|PUBLISHED IN GQ // FEBRUARY 2006|
|Crashing the Club|
A fearless (fence-hopping) journey into the (unbelievably white) secret world of America’s oldest (i.e., snootiest), WASPiest (gin and tonic, anyone?), most exclusive (read: you’ll never get in!) country clubs
THE THING EVERYONE TELLS YOU when you’re going to sneak into an exclusive club is to act like you belong there. This I heard even from people who’d never actually been to a club before. The trick is to really believe you belong there, they’d say. Just walk in like you own the place. But see, there’s a frightening corollary to that: If you don’t act like you belong there, it will be obvious. Your self-doubt will be visible to everyone. The paranoid’s basic nightmare. That’s the internal action, anyway. The external action is: I’m in a car skimming down Further Lane in East Hampton, New York, bisecting several Scottish-looking golf holes that have been almost completely swallowed in a dense fog. Out in the milky white distance I can see the Maidstone clubhouse on and off, like a ghost mansion that only appears in fogs at some haunted hour. Pink-faced men with long metal clubs solidify out of the white as if being returned from an alien kidnapping. The fog’s totally erased my surroundings otherwise, and I’m not sure what eventuality to prepare for. Is there going to be a big iron gate? A guard everyone knows by name? (Jack-o! Good to see you!) A parking lot I’ll be able to ﬁnd? It’s this perpetual sense that I’m going to have to cover my ass in some unknown way that makes my week here so relaxing.
The wind picks up as I near the beach, and as quickly as it came, the fog blows out. The full complement of the grounds (the facilities, as they say) comes up in the sunlight. The high blue sky. The tan kids in lime polo shirts with putters in hand and shaggy-blond-mop haircuts I didn’t realize preppy kids still had. The brown shake-roofed clubhouse, which looks like a really sturdy napping cat, purring and slitting its eyes in the warming sun. A familiar, forgotten feeling begins to rise. I haven’t spent much time at a country club since I was a lifeguard at the preeminent Wasp club in suburban Cleveland. I had complicated feelings about the club back then: I not-so-subconsciously hoped to be adopted by the membership; I felt weird when a guy told me a Jew joke. But I have never in my life been to a club like Maidstone—the granddaddy of them all when it comes to preppiness, Old Guard pedigree, and sheer blondness.
I park in the lot, kill the ignition, the car not even pulled in straight—I’m comfortable here!—leave the top down, and vacate. I have a printout of instructions e-mailed by a former member, her name and e-mail address blacked out like a redacted CIA document.
“Wear something nice and preppy,” it read. “Park. Sit on beach. Eavesdrop. Return to car and drink from ﬂask for courage. Enter men’s locker room. Take healthy swig from ﬂask. Wander into eating area, get into the long line for food. Eavesdrop some more. Exit line, go check out the putting green. In case of trouble, say that you’re with some members down at the beach. If they ask which members, say ‘The Wainwrights.’ If you print this e-mail, please remove my name, in case you are later arrested for trespassing and have it with you.”
I circumnavigate the clubhouse on foot, past windows that look onto vast rooms radiating the cold loneliness of unlived-in spaces, continuing around back and down the grassy hill, where I brieﬂy bite it on my unworn loafer soles before righting myself and skipping down the stairs overlooking the beach where children are playing in the surf. I look at my watch and shake my head. Like: I’m late! I stand with hands on hips, take an exaggerated inhale, and grin, my taking time to smell the roses posture. Then I’m back on the concrete path, heading past the pool and into the alfresco lunch area. Walking fast is my version of owning the place, and I mean never to appear unfamiliar with the terrain. I settle in at a big yellow picnic table. All around are folks engaged in club business: strolling toward private cabanas; making their ingress or egress onto the beach via the long wood-plank walk; parties of male golfers in khaki pleateds and collared shirts, meeting their wives and kids in beachy cover-ups. I try to see if I can tell the members from the guests, if even to the untrained eye it’s clear who doesn’t know how to act like he owns the place.
In any event, I’m inside, not arrested, looking at my watch in pretend annoyance at my nonexistent late member-friends, sweating in the sun and thinking: What do I do now?
