“Why is there a line?” whined a young woman outside the National Arts Club last Wednesday. As she tapped a T-strapped heel against the pavement, a fake feather in her headband swayed slightly. “I’m a member. I’m not standing in this line,” she decreed loudly, excusing and pardoning her way uncouthly toward the front. As it happened, most everyone in line was a member of the storied club.
The line, extending west on Gramercy Park South, was filled with feigned flappers and charlatan philosophers donning shift-y, fringed dresses, red lip stains, paperboy hats and three-piece tweed suits. The theme was “Midnight in Paris,” and, like the film of that name, the crowd appeared as histrionic iterations of ’20s ex-pats and salonnieres, a sophomoric vision of the rich interwar milieu. Each guest, member or no, was required to pay $40 at the door; credit cards were accepted.
Inside the oakey space, echoes of shrill laughter could be heard. Bobbed ladies sucked on electric cigarettes beneath a vaulted stained-class ceiling, chatting and gossiping in hushed tones about the recent turbulence at the club. The institution’s former president, O. Aldon James, had been ousted very publicly amid reports that he misused club funds, was a compulsive hoarder and kept scores of exotic birds on the august premises.
For all his flaws, Mr. James would have been in good company at the fête last Wednesday. Eccentric members inducted at birth into the leisure class flirted with one another, bragging with vaudevillian one-upsmanship about recent quail hunting excursions, real estate deals closed and Caribbean resorts visited. In the witching-hour lighting, we could just make out the busts of patriarchs unknown lining every shelf and inch of mantel space, interspersed with delicate bronze nudes.
“I’ve owned this since high school,” said screenwriter Robert Chafitz, looking down at the lapels of his red silk robe. His two-piece Dali-esque mustache began to droop. “I must have been one of those freaky kids at high school that was just attracted to vintage stuff,” he readily informed The Observer. “But I was also making money on the side, street performing as Charlie Chaplin in Paris.”
We inquired about his synthetic whiskers. “I procured it years ago,” he said, “because of course as Chaplin you have to do various mustaches. It’s getting a little droopy with the alcohol.” He was quick to inform us, however, that he could grow ample facial hair of his own. “I just had a full beard about a week ago. I looked like a rabbi. I had to shave it off.”
Just then, we spotted a bedazzled, bespectacled pinup girl whose crystal brassiere and bare stomach were attracting furtive glances from gentlemen throughout the room. “My name is Hazel Honeysuckle,” she proclaimed, perky bust thrust forward with unabashed pride in her craft. Somehow, from the rhinestone unmentionable, she produced a business card, which we accepted. Ms. Honeysuckle, a burlesque dancer, had just finished her first performance of the evening, which, sadly, we had missed. Fortunately, she would cavort for the crowd once more before the evening was through. We asked what her routine entailed. “Getting mostly naked, in a classy fashion,” she qualified. We pressed Ms. Honeysuckle on both points. “Mostly naked is down to pasties and underwear, and classy being, I guess, a lot of rhinestones.”
We took a spin around the space, taking stock of the leather couches and enjoying the museum-lighting over each of the paintings, the leopard-print rugs and the hobnobbing gentility. “I love the headband,” one guest said to her friend (though we wondered about her sincerity). “It really works,” she bluffed in a sing-songy voice, touching the sequined accessory.
After seeing several guests with what appeared to be mascara smudged on their foreheads, we soon remembered that it was in fact Ash Wednesday, and adding to the phenomenological fodder, many of the guests bore faded ashen crosses beneath their flappergirl garlands and Homburg hats. It wasn’t blasphemy, it was blissful unreality, an opiate haze of duty and decorum.
As a songstress crooned a throaty jazz song, amplified through a period microphone, The Observer met Jane Folds, a white-haired club member and professional puppeteer. “It’s a fabulous club. It’s old New York,” she exclaimed. Imploring us to join, she lowered her rose-color glasses to explain the institution’s merits. “It’s not very expensive, in the greater scheme of things, it’s, I don’t know, about $1,000 a year for membership,” she said.
Turning a dimly lit corner, we ran into an elderly man wearing a suit and a massive medal on his chest. Our interest piqued, we were introduced to Vincent McConnell, a former judge whose business card now reads “Counselor/Therapist/Screen Actor.” Despite his shiny cranium and well-weathered face, Mr. McConnell is in the process of applying for membership to the National Arts Club. We wondered why such institutions were still relevant. “Well, the arts, the arts, I mean we must preserve the arts, otherwise our civilization is doomed!” he said. Unable to resist, we inquired about his medal. “I am a member of an order of knights and dames called the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order,” he said, his voice lowering with dignified pride. “They’re not crusaders, not killers. They don’t use the sword, although I was dubbed with a sword,” he said, with a hammy nudge. “I believe in peace and honor and decency and integrity and helping people rather than hurting people,” he explained. Mr. McConnell then launched into a discussion of his 24 years as a colonel in the Air Force.
Woozy from the intoxicating pretense, The Observer prepared to go. A group of young hedgefunding bucks were headed to the nearby Rose Bar for a nightcap or three. We politely declined invitations to join; we had seen quite enough.
And so we hailed a cab, making the traffic-heavy trip home, wondering whether we were witnessing another lost generation take shape.