The Ways of Life at the Country Club

Feb. 26, 1962
Feb. 26, 1962

Table of Contents
Feb. 26, 1962

He Could Do It

The Ways of Life at the Country Club

The fourwell-dressed gentlemen and two wee caddies above are making social history.This picture, which was the first golf photograph taken in this country, showsthe players on a green at St. Andrews Golf Club in Yonkers, N.Y. The year is1888. St. Andrews was the first country club in the U.S. where golf was played,and it was there that it became identified as an upper-class sport. Golfsubsequently brought about the rise of country clubs all over the land. In theyears since the men of St. Andrews set foot on their grubby links, countryclubs have become a socially important part of American life. Despite thissignificance, the clubs have received little serious examination. The first oftwo articles on country clubs, their history, manners and mores begins on thenext page.

This is an article from the Feb. 26, 1962 issue Original Layout

Part I: TuxedoPark to Family Junction

One of thedistinctive hallmarks of our mobile, suburban society is the country club. Thecountry club is a uniquely American institution. In its 80 years of existenceit has undergone an evolution that amounts to a revolution. Originally apatrician playground loosely modeled on the great English country house withits leisurely weekend, the country club is becoming a year-round family funcenter that has more resemblance to the local bowling palace out on Route 1than to any plutocratic pleasure dome.

There are 3,300country clubs of all kinds in the U.S. The membership totals 1.7 million.Approximately 3,000 of these clubs are the classic type, privately owned by themembers. Nationally, they take in about $250 million a year in dues and fees.They sell $500 million worth of food and beverages. The average club hasbetween 400 and 600 members, gross annual dues of $100,000 to $150,000 and afood and beverage sale of $150,000 to $250,000.

Surprisingly, thesociologists have largely ignored the country club. Only the novelists—SinclairLewis, J. P. Marquand and John O'Hara—have examined it in detail. PerhapsO'Hara, with his deadly social awareness, etched the sharpest picture of"the country-club set" in Appointment in Samarra, published in 1934.Brilliant as the novel was. O'Hara might have to change some things if he werewriting it today. Sex, for instance, seems to be on the way out at the club(the growing family influence, you know), and gin rummy has supplanted bridgeas the club's most popular card game.

Americans joincountry clubs for a variety of reasons, most of them intertwined with oneanother. The main reasons appear to be:

Golf. The game isat an alltime popular high, but it is almost impossible to play on a publiccourse at one's convenience. There is now only one course for every 29,000Americans, compared to one for every 21,000 in the early '30s. In the lastdecade alone the number of women golfers has jumped 44%.

Social prestige.Club membership firmly places a member and his family in the local hierarchy.It is tangible recognition of having "arrived." (In Chicago, IrishCatholics advertised their arrival by brunching at the South Shore Country Clubafter Sunday Mass.) "It's all prestige, the whole damn thing," says oneclub manager.

Emotionalsecurity. "We have become a nation of near-strangers through the impersonalurbanization process," writes Charles F. Hathaway, a Los Angeles clubmanager who studied more than 200 country clubs while doing graduate work atMichigan State. "When we are with our own kind, such as in our club, thethreat of association with people greatly different from ourselves is greatlylessened." (In Chicago leading gangsters sought one another's companionshipat the Mount Prospect Country Club. However, when the club ran into financialdifficulties a few years ago, local residents, who at the start had joked aboutthe Mafia Open, voted to buy it out.)

Businesscontacts. "Unless you belong to a country club, you're nobody in the eyesof some of your business acquaintances," says a Louisville railroad man. AChicago executive says, "The club is really a kind of grease, like afraternity. It makes it easier for you to pick up business." From coast tocoast, business infiltrates the country club. A Boston advertising agency has alow-70s golfer whose only job is to soften up prospective clients on thecourse. A Seattle firm has hired "an Ivy League type" for the samepurpose. "We have to have a man who can play a good game of golf and hasall the social graces to bring in the business that's to be picked up aroundclubs," says a partner. "Our man does a fine job at it. He's no greatshakes as a lawyer, but he doesn't have to be."

As early as thelate 18th century there were signs of the country club to come. In 1795Charleston had a golf clubhouse, and a decade later Augusta and Savannah eachhad one, in which members staged balls and parties. But these clubs were thecreations of lonely Scotsmen longing for the ancient game, and none lastedlong. It was not until the post-Civil War boom, when the U.S. was turning froma rural, agricultural nation into an urban and industrial colossus, that thecountry club came into existence to stay.

