In 1993, when I was living in Manhattan working for the New Yorker magazine, I was chosen as ‘distinguished visitor’ to be a temporary member of the Century Club: there were two of us in this category, me and the Tanzanian ambassador to the United Nations. The Century, in midtown Manhattan on West 43rd Street, is one of the grandest clubs in New York, most of which were opened in the 19th century in imitation of the gentlemen’s clubs of London. The Century was founded in 1846, only 15 years later than the Garrick Club, of which I have long been a member. It was originally planned as ‘an association of artists, writers, musicians and amateurs of the arts and letters devoted to companionship and conversation’. The Garrick had been intended for a similarly Bohemian crowd (especially actors), but in fact, being in England, included one duke, five marquesses, six earls and 12 barons among its early members. In recent times, however, both clubs have become very popular with lawyers and media people, who now almost seem to predominate.
The Garrick and the Century had also, in the Eighties, been targets of emotional public campaigns to get them to admit women members. Although riven by controversy on the issue, the Century eventually let women in, while the Garrick continued to stand firm against them. In 1992 a motion demanding female membership of the Garrick was roundly defeated by 363 votes to 94. The Century, however, had no choice but to succumb. It fell foul of a law prohibiting America’s private clubs from discriminating on the basis of sex, race or religion if they had more than 400 members and served meals on a regular basis. Only a couple of much smaller clubs in New York still exclude women.
This caused a rift between the Garrick and the Century, which theretofore had enjoyed an exchange agreement whereby members of each club could frequent the other when in New York or London. There was, I believe, an occasion when a cheerful group of female Century members showed up at the Garrick demanding entry, only to be turned away because of their gender. The Century then ended the arrangement, to the chagrin of many of its male members who had liked using the Garrick when in London.
I somewhat warmed to the principle of women joining gentlemen’s clubs when I timidly paid my first visit to the Century’s tiny members-only bar. The only other person there was an elegant woman in her fifties, who immediately asked if she could buy me a drink. It was only when she was ordering me a dry martini that I noticed she was wearing a dog collar. She was, it turned out, the vicar of a fashionable Episcopalian church on the Upper East Side. How often does a vicar ever buy you a drink, especially a female one?
When the Garrick rejected women members in 1992, one of the arguments against them was that they would tend to be pushy, networking media or publishing people, who would use the club to promote their own careers or business interests, though why this should be truer of women than men was not clear to me; and it would anyway be up to the members what kind of women they elected. Also, there was no sign of such women in the Century: most of them seemed no less quiet, reserved and civilised than the men.
Anyway, here we go again. Twenty-three years after the first vote on the question, another is to take place on 6 July at the Garrick’s next Annual General Meeting. A resolution proposed by Bob Marshall-Andrews QC, a former Labour MP, asks that ‘women may be admitted to the Club as full members’ from the end of next year, though ‘membership shall not be subject to any quota system based on ethnicity, gender, beliefs or otherwise’. It is up to the members of the Garrick, and to nobody else, how they choose to vote, and I will cheerfully accept their decision, whatever it is. I don’t see why any gentlemen’s club should admit persons of the opposite sex if it doesn’t want to. But it will be interesting to see how much attitudes have changed during the past quarter-century.