Status Seeking, Crazy Hats and Discrimination

Frolicking families, from kids to grandmas, jam into the country club today. Some golfers gripe at this domestic invasion, but without family business the club would have a hard time breaking even. For a searching look at a typical middle-class country club and how it got that way
March 05, 1962

In its 80 years of existence the American country club has undergone many changes. Originally a preserve of the elite, it has now spread to the point where there are 3,300 country clubs of all kinds. In the main, the clubs fall into six categories: top-status, middle-class, minority, rural, proprietary and industrial. The top-status club, as we saw last week, has managed to retain much of its remoteness; hence, it is the middle-class club that most Americans know best. The Bellingham Golf and Country Club in Bellingham, Wash. is as typical as any in its development.

The Club, as it is always referred to locally, began in 1912 with a nine-hole course on leased land. The backers were the Very Best Families in town and the surrounding countryside—the Larrabees, the Demings, Woods, Bloedels, Welches, Campbells, Donovans and Goulds; in short, the fish-cannery rich, the lumber-mill rich, the big landowners whose roots reached back to before the turn of the century.

In the '20s the club bought the land and added a second nine holes. Members kept their Canadian whisky, always available through the town's top bootlegger, in their lockers for the entertainment of friends. During the Depression the club operated only occasionally as it struggled under a $20,000 debt incurred in buying the property. Club life was even more bleak during World War II. Food and equipment shortages kept the clubhouse closed, and greenkeepers were either in the armed services or in defense work. On weekends members mowed the course to keep it playable.

The early postwar years brought a change in the membership, finances, and club status. The Very Best Families lost interest: they had discovered a new way to entertain when Charlie, last of the Larrabees, subdivided the family estate into choice building lots. The Very Best Families promptly moved there, exchanging the club for the elegant new home, hi-fi, the powerboat (or, better still, the private plane) and a summer place in the San Juan Islands. Although they retained their memberships in the club, they were seldom present. In their place stepped a whole new middle class, and even lower middle class, who joined to drink at the bar—the state legislature had legalized liquor—or pump quarters into a newly installed battery of slot machines.

By the early '50s the club ran into difficulty. The slot machines, which had compensated for the loss of the big spenders, were outlawed. The members reorganized, selling social memberships for as little as $25 a year and raising the dues. They set out to attract the family crowd, and they did. In the last few years women have had increasing influence on club activities. For example, the men's stags have dwindled. (The club monthly, Divots and Ice, blamed "warmer weather, the longer days and the opening of the swimming pool" for the downfall of the stags, but the fact is the wives didn't like them.) The women have taken over with crazy-hat luncheons, fashion shows, card parties and golf contests in which the players are required to dress in the professional costumes of their husbands. (One winner was Sue Abrahamsen, wife of a deep-sea diver, who played 18 holes in the full gear, including helmet.) There are teen-age dances, tiny tot golf tournaments and a big come-one-come-all outdoor salmon barbecue.

The switch to the family doesn't appeal to everyone—some middle-aged golfers still gripe about the change in the 15th hole caused by the swimming pool—but since the club now breaks even it isn't likely to be changed. Although the club does not discriminate—Bellingham's small Jewish colony belongs—it still has its cliques: the members of the Very Best Families, rarely seen, treated like royalty, ignoring everyone but their own kind; the grumpy golfers; the pulp mill crowd, who come as close as anyone to dominating the club; the professional men and the strivers. A great point is made of trying to represent all groups on the governing boards.

Membership in the club is not as exclusive as it once was, though a great swath of the membership would like to think it is. The club is the center of the lives of many people, who are, all considered, comfortable in its atmosphere, pleased with the ice-cream bar for the kids and content that the menu has not one word of French. They move around as easily as they would in their own backyards.