THE FEW THINGS I KNEW ABOUT MAIDSTONE before crashing its gates: It was founded in 1891. It is arguably the most exclusive club on the East Coast—though you could make as good a case for the Country Club (Boston) or the Everglades (Palm Beach) or Augusta National (Georgia) or a dozen other places. I knew that it’s located in East Hampton, the oldest of “old money.” I knew you can’t really apply there: You have to be sponsored and seconded; then the admissions committee mails fact sheets about you to all the members—address, profession, schools you attended—at which point you’re brought around to cocktail parties and, if you’re lucky, offered a provisional membership. I knew that most of the members—roughly 500 people—live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, that a majority of the men work in the ﬁnancial industry, and that it is a good idea to own a house in the Hamptons if you want to join. (“We don’t want summer people,” as one member told me.) I knew that the member book is ﬁlled with names like Stuyvesant Wainwright IV, Willard Bunn III, Becky de Kertanguy, Andrews Walker. I knew a famous story, possibly specious, about how Diana Ross was denied membership even though she married a member. I knew that The New Yorker once said in a story about Howard Dean, whose grandfather was once president there: At Maidstone there were “no Jews, no blacks, no apologies.” (There are now probably half a dozen Jewish members, but apparently still no blacks.) I knew, basically, that it is one of the most purely preserved East Coast Wasp institutions in existence today.
Michael Thomas, a novelist, journalist, former ﬁnancial-industry bigwig, member or lapsed member of lots of exclusive clubs, and kind of an expert in this realm, says, “Only in rare cases can you successfully insulate clubs from their times, the values of the times. And Maidstone is one of those cases.”
Another man, a former member, says, “It’s like going to Boston or something. It’s very establishment, very conservative. Everybody wears a straw hat. There’s a kind of routine there that doesn’t ever change. And the people there like that.”
If you were looking to, say, inﬁltrate the hermetic world of exclusive clubs and report back on the strange behaviors and secret rituals, Maidstone would be a good place to start. And it was. But it went on from there. I visited other clubs of different and similar types. In Chicago I sat in the bar of the Union League Club, and I leafed through Hetty Sonnenberg’s scrapbook in its Jewish cousin, the Standard Club. I read The Wall Street Journal in the grand reading rooms of the University Club in New York and the California Club in Los Angeles. I sat in an Adirondack chair overlooking the course at the Onwentsia Club in suburban Chicago, watching the sunset with a melancholy man in a salmon-colored blazer. In the same city, at the Saddle and Cycle Club, I wandered mistakenly into the women’s locker room, which ought to be better labeled. I sat among the lunch crowds throughout the country-club heartland of Westchester County, New York—pretending to wait for friends at places like the Bedford Golf and Tennis Club and the Waccabuc Country Club. At the driving range at the Hillcrest Country Club in Los Angeles, I yelled, “See you on the ﬂip side, Sidney!” to Sidney Poitier after he waved to me—at clubs, it’s expected that you give a collegial wave to other fellows, know them or not—and across town, I discussed Supreme Court nominees in the TV room at the Bel-Air Country Club. At the Los Angeles Country Club, I found the perfect West Coast complement to Maidstone—a superexclusive Waspy club at which I felt almost equally uncomfortable. And so I spent a week there.
“Clubs are all the same,” Michael Thomas said. “Why bother?”
That’s the kind of question only someone who’s spent his life inside exclusive clubs would ask. Why bother? How about: curiosity! Like, could I get in? (No.) And why not? Are these people really different from me? And why do these people—usually rich, sometimes powerful—need gated redoubts? What transactions occur within? I only know what the movies would have me imagine: lock-jawed Yalies deciding to invade Cuba over a game of cribbage; golfers doling out Halliburton stock options at the halfway house; informal meetings in the men’s grillroom about the prototype laser that will vaporize brown people from space. Maybe the levers of power are no longer presided over exclusively by a conclave of Wainwrights at Maidstone, but come on: Power hasn’t yet become that diuse. It’s hard to ﬁnd a U.S. president, current or former, who didn’t have a locker at one club or another.
When I looked into being invited to these clubs, or even talking to people about them, I met a curious response. Here’s an e-mail from a friend of a friend (Maidstone member) declining an on-the-record interview: “Hey dude, I’m going to pass on talking to that guy. Some things are best not spoken about. You understand....”
Here’s someone I asked about the Hillcrest CC in L.A.: “I’ve given thought to your call and wouldn’t be comfortable in honoring your request. And quite frankly, don’t know anyone who would.…”
And the writer Tom Wolfe, whom I e-mailed not only because status is his greatest subject but also because I’d heard he was familiar with the Hamptons club circuit: “I can’t schedule any more interviews this year....”
All told, about ﬁfty people, from many famous clubs, refused to ask me to lunch or speak to me anonymously. It’s understandable, I guess. Most of them didn’t know me, and their clubs strongly discourage talking to the press. But some of the fear seemed irrational. A few even suggested it would be a bad idea for me to write the story. “An article about Maidstone?” a fellow member of the media asked. “Whew. You’re a brave man. I wouldn’t touch that.”
