Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A club’s founding

Slush underfoot. 2:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, February 2, 2016. Yesterday was a cloudy day in New York, with mid-afternoon temperature at 60 degrees, and light rain beginning in late afternoon.

Today is the 93rd birthday of our friend and colleague, contributor and mentor, Liz Smith. Liz came here by bus from deep in the heart of Texas in 1949! Since then she has met everybody, seen everything, gone everywhere, read everything, reported on everything from here to Halifax, and has had a damned good time a lot of the time. She’s always been a hard worker, and it’s a good thing because she’s had to work all her life to support her lifestyle as a syndicated columnist and television personality, friend to many and supporter of many good causes. If she’d lived in Hollywood she’d probably have been in the movies.
Times Square in 1949 — the year Liz moved to the big city.
All these years in the big town where she has been the Belle of Broadway and the Twitterer on-camera of televisionland, have not touched the back-home-in-Texas in the girl. She had a minor setback a few weeks ago and even took a little break for the churning-it-out-daily, but now the hips are pips, as Oscar Hammerstein once wrote. So Happy Happy Liz, We’re So Glad to Know Ya!! XXX from Me, and Jeff, and all the NYSD readers out there in the digital universe.
DPC with the birthday girl, Liz Smith.
Meanwhile, back to last Thursday night.  The Colony Club, designed by Delano and Aldrich, is the premiere women’s club in America. It was definitely the first women’s club in New York and its founding is at the roots of what became known as the Feminist Movement, or the Women’s Liberation that emerged enormously a half century after this club’s founding.

Anne Tracy Morgan, the youngest daughter of J. Pierpont Morgan, was a major force behind the making of the club. As a young woman, she lived at home in the family mansion on 35th Street and Madison Avenue. She often traveled with her father on his trips abroad. There were always others in the Morgan party, including his mistress, Mrs. Douglas.

Anne Tracy Morgan.
Bessie Marbury and Elsie de Wolfe.
Daughter Anne provided the cover, as it were, the “beard” for her father. Morgan’s extra-marital alliances were not really a secret in his world. He was a man who really liked the company of women as well as the stimulation they might provide outside the carnal. Nevertheless, it was an age where appearances counted as much as facts.

On February 7, 1901 – 115 years ago next Sunday, Anne Morgan had a pivotal moment that changed her life. She met Elizabeth Marbury, known by everyone as “Bessie,” a very prominent and powerful international literary agent and theatrical producer. It sounds like their meeting was a coup de foudre, although obviously I wouldn’t know.

Marbury lived with Elsie de Wolfe, who was at the time an actress and a budding interior decorator at a time when the profession was regarded as a man’s business. Marbury and de Wolfe entertained, salon-like, in their brick townhouse on Irving Place. Among the guests literary, artistic and theatrical, were also not a few of the men about town, including Jack Astor and several Vanderbilts and Morgans.

The two women were known among their male admirers as the Bachelors. Presumably it was also known that they were mutually connubial, or more explicitly, lovers. When Anne Morgan came into the fold, evidently the passion of Ms. Marbury, the duo, became what some referred to as the “Versailles triumvirate.” The choice of words was apt and not accidental. All three commanded respect in a man’s world.

It changed Anne Morgan’s life. It may well have annoyed her father that his “beard” was taken from him, although he evidently was always a gentleman with his daughter – who would demonstrate in her life that she had a lot of her father’s wits and strengths, as well as a strong sense of what’s fair’s fair.

Bessie Marbury described Morgan at the time of meeting as “young for her age,” and “not allowed to grow up.” She encouraged the  27-year-old woman who lived spinster-like under her father’s roof, to defy her father (and do what she wanted). She described the young woman: “Her mind was ready for the spark plugs to be adjusted.” It was Marbury who would do at least some of the adjusting, and who raised Anne Morgan’s social consciousness.
The Marbury-de Wolfe residence on 17th Street.
In 1903, the Colony Club was founded as a women-only private club by Florence (Mrs. J. Borden) Harriman. It was the first club established by and for women only, and modeled on similar clubs for men. The first clubhouse was designed by Stanford White of McKim, Mead & White, and located on 120 Madison Avenue, between 30th and 31st Street. White’s creation was in the Federal Revival style with unusual brickwork done in a diaper pattern on its façade. The women organizing it, including Anne Morgan and Bessie Marbury raised $500,000 (comparable to approximately $50 million in today’s dollars) to build the clubhouse.
The original Stanford White-designed Colony Club at 122 Madison Avenue, 1905.
The building as it looks today, where it serves as the New York headquarters for The American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Stanford White also did something that recommends him as a contributor to the Feminist Movement: he hired a woman to do the interiors — Elsie de Wolfe. The politics that probably led to that decision are apparent in retrospect. Yet White was also a man responsive to these “strong” women — particularly Bessie Marbury — who had already been demonstrating their political expertise and prowess.

The project indemnified Elsie de Wolfe’s burgeoning career as an interior decorator and a pathmaker for women. And although there were other women working in interior decoration at the time, Elsie’s public profile (and commissions) made her famous, and established women in the interior decorating field permanently.
The Trellis Room at the Colony Club on Madison Avenue, designed by Elsie de Wolfe.
The Roof Garden.
The Assembly Room.
It should be noted that in those times, the idea of even upper class society women having a place to go that was specifically for their private time, their leisure, their camaraderie, was foreign to many men ... and women. A women’s club, governed by women, for women, and even excluding men, was almost scandalous; and might even have been considered scandalous if it weren’t for the prominence (and the wealth) of the women who built it. Many men opposed the idea and/or thought it was ridiculous.

Alva Vanderbilt Belmont.
In its early days, the club as well as the club’s site was where a lot of suffrage rallies were held, sponsored by the Equal Franchise Society — another women’s independence groups, many of whom were members of the club. Anne Morgan and Alva Vanderbilt Belmont were only two women of their social class who were promoting equality for women in the working classes, stressing the “importance of cross-class cooperation between upper-class and working class women.” In 1909, Morgan joined the Women’s Trade Union League to support the Women’s Shirtwaist workers strike. Her public announcement, especially as J. P. Morgan’s daughter was well publicized: 

“If we come to fully recognize these conditions we can’t live our own lives without doing something to help them, bringing them at least the support of public opinion. We can see from the general trade conditions how difficult it must be for these girls to get along. Of course, the consumer must be protected, but when you hear of a woman who presses forty dozen skirts for $8 a week something must be very wrong. And fifty-two hours a week seems little enough to ask ... These conditions are terrible, and the girls must be helped to organize ... and if public opinion is on their side they will be able to do it” (New York Times 14 December 1909).
A coach leaving from the Colony Club in 1911, carrying Mrs. Thomas Hastings, Mrs. Iselin and Mrs. William Goadby Loew.
In its first decade of existence, the country was moving swiftly into the modern age. The hemlines began to move up from the floor and one woman designer in Paris, Coco Chanel was about to put women in pants. For reasons unknown to me, the Colony Club decided to move its headquarters uptown to 584 Park Avenue at 62nd Street, but in 1913 they hired the distinguished firm of Delano and Aldrich to design the marble and red brick clubhouse in the Neo-Georgian style. In retrospect, it is easy to see that someone back in 1913 had the foresight to see that 62nd and Park Avenue was a more sensible location for the club that was here to stay.
The Colony Club at 584 Park Avenue on completion of construction in 1916.
The new club house is substantially bigger and no doubt has a much bigger membership than the Madison Avenue clubhouse. The Elsie de Wolfe-influenced interior includes lounges, dining rooms, and bedrooms as well as a two-story ballroom and a swimming pool and spa as well as squash courts as well as servants’ rooms and a dog kennel for guests to leave their pets. The club maintains a specialness similar to its presence when it was founded, although it does not have the aura of political progressiveness and activity that gave it birth.

Today it remains an excellent club for a variety of reasons to any member – of which there are 2500.  The membership affords a steady schedule of concerts, discussions, lectures, and wellness and athletic programs, as well as lunching and dining parties and events. There are 25 guest bedrooms that are booked by out of town members coming in for a brief stay. It is obviously a well managed and maintained enterprise, every bit as useful to its members as it was at its beginning.
The Colony Club today.
They do have a rule for members and non-members attending their various events, that the club’s name not be mentioned in the press. This is not unusual in that there are several private clubs in New York who have that “rule.” Besides being ironic, it’s absurd, especially considering that their physical plant has been written about and published thousands of times over the past century.

Nevertheless. Last Thursday night, there was a club members dinner dance commemorating the 100th anniversary of the opening of this exquisite clubhouse that continues to be maintained and respected (deeply) by its members 112 years after its launch as a private women’s club. There were 900 attending the dinner dance — black tie — with a guest list that included three generations of members, their families and their friends.
The Aviary Room at the Colony Club on Park Avenue.
The same room today. On this day in 2015, W Magazine was holding an 'It Girl' Luncheon.
During the cocktail reception, three members, or rather two members and the husband of another member, stood before the gathered party and, accompanied on piano, sang a song someone had written (words and music) about the celebration of this anniversary. Everyone was provided with a sheet of lyrics so it became a kind of sing-a-long. It had the quality of a campfire  music jamboree. For a moment. It was a festive affair, and it was clear to see the guests loved being there — in those beautiful now landmark rooms — standing tradition with many friends and family together. And this is New York.
The Colony Club set for dinner.

Contact DPC here.