The third type of American club is the minority club. Usually this means a Jewish country club, but in an older section of the country like New England it may also mean an Irish club or possibly a French-Canadian and Italian club. Springfield, Mass. offers a good cross-section of such ethnic stratification. At the top is the Longmeadow Country Club, whose approximately 400 members are upper-class Protestants, except for a very few Catholics. The Springfield Country Club has about 300 members, more than half of whom are Catholic, mostly Irish. (There are also a few French Canadians and Poles.) It has an Elks Club atmosphere where any member who wants action can find card-playing as well as golfing companions. The Crestview Country Club, the newest and most lavish, has 300 members, all of them Jewish. The Ludlow Country Club is predominantly French Canadian, Italian and Polish, and it is, says an observer, "about as exclusive as a neighborhood bar, drawing heavily from the non-prestige classes who want to get away from crowded municipal links."

In larger cities one sometimes finds two or more Jewish clubs, the top one composed principally of German Jews who tend to find eastern European Jews unacceptable. To many Jews, German or Russian, the restricted country club represents perhaps the sorest symbol of social discrimination. A Jewish community leader in Elmira, N.Y. told Sociologist John P. Dean of Cornell: "They'll call on me to lead their Community Chest campaign or help on the Red Cross. But when it comes to the country club, I'm not good enough for them."

In January, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith issued the first report ever made on nationwide religious discrimination by social clubs. Of 803 country clubs surveyed, 224 were nondiscriminatory. Of the remaining 579, 505 were "Christian country clubs," 416 of which barred Jews completely. The other 89 had a quota. Seventy-four of the 579 discriminating clubs were Jewish. Seventy-one of these barred Christians completely, and the remaining three accepted them "in small numbers."

The ADL report contended that while discriminatory country clubs "have traditionally taken, and won acceptance for, the position that is an extension of one's own parlor...[and] a man has a right to choose whom he will invite into his home," the practice of discrimination was unfair because if "the seat of power in any community discriminates against Jews, it may sound a note that will be taken up by others in the community.... Lower echelon civic groups, ears closely attuned to the note from on high, will find sanction for similar exclusions. The university, upon whose board of trustees sit members of the discriminatory club, will not protest a quota system, the fraternities will mimic their elders in exclusionary practices. Thus may a new generation, while still in its formative years, be schooled in the ways and benefits of social discriminations.

"Clearly," the report continued, "the problems raised by such exclusionary practices are not only social, but more frequently economic, political and sociological. The ultimate victim is not the man reaching toward the seat of power or toward the prestige of upper level social acceptance. Rather it is the youth who finds he is barred from job or school (and when he is older, from a home) simply and solely because he is Jewish."

The ADL report concluded that although "the extent of discrimination against Jews by clubs is far greater than the levels of discrimination against Jews in other areas such as education, employment, housing and public accommodations," the fact that a significant number of clubs "were 'Jewish clubs' that discriminate against Christians is eloquent testimony to the further institutionalization of religious prejudice. When, as and if Jewish community relations agencies conclude that the problem of the 'Christian club' merits their attention, they will inevitably have to cope with the other side of the coin—the 'Jewish club.' "

Discrimination aside, Jewish country clubs generally differ from their Christian counterparts in a couple of ways. For one, the Jewish clubs put great stress on charity; a prospective member is expected to be philanthropic (one club in the New York area requires that an applicant must have given at least $10,000 to United Jewish Appeal). For another, members of Jewish clubs habitually eat more and drink less than do Christian club members. It is possible to pick out the Jewish clubs from the clubs surveyed statistically in Horwath & Horwath's annual anonymous study simply by checking the food and beverage expenditures of the average member. In one Jewish club, for instance, the average member spent $455 on food and only $134 on drink. At a comparable Christian club the average member spent $275 for food and $240 for drink.