Get enough of those e-mails and you start wondering what it is that people don’t want to talk about.
I WAS DEVIN FRIEDMAN at the Jewish clubs. Otherwise I was Devin Lowell. Or Devin Eastman. Or Devin Freeman. Sometimes I was Steve Lowell. Sometimes I wasn’t really sure, which tended to make interaction confusing (and stressful). Consider this exchange:
One afternoon a few days after my arrival, I was lounging on the beach at Maidstone where twenty or so people, mostly moms and kids, were enjoying a ﬁne summer day. Bored, I got up and strolled along the surf with my hands behind my back (what I thought of as my man of property surveying all that is his domain pose). I was doing my best to radiate goodwill to the other ’Stoners, maybe drum up some interaction. Fruitlessly. I see this guy all by his lonesome (rare) reading The Devil in the White City. So I chat him up about it for a while. He is tall and lanky, really friendly and well-
“You seem to know about books,” he says. “What do you do?”
“I work in magazines.”
“Wow!” he says. “Exotic. Not in the ﬁnancial industry.”
“Yeah,” I say, “my girlfriend’s parents think I’m from another planet or something. They all work on Wall Street.” Establish a connection to the legitimate people.
“Great. I’m Mr. Maidstone Guy,” he says, extending his hand.
“I’m Devin,” I say. He won’t let go. It’s a ﬁrst-and-last-name place. “Eastman,” I say. Because I know there are a bunch of members named Eastman. As in: the family of Paul McCartney’s late wife.
“Oh, right,” he says. “You related to Lee Eastman?”
“Oh, Lee!” I say. “Yeah. No. I’m not related. We’re another branch of the family.”
“Right. You’re a member?”
“No, actually,” I say. “My girlfriend, she’s golﬁng.”
“Great. What’s her name?”
“No,” I say. “Her in-laws are members. You know Peter Quillen? [I don’t, but I’ve heard his name!] Well, they’re his family.” At which point I beat it for my chair, retrieve my stuff, and spend a few hours in my car until that guy’s off the beach.
BESIDES TRESPASSING, I believe I violated if not the letter, then the spirit of America’s local penal codes in the following instances: I took a shower at the Hillcrest Country Club in Los Angeles. I signed a bottle of Heineken at Maidstone to the Giordano family’s account, whose member number I ﬁlched while watching their nanny sign for a Sprite. (I’m worried I got her collared on a wrongful charge of boozing on the job; Mr. Giordano, please call me here at GQ and I’ll write you a check.) At the California Club in L.A., while the very friendly desk attendant wrote down turn-by-turn directions to the Jonathon Beach Club in Santa Monica, I pocketed a large stack of handsome, gratis note cards stamped with the club’s handsome seal. At the Starlight dinner dance at Maidstone, 20 August 2005, I ate unlawfully from both the raw bar and the dessert buet. Over a period lasting more than a month, I took matches and pencils and bridge score sheets and divot-replacer things and plastic ball markers and shoeshine bags. I made dozens of unnecessary local phone calls on many free club telephones. (The California Club has these awesome, absolutely silent one-man wood-paneled phone rooms bathed in soft, buttery light and outﬁtted with fresh paper and pencils; I’d use one as my office if they’d let me.) I needlessly availed myself of countless cups of mouthwash, dollops of sunscreen, splashes of Clubman (the trademark of which suddenly made sense to me), maybe a gallon of free iced tea and/or lemonade, handfuls of peanuts, pretzels, and bar snacks—including enough of the golf-tee-shaped cheese crackers they have in the men’s locker room at Maidstone to make me sick.
I don’t really know what propelled me on this massive petty-theft spree, or exactly how ashamed I am of it. Maybe trespassing was what your seventh-grade health teacher would describe as a bridge drug: It gave me the jones, and it was inevitable that I’d just move up the ladder toward grand larceny. I bet reading this will only conﬁrm the notion of certain members that there are two sorts of people, me being not the right sort. But the overwhelming motivation for my transgressions, after giving the matter careful consideration, was boredom. Disconnection. Frustration that even from within the gates, I couldn’t access whatever realm these men inhabited. Because a lot of the time—wandering the premises, sitting at the bar, reading the paper, watching card games with a bemused (and meaningless) look on my face—I had the unpleasant sensation that I didn’t exist, that nothing I did could register in the reality I started to believe these guys were deﬁning. Which is what exclusivity is really all about: saying who gets on the radar and who doesn’t.
