Ho, for the club life! The green leather wing chairs, the well-stocked bars, the well-heeled members, all those Buckys and Binkys and Bills. In another life, I might have been quite clubbable, in my bowtie and fez.
But alas, in this life I lack certain necessities: connections, for starters, and wealth, or an employer willing to pony up steep membership fees. I am indeed a proud member of one club, Cliff Dwellers, but as a charity case, as will be explained if you somehow make it to the end of this column.
But first I can’t let The Standard Club vanish — the 150-year-old institution is closing May 1 — without eulogizing it and that whole private club world teetering on the brink of extinction.
The Standard Club was the Jewish club, formed in 1869 by Jews blackballed from Chicago’s gentile clubs. To prove that Jews could be as snobbish as anybody, it performed the neat trick of being the rare Jewish organization that discriminated against Jews. Founded by German Jews, so proud of that apex of refinement and civilization, Germany, The Standard Club initially barred their embarrassing, unwashed Eastern Europe brethren. Snickering fate would eventually punish them for that.
To me, clubs mean lunches — dining at The Standard Club with federal judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, with Jeff Zaslow. I believe I’ve eaten in every club in the city, including the ultra-exclusive Casino club, twice. A lapse on somebody’s part, I’m sure. The Casino sits on what was to be the footprint of the John Hancock Building. But when developers tried to buy the land, Casino president Mrs. John Winterbotham gave them the frosty rebuff such impertinence deserves.
Many clubs are long gone. I remember my last visit to the Tavern Club, hazily. There was the Explorer’s Club, with that whale penis mounted over the bar.
Did I mention that, despite efforts to change with the times, these clubs often remain relics of white, male-dominated society? It’s true.
Or is that bitterness? I’ve only been invited to join one club: the University Club, its dining room soaring like a medieval cathedral, after colleagues threw me a book signing there. Taking the tour, I told club officials I was flattered and would be happy to join “as soon as money means nothing to me.” Because paying dues is just renting the right to eat at an expensive restaurant seven blocks from my office.
So how did I join Cliff Dwellers?
My pal Rick Kogan, esteemed Tribune columnist, son of great Chicago journalist Herman Kogan, is a member of the Union League Club (their black-tie fight-night smokers were straight out of F. Scott Fitzgerald). During one of our lunches there, I said, “This is kinda high hat for you, isn’t it?”
He explained the Union League Club has a distinguished writers program where luminaries like Studs Terkel, Scott Turow, Alex Kotlowitz and, ahem, himself are welcomed into the club by merit of their genius.
That sounded like a plan. When I did a reading at Cliff Dwellers, the club president said hello, and I spontaneously outlined Kogan’s sweet gig and wondered if something might be worked out for me. They fell for it.
It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. They get another person willing to pay $24 for their excellent lunch buffet. And I get access to the premises. When an office where I was to interview six transgender teens got nervous and balked, we were welcomed by Cliff Dwellers. I bought them sodas, and we talked.
And it created my all-time favorite club memory. If you are a sensitive soul — trigger warning! — please bail out now.
Are the fuddy duddies gone? Good. Once ensconced at Cliff Dwellers, I immediately invited Kogan to lunch there.
Let me set the scene: We are sitting in the sun-washed 22nd floor dining room. It is hushed, almost empty — all clubs struggle. The clink of silverware. The topic, Nelson Algren.
“I once called him an asshole to his face,” Kogan growls.
”Nelson Algren wanted to f --- my mother!” Kogan booms, his marvelous deep whiskey and cigarette voice vibrating the windows.
I so love that. Who else in Chicago can utter that sentence? And how lucky am I to be the one hearing it? These clubs, they have a value, for those who can find a way in.