I Wouldn’t Want to Belong…. by
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(133 Stories)

Prompted By Cliques and Clubs

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This week’s prompt reminds me of the famous Groucho Marx line (apocryphal or not): “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”  Indeed, I would not be surprised if some of the other Retro writers also cite it this week.

In any event, to the extent it applies to me (and it sort of does), I come by it honestly.  My mother grew up across the street from and belonging to the Suburban Club, the oldest and fanciest Jewish country club in the Baltimore area.  She learned to play tennis there, which was one of the main joys of her life, but wanted nothing to do with country clubs after that. She considered them “snooty.” That was why she often kiddingly referred to “The Court,” which I wrote about in a recent Retro story, as “The Bethany Tennis Club.”  In fact, one year she ordered a whole bunch of tennis racket covers emblazoned with “The Bethany Tennis Club” in snazzy felt letters and gave them out both to herself and my brother and me and to her close tennis pals who also considered the BTC their home club.


The Suburban Club

As to my father, he was a bit more complicated on the issue of clubs. When he was Head of the Department of Orthopedics at Yale Medical School in the 1950’s, he and two professors at Yale Law School applied to The Lawn Club, the toniest club in New Haven, to be its first Jewish members.  All three got in — probably in part because The Lawn Club was starting to evolve and in part because it was worried that the law professors would sue if they were not admitted. Anyhow, although they all got in, my father then announced that he had no interest in actually joining the club; he just wanted to see if they would let him in.  This was quite surprising, as my father was not known for such political statements/stunts (choose one), though he was pretty demonstrative about the anti-Semitism in most medical schools admissions policies. Plus, he later on joined some other previously restricted clubs, including a pretty snooty (in my view) hunt club which had no problem with killing foxes.  So he certainly “evolved” in terms of club memberships (as I will also note a little bit later in this story), though I’m not sure for the better.

Coincidentally, my older daughter is a senior administrator at Yale and is in the process of applying to The Lawn Club, which is now quite ecumenical in its membership.  I have joked with her that she had better hope that the membership committee does not delve too deeply into her surname and seek retribution for the insult hurled its way by her grandfather over sixty years ago.

 

The Lawn Club

As for myself, in high school, I was editor-in-chief of the newspaper and on the tennis team, but not active in any “social” clubs.  Not that there were many.  The closest we had was the Senior Prom Committee, and clearly being on its Decorations Committee, with all the cheerleaders and the pretty, artsy girls, was the pinnacle of high school in-ness. I had no interest in such frivolity. I chose instead the Clean-Up Committee and, in fact, was Chair of it.  That meant showing up at our high school ridiculously early on the Sunday morning after our prom and cleaning up the gym — and, worse yet, the rest rooms and the parking lot — before heading out to the class picnic on a nearby beach.  But I liked the idea that no one joined the Clean-Up Committee for the prestige; just to do a good job at a thankless task.  My daughters have on occasion kidded me that my choice of the Clean-Up Committee was something of a metphor for how I approach life, but I have opted to take that as a compliment — which they sort of, but not entirely, meant.

In college, I was invited to join the Phoenix S.K. Club, one of the Final Clubs at Harvard, which, like the Secret Societies at Yale, are the uber-fraternities for privileged undergraduate males (or were then).  But again, I simply had no interest in joining it, despite my father’s entreaties that I do so.  (I told you he had “evolved” from his Lawn Club days).  I explained my decision to anyone who asked by citing Groucho’s line and also noting that Phoenix couldn’t be too exclusive if its one token gay Black member — a good friend of mine and a truly nice guy —  was asking a Jew to join. In any event, I didn’t join, and, as they say, “Non, je ne regrette rien.”

Phoenix S.K.

As an adult, I actually did join one country club when my former wife and I bought a weekend/summer house in Oyster Bay on the North Shore of Long Island. But we did not join the Piping Rock Club, the toniest club in the area, in Locust Valley (of course).  Rather, we joined the much more low key and egalitarian Cold Spring Harbor Beach and Tennis Club (“CSHBTC”), primarily so our girls could get tennis lessons and have a little beach to dig in the mud on.  No golf and only a snack bar other than for special occasions.  George Plimpton, whose venerable family had been members of the CSHBTC for years, once said of it, ” It’s either the shabbiest little classy club or the classiest little shabby club on Long Island,” and he was absolutely right. Think frayed button down oxford shirts, old khakis and beat-up boat shoes.  Though all whites on the tennis courts, I must admit.