I was at the Los Angeles CC on one of those lost, conversationless afternoons. I’d been reading the paper in the grillroom for as long as I could. Luan, the headwaiter, had already asked me twice whom I was waiting for after kind of suspiciously asking me how I didn’t know that tucking in one’s shirt was a club rule. I was exhausted from pretending that I owned the place. To escape the public eye when at a club, I’d often go sit on a toilet with the door closed (poop-stall as cloak of invisibility) or go hang out in my car. At LACC, they have a ton of members (around 1,600), and each member has a locker bearing his name on a plaque. The locker room—which appeared to have been designed by the interior decorators at the Pentagon, with its hall-of-mirrors-style self-replicating culs-de-sac of identical lockers—became a favorite place for me to hide. So I left Luan, moseyed on in there, found a desolate area, and shut down my systems for a while. A little later, I noticed that I was sitting in front of a locker belonging to none other than Richard Riordan, former mayor of Los Angeles. And then I found myself punching different combinations on the locker’s buttons, trying to get it to open. Even as I did that, I wondered: Why, exactly, am I trying to break into Richard Riordan’s locker?
Not knowing how to pick locks, I soon gave up. And I was walking away from RR’s locker (not Ronald Reagan’s locker, which is down a few rows, no shitting), when Charles (not his real name), an employee at the LACC whom I’d run into before, peeked around the corner and said, “Can I help you?”
“Heyyyy! Charles,” I said. “How’s your summer been?”
“Fine, ﬁne,” Charles said. Not buying it. “Can I help you with something?”
“No, I’m good!”
“Who are you here with?”
“Steve Wilkerson,” I said. For the better part of a week, I’d either been Steve Wilkerson or a guest of Steve Wilkerson. It seemed to ﬁt. “You seen him around?”
“No,” Charles said, pretending to know who Steve Wilkerson was, because it’s his job to pretend to know and be friends with guys like Steve Wilkerson. “You want me to have a look around for him?”
“Oh, Charles,” I said, probably overplaying the ﬁrst-name thing, “don’t bother. He’s probably just whacking a few [do people say that?] out on the driving range! I’ll go take a look.” And out I went, through the side entrance, past the ﬁrst tee, and into the parking lot, where I slunk into my white Impala (the indignity, in a lot full of identical charcoal Mercedes sedans) and crouched down in the front seat. And there I waited until Charles exited the club, descended to the employees’ parking lot, and left for the day.
THE DEAL AT A CLUB is that you call Charles Charles and he calls you Mr. Wilkerson. That’s the way it works with “the help,” as people refer to the employees. Clubs in general are re-creations of different kinds of historical manors, country or city—big old houses with extensive grounds and nice libraries and drafty living rooms no one goes in. They’re like co-op estates, owned by partnerships of wealthy individuals who share the fantasy. And part of that vibe is the servant you call by his ﬁrst name and consider a part of the family (like, the part of the family that sleeps in the garage).
One morning I wandered into the California Club in L.A. and talked for a while with a guy named Villar, who was polishing the stemware in a brassy bar just off the dining room. The place was immaculate, all heavy crystal and polished wood, and Villar looked perfect there, with his great bartender’s face—sad, placid, immortal, like the bartender in The Shining. He is from the Mexican High Sierras, moved to the United States a long time ago, has been working at the CC for fourteen years. He likes his job a lot.
“Why?” he said. “Because I don’t handle money. That’s very nice. People sign for things.”
Before this he worked at a hotel, which he didn’t like as much. I studied his face for some ambivalence, but it wasn’t there. I was ready for him to be exercised about the fucked-up dynamic of working in a place where you couldn’t ever belong, but that’s my baggage, not his. It’s a job—and not a bad one, apparently.
“At a hotel, you get all kinds of people,” he said. “But here you mostly get . . . same people. I like knowing the customers.”
“José,” the member said, “come here.”
José stepped forward, putting his tray at his side to submit to the meaty arm of the member now around his shoulder.
“You know why I’m standing up, José?”
“No, Mr. Smith,” he said.
“Because I respect you. I only stand up for people I respect.”
This broke my heart a little bit.
