By the time I was 23, I had the job I might have aspired to all my life. I was overseeing public relations for the most prestigious program at one of the most prestigious cultural organizations in New York. Not too shabby, except for when it was, which was all the time. I would take a cab every morning, when I could least afford it, just to avoid the psychologically excruciating ten-block walk. When cabs weren't available, I took a car. One day I rode to work in a limo, and even that failed to do the trick, as I still arrived at my destination.
My boss had less experience than I did, a fact that I think roundly charmed her at first and enraged her soon after. I toiled in a windowless room, and, nine months later when I was informed that I was more or less fired, I went to Central Park on a frigid winter's day and sat on a ice cold slab bench sobbing until I could catch my breath long enough to call my father and apologize for the fact that he wasted such a nice education.
Somewhere during that period of time, I re-read The Great Gatsby, and as is often the case, it altered the course of my life with one line: "I took dinner at the Yale Club." Years later I would look at it again and realize it was immediately followed by "for some reason it was the gloomiest event of my day," but at the time I can't imagine how that might've fazed me. I was eligible through my university to join a club and so I did, even though I knew no one else who belonged to one and wasn't sure what I might do there.
Membership first revealed its privileges when my father insisted I meet some of his friends to find a new job. "I could take you to the Club for lunch," one of them said, in a warmly patronizing tone. "Or I could take you," I coolly replied. We met as equals.
The next break was when I discovered the joys of reciprocal membership, which allows you to stay at clubs around the world. Buoyed by cheap, grand accommodations, I could afford to visit London for the first time, and take up residence at the charming Naval Club in Mayfair (on a later visit, I was delighted to learn that I had bought my Battle of Trafalgar tea towel just in time; they're no longer for sale near the front desk) and Edinburgh on a whim, where I checked into the Royal Over-Seas League, across the street from the castle, and stayed in bed nursing a broken heart, watching episodes of Rebus and eating candy bars for the most hedonistic Thanksgiving of my life.
There are new-breed membership clubs that offer exclusive access to a social scene. I don't count these; to me, they're just private bars for trendy people (I've stayed at a couple, the Union League in Philadelphia and the St. James Club in Paris, that do offer accommodations to the public, functiontiong essentially as exclusive luxury hotels. (The best St. James story involves my sister and I sitting at the library bar, which was sprinkled with residents of the very high-end sixteenth arrondissement. She wondered about identity of a stuffed bird a few feet away. "Looks like a peasant," I mused.)
A real club, in my experience, is bound by tradition and would sooner burn itself down than admit anyone wearing sunglasses at night.
Clubs do have rules, and delight in them. Chiefly, you may never mention their name in print. Taking photographs is also forbidden. It wasn't until I stayed at a club in London for a month, that I began to really learn about the subculture. Pall Mall is the center of an area colloquially known as "Clubland," whose members are both creatures of habit and happenstance, usually sticking to a circumscribed schedule while often retaining memberships at three or more clubs. I remember on more than one occasion remarking that I had gone out for the evening and having someone reply, with genuine wonder, "to a restaurant?"
The fun is in trying to visit as many clubs as possible as a guest, each having their own milieu: diplomats, clergyman, members of the legal profession, and so on, culminating in my personal favorite, "country people," which evidently is the polite euphemism for aristocrats. I was back in London this spring, and wishing to impress a native, took her to the Naval & Military Club, also known as "The In and Out," where our status as the only women was even more conspicuous than usual and led us to being the beneficiaries of magic tricks by members of the territorial army who only drifted away in search of solace when we informed them we were not going to Mahiki.
Back in New York, I was despondent. What to do without anyone to pour my tea and make up the bed in my room, filled to bursting with flowers, jewels and gowns — essential in an environment where men wear dinner jackets because it's dinner time? I briefly considered my club, which I like well enough for the fact that they recognize my siblings and me, and it seems to impress clients (especially as everything is charged to your house account and money is forbidden to change hands on-site), but without a proper club table, where lone diners can join the conversation, it was lacking.
There are a few exquisite clubs I've been to with clients (The Cosmopolitan Club, The Century Association, The Lotos Club), but they are too far uptown to really be of use to me. After a week back in my apartment, heretofore fine for five years, I thought, at the very least, a doorman would be nice, and went and looked at a place and signed on the spot. The building is on Hanover Square, on the waterfront, and overlooking the British Garden. It's the one vaguely English spot in New York, at least in the historical sense, and I'm not sure there's any other kind. Best of all, the new place overlooks India House Club, an easy-to-join shrine to maritime commerce located in an unusual pre-Civil War Italianate building, where I plan to eat lunch every day for the rest of my life. Thinking ahead to my birthday, I've already asked how much it might run to have a masked ball for a couple hundred of my friends this summer. My gloomiest days are long gone.