It seems odd now,but the early country clubs had no connection at all with golf. The first clubformed was The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., in 1882. (It is a gaucherie ofthe worst sort to refer to the club as the Brookline Country Club. It is alwaysThe Country Club. As Dixon Wecter remarks in The Saga of American Society, TheCountry Club has never assumed a place name because "it is sui generis,like the roc's egg.")

The Country Clubwas the idea of James Murray Forbes, a Proper Bostonian and a well-knownsportsman and horseman. One of the coaching set, Forbes looked upon theBrookline countryside as the logical terminus for the then fashionable tallyhodrives. "...The general idea," went the original prospectus, "is tohave a comfortable clubhouse for the use of members and their families, asimple restaurant, bedrooms, bowling alley, lawn tennis grounds and so on; alsoto have race meetings and, occasionally, music in the afternoon." Horseracing was one of the main attractions at the club; there is still a tracksurrounding the first and 18th fairways.

Two years laterthe Country Club of Westchester County began. A contemporary observer notedthat it had "developed from a suggestion to organize a tennis club into adetermination to found a club where all country sports could be enjoyed."The club had tennis courts, a polo field, a racetrack, baseball diamond, trapsfor live pigeon shooting, boats, bathhouses and a pack of hounds.

In 1886 PierreLorillard III, heir to the snuff and tobacco fortune, created the mostsumptuous club of all at Tuxedo Park, 40 miles northwest of New York City. On7,000 of the 600,000 acres he owned in the area, Lorillard, in collaborationwith the architect Bruce Price, the father of Emily Post, built a water system,22 dormered cottages weathered to medieval charm, a huge wooden clubhouse,stables, a swimming tank, a trout hatchery and a gatehouse that Price describedas looking "like a frontispiece to an English novel." Tuxedo bespokeleisure and wealth; its initial cost was $1.5 million. Several years laterLorillard spent the balance of $2 million building a golf course, a racetrackand a mile-long toboggan slide lit by electricity. Only the best people—WilliamWaldorf Astor, C. Oliver Iselin, Ogden Mills, Sir Roderick Cameron, the Britishconsul in New York, and the like—were admitted, and from the beginning the clubmade social history. At the first of its annual Autumn Balls, which stillsignal the start of the New York social season, young Griswold Lorillardappeared in a tailless dress coat that the herd knows as a"tuxedo."

Given such amagnificent send-off, the country club became the rage. A great moment came in1888 when John Reid, a Scot, banded together with five other congenial souls inYonkers, N. Y. to build a golf course. They called their little group St.Andrews. The game caught on at established country clubs, whose members becameenthusiastic about this latest sporting import from Britain. In Brookline, TheCountry Club, under prodding from such distinguished members as ArthurHunnewell and G. E. Cabot, appropriated $50 for the construction of anexperimental six-hole course. There is a legend that the spectators becamequite bored watching the first match after one participant scored a hole in oneon the first hole and the other players failed to duplicate the feat. In 1894St. Andrews, The Country Club and three other clubs formed the U.S. GolfAssociation. The country club, energized by golf, was on its way. InSpringfield, N.J., Louis Keller of the Social Register started Baltusrol, andup the Hudson River, Chauncey Depew and William Rockefeller helped to found theArdsley Casino, forerunner of the present-day Ardsley Country Club.

The yellow pressscoffed at these "howling swells" who golfed in scarlet jackets and legwrappings, worn as protection against the nonexistent gorse, but to HenryJames, returning to the U.S. in 1904 after a 30-year absence abroad, thecountry club was an object of admiration. It was the perfect place for theelite to relax. At the 19th hole of St. Andrews, Charles Schwab put togetherU.S. Steel by persuading Andrew Carnegie to sell out to J. P. Morgan. (Carnegienever lingered long at the club. Fearful of abduction, he always left thegrounds before nightfall.) In Washington, William Howard Taft shrugged offTheodore Roosevelt's warning that golf was a dude's game and betook his bulk toChevy Chase, where he built a cottage. At the same club Woodrow Wilson courtedEdith Boiling Gait, and he was on the course when he heard of the sinking ofthe Lusitania.