* * *
ON THE NEAR NORTH side of Chicago, you’ll ﬁnd the Saddle and Cycle (est. 1899), a country club in miniature for use by the landed gentry of the Gold Coast. When it was built, it was out in the boonies, but the city eventually caught up and then outstripped it. It’s now located in what my hotel concierge called, by way of warning, “sort of an urban neighborhood.” Which means black people live there and you can only ﬁnd the discount-supermarket chain. You’d never notice the club if you didn’t know to look for it, behind a brick wall on the same block as the Chicago Lodge, a hotel of possibly ill repute. But once you’re inside, sitting on the porch overlooking the bright green tennis courts, the pool, the tiny, almost fold-out-seeming three-hole golf course, you have no idea there might be another world, with black people and bulk-paper-towel retailers, anywhere out there. I hope it’s not reading too much into it when I say that’s the message every clubhouse broadcasts as it gives out over the golf course: Look, we’ve groomed the world for you; you’ll ﬁnd nothing to surprise or upset you here. That’s partly what a club, country or city, is for: obliteration of the outside world. Including, say, black people or Jewish people or rude people.
Part of what attracts people to Maidstone, for instance, is the obliteration of the Hamptons. “Do you know the Hamptons?” one member says. “Do you know the people who come out here in the summertime? They’re horrible. Rude, inconsiderate, demanding. They’re all the awful things Americans have become. Here you don’t have to put up with that. Most of the people [at Maidstone] were brought up not to be that way. And maybe that’s the difference. They were taught to be polite and nice.”
“I have a route in the summer,” a Maidstone member says. “So I don’t have to go into town for weeks on end. I just go down Further Lane and duck right into the club. But after a while, it’s like, it gets a little unreal. It starts to feel so homogenous. And when you get out into the real world again, it’s weird.”
* * *
INTERACTION CAN BE HARD to come by at the LACC. It’s di∞cult to chat someone up when he’s playing golf or having lunch with his friends or standing stark naked in front of the bathroom mirror cleaning his ears with Q-tips. (The man in question appeared every afternoon, shu±ing back and forth in sandals, his skin draped loosely over his bones—Flappy McStevens, as he came to be known in my notebook.) I spent many afternoons in the men’s-locker-room TV nook, looking for conversation and watching Fox News with a certain older gentleman. When we ﬁrst meet, I am watching Judge Judy, relaxing. He hobbles in on red swollen ankles and sits in the lounger that I would come to think of as his chair. He has white hair and old pants. The remote control is on a table between us, and he grabs it, glares at it suspiciously, jabs it with a ﬁnger. The O’Reilly Factor comes on, which he glares at with equal suspicion. Then, remote in hand, he settles in and, a short time later, drifts off to nap land. There was no: Hey, you watching Judge Judy? No: Mind if I change the channel? Not even: I’ll be watching O’Reilly now, dickweed. This only adds to my feeling of invisibility. Like, a guy such as me has no rights at this place! (Which, technically speaking, is true.)
Mr. Ankles was one of many breeds of old folks who dominate the clubs I visited. My favorite was the dapper wormholed-from-1965 type, like the guy I’d see later that day in cool Buddy Holly–ish glasses and a trim black suit, leading his date as she tottered across the parking lot beneath a funnel of cotton-candy hair. Or the Maidstoners dining together beachside with their ﬂags raised high (Nantucket reds, blazers with crests, whale-mascot visors, disapproving glances). Lots of the old folks, like Mr. Ankles, weren’t very nice. I’d wave the wave of the initiated, and from them: nothing. They weren’t interested in my patronizing friendliness, which was actually kind of nice. It was a relief to watch them clinging to their pride, their outmoded fashions, their high manners. Because the kindly elderly can sometimes be so sad—desperate to be noticed, grateful for the most rudimentary conversation, seemingly fully aware that they have passed from the realm of the relevant.
As Michael Thomas, who speaks at will in great quotes, says, “The problem with clubs is that no one dies anymore. Membership numbers were set when people were supposed to live to be 65 or 70. If I were a student of varicose veins, I could think of no ﬁner place to study than the Southampton Bathing Corporation.”
* * *
I VISITED A WEST COAST country club on a ﬁne early-fall day with a member who, having had a glass or two of red wine, was feeling expansive. He was in one of those moods where you really believe that you love almost every person you see. He called out to each member who passed by our table, doling out a little golf patter (“hitting it hard and straight?”) or just telling them how great they looked.
“There isn’t one member here I don’t really, really like,” he said, laying a warm hand on my shoulder.
“You know, I could see you as a member here. You’d ﬁt right in.”
“That doesn’t speak so highly of the other members!” I said, busting a fake gut.
“That’s nonsense,” my host said. “Give me your card. Your business card.”
“I don’t have one,” I said.
He looked at me quizzically. “You should always have a business card. Period. Well. Not a big deal.”
I was worried that his spirits were turning, as spirits do, especially when propped up by booze. But it took only a second for him to forget my lack of business card. And then he went back to how I’d ﬁt in here.
“What do you look for in a member?” I asked.
