The accounts of members about how Mr. James became president suggest he has good reasons for wanting those circumstances to remain opaque.
When Mr. James was first introduced to the club, by his old family friend Steve Leitner, it was being run by Adriana Zahn. A member of the club since 1933, Zahn was made president in 1974. She was said to be running the club with efficiency and grace, until Mr. James became her assistant.
“I’m pretty familiar with when he overthrew Adriana Zahn,” one former member who lived at the club through the 1980s and early ’90s told The Observer. “She was a classy older woman. … She was threatened by Aldon and Steven [Leitner, a club trustee]. These guys said they were going to the attorney general with information that she’d been using club funds for car service to go home at night. She was an older woman! Of course she was using car service! And that was what they threatened her with! That was the best thing they had on her.
“Aldon had been her personal assistant for years. And she then got scared. He ruined her life. [Afterward] she would come in sometimes, and they’d give her a special table, but she finally resigned. She sent us a letter saying that she just couldn’t bear it anymore, the humiliation, and the way the place was being run.”
In 2002, when asked by Elisabeth Franck of The Observer about Zahn and the car service, Mr. James said, “No one booted her out because of that. The club wouldn’t put an older person on the subway at night!” (Attempts by The Observer to contact Mr. James for this article went unanswered.)
Annette Green, a friend of Zahn’s and a former board member, notes, “She was an elderly woman, and easily intimidated. I quit the board over it. You just don’t do [what Aldon did] in civilized society.”
In a letter from the period, former member Bill Mayer, also part of the Concerned Members of the National Arts Club, suggests that it was Mr. James himself who convinced a septuagenarian Zahn to make use of car service on nights when she worked late.
After Zahn’s ouster, Mr. James was free to install a puppet board. “He replaced all her friends with his friends,” a former member recalled. “Aldon would appoint a nominating committee and tell them who would be nominated, and they were appointed,” another former member said. “It turned it from a democracy into a dictatorship.”
The tenor of meetings became uncivil. “I’ll never forget in my life when I was trying to stand up at a board meeting,” said Ms. Orthofer. “Another member suggested I prepare a letter when I wanted to present my objection to this federal lawsuit the NAC was involved in. I prepared a beautiful letter. And I wanted to present. A few people said, ‘You won’t be able to make your point, better prepare a letter.’ I have never been as yelled at in a board meeting as I was then. And it was exactly what happened to the chair of the literary committee–except I didn’t burst into tears. It was so incredible the way he yelled, just bellowing. They didn’t say a single sentence. Aldon just yelled. And didn’t let me speak, and I kept saying, ‘Could you calm down?’ And they didn’t let me get a point in. I gave up.”
The abuse was not restricted to meetings. “There was harassment every day,” said Miguel Serrano, who served as the club doorman for a decade. “I complained a couple of times, but no one did anything. Why? Because if they said something, they were out. Aldon, he was screaming and yelling at people for no reason! Not just at workers, at people coming in. He was always eavesdropping on people, too, and making notes, and making up stories that never happened.”
With fewer members presenting objections to Mr. James’ administration, conditions at the club deteriorated, and the building itself fell into disrepair. One former member–who claims that most of the apartments suffer from water leaks–recalled that if resident members wanted repairs done to their rooms, they would have to make a contribution to the club, a portion of which was said to be put toward renovations. And then there were the rooms filled with Mr. James’ personal paraphernalia. Mr. Serrano said that the James brothers “have at least 10 to 12 apartments filled with junk.”
Brooke Geahan, the founder of the now defunct Accompanied Literary Society, who subleased one of the suites at the club in 2004, told The Observer, “We walked in and there were boxes stacked up 12 or 14 feet high. It was falling apart. Walls were leaking. It was all his stuff in detritus. We found everything from bags of sharks’ teeth, to an entire collection of baby birds made from cotton balls, to pots and pans.”
Ms. Geahan said that Mr. James’ use of the space went from inconvenience to abuse. “There was a fantastic collection of Warhols in the basement when it flooded. I remember a staff member coming up in tears saying that there was a water leak and [the art] was completely ruined. And they had so much space. That never needed to happen.”
Mr. James, said a former member familiar with the club’s financial difficulties, “hated spending any money on infrastructure. Mostly it was cosmetics. It’s never been rewired. It’s a firetrap at this stage of the game. Money always went for parties and events and things that were fun, nothing structural.”
Although the membership more than doubled under Mr. James’ leadership, members say that the quality of people at the club declined. There was suddenly, said an artist and member who showed his work at the club, “a regular basis of fishy people he hung out with.”
And those people were shown a good time. “At this point,” said one member who quit the club in 2003, “the club is just for people around Aldon who get to have a moment of greatness and see someone famous and have a good meal. The medals there have been greatly demeaned. The medal has gone downhill, not uphill; it’s not a venerable institution anymore. It’s a laughingstock amongst a lot of people. The merit of that experience–it’s become a catering operation. It’s become a two-medal-a-month club.”
When The Observer‘s repeated attempts to contact Mr. James went unanswered, we tried stopping by the club. Events are still being hosted for various groups, and art is still being displayed, though frantic cleaning appears to be under way. Employees there said that Mr. James’ “well-deserved vacation” is inside his NAC apartment, where he is still living. If acting president Diane Bernhard–an accomplished painter who was awarded the 2003 Gold Medal of Excellence by the National Arts Club, and served as chairwoman of the Exhibitions Committee–is attempting to establish a new regime, it may be difficult to do with a deposed tyrant still residing in the tower.
“He’s not coming back,” said a former member, who claims to “know the place like the back of my hand,” of Mr. James’ “vacation.” “There’s no way. They’re just saying that to have him save face. Imagine if they did fire him and severed the tie. They’d have to admit the reasons and that they knew all along.”
Mr. Serrano, on the other hand, is optimistic. “I am sure it will overcome all of this with the people they put in charge,” he said. “These are good people, professional people. It is going to be a different place. People will be able to speak their minds. This is going to be a very credible place, now.”
Well, hope is a thing with feathers.