Don’t Join Ritzy Clubs If You Can’t Take the Heat

What passes for society today is pretty pathetic, but I try to keep in touch with the high jinks. From afar, mind you, although let’s be candid: If you do what I do in the way I choose to do it, you don’t get invited out much.

For information and entertainment, I regularly survey certain Web sites and so-called “gossip” columns maintained by various stooges for the rich, famous and aspiring. These are in fact usually nothing more than bulletin boards for publicists and climbers, in which mention is bartered for invitations and the odd “comp,” but they’re all I’ve got to go on, since I don’t know most of the principal/usual suspects personally and intend to keep it that way. Many of the better hotel men’s rooms keep Quest and Avenue on hand, and I subscribe to Town & Country , a publication dedicated to figuring out who the Joneses of the moment are and how to keep up with them. A social life lived vicariously among the varicose is, I guess, better than none.

Still, even I have friends, and out of pity, I suppose, they occasionally invite me out, especially if they’re having a big party of the kind the late John Scanlon called “a rat f–k.” It was at such an occasion–a cocktail party given by people of whom I’m really fond–that I was first seized by the ruminations that follow, rather in the spirit of Gibbon watching the barefoot friars chanting in the Forum.

It was a function of the sort once attended by my late father in Palm Beach: Entering the room, he surveyed the glittering throng, sized them up as the rhinestones they were instead of the diamonds they yearned to be, and politely inquired of his hostess: “Did you invite these people, or advertise for them?”

On this occasion, I did as I invariably do: lurked off to one side like an uneasy, watchful child–a neurosis I share with Auden–spoke to a few good friends, then made my thanks and took my leave. Fine, I thought, that’s that: I’ve done my duty and showed up–now I can go watch Tiger on TiVo.

No such luck! You can imagine my stark, staring horror a few days later when I chanced upon a brief account of this affair in a media outlet especially notable for its rank sycophancy, and there, staring back at me from a list of the guests, in bold agate, was my very own name! Right there in between ––– and –––, people whose names I am ashamed to utter, people whom I am embarrassed to be on the same planet with–and who I hope feel the same way about me. If I was Leonardo DiCaprio clambering out of the Arctic waters into the only lifeboat in sight, and I found myself faced with the prospect of waiting out survival with this lot, I’d plunge back in and take my chances with the centigrade.

This got me thinking about “expectation of privacy,” a concept familiar to any aficionado of Law & Order . This is a tricky Constitutional point devolving from the Fourth Amendment. At the end of the seven double-column pages set in small, close type that it devotes to “Privacy,” The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States concludes that “No one believes that an individual’s idiosyncratic expectation [of privacy] should automatically be recognized.”

So, am I being “idiosyncratic” if I accept what I believe in good faith to be a purely social occasion and find my name in the papers? I guess so. Am I being “idiosyncratic” in following an ironclad personal rule that attendance at a function bars me from speaking about it to the media? I guess so. Of course, in a social system that values merely being present as a form of accomplishment, I don’t know what I should expect. But do I not, as a guest , have some right to privacy? A right at least equal to a host’s expectation that his party will not be shopped to Page Six?

I understand the slavering thirst for publicity that some people feel, and I sympathize. It’s just a club that I have no interest in joining. What makes me sad is the realization that, even among people who should know better, the “expectation of privacy” appears to have been superseded by an “expectation of publicity.”

Speaking of clubs, these institutions are interesting case studies in the expectation of privacy. Here, I suppose, the key word is “exclusive.” The most incisive observation on club exclusivity I know of was made years ago by the Australian critic and man of letters, Clive James, in a review of a novel by Judith Krantz. In the book (I believe it was Princess Daisy ), she refers to dining in London at “the exclusive Mark’s Club,” a sort of ersatz White’s or Brooks’ founded years ago by Mark Birley, a man whose taste is as sovereign as his nose for American social aspiration. I speak on this subject with authority, having been one of the few people in recent years to have resigned from White’s as a matter of choice and not Lloyd’s.

In his review, James noted that what makes a place truly exclusive is that one does not expect to find the likes of Judith Krantz dining there. Instead, one expects to find people of similar interests and views–not least regarding what the qualifications for membership should be. Most decent clubs do not regard someone’s simple wish to join to be sufficient unto the cause, no matter how good it may look in Quest .

This issue has recently surfaced at a famous Hamptons club and has had the chatterati all agog. Even more so than the antipodean version of the Hatfields and McCoys, if you will, that is providing untold amusement to Southampton connoisseurs of the human genius for self-trivialization.

The matter to which I refer involves a couple purportedly ” de bonne lignée ,” as the French say, although–as the French say–” lignée ” means “line of descent” and not, as in the instant case, “the line into which one descends,” namely the A, C or (my own suspicion) the E. Of course, I speak as one influenced by the likes of Proust, Ward McAllister and Cleveland Amory to believe that Le Bottin and the New York subway map aren’t equivalent guides to social distinction. Not that it appears to matter, given the places one runs into Peggy Siegal these days.

In any case, the couple in question got themselves elected, somehow, to a much-coveted East End club. The fallout has been horrific to behold. In my case, it took the form of an anonymous letter to me bearing an anodyne postmark, filled with scurrilous allegations which are, for all I know, groundless. My unknown correspondent–a Water Mill resident, if my forensic examination of the envelope is correct–is pretty exercised and says many nasty things, presumably in the hope I will send them winging on to a larger public.

I won’t, any more than I will disclose my suspicions concerning the letter’s authorship. I’m pretty sure I know who wrote it, a conjecture that is shared by the president of the club in question, to whom I showed the letter, since he stars in it, so to speak. For positive identification, of course, we would need to call in an expert–someone like Don Foster, the vocabulary-and-language-profiling professor who identified Joe Klein as the author of Primary Colors . (In the present case, I would suggest to Professor Foster that he start with a careful, intuitive reading of The Southampton Press of Aug. 16 and 23.)

Anyone looking at the Hamptons club scene today is faced with certain key ethical questions. Is, for example, a straight cash bribe to an admissions-committee member entitled to a discount, as opposed to a bribe that takes the form of a mutual-fund or corporate directorship, a brokerage account, a money-management account, a nice piece of investment-banking business? You tell me.

My own feeling is that it’s gone too far. The only solution is the twofold approach that I proposed in a piece in Golf Digest a few years ago: 1) put 10 percent of each year’s openings up for auction, come one, come all (with certified checks), to be conducted in a private room, with the bidders represented by their lawyers; a share in the takings could be given to local Hamptons charities; (2) permit the staff of the club in question to fire 5 percent of the membership every year. The latter will forestall a problem faced by several clubs in the last decade: failure of the actuarial tables to provide openings, which has presumably forced some admissions-committee members to look beyond the application book for interim funding.

After all, why shouldn’t “expectation of privacy” add up to what everything else in our lovely era does–namely, expectation of money. Don’t Join Ritzy Clubs If You Can’t Take the Heat