“That you’re a good guy. That’s the only common denominator here. The only requirement.”
I heard a ton of people from a ton of clubs say the same thing: The only requirement was to be a good guy. Money, stature in the world, family connections, whiteness—none of that stuff has anything (officially) to do with it. It’s probably much easier to say you’re not classist or racist if you never make the rules of membership explicit. But there is a whole crop of new clubs where that’s not the case, where being “a good guy” doesn’t factor into it. These clubs are simply about being rich. Like the Hudson National and the Trump National golf clubs—both new, near New York, and costing around $200,000 to join. Bighorn, a golf club in Palm Desert, California, costs almost $240,000, and membership in the new Nantucket Golf Club will run you more than $300,000. These clubs are geared to the emergent class of hyperrich, that vaunted top few percent of the population that has in recent years smoked those percentages below them in income acceleration. These clubs are about conspicuous consumption, but they’re also, in a way, much more egalitarian, since money is the main factor in joining.
“I’ve played at that new club in Nantucket,” a member of the Bel-Air Country Club told me. “And you get what you pay for. Great facilities, nice dining room, shit membership. People who have no manners, who are hard on the help.”
The men of the venerable old clubs—who profess only to want the company of a few “good guys”—see themselves as the last bulwark against exhibitionistic money culture. They believe that if you’ve got a ridiculous amount of money, the least you can do is be a little ashamed of it. As Michael Thomas says, “There’s a term, clubability, and that’s knowing how to behave—and it’s dying. Maidstone and these other places see themselves as the last of that.”
Part of it is the famous resentment: Old money hates new money, especially when new money happens to be an exponentially greater sum. By believing in the hegemony of clubability, you can lock in your superiority without being bothered by those who are bigger players, more relevant. And it’s not completely disingenuous. Clubs don’t tell you that dominance or stature isn’t important; they tell you that you don’t have to prove dominance/stature, because you’ve been preapproved by being here, like getting preapproved for a loan or something.
* * *
ONE AFTERNOON I manage to obtain an invitation to the Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles, nestled in the hills just above Sunset Boulevard. Mr. Bel-Air shows me around the clubhouse, an old hacienda with big wood beams and cozy dark rooms. On the walls of the men’s locker room are pictures of Bing Crosby and Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, all with clubs in hand. He lists for me some of the more noteworthy current members: Vin Scully, Jack Nicholson, Tom Poston, Bob Newhart, Chris O’Donnell (who could play a country-club member in a movie). We settle in at an outdoor table at the grillroom overlooking the ﬁrst tee, surrounded by dramatic hills thick with emerald green succulents and, beyond that, the gray, ﬂat, incredibly detailed spread of urban L.A.
“I’m not just bragging on this place, but it’s the most down-home place I’ve ever been,” he says, a statement that would really be shocking if true. “The Los Angeles Country Club, on the other hand, is like the Boston of the West Coast, where it matters who your family is. Never once since I’ve been at Bel-Air have I heard someone say, ‘His grandfather was . . . ’ ”
He tells me the story of the birth of the BACC. It began in 1927 as a response to the LACC’s blanket rule: No one from the entertainment industry allowed. Which was an elegant way of saying: No Jews. But that left all these wealthy entertainment-industry professionals who weren’t even Jewish and still didn’t have a good place to play golf. And so Bel-Air was founded.
“We have a lot of Jewish members now,” Mr. Bel-Air says. “But if you count, I always say, you’re a racist. We have black members. We’re not like the LACC. And the Jewish clubs are just as bad. Just because Sidney Poitier is a member doesn’t make Hillcrest Country Club diverse.”
In my experience, it’s always the other guy who’s the racist, the anti-Semite, the snob. Just about everyone I talked to for this story said snobby exclusivists existed, but not among his friends. The people at the Atlantic Club (Jewish) said the people at Maidstone (Wasp) were snobby. And people at Maidstone said the people at the Atlantic were snobby. Same with LACC and BACC. No matter how close you get to the epicenter of snobbiness, no one will cop to it.
“If you asked somebody from the outside,” Mrs. Maidstone Member says, “they’d say this club is a very snobby, closed environment where nobody’s allowed. You know, no Jews, no blacks, no nah nah nah nah nah. That’s not true at all. That’s because there’s a limit to the membership. You can’t just let everyone in because there are nice people you want to let in. It doesn’t work that way. But there is a diverse group in this club.”
Another member of Maidstone skips the question of whether or not Maidstone is diverse (because the answer is: it’s not) and makes a different argument. “I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t ﬁnd any ethical or moral dilemma in belonging. There have been clubs and associations as long as there have been human beings. And they’ve been by deﬁnition exclusionary. I love to play golf! And I love to sit on the beach! And Jesus, I can’t think of a nicer place to do it in.”