Significantly, of all the clubs surveyed by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, the one most esteemed for its food was the Hillcrest Country Club in Los Angeles, a predominantly Jewish club drawing heavily on show business. (The Los Angeles Country Club does not accept Jews and avoids anyone remotely connected with the entertainment world. The sole actor member is Robert Stack, the Eliot Ness of The Untouchables, but Stack, who comes from a proper Los Angeles family, was admitted before he entered the movies.) "Hillcrest," Milton Berle, a member, once remarked, "is a dining club with golf." "Our food," says Sherrill Corwin, a theater executive who is the club's president, "is talked about the world over." A typical Saturday luncheon menu at the club includes chicken broth with matzo balls (75¢), grenadine of prime beef tenderloin on rye toast garni ($3) and smoked northern whitefish with thin-sliced onions and tomato ($2.60). "You should be here Sunday night," say members. The place to be seen is "the table" in the bar where Jack Benny, George Burns and Groucho Marx gather to banter.

Two Negro clubs, the only ones of their kind in the country, are located in North Carolina—the Meadowbrook Country Club outside Raleigh and Forest Lake Country Club in Greensboro. Forest Lake, which is slightly ahead in development, got going three years ago when a group of businessmen led by J. Kenneth Lee, an attorney, bought the 124-acre Burlington Industries Country Club for $90,000. Eighteen of the acres are developed. There are a clubhouse, tennis courts, stables and bridle paths. Three lakes are available for swimming, fishing and boating. There are now 60 family memberships costing $200 each a year, and the club runs a full schedule of events, down to parties for children. Most of the members are professional people; many are faculty members at colleges in the area. Fortunately, the club has been able to get by financially by renting out the clubhouse to local business and civic groups. There had been considerable talk of building a golf course, but now the city of Greensboro is planning to start a municipal course near by, and the members are hopeful of playing there. To attract potential members, the club is circulating an illustrated brochure which bears the slogan, "Social Position is Important."

In a class by themselves are the small rural country clubs that have sprung up in the Farm Belt in recent years. Farmers who used to scoff at the city-slicker game of "cow pasture pool" now play a fast nine waiting for the milk to cool. The clubs came about as the result of mechanization, which has freed the farmer from many of his chores, and a liking for Ike. Ike liked golf, and that was good enough for the farmer, no matter what Benson did.

The Logan-Missouri Valley Country Club near Logan, Iowa (population 2,500), has been in operation since 1948. Yearly dues are $48. The entry fee is $100, and a payment plan permits members to spread this over a 10-year period. "I'm doing it that way," says Don Shrum, a telegrapher for the Chicago Northwestern Railroad, "and I pay the membership fee quarterly. That way it doesn't hit you all at once." The Missouri Valley Chamber of Commerce has asked storekeepers to close at 5 instead of 6 on week-nights "so folks can get in a round before dark." On occasion, challenge matches are held with teams from nearby Blair, Neb. The winners eat steak and the losers wienies. Afterwards, everyone pitches in to clean up.

At Alma, Neb. (population only 1,765), residents took over an abandoned depot just outside town so they could get that "outside-the-city country club atmosphere." To make sure that everyone meets everyone else at the Saturday night "mixers," dancers are required to change partners. "Country club life is part of living in rural Nebraska," says Cal Stewart, who was editor of a small-town weekly newspaper. "It's really down to earth. The guy who pumps gas in the banker's car plays golf with him on Sunday. If you want to have fun in a small town, you have to belong to the country club, and your station in life is no barrier."

The latest development in country clubs is the proprietary club owned by a businessman or syndicate out to make a dollar. There are now over 200 of these clubs across the country, and most of them are able to make money by catering to the masses at mass prices, in some instances anyway, and by such practices as central purchasing and soliciting outside parties. However, anyone interested in joining a proprietary club should be wary: in recent months a number of them have collapsed because of bad financing, leaving members holding the bag. As a general rule, anyone interested in a proprietary club should join only after the club has been built, never on the glowing promises of the prospectus. Prospective members should check carefully into any club offering life memberships at a flat bargain price. Flat fees attract suckers, not the income needed to keep the club going.

