Clash of the Centurions: Gender Spat Splits a Venerable Redoubt

Tiziana Hardy never goes to the Century Club anymore. The midtown haunt of the powerful and prestigious has for a short 23 years welcomed women inside its clubhouse–the white marble Stanford White-designed landmark behind gates and guards on the corner of 43rd Street and Fifth Avenue–and yet Mrs. Hardy, a member, never steps through the door.

Hugh Hardy, her husband, goes all the time. The celebrated architect and spunky octogenarian happens to be the president of the Century Association. He is also the reason his wife would rather stay away.

“It’s his club,” Mrs. Hardy, also an architect, told The Observer over the phone, in her bright Italian accent. “I have my own club, and I wouldn’t ask him to come to my club. If there is music, I go, but I don’t particularly go there to socialize because if I want to see friends, I see them at home.”

Until 1989, not going to the Century Club would not have been a matter of choice for Ms. Hardy. Women were not allowed to join and could enter only in the company of members. The same restrictions still hold at the Garrick Club, the Century’s longtime “sister club” in London, and its intransigence on the issue has recently resulted in a severing of the sibling relationship and turmoil within the New York club–which, until yesterday, granted full reciprocal access to Garrick members and vice versa–as a conservative bloc of members have pleaded with their liberal clubmates to be patient with their recalcitrant London counterparts.

The Garrick’s exclusion of females, including female members of the Century Club, prompted Mr. Hardy and 14 other advisers on the Board of Management to support a move to sever all ties with the Century’s longtime “sister club”–and to no longer invite Garrick gentlemen into their clubhouse. This decision, though ratified by a vote, has rankled the genteel salon.

“There’s a single person to blame, in my opinion,” one disgruntled Century Association member told The Observer. “There’s one person, and that’s Hugh Hardy.”

Centurions cherish secrecy. Mr. Hardy refused multiple requests for comment–a position also taken by many of his fellow club members. All but a handful of the two dozen Centurions reached by The Observer noted immediately that association policy restricts them from talking to anyone, especially the press, about the goings-on within the club.

Likewise, the association maintains a strict visitation policy: no one on the premises but Centurions and accompanying guests. One potential member escort said bringing The Observer to lunch would “brazenly violate club rules.” Others dismissed such a request as pure folly. Some worried they would lose their coveted membership. So The Observer decided to sneak in.

“I’m here to see Michael Wolff,” we told the receiving man after strolling through the doors of the Century Club.

(The Adweek employee is a member, and given The Observer’s status as an advertising-supported publication, the notion of lunching at the club with Mr. Wolff seemed not far-fetched.)

The doorman glanced over at the wall, where the names of every New York Centurion were lined up. When a member enters the club, the attendant inserts a peg next to his or her name. That day there was, of course, no peg next to Mr. Wolff’s name.

“You can wait here, in the lobby,” the doorman said. He was pointing at a room to the immediate right of the door. We asked if we could go upstairs instead. He continued to point at the room.

Here we waited in a wicker chair. There was an ancient desk embossed with a metal plaque (“To David A. Prager, Man of Letters”) and a creaky but ticking grandfather clock (“To E.J. Mathews, 1842”). We took a picture, with our iPhone, of a sign: “Cell phones and PDAs may be used only in the telephone booths.” We didn’t see a telephone booth, but we did find a printing press that was part of an exhibit of old manuscripts and covers from Thornwillow Press (the founder is a member). A pamphlet, red calligraphy on thick-stock letterpress, listed the most illustrious of the titles put out by Thornwillow. An asterisk next to a name indicated status as a Centurion. Authors with asterisks included Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Walter Cronkite, Wendell Garrett, Louis Auchincloss, David St. John, John Updike and Mark Strand. (President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address was also included as a Thornwillow title, but he appears not to be a Centurion.)

We were joined, at times, by other outsiders waiting for members to take them up the sprawling, red-gold staircase. We grew tired of waiting. As the attendant turned away to hang up a coat in the closet, we walked up the stairs unchaperoned. Turning a corner, we found ourselves in the club’s massive and stunning lounges.

Two decades of female membership seem not to have purged these rooms of a particular all-male musk. The dusted and yellowed pages of old books provide a requisite feeling of dampness. So does the beaten leather of the chairs and the tables. There was a smokiness that hinted at decades of unfettered tobacco consumption (assuming smoking no longer occurs at the club–Mayor Bloomberg is a member). Or perhaps the odor came from the fireplace, which contained ashes and soot from a recent blaze. Beside it was a small break in the rows of books–a window to a cabinet of liquor. We spotted a single bottle of vodka within the rows of Scotch and bourbon.

At last we took a seat at a table with a saucer full of peanuts and a brief cocktail menu. A porter in a tan jacket and neat bow tie asked for our drink order.

The Observer, unable to pay for a drink without a member’s company, had to settle for peanuts.

No one else was in the room.

Clash of the Centurions: Gender Spat Splits a Venerable Redoubt