But this is where he loses me: “I was reading about a controversial social-studies thing that’s happening in academia right now. It’s called nonracism. And the main point was that racism, by its basic definition, is not a bad thing. People tend to associate themselves together in groups. We’re like a herd animal. You know, the black-and-white cows like to sit over under the trees, and the Jerseys like to be over there by the riverbank. Humans sort themselves out. It’s intrinsic in our nature, so it’s hard to socially engineer it otherwise.”
Basically, then, certain groups of fair-skinned straight-haired people prefer to laze about in large, breezy mansions at the beach, while other groups of darker-skinned kinky-haired people prefer tenements. He’s right, though, that the instinct to belong is intrinsic. Why else submit to the humiliating rituals of joining something (club, fraternity, whatever)? It has evolutionary roots: If you were an ostracized caveman, it wasn’t long before your lonely death in the mouth of a woolly mammoth. But overbelonging, the perversion of that very useful instinct, makes things a little dicey. On the extreme end of the spectrum, you get your Hutus and Tutsis. On the less dramatic end are people who get freaked out if they don’t have their peeps with them in Antigua.
* * *
TOWARD THE END of my week at the Maidstone, I slip past security at the Starlight dinner dance without even realizing it. Over near the pool, a club official with a sheaf of papers is checking off members and guests; but I walk in by the main stairs, unbeknownst, and avoid any trouble. The place looks pretty breathtaking as the last pink light falls out of the sky. A parquet dance ﬂoor has been installed at the head of the beach walk and a tent set up, framed by the soft whitish sand and the darkening Atlantic beyond. My expectation for tonight: old people. It’s an event that I imagine being attractive to those who seek the safety and comfort of the club and of food easily chewed. That’s not the case at all. There are a few codgers around, sure, with deep, healthy-looking tans and some really awesome tortoiseshell glasses. But they’re way outnumbered by young people decked out in gear that’s exponentially more preppy. Yes, pants with whales. But also madras pants, pink pants, white pants with red ﬂowers all over them. It’s a postironic preppiness: self-aware, totally embracing, supra–Ralph Lauren.
I recognize two guys from the beach today skulking by the shrimp table. One with long hair, kind of grumpy seeming, a smoker. And his running partner, a very classically good-looking guy except that there’s too much energy around the eyes; you can imagine him entering court in a nice blue suit after the girl’s body has been dug up from the dunes. I ﬁgure them for outcasts, guys who’d probably be psyched to have another homey (me), who might give up whatever secrets they know about this place and its members or at least make polite conversation. I make my way over.
“Gentlemen,” I say.
They nod. “Hi,” the Skakely-looking one says.
“I’m Devin Lowell,” I say. He shakes. Disconnects eye contact.
“You guys go to a lot of these things?”
“Once in a while, once in a while.” A few seconds of silence, then: “I’m going to get a drink.” They retreat like I’m radioactive. I’m ba±ed. Am I not wearing the right clothes? Am I not acting like I own the place?
After that I spot, in a throng near the dance ﬂoor, none other than Tom Wolfe, dressed up in his Tom Wolfe getup. I think: You dog! You decline an interview about exclusive clubs a few days before you attend Maidstone’s Starlight dinner dance and never mentioned you were going. Where’s all your talk of corrosion-by-status now! I head over for a little chat, but by the time I get through the crowd, he’s gone.
I walk out to the beach for a breather, and I pretty much have to force myself to go back to the dance. The beach, the white folks dancing freely to the sounds of gentle reggae standards, the free shrimp, none of it’s very fun when you’re somewhere you feel like you don’t belong. My discomfort is kind of encouraging. Despite what they say on the news, we’re a remarkably socialized species. Violating the social compact that says don’t go places you’re not invited has, over the past week, made me feel actually crazy. Partially for the expected reasons—like I was sure every employee on a walkie-talkie was relaying my position to a SWAT team, or I suspected every group of members talking quietly were whispering conspiratorially about how there was something not quite right about me. But also for unexpected reasons. Mainly, that I am internalizing the logic of the Maidstone. Once you know there are places where you can just deposit your car in a lot and saunter down to the beach, or drop into the lunch zone for a delicious ice cream cone or rum drink, it’s hard not to look at the rest of the Hamptonites—thronging the street outside overpriced ice cream parlors, ﬁghting for parking spaces at the public beach—without thinking: You poor schnooks.