Although there are some semi-exclusive proprietary clubs, particularly in the retirement country of the South, generally anyone who has the money to hand over gets in. As far as is known, no Negroes have applied for proprietary club memberships, but one manager says, "I expect this will happen shortly." He adds, "The major golf associations have slowed down the admission of new clubs because they're afraid the clubs might admit Negroes. The golf associations are notoriously conservative, but you must have them because they issue all the official handicaps."

The promise of profit in a proprietary club is so strong that a number of golfers have become involved in them. Mike Souchak is building several in partnership with some businessmen in North Carolina, where he lives; and Dow Finsterwald's partnership in the Tequesta, Fla. club is one of the early successes along this line.

The leader in the field, if leader is the word, is George S. May, the flamboyant owner of Tam O'Shanter Country Club in Chicago. May got his start in life as a sharp Bible salesman—he used to follow Billy Sunday around the sawdust circuit—and both he and his club are living rebukes to the old-fashioned notion that a country club is a genteel place to relax. From its uniformed guards at its two gates to the eight bars—one of which is between the 9th hole and the 10th tee—Tarn is designed to make money. The gaudy red-and-white clubhouse is a habitable jukebox. Tarn has 300 regular golfers who pay a yearly membership fee of $750, 125 limited golfers who pay $450 and 441 social members who lay out $175 a year. For every $364 the golfer spends annually on food and drink, he receives a rebate of $50. For every $364 the social member spends, he receives a rebate of $25. (May arrived at $364 by figuring a member should spend at least a dollar a day. Christmas is on the house.)

Housing developers have been quick to see the money to be made in proprietary clubs. One such is Leon A. Katz, president of Golf Associates in New York. Originally a developer pure and simple, Katz is now also a country club man. Golf Associates has three clubs in operation, is building three more and has three others in negotiation. What Katz does is scout around for clubs that went broke during the Depression, buy them and restore the courses. Restoration is much cheaper than building anew. Once while he was commuting by helicopter from his home in Flushing to a club he was building in Westchester, he spotted what looked like the outline of an abandoned course in Armonk. Katz verified his aerial observation and bought the property from its startled owners.

Katz's clubs, which cost approximately $1 million each, average 300 families. The entry fee ranges from $400 to $500, and annual dues are $500. "We appeal to the public course golfer who can no longer get on a course and has a little money," Katz says. "They're hungry for golf." He keeps down maintenance costs by renting groundkeeping machinery and doing away with what he calls "frills." "The dining room is designed for average usage, not the crowd on the Queen Mary," "he says. "And we do not run a credit operation. We get a substantial return on our investment." One of the clubs will be surrounded by 300 houses. "It goes fast that way," he says. "In 10 years, everyone will look upon a club as a necessity."

Finally, there are the industrial country clubs, about 100 all told, and most designed for the working stiff. The Endicott Johnson Company has the En-Joie Country Club at Endicott, N.Y., the West Virginia Pulp & Paper Co. has the Westvaco Country Club in Covington, Va., and the Texas Company has the Texaco Country Club in Houston. One of the splashiest is the Du Pont Country Club in Wilmington, Del., with 9,300 members, three 18-hole courses, one nine-hole course, 16 tennis courts and one lawn bowling court.

Curiously, the oldest company golf club was started by Oneida Limited, manufacturers of silver plate, in Oneida, N.Y. The company is a descendant of a communistic (in the old Utopian sense) society based on Christian principles. Founded in the 1840s by J. H. Noyes, the community disbanded in 1880 when outsiders objected to its radical views on marriage. A joint stock company was created to run the business enterprises established by the community. The company put into business practice Noyes's idealistic doctrines. As a result, the company began the golf club for employees 64 years ago and pioneered such other innovations as the coffee break and paid vacations.

Everything considered, the country club, be it industrial, rural or top-status, is probably the most accurate mirror of social trends in American life today. It offers the family a place to play and the businessman a place to be seen. If the country club has its flaws—and surely discrimination is one of them—it is not necessarily because the club system is unfair but because the society in which it flourishes has flaws of its own.