We may preen in public about the advantages of democracy and all our equalities, but the fact is that a fair piece of homestretch in the American pursuit of happiness is devoted to chasing exclusivity. Nothing is quite so snug or quite so visible a symbol of prestige as membership in a private club—and nobody seems more bent on gaining this place beyond the crowd than the participating sportsmen among us. Players of golf and polo and tennis, yachtsmen, pheasant hunters, riders to the hounds, swimmers and steam-room loungers—all have found ways to wall themselves off. Until recently one of the few public sports still unaffected by this phenomenon was skiing, perhaps mostly because it is awfully expensive to block off a big mountain.
But now even that redoubt has fallen. Nowhere are people more underfoot than on the ski slopes of the crowded Northeast and, suddenly, here is the Windham Mountain Club—select and secluded on an 800 acre spread in New York's Catskill Mountains, a mere 2½ hour drive from Manhattan. Windham is operated for the express purpose of providing its members an uncluttered mountainside, short lines to the chair lifts and well-mannered companionship. The cover sheet on its brochure leaves no doubt about the status: in bold, big capitals, the words PRIVATE PROPERTY are printed above a photograph of the mountain.
It is all that. Perhaps a bit more tactfully, the club's invitational card carries this message: "The historical American solution to the rapid growth of participation sports has been the private club concept. Those persons of more than nominal means who desire to enjoy a sport to its fullest have joined together to control the number and attractiveness of their associates. The Board of Governors cordially invites you...."
Of course, controlling the "attractiveness" of one's associates requires certain subjective judgments that can cover a multitude of social qualities—and inequalities. Yet at Windham, as Club President Thomas I. Sheridan Jr. sees it, there is a nice, wholesome balance to the association. "There are Christians and Jews, bachelors and married guys with 10 kids. We have a New York policeman and stewardesses and nurses, lawyers and doctors. We have rich and poor...well, not really poor—you don't get any really poor skiers. In fact, a substantial number of our members will ski somewhere in Europe this year as well as coming to Windham for the weekends."
Among the name names on Windham's roster are such as Lowell Thomas, Frank Gifford, Rushton Skakel (Ethel Kennedy's brother), C. Peter McColough, president of Xerox, Louis Marx Jr., the toy manufacturer, White-law Reid of the publishing family, and other such known or vaguely familiar personalities. But even for routine nobodies, membership at Windham is not totally beyond reach. Top fee for a family membership is $1,500 initiation, followed by $500 maximum annual dues. And the Windham Mountain Club does not cater to your average, idle country-clubber. "This place is for people who really ski—not those who sit on their tails," said Sheridan. "The point of the club is for people to ski comfortably and safely. Without crowds. Listen, every one of us here has been through it all. Freezing in those 45-minute lift lines; dodging all over to save your life on the slopes from the madmen; bribing ski-school operators to let us get in at the front of the line. Sure, we want a congenial atmosphere here, but we're also here to ski and, I'll tell you, a private club changes the whole psychology of skiing. Instead of running wild to get the most out of a $10 lift ticket—you know, skiing for five or six hours on icy runs through snowstorms, risking your life to get your money's worth—we know it will always be at least civilized here. We can ski for an hour or so and quit. We don't feel frenzied."
To keep Windham unfrenzied, memberships are limited to 800—totaling no more than 2,800 skiers when families are added in. "We will never, under any circumstances, exceed 2,800 skiers," said Sheridan. "It's in the bylaws." Not that skiing millions are mad to get at the mountain. Windham Mountain is 3,100 feet high with a 1,500-foot vertical drop and the slopes average 25° of steepness. No one will ever schedule the Winter Olympics or a World Cup race at Windham, but the runs are challenging enough for the clientele. There are five trails and two wide slopes, including an unusually long novice run, 3½ miles. And there are three chair lifts (3,800 an hour capacity) to get everybody to the top.
Still, the mountain is a lovely sight to behold. It overlooks the classic American-primitive village of Windham, which is set in a valley that should have been painted by Grandma Moses. "It is not in the bylaws," said Sheridan, "but this is God's mountain. We didn't even get cute about naming it—just plain old Windham Mountain—because we didn't want to do anything to spoil the naturalness."
As might be suspected, the idea for forming a private club was born in the aftermath of an unsuccessful public ski area—same mountain—run by Sheridan's family. It simply did not catch on. In 1966 a band of 50 businessmen from the New York metropolitan area, organized by Sheridan, bought the mountain from the Sheridans for $1.6 million. For the first couple of years the operation was semiprivate, meaning that club members used one fast-moving lift line while the public stamped its cold feet and cursed through a much longer queue. "That didn't work," said Sheridan. "The public hated it and the members got so embarrassed about being overprivileged that they could hardly bring themselves to go to the head of the lines." In the fall of 1968 the club went completely private and by last season it was successfully full. Now the main lodge has a good bar and the club has hired an excellent chef. There is a cafeteria and a zingy discoth√®que for the kids. Club members are building lush private ski houses all around and new apartment and duplex units are springing up.
"Now our problem is keeping our club under control," said Sheridan. "We're going to use a computer to keep track of our membership profile. We'll program in all the children and pregnant wives and the whole pattern of childbirth and death in the club. We are absolutely not going over 2,800 skiers. It's in the bylaws."