* * *
THE NEXT DAY is easily the most relaxed I’d spend at Maidstone. I arrive, drop the car in the lot, say what’s up to the golf pro, head toward the beach. I recognize some people there, and they recognize me, too. There’s the fellow with whom, last night, I’d sung the old theme songs from youth: Diff’rent Strokes, Family Ties. Thanks be to pop culture, the great uniter. I chat with tireless Felix, the bartender, who says he was here past midnight last night. And there’s the Devil in the White City guy! I avoid him. But I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, that I could become a sort of honorary member, slowly construct a persona, get people to know and then trust me. Which means it’s time to leave. I mean not to transcend the line from curious guy to sociopath.
I spend a relaxing hour at the beach, reading under an umbrella abandoned by a family gone up to lunch. Out at the end of the beach, I see Mr. Diff’rent Strokes, gazing oceanward with hands on hips, his own man of property surveying all that is his domain stance. He heads out for a walk. This, I decide, is my chance. I walk toward him and, realizing his lead on me, start running in my Izod shirt and khakis and loafers. He looks back over his shoulder, then does a double take.
“Hi,” I say.
“Are you going jogging?” he says.
“I was just catching up to you.”
“Oh,” he says. “Great. I’m just going down the beach to ﬁnd my wife.”
“Oh, well, do you want to talk later?”
“No. If you’ve got something on your mind, shoot.”
He’s the guy I’m going to reveal myself to, I’ve decided. I want to know what his reaction’s going to be. I’m anxious to bridge the divide, to carry on a conversation about clubs with my intentions and identity out in the open, so I can sort the paranoid delusion about the club class from whatever truth there is to be discovered.
“Well,” I say. “This is going to be weird.” He looks maybe pained. I believe he thinks I’m going to proposition him or something. “I’m not a member of Maidstone,” I say.
“Oh,” he says. “Okay.”
“And no one invited me here,” I say. I really think I see a few beads of sweat pop up on his forehead. I can hear his breathing in the humid air. He looks mildly terriﬁed. I have, it seems, opened the door to dark places. I could be anyone, with anything in mind, isolating him here on the beach. A rich guy and an imposter . . . We’ve all seen the movies.
“Do you want me to peel off, see you back at the beach?”
“Oh no,” he says. “That’s…” He not only wants me to peel off, he’d like to vaporize me with the space gun! But he’s remarkably polite. Those good social bearings the other members told me about.
“You know, it’s sort of a social experiment,” I say. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, okay. I’m ﬁne.”
“What do you think of that?” I say.
“Who am I to judge?” he says.
Who are you to judge!?! You’re exactly the person whose judgment I’d like to know! Like: Does it matter to you that I’m not a member? Did you know I was an imposter? Can I have some Halliburton stock? He picks up the pace and without turning his head he says, “Yeah, um, could you peel off? That’d be real . . . If you could.” The familiar disappointment. The locker I can’t break into, the insider trading I’m not invited to witness. And so peel off I do, head back to my chair, grab my stuff, and leave.
* * *
MY LAST DAY AT MAIDSTONE, I’m on the beach listening to some moms talk while their kids play in a tent they made out of beach chairs and towels. Jennifer (not her real name), one of the kids in the tent, keeps shrieking with either delight or bloodlust. Her mom warns her three times that this is not appropriate beach behavior. Jennifer screams again and then takes off down the beach, past the Maidstone area and out where any random rich person could be wandering around. Mom goes after her, and meanwhile another little kid, a 2- or 3-year-old with blond locks, comes teetering over toward me, and we have a minute where we’re just staring into each other’s eyes. It’s intense.
Later on, in the process of writing this article, I realized: I was intimidated by this little guy. He looked kind of like an investment banker, with his twinkling blue eyes and his doll-sized polo shirt and seersucker pants—a miniature version of the man just down the beach lumbering into the surf with his daughter. And in our moment of mutual sizing up, I thought: This guy ﬁnds me a little hairy, a little Jewish, not the right sort. I had the reﬂexive desire to make some appropriate small talk, drop some names, hide my glaring imposterness. (His likely version of our moment: I wonder if this man has a cookie.) And not only was I intimidated, but I resented this 3-year-old chewing on a plastic shovel. Like: Oh yeah, you’re not so great, you snob! I mean, the memberships of these clubs didn’t really help me out when it came to clearing out (or reinforcing) the pervasive stereotypes. Certain things are best not spoken about. You understand. But I realize: This endeavor may end up saying a lot more about me (or if I’m lucky, the generic nonmember) than it does about the memberships of exclusive clubs. Because out there on the beach, I was projecting. In kind of a scary way.