these special deals are floored, because society doesn’t make you dress anymore for anything, not even church.” A longtime member of Bellerive notices “a lot of young new wealth” and says that “the attitudes are different. To me, it’s just about hanging out with your family and playing—but these swim meets are like fashion shows.”
More tension comes with the small banshees who used to stay home with the nanny while Mummy and Daddy went to sip cocktails at the club. Midcentury, the little ones began to show up at the club, too, neatly dressed and drilled to defer to adults. Soon there were boys’ and girls’ locker rooms (to this day they remain separate from the adult locker rooms) and elaborate rules. The SLCC bylaws, for example, state that “children must have passed their third birthday and must be completely toilet trained before entering the pool.” Young parents have fought for years for a baby pool. “By the time you have worn yourself out whining about it, your kids are old enough to be in the big pool,” a father says.
Frank Vain, president of McMahon Group, says today’s working parents want to spend their free time with their children—and they want to relax. “They have many alternatives to a sleepy, staid environment where they sit around in a jacket and tie and attempt to have dinner.”
Vain encourages clubs to loosen up, broaden their recreational offerings, put a few plasma-screen TVs in that polished-oak bar. “The bottom end is not doing well,” he says, “because they tend to be good only at golf. The top clubs are the most secure because they have that social pedigree and network.
“In some ways,” Vain remarks, “we are seeing the return of the private club for the truly elite.”
The others aren’t giving up, though. The MAC’s put millions into its century-old building, yet it still feels a little dingy, like a London hotel that was bombed in the war then tidied again. You expect to see Miss Marple and the colonel—in this case, Col. Leonard Griggs, the retired director of Lambert St. Louis International Airport, who wears all of his medals on his dinner jacket.
For a fresh start in its centennial year, 2003, the club started a $9 million renovation of its West County facility. “That, to my mind, was the salvation of the MAC,” says Gerald R. Ortbals, who was president that year. “We were still trying to operate as your father’s MAC—a men’s downtown club, and the family will take almost nothing and like it.”
The MAC also formed “clubs within the club,” with wine, travel, ballroom dancing and classic-car clubs. Four floors above the old wooden umbrella stand and cigar counter, the walls now vibrate with hip-hop, spinning and Pilates classes.
To reach more members, Forest Hills, family-oriented from the start, has everything from Family Night Fish Fry and ice cream socials to rowdy karaoke Fridays in the bar. Bellerive put in a spa and fitness center. Others have opened family grills.
The old draw, of course, was golf—and, despite the glut of fine courses, it still pulls. WingHaven is going private this July, staking its future on less crowding and more personal attention. Bellerive, after failing for the first time in memory to make Golf Digest’s list of America’s top 100 courses, decided last August to rebuild its course. When older members balked at sharing the proposed $8 million expense; younger members said, “Fine, go ahead, leave.”
Other clubs count on real estate—the cachet of living on or around the club grounds—to anchor them. The Village of Westwood cushions Westwood Country Club. Meadowbrook sold land and hopes to gain 68 new members from the 68 townhomes being built.
Corporations are the third anchor. The Wall Street Journal reported in December that Monsanto had paid $26,000 in tax reimbursements on $50,000 in initiation fees so that CEO Hugh Grant could join the Bogey Club. Michael F. Shanahan Sr.’s employee agreement stipulated that Engineered Air Systems would pay dues and charges for memberships “including but not limited to St. Albans Country Club, Old Warson Country Club, Boone Valley Country Club, Norwood Country Club, the Media Club, the Missouri Athletic Club, the University Club, Stadium Club, St. Louis Club.”
There’s no more heavenly place for a party on a fine summer evening than the wide, breezy stone terrace at SLCC, overlooking the polo field. And what better way to watch your child’s all-club swim meet than in a Lilly Pulitzer sundress, sipping a chilled martini at Forest Hills? Clubs offer civility and special comforts, from the Vivienne Romano Cheese salad dressing invented at “the Bogey” to the macaroons at the University Club (and St. Louis Club, and Westwood), the caramel pecan rolls at the MAC and Bellerive, the oversize rum Shakers and ice-cream Whippies at SLCC ...
For sport, the con-ditions are perfect, the pros nationally known. Golf games move unim-peded (clubs set the maximum number of members by the capacity of the course). A club workout ends in a bliss of steam rooms, massages and a tossing aside of sweaty clothes, which are laundered and hanging fresh in your locker on your return
Above all, there is the sweet joy of saying, to friends who don’t belong, “Come to my club.” For sensitive discussions, board interviews and strategic-planning meetings, you can lunch in a private room at the St. Louis Club and count on the waiter’s discretion. (This holds double for personal dealings; an older waiter at one club soon learned whom to call Mrs. Smith when members brought their mistresses to dine.)
At your club, you are recognized. You can always get a table. You will never be rushed. Your tastes will be remembered by longtime servers. Hubert Van Gent, general manager of SLCC, has been there three decades. Westwood’s had four controllers in 100 years. The maitre d’ at the St. Louis Club knows exactly what time Des Lee will show up for lunch and at what point he will rise to roam around the 14th floor dining room, shaking hands and teasing old friends.
Eccentricities are not only tolerated, they are cherished. Dealings are marked by a courtly ease, and cash never changes hands. SLCC’s bylaws (best read with a slight British accent) stipulate that “all transactions must be charged by signing a chit.” The very air is heavy with the ironies of privilege. Members who have just handed over thousands of dollars in initiation fees rave about discounts on greens fees and reasonably priced bottles of wine, and the stuffiest speak most fondly of times when the treasured formality cracks (Old Warson’s chatty Nineteenth Hole, where you can grab a sandwich and a beer; the ladies’ annual sleepover at Glen Echo, when they tell ghost stories and raid the kitchen; the sometimes rowdy and ribald men’s locker room at the MAC).
But to the old guard’s dismay, the casual mood is spreading. A few years ago, even SLCC opened a room for informal dining, the Oasis. “Can you believe it?” asks a longtime member who still prefers the venerable Oak Room. “Men were allowed to eat dinner without having ties on. For a while there was a separate entrance so they wouldn’t be seen in the main part of the club.”
A younger member has even seen—gasp—denim in the Oasis. “They went from coat and tie on the Fourth of July, when it’s 108 degrees, to denim,” he says. “I’m still frankly shocked by that. Maybe they went a little too far.”
Drunkenness, cussing, even raised voices are swiftly hushed at country clubs. At SLCC, “you are not supposed to be talking business, and you are not supposed to have your cell phone on,” says a member. At Old Warson, one heads for the locker room to make any necessary phone calls. A member who drinks a bit too much is whisked out of sight, and a car is called. Old Warson isn’t exactly Party Central, though.
“That’s probably the biggest complaint from the younger members,” says a middle-aged member. “Greenbriar has late-night parties, party hard in the bar. Not Old Warson—the place does not lend itself to rowdiness.” Nor does SLCC: “The place shuts down early because they don’t want to pay the staff overtime,” hypothesizes a young member, “so people just take it to Busch’s Grove.”
Clubs have always been discreet about their members’ vices. On election day, MAC members walk the gantlet as candidates reach up to shake their hands. “I understand that, after the meal, the entertainment used to be rather risqué,” a member says. “They’d have the girls from Sauget, shall we say?”
At an even more exclusive club, a guest recently watched waiters tape paper over the windows before the “guest speaker,” an exotic dancer, entered. But that kind of tolerance is changing, too.
With their secrets and scandals, cliques and dress codes and expectations, the Big Four resemble private prep schools; there’s so much pressure to conform, infractions are unthinkable. At SLCC, a member can technically be expelled for any act or behavior that at least eight members of the Board of Governors frown upon—but there’s rarely cause. The worst Westwood’s done, in one longtime member’s memory, is to suspend somebody for a few months, “give them a chance to think about it.” And Old Warson? “Kicked out? Never. You would be talked to,” says a woman who’s belonged for decades. “They tell you ahead of time, for example, that it is your responsibility to inform your guests of the dress code. They would come to me and say, ‘Your guest is not in proper attire,’ and I would be encouraged to take you to the golf shop and buy you the proper shirt.”
A collared shirt, white, if you’re playing tennis. Bermuda shorts “of conservative tailoring.” No short shorts, no tennis shorts. Full cover-ups to and from the swimming pool; a towel around the waist will not suffice. Baseball caps worn backward, T-shirts, cutoffs and halters? Akin to walking into church naked. Anything overtly sexy, defiantly casual or irreverent is read as a challenge to polite society.
“Members are requested to dress conservatively and appropriately so as not to offend other members of the Club’s ‘family,’” state the SLCC bylaws. “Those in tennis and golf clothes may have cocktails on the east end of the patio only.”
One poor guy, invited to dinner at SLCC, showed up in dress slacks and a cashmere pullover sweater—without a collared shirt underneath. He was hurriedly lent a jacket two sizes too small and a necktie that he proceeded to tie around his bare neck.
A Racquet Club member dined alone one day and made the mistake of taking out a magazine to read. A waiter approached. “Er ... Mr. [Smith] ... not in the dining room.” These are social clubs—even when nobody’s there to talk to.
In 1944, a member of the St. Louis Woman’s Club addressed the club, asking whether they were making sure “that all by becoming members are automatically established as of proven quality.”
Today, one wonders what “quality” is. What is the common denominator in the various clubs’ members; what glue binds them to each other?
“I think it’s a feeling of comfort and familiarity,” says an SLCC member. “You know the place; you know the people. It’s too much to call it a family feel—it’s a clubby feel. And I’m sure there’s a feeling everybody has: If you can be exclusive, why not be?”
As member Marvin Goldman says of Westwood, “If you belong there, you have been successful. You can’t be a failure and be there, because it is expensive. So you have obviously done well in something, either in picking your parents or in the business or professional world.”
Eiseman notes that if Westwood went public, “you wouldn’t have the social aspect, the camaraderie you have now, because these people have something in common.” He pauses, then blurts, “It’s been wonderful, but I do think all these things are anachronisms. The old families are practically gone.”
At Old Warson, “if there’s any commonality, it’s corporate,” says a longtime member. “Monsanto, Emerson, every bank in town.” Bellerive veered back toward family after a corporate influx in the 1980s, even cutting its initiation fee in half to encourage members’ grown children to join.
Lorette Medart, a member of Glen Echo for 61 years, says that her club looks for “people who are very easy to get along with, who are not social hounds.”
Glen Echo’s membership director, Kimberly Brandt, believes that clubs as exclusive as the Big Four need to exist. “There will always be people born into families who don’t even have to work; their family name is like a brand. Those wouldn’t feel comfortable here—and they’d make people uncomfortable.”
“In St. Louis, it never hurts to play to elitism,” remarks Ortbals, the former MAC president. “Like it or not, that’s part of our nature.”
Today, the MAC is walking a tightrope, dropping the elitism—which it can no longer afford—but hanging onto tradition. “When I’m in town, I go there every day,” says Ortbals. “I like tradition. You can’t be an authentic St. Louisan unless you have a certain reverence for tradition. We have a reverence for things old that borders on necrophilia.”
Glen Echo: Opening the Doors
Glen Echo knows it's the underdog (location, location, location) but it has more history than anybody; it was founded in Normandy in 1901, and it's been there ever since. After membership fell by more than 100 members in the '90s, Glen Echo, determined to survive its centennial, brough in a new general manager, Thom Johnson, and membership director, Kimberly Brandt. Johnson had been at Idle Hour, a blueblood club in Kentucky, but before that he'd worked as a chef and gone on missions to Haiti, helping bury the dead. Brandt was a former Disney marketing director. The two set out to break the rules.
They closed the men-only grill, let women play golf on weekend mornings, kept the club open in the winter, added everything from poker to a box for the Rolling Stones concert. Young members—including Yomi Martin, Nelly's cousin, who owns the Apple Bottoms clothing label—started to join. Membership reached 420 this year.
Brandt carries her BlackBerry so that members can reach her 24/7. "I know when someone's in labor," she says, "and when members are really sick, we take them soup." She grins. "Thom thinks of churches and country clubs in the same category. Few places exist anymore where you can really be part of a community, and people long for that."
If someone moves to St. Louis and wants to join but nobody knows him, Brandt will sponsor him herself. "Society isn't the same anymore," she says. "People have more money now without the bloodline to back it up. They don't care about status—but they want to feel they can fit in somewhere.
"We have a great respect for the history," she finishes, "but we cannot let that define who we are in the future."