All country clubsreceived a great deal of impetus from golf, and in 1913 golf received animpetus from Francis Ouimet, an ex-caddie at The Country Club. One of a host ofCatholic youngsters who toted bags for the Brahmins, Ouimet popularized golfthe country over when, at the age of only 20, he defeated Harry Vardon and TedRay, Britain's greatest, in the playoff round of the U.S. Open. By almost aliteral stroke he made golf a game for the masses.

In the '20s thecountry club was carried to the farthest reaches. By 1929 there were 4,500clubs in the U.S., the highest number ever attained. The city of Zenith inLewis' Babbitt had two: the Tonawanda Country Club for the upper crust and theOuting Golf and Country Club for the aspiring business class. That go-getterreal estate man, George F. Babbitt, a member of Outing, was wont to say withfrequency, "You couldn't hire me to join the Tonawanda, even if I did havea hundred and eighty bucks to throw away on the initiation fee."Sociologist Mark Benny has speculated that golf became popular with theAmerican businessman because it answers the needs of the independentcapitalist. In hitting the ball from hole to hole, the golfer is symbolicallydirecting his own destiny. Golf, in short, is a game of laissez-faire. It isnot coincidental, Benny says, that both golf and Adam Smith came out ofScotland at the same time.

During the '30sthe Depression forced a quarter of the private clubs to close. World War II puta further crimp in country clubs. Indeed, it was not until 1956 that the numberof clubs held steady at 2,800 and then began to increase. Today clubs are beingbuilt at about the rate of 100 a year, and there would be more but for theexpense involved. The National Golf Foundation in Chicago, which operates aplanning service for persons wishing to start a country club, estimates that itcosts on the average of $500,000 to $750,000 to build a clubhouse for 300members and an 18-hole course.

Maintenance costsare at alltime highs. The latest annual survey of country club finances byHorwath & Horwath, an accounting firm that specializes in the club andhotel field, reveals that for the 12th straight year private country clubs areoperating at a loss. (The current average deficit is 6%.) Golf is a steadyloser financially, incapable of paying its own way. Harris, Kerr, Forster,another accounting firm in the field, reports the upkeep of the average golfhole costs $3,059, 56% more than it did in 1951. The dining room, which must beopen for two or 200 guests, is another loser.

In general,country clubs have attempted to make up the deficit by increasing dues (theaverage club dues have almost doubled in the past 10 years, from $200 to $360),raising the initiation fee (the average fee has almost tripled to $1,000 in thesame period of time) or simply assessing the members for the difference. Ofcourse, none of these methods is popular with club members, who no soonerrecover from one socking when they are slugged with another. To quell theprotests, clubs have experimented with a variety of methods to increase income.Some catered to outside parties, but a year ago the Internal Revenue Serviceruled that any private club that derived 25% of its income from nonmemberswould lose its nonprofit tax status. Other clubs imposed a monthly minimum forfood and drink, but again Internal Revenue ruled that all such charges weresubject to the 20% federal excise tax.

To offset risingcosts some clubs have sold their property outright and moved farther out. (Onlyin California have country clubs gotten a break on real estate taxes: a yearago voters approved an amendment to assess club land at the rate specified forrecreational purposes rather than at building value.) What most clubs have doneto bring in money is to encourage day-in, day-out participation by members. Todo this they have increased the number of social memberships while keeping thegolf memberships down. After all, only so many golfers can use the course, andthe social members concentrate on only the last hole of the 19. As a result ofthe influx of social members, the bar till, in theory anyway, clinks merrilyfrom morn to night.

Increasedparticipation also means family participation. "At my club," says onemanager, "golf has gotten to the point where the men are allowed to play onWednesday and Saturday." In fact, a number of clubs now report more womenthan men use the course. "The women are fine," says another manager,"as long as you keep them off the house committee. They can't get togetheron colors."

