It's Still a Man's World at Some Clubs

October 03, 1993|By RICHARD O'MARA

Aquietude settles in the vast rooms, over the fruniture with its heft and antique texture; it invests the dark bar and bright reading room alike and even governs the movements of the servants as they glide through. Motes drift in the sun by a window. Time is kept outside, at bay.

There are only men here. The sense of caste is thick among them. It is a lair of men, and those excluded from this company often believe the strangest things about it. That its members have limitless influence and wealth. That they inherit social knowledge it takes most of us our entire lives to acquire. That they get it at birth, the way giraffes get long necks.

Men's clubs, like, say, the Maryland Club, still exist in America, but not easily. They refer to a time long past and eventually will probably sink away into the deeper reaches of the nation's cultural memory.

Back when they thrived, no expectation about them was too preposterous. These clubs, and the life they reflected, spawned a deep envy, as Nelson W. Aldrich Jr. pointed out in his book "Old Money." People just had to get in. Everybody wanted long necks.

Today, he said, these clubs "are totally destroyed."

They have been swept away, most people believe, by the tide of litigation instigated by women's groups during the last decade. The women had argued that business went on inside; opportunities to advance careers presented themselves. Because they were excluded, women were denied.

"Men's clubs?" asked Elizabeth Hart, the vice president of the National Club Association, which represents clubs throughout the country. "They tend to be a rarity these days."

Which is not to say the issue is entirely without sting. David Gergen, President Clinton's new handler, felt it recently when it was disclosed that he had just joined the all-male Bohemian Club, only to resign to put himself "in keeping with White House tradition."

So rare they are, but certainly still with us. The Maryland Club in Baltimore endures without women members, as do the Bohemian Club, Gergenless, out in San Francisco, and more obscure ones as well. The Hagerstown Moose Lodge, for instance, has more than 9,000 members, with no blacks or women among them, according to Susan Goering of the Maryland ACLU. It is being sued, Ms. Goering said, but on grounds of racial rather than gender exclusion.

But for most American clubmen the pleasures they derived from gender exclusivity are gone. Bob Chandler, a newspaper editor in Bend, Ore., lost them in one of his clubs, the Arlington Club in Portland, which opened up under threat of legal action.

"Now it's everybody's club," with just a faint touch of regret.

The nature of those pleasures lost to Mr. Chandler is not easy to define. Mr. Aldrich attempts with the term "pure sociability," suggesting a situation where no one gains materially from being in the group, but might gain in other ways.

Other members of existing or previously all-male clubs tend to cite practical motives, or reasons of convenience, for their membership rather than admit to sentiments inappropriate to our times. Such men as J. Michael McWilliams, who is a Baltimore lawyer and member of the Maryland Club, and has been for 27 years.

"The only thing I use it for is to play squash," he insisted.

Mr. McWilliams just stepped down as head of the American Bar Association, which supposedly discourages its members from belonging to discriminatory clubs, evidently without success in Mr. McWilliams' case.

He describes the Maryland Club as not a place where business is done.

"There's an unwritten rule. You're not allowed to spread papers on the table," he said, though he allowed "that doesn't mean they can't talk business at the table."

The administration at the Maryland Club declined to return phone calls, or thus answer any questions about the lack of women among its members.

The Maryland Club nicely fits the ideal of the traditional men's club. It is 135 years old with an atmosphere one might describe as plantation retro. Its rooms are wide and high and baronial. The "Dictionary of National Biography" is available in the reading room; copies of Country Life and Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred are arranged neatly on a table in the Stranger's Room, enhanced by Aubrey Bodine photographs.

The heads of long-dead animals (presumably shot by long-dead members) complete the decoration. And marching up the stairs are portraits of past club presidents with expressions on their faces ranging from the dignified to the glacial.

Such nostalgic references are important to places like this.

Exclusive

Not all men's clubs were formed for the invidious purpose of excluding women, according to Mr. Aldrich, though that was always one certain result. Such clubs routinely excluded blacks, and Jews in many cases.

"Years ago they presented a sort of space for social life. Pure social life. These clubs used to be about friendship among men."

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