The thing about clubs

17 Mar

“How I remember it: the Garrick at night”][

In September 1977, I got a job as a waitress in the Grill Room of the Garrick Club in London. While the Club, founded in 1831, was old, the Grill Room idea was relatively new, and offered late night meals scheduled around theatre performance times. So in a cheap, blue-and-white check polyester uniform so flimsy I had to wear a turtleneck sweater underneath it during the winter, I would serve dinner to famous people like Sir Lawrence Olivier, Donald Sindon, Sir Ralph Richardson, and Ingrid Bergman  (then in her final play, Waters of the Moon) in a vast, chilly room filled with ornately framed paintings of other famous people.

Like the uniform, the wages were also pretty threadbare, probably why most of the staff was either from the Commonwealth, or Irish, (at least two of them involved in criminal activity.) Despite the record high rates of unemployment that were the talk of the time in Great Britain, anyone local, I think, would have found something better somewhere else.

Like Cyril, the doorman and Tony, the barman, our maitre d’ in the Grill Room, however, was British and his name was Keith. He once told me that he’d worked in a seaside resort one summer and for a joke, set an ostrich egg from the hotel display in front of the famous comedian Arthur Lowe for breakfast, and that Lowe hadn’t found this funny in the least.

Why I am thinking about the Garrick Club again after all these years? Struggling to remember whether it was a doddering Sir Ralph Richardson for whom who I opened the door, or Sir John Gielgud, and the chagrin I felt when told that the original Winnie the Pooh teddy bear was sitting on the table at the annual A.A. Milne bequest dinner. (I’d been too engrossed in my ‘silver service’ of the vegetables.)

The reason is the recent decision by the members of the Century Club in New York to sever their relationship with my prestigious former employers. Their impetus in doing so is the fact that the Garrick will not admit women members. The Century has allowed women to be members since 1988.

According to the New York Times, the discussion leading up to that decision was a pretty rancorous one. Even a few women argued against the petition to split, such as actress Marian Seldes, who said she found the Garrick “romantic.”

With such a roster of elderly, old-fashioned, smug and probably boring male members, I have to wonder why a woman would want to be a member in the first place. Brilliance on the page, the stage or canvas doesn’t necessarily translate into scintillating dinner-table company. Engaging artists – as Keith’s experience proved – are not always engaging people.

Yet I have to say I found the Century’s quandary fascinating. The whole point of clubs, after all, is exclusivity and discrimination. So women are not allowed membership at  the Garrick, the same way unpublished writers, unsuccessful actors and other average Joe’s are not allowed into the Century. It’s hard to see much difference between them, in the end.

But the Garrick, like the Century, is also about belonging and here I can’t help but compare my own youthful desire to fit in with the English, to adopt a culture that wasn’t mine at all, at that point in my life. Throughout my childhood, I fantasized about being told that I was adopted, and that my real parents (rich, glamorous) were still alive and living in California or Monte Carlo. By the time I was in my late teens/early 20s, I guess I had decided to simply acquire the background I really wanted.

At the same time, life in London at the edge of a Thatcher electoral landslide was hardly ideal. It was, for someone without money, a place of cheap bedsits and even cheaper squats, rain and crowded double-decker busses with narrow seats. Of gloomy, smoky pubs that closed at 11 pm and terrible coffee. Of appalling Wimpy’s hamburgers and gas heaters that swallowed coins like they were going out of style. And somehow the faded splendour of the Garrick with its worn Turkish rugs and oil paintings of deceased actors like Herbert Tree, Henry Irving and David Garrick himself, perfectly symbolizes not only those personal contradictions but the era itself.

I realize how contradictory this, too, must sound, but to be honest, I would hate to think of the Garrick doing the politically correct thing and allowing women to become members. Not that I would lose any sleep over the matter, but it’s true. If it were to re-decorate its fusty interior and put pannini on the menu, I would be no less disappointed. Some things are just not meant to improve, to change by a hundred little incremental steps, and one of them seems to be the Garrick. The shiver of dread and spark of innate rebellion the place inspired in me goes hand in hand with a kind of affection for its resolute predilection for the archaic. I like to remember it frozen not only in time but in my memory of the times, absurd and insular and out-dated, the stale cake made into trifle and the great gouged–out barrel of Stilton littered with broken bits of biscuit. As impervious to the outside world as a normal life in London was to me.


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