To lure thefamily, clubs have built tennis courts and swimming pools. (One harassed malerefers to the latter as "the cheapest baby-sitting service in theworld.") Other clubs have added bowling alleys, which take up the slack inwinter when the course is closed. The club is even changing architecturally. Inplace of the spacious timbered structures of the past have come glass andconcrete pillboxes designed for maximum efficiency—and the maximum buck. InPlanning the Golf Clubhouse, Harold J. differ warns the lounge "should notbe designed to provide seating for large groups gathered for affairs. As amatter of club economics, the space should be relatively small, not too amplyfurnished and accessible to the cocktail lounge. This acts as an inducement forpeople not able to find seating in the lounge to gather in the cocktail loungeand have a before-dinner or before-luncheon cocktail. Activity in the cocktaillounge is much more profitable from the standpoint of the management thanhaving the lounge furniture warmed by nonpatronizing members or guests." Onno account, he adds, should the bar be placed in the dining room: "...thedrinkers feel too inhibited about imbibing freely while exposed to the scrutinyof the diners, and as a result of too little patronage, the management hascomplained bitterly that the bar cannot make money in such a location."

In recent yearsan increasing number of clubs have turned to a professional manager to solvetheir problems. Club managing is the latest of American occupations to beupgraded to professional status. There is a Club Managers Association ofAmerica, with 2,200 members, a headquarters in Washington and a monthlyjournal. Several colleges offer majors in the field, the most notable of whichis the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell. There budding country clubmanagers are put through a four-year course, crowned by a Bachelor of Sciencedegree, in which they study such subjects as Chemistry and Its Application toFood Preparation, Human Relations, Classical Cuisine and Sanitation in the FoodService Operation. Once a year Cornell and the CMAA get together in Ithaca fora week-long seminar on club problems. In a class session last September themanagers were advised to use "chef recommends" on the menu for itemsthat were either overstocked or unusually profitable and to avoid foreign namesfor dishes because they made guests hesitant to order.

To keep the clubhumming, managers have gone on a party spree. "Show me a successful countryclub and I'll show you one that gives parties and lots of them," LeonardTaylor, president of a party-favor firm, told club managers convened in Ithacaa few years ago. "A well-planned party is the push that gets families outof their homes and into the club. A party gives them the sip and taste ofcountry club life and makes them want to come back."

The secret of asuccessful party is the knack of combining profitable food (drink is alwaysprofitable) with a theme that will bring the members out in droves. The mostpopular party is a Hawaiian luau. (The Elmcrest Golf and Country Club in CedarRapids, Iowa put one on for $1,537 and grossed $4,111.) Next in popularity is aRoaring Twenties party. (The Morris County Golf Club near Morristown, N.J.plastered the walls with old advertisements of sheet music and records anddressed the staff in Charlie Chaplin and Mae West costumes two weeks before thebig event. "It was pretty hard to come to the club and not realize thatsomething to do with the Roaring Twenties was going to happen soon," Taylorexulted.) Other favored parties are a Night in Paris, in which the invitationsare mailed by postcard from France a couple of weeks before; a Night on theSteppes, in which a waiter dresses as a bear and cavorts to Russian folk tunes;a Balinese Purification Feast, featuring three large altars in the ballroomheaped with fruits, leaves and flowers; and a Night in Monte Carlo, in whichthe members gamble with "play money," which they actually boughtbeforehand and will cash later—sometimes for prizes. A most unusual party isthe one given on Labor Day by the Meshingomesia Country Club in Marion, Ind. Itis a Labor Union party. The theme is "something for nothing," withevery fifth guest getting a free meal.

Country clubstoday generally fall into six categories: top-status, middle-class, minority,rural, proprietary and industrial. The classic situation is for a city to havethree clubs: top-status for the elite, middle-class for the strivers and justplain folks, and the minority club for the Jews.

Some top-statusclubs are known nationally. Among these would be Chevy Chase, The Country Club,the Los Angeles Country Club, the Country Club of Detroit, the St. LouisCountry Club and the Burlingame near San Francisco. These clubs are preeminentin their communities, though there may be a second club that is hard on theirheels for prestige. In Detroit, for example, Bloomfield Hills runs a closesecond to the Country Club of Detroit, but since CCD has 10 of the Ford familyas members to BH's one, CCD has a clear edge. "It's not how many Cadillacsyou have in the garage," says an observer of the Detroit social scene,"but how many Fords at the party." The Country Club of Detroit was thescene of Charlotte Ford's $250,000 debut in 1959. Guests entered through anelegant corridor specially lined with pink-blooming topiary roses and alcovedFrench paneling that gave no hint that the men's locker room was behind thefalse front. In smaller cities a rough rule of thumb for spotting the top clubis to find out where the Junior League meets.

