Insiders Guide: The Private Clubs

Illustration: Christopher Silas Neal

To borrow a phrase from Stefon, Bill Hader's tweaked-out Saturday Night Live nightlife correspondent, New York--s hottest club is … well, actually, it's private. Just as fame reigns as the currency in Hollywood, space and social status are the two most prized commodities in New York — so it figures that members-only clubs have long been the loci of the powerful and pedigreed in Manhattan. Many have been around for decades, if not more than a century, but in recent years, new ones have rolled into town, upping the ante on amenities and adding flash that their stolid predecessors lack.

The city's first, THE UNION CLUB, now on East 69th Street, was organized by conservative politicians and businessmen in 1836 to offer a respite from the city's rapidly changing demographics as well as a place to drink or play squash or a hand of cards. In 1847, a group of Union clubbers, dissatisfied with the intellectual tenor of the other members, founded their own arts-and-letters-minded society, THE CENTURY ASSOCIATION on West 43rd. THE HARMONIE CLUB on East 60th popped up soon after — established by excluded German Jews.

A group of elite-college grads founded the snooty UNIVERSITY CLUB, now on West 54th, in 1865. There are other collegiate organizations, such as THE HARVARD CLUB, located in an 1894 neo-Georgian building, and the 22-story YALE CLUB. All alumni may apply, though there are snubs: Last year, Harvard grad Eliot Spitzer was rebuffed. And in 1891, financier J.P. Morgan organized THE METROPOLITAN CLUB on East 60th because, the story goes, he couldn't get a friend into the Union. Of course, women weren't allowed anywhere, so a group of them, including