  Cold Spring Harbor Beach Club

Ironically, this past year, despite eschewing Phoenix or other fancy undergraduate Final Clubs, I have found that I have somehow become a member of my college class’ “Kool Kidz Klub” after all by being on our 50th reunion committee. Throughout the pandemic year, our committee has drawn a huge number of classmates into a panoply of virtual events that have really brought them together and gotten them to sing our committee’s praises. Granted, we are all old f*rts now, with really nothing to prove either professionally or personally, but so be it; better late than never.  For my part, I have been consumed with organizing monthly symposia and other virtual class gatherings, as well as negotiating contracts with hotels and event venues for when we have our “real” reunion — albeit a year late — next June in Cambridge.  And, while I admit it is nice to be recognized by my peers in a way that I know that club — and, yes, clique — membership brings, mainly I get gratification out of a sense of doing hard work and having something tangible to show for it.  In short, I stil feel like I’m on the Clean-Up Committee.

 

           Screen shot from a class Zoom gathering that I helped to organize in 2020.


And here is a mock up of our MAGA-mocking reunion cap.  (The President of Harvard once called us the “Worst Class Ever” and we, literally, wear that epithet proudly.)

 

Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin


Characterizations: funny, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Interesting assessment of the ins and outs of belonging or not belonging to elite clubs where you and your parents might be the token Jews, John. Funny that your father wanted to test the water to see if he could gain acceptance, only to turn them down, but later join a hunt club (a very non-Jewish thing to do). And I love your mother’s creations of her tennis club, with racket covers and all. But we’ve already heard about lessons she gave on her court (even to a little girl named Kathie), as long as her rules were obeyed.

    Also interesting that you turned down the Phoenix S.K. Club, but are now so deeply committed to your 50th reunion committee, giving untold amounts of time organizing and supervising the success of all those Zoom symposia. You are up to your eyeballs in Harvard…so much for your class being the worst one ever. As the person who chairs her Brandeis reunions, I can only dream of getting the participation that you have achieved. Big kudos to you! Clean up, indeed. Your attention to detail has its finger prints everywhere.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks so much, Betsy. I think one of the things I like about the reunion committee is that it is so entirely egalitarian and, indeed, our whole purpose is to be as inclusive — at least within our class — as is possible. We try to track down classmates with the vigilance of AARP or the UJA. And good luck with your reunion — I believe, as a youngster, you still have a few years to go.

      Amusingly, though Kathie never received a coveted Bethany Tennis Club racket cover, her parents, as prominent local WASPS, were members of The Lawn Club. BTC was way cooler.

  2. Firstly John, bravo to your father, and thanx for reminding us of that wonderful Groucho quote. I believe he also asked if his daughter, who was half-Jewish, could use the swimming pool at a restricted club if she went in only up to her waist.

    I do hope you have a certificate from the Clean-Up Committee to put on your WOE!

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Dana. Love your Groucho story, too. I thought she’d only be allowed to use half the pool.

      No Clean-Up Committee certificate, alas. Though it would have been even more fitting if there had been one and I threw it out.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    As others have commented, I love Groucho’s quote. Your choice of the clean up committee was pretty noble at a young age, a thankless but necessary job that someone needed to do, so why not you. I love how that carried over to organizing your 50th college reunion and zoom “gatherings.” And I love the hat!

  4. Marian says:

    Love learning about the clubs at Harvard and Yale, John, new experience for me. I was co-chair of my high school’s graduation committee, assigned by my academic standing. We ended up doing everything from ordering the caps and gowns to clean-up. And what is it about the year 1971? That class is known in Mills College lore as the worst class ever. They have the lowest donation rates as well.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Marian. There are now a load of books — both non-fiction and fiction — about these clubs, particularly Skull and Bones at Yale.

      And our class actually has a very high donation rate and huge class spirit, so we use the term ironically. But becasue we were there during all the student unrest, the then-president had a particular distaste for us.

  5. Suzy says:

    Great story, John. Love the idea of the BTC with its snazzy tennis racket covers. I hope you still have at least one!

    Interesting that you were invited to punch the Phoenix (that’s the right term, isn’t it?), but you declined. If you had become a member, we probably couldn’t have been friends.

    Terrific quote from George Plimpton about the CSHBTC. That sounds like the kind of club I could join.

  6. Khati Hendry says:

    Thanks for all the hard work connecting people John. When you join in on something because you believe in it, that makes all the difference. It sounds like you have a great group working together on the 50th-plus-one for 2022. Interesting that Marion said the class of 1971 at Mills was also the “worst”–I think it was the particularities of 1971 more than the students that earned that. After all, there was only one Summer of Love, and only one class of 1971 that experienced “the times” through college as they unfolded just so.

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