Although, as E.Digby Baltzell, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist, points out inPhiladelphia Gentlemen, membership in the top-status club is often an accuratesocial index, it is not necessarily an indicator of prestige in some cities. InPhiladelphia, Baltzell writes, "the higher one goes in the social classhierarchy, the less important the role of the country club is in leisure-timeactivities. There are numerous first families along the Main Line and inChestnut Hill who are never seen at country clubs even if they belong, and manydo not. A Proper Chicagoan, who visits in Chestnut Hill, would meet his host'sfriends in their own houses; in Lake Forest, the Philadelphian would be morelikely to meet his Proper Chicagoan's friends at various elaborate countryclubs."

More often thannot, top-status clubs exhibit certain traits. For example:

The top club isnot necessarily physically impressive, much less elaborate. The grounds areneat, but the clubhouse is genteelly run down. The interior is subdued."The highest prestige club," Hathaway writes, "holds to the olderdecoration themes. A front door, though worn and beaten, will be kept in placelong after it has served its useful life, because it seems to have a uniquecharacter of its own. The middle class clubs, on the other hand, arecontinually redecorating and attempting to keep furnishings as well asfacilities up with a brand-new air about them."

The top clubserves simple food. "The higher the prestige of a club, and thereby thesocial status of its members," Hathaway writes, "the less likelihoodyou will have of encountering showiness [in food]. At the top members resistany show for fear other members will think they are trying to impressthem." It is in the middle-class clubs that one is likely to findflaming-sword dishes and glittering ice carvings. Thus in Houston, whenGolfcrest, a middle-class club that attracts the successful used-car salesman,held an inter-club match, chili con queso dip, crabmeat dip and guacamole saladwere served between the ninth and 10th holes. When the top-status HoustonCountry Club was return host, its members simply served cheese and crackers.Hathaway says class tastes may also be discerned on a "hard-soft"scale. "The upper classes," he writes, "seem to prefer hard, firmbread, and the lower classes...softer rolls."

The top club hasa strict sense of privacy. The Country Club of Detroit issues no membershiproster at all. Bloom-field Hills lists only names. Other clubs, like OaklandHills and Forest Lake, put out a complete list, with business and home phonenumbers; Forest Lake also lists addresses.

The top clubkeeps its privacy despite the fiercest assaults of the press. A member ofBurlingame would never reveal his golf score to a newspaperman, not even if hescored a hole in one. Officers of The Country Club have steadfastly refused tosay what happened to the remains of an elderly lady, a Cushing, who requestedthat her ashes be scattered on the 18th green. White House reporters say theynever saw President Eisenhower so angry as he was the day photographers invadedthe sacrosanct trophy room at the Augusta National. "They are not going totake any pictures in that room!" he thundered. The photographers retreateden masse, though one discreetly snapped away "in case he toppled over."Later the President posed outside the clubhouse.

The top club hasnext to nothing to do with golf tournaments. Oh, Augusta has the Masters, butthe Masters is the Masters, and the winner gets to wear the club's green coat.When The Country Club held the U.S. Amateur a couple of years back, somemembers threatened to resign. Only once in its long history has the NationalGolf Links of America in Southampton,' 'America's snootiest golf course,"tolerated a professional tournament. That was in 1928, when the members mayhave been carried away by the bull market. At any rate, the professionals had adifficult time. They were kept out of the clubrooms and the restaurant, andonly after an argument were they allowed to use the showers.

The top-statusclub prohibits business discussions. To talk business at The Country Club,FORTUNE once noted, "would be calamitous. As the background for a Bostonbusiness date, the Brae Burn Club, out Newton way, would be the choice. It'ssocial, too, but most of the members have known what it was to make a buck thehard way." One exception to the rule is the Country Club of Detroit.Members would object to an outright sales pitch, but it is all right to talkshop about cars. "We eat and sleep autos in this town," says a steelexecutive. "It gets so that when you go to church you expect to see a carup on the altar." Of course, shop talk sometimes pays off well. Anotherexecutive once overheard a conversation that prompted his company to change theremodeling plans at one of its mills.


How a middle-class club gotmiddle-class...discrimination...and the rise of clubs operated solely forprofit.