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Sunday, April 18, 2010

John Derbyshire on Men's Clubs

John Derbyshire has a wonderful column in the latest National Review about gentleman's clubs, The Arts of Cheerfulness.

Among its gems:

From the mid-19th century on, a man was known by his clubs, and they by him. To be horse-whipped on the steps of one's club was the ultimate in social chastisement. It happened in 1877 to James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald, after the scandalous breaking-off of his engagement to Caroline May. Bennett had arrived late and drunk to a party at his fiancée's house where, in full view of the company, he had proceeded to mistake the fireplace for a urinal. The subsequent horse-whip was wielded by Ms. May's brother.


The splendid old clubs of New York City seem to have survived pretty well into the modern age. I think I have attended functions in all of them at one time or other — Grolier's, the Union League, the Metropolitan, the university clubs. They were shaken by two great cultural storms this past thirty years: admission of women, and the prohibition of smoking. The former was sour grapes on the part of feminists, whose attempts to set up women-only clubs in the 19th century failed for lack of interest. Very few women are clubbable. The latter was imposed by municipal authorities in the 1990s, on the pretext of protecting the health of club employees, who now have to smoke their Marlboros in the inner courtyards.

Here is a club story from Britain. One of the most exclusive of London clubs is Pratt's. (Whose members, by tradition, address all club employees as "George.") In the mid-1990s Pratt's blackballed Michael Heseltine, deputy Prime Minister to John Major. Though Heseltine was a Tory from a respectable family, had made himself rich as a magazine publisher, and had a fair shot at being a future Prime Minister, he was apparently considered an unacceptable arriviste by the Pratt's membership. The story went around that Heseltine, encountering a club member who had witnessed the balloting, demanded to know how many black balls were in the box. "Well …," replied the member, "you are familiar with the appearance of caviar, I'm sure …"


  1. Bennett had arrived late and drunk to a party at his fiancée's house where, in full view of the company, he had proceeded to mistake the fireplace for a urinal.

    Ah, a Shriner's convention, eh what?

  2. From the Wikipedia article on Pratt's: To avoid confusion, all male staff members are referred to as 'George'. This caused a dilemma when the first (and so far, only) female steward was hired in the 1980s. The problem was solved when it was decided that she would be called 'Georgina'!

    Obligatory Masonic Interesting Fact: Mark Masons' Hall is just a few steps down St. James from Pratt's. And Mark Masons' Hall used to be a gentleman's club, but when it fell on hard times the Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons bought it.

  3. Seinfeld should have done an episode about Pratt's. I can just picture George Costanza attempting to converse with the staff!


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