Living It Up: The Elite Private Clubs

Ever since the Duquesne Club opened its doors in 1873, the captains of industry have swaggered through them. Through the years, the all-white, all-male likes of Carnegie, Frick, Schwab, and Mellon have been succeeded by lesser-known chief executives and entrepreneurs of all genders and colors. But still they dine and talk business in the handsome brownstone quarters of the legendary city club in Pittsburgh.

What's remarkable, perhaps, is that the Duquesne and many other private clubs continue to thrive in an age of egalitarianism and fierce competition. Not all, of course, have survived the death of the three-Martini lunch and tax-deductibility rules that once favored lavish business spending. Yet the top private clubs continue to entice the rich, the powerful, and the successful.

Which clubs are tops? To find out, John R. Sibbald Associates Inc., a search firm specializing in recruiting club managers, surveyed 5,000 general managers, presidents, directors, and owners of private clubs. They were asked to rank the "very best" clubs, and those that are the "best managed and most successful" in five categories: city clubs, full-service country clubs, golf clubs, athletic clubs, and yacht clubs. Although some clubs straddle two or three categories, they are listed in the single area in which they excel.

Truth be told, it would be nearly impossible to survey a good enough cross section of the members of all these private clubs. But this is the most extensive effort. Many presidents or directors of these clubs are members of other clubs or have at least checked out the competition. Many of the general managers have worked for several of them, as well.

The grand and the famous--and the secretive--top the most-respected lists. The Duquesne, with its 60 dining rooms and 30 guest rooms, sits atop the city club scene. Atlanta's opulent Cherokee Town & Country Club wins high honors as the best country club. Tucked away in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, the impeccably groomed Pine Valley Golf Club earns the top rank among private golf clubs. The Atlanta Athletic Club and the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club take the No.1 spots in their categories of private clubs.

More than bragging rights are at stake here. Belonging to the right club still confers a measure of prestige and status on mem- bers. It allows entree to the most powerful and connected in a community--great for contact-hungry lawyers, bankers, or job-hunters--and it provides a way to impress out-of-town visitors and clients. Just as important, private clubs remain a comfy retreat from the day's pressures, a place to meet friends, enjoy a superior meal, or just read--often without the inconveniences of today's crowded and service-less culture.

Clubs offer exclusivity, dress codes, and, more often than not, Old World ambience. To enter any of the top city clubs is to step back into a past when guests repaired to the smoking room to enjoy a fine cigar and a single-malt Scotch.

For the traveling executive, private clubs offer some added advantages. Besides legions of friendly staffers often likely to know you by name, clubs provide a homier feeling when you're on the road, as well as more comfortable meeting rooms. That's why more than a third of the Duquesne's membership is from outside the area. Better yet, most clubs lower their fees for nonresidents, making some of them competitive with full-service luxury hotels. The Atlanta Athletic Club's $40,000 initiation fee, for instance, is just $6,000 for all members who live outside a 75-mile radius of the club. Such reduced rates make memberships an attractive idea for out-of-town professionals who regularly visit a city.

Like most of the city clubs on the list, the Chicago Club is a bit stuffy and staid, with fusty old portraits that hang in the high-ceilinged eating salons. "We frown on business documents in the dining room," allows Frank Stover, general manager of the club, whose members include AT&T President John Walter and most of the big-company CEOS in Chicago. "It's safe and quiet, and you can hide there," says member Fred Wackerle, a partner at the search firm McFeely Wackerle Shulman.

OAKS AND OCEANS. Still, these posh clubs are hardly fossilized remnants from Jay Gatsby's day. The Duquesne, for example, boasts a new health and fitness center, with a staff of exercise physiologists. Membership in the tony and cavernous New York Athletic Club allows one to take advantage of an elegant retreat 35 minutes from the city on Travers Island in Long Island Sound. There, members can sail, swim, or imbibe fine wine.

Moreover, members of these private clubs can partake in often grand and breathtaking environments. The clubhouse of the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club is an Italian Renaissance-style building with a 187-foot bell tower on Lake St. Clair that has become a historic landmark. The expansive approach to Houston's River Oaks Country Club is lined with stately old oaks, draped with Spanish moss. The clubhouse looks like 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. And Cypress Point Club in Pebble Beach, Calif., provides golfers spectacular seaside holes along the roaring Pacific Ocean.

The exclusiveness of private clubs also means that they provide comfort far away from crowds and, as some confess, the riffraff. At the Bob O'Link Golf Club outside Chicago, there are no tee times and only 235 members. At the Cherokee Town & Country, it's possible you could get a snarling waiter. "But it seldom happens twice," insists President John Spiegel, who says all letters of complaint are circulated to every member of the board of directors.

To enjoy such amenities requires both the approval of peers and wads of money. At the Cherokee, which has 2,500 members, the waiting list to join is five years long. It takes a full year or more for prospects at Duquesne to earn approval--assuming, of course, they have the written support of five members, boast a prestigious pedigree and don't mind paying the $7,500 initiation fee, $175 monthly dues, plus $55 a month for the fitness center. "Members don't recommend someone who fails to measure up," insists General Manager Mel Rex.

OUT OF REACH. Most clubs zealously guard members' privacy. The result: Many clubs, especially the golf clubs, refuse to provide even the most innocuous details on their membership or facilities. "If you want to be private, you have to act private," says Charles Raudenbush, general manager of the top-ranked Pine Valley Golf Club, declining to divulge how many members there are.

The exclusive policies of some of these private clubs leave many of them still very white and very male. It was only six years ago that the Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., agreed to accept women and minority members for the first time. Club managers assert that they do not exclude anyone based on race, religion, or sex, but diversity rarely reigns. Indeed, the screening process and membership costs often put these clubs out of reach for many outside the Establishment. "You have to have a good bit of money to enjoy a private club," says Chris Borders, general manager of the Atlanta Athletic Club.

Clearly, costs do mount. The initiation fee alone for the Los Angeles Country Club is $80,000. Besides an initiation fee of $35,000 and annual dues of $4,900, the Baltusrol Golf Club requires entrants to buy a $10,000 club-issued bond. At about a third of the golf and country clubs--where fees are highest--members can retrieve initiation fees when they resign. Sometimes, they can even earn a premium on the sale of their membership.

Before the government cracked down on business expenses about four years ago, many corporations footed the bill for as many as three or four clubs for every top executive. Most companies have since cut back to a single club, forcing more executives to reach into their own pockets. Most clubs require the hefty initiation fees to be paid up front. But some, such as the Atlanta Athletic Club, allow members to spread the payments over a one- or two-year period.

The cost of such memberships, moreover, may have little to do with which club is best. Although financier David Murdoch's Sherwood Country Club outside Los Angeles may have the steepest initiation fee at $150,000, it didn't make the top 70 in the Sibbald survey. And many of the clubs favored by some of the nation's most powerful corporate elite are absent. Financier Jay Pritzker's Who's Who entry lists him as a member of five posh Chicago clubs, including the Standard and the Commonwealth, but none of them made the top 10 list. Ah...but there's always next time. Meanwhile, the best clubs, where earlier generations of business titans dined, are still quite alive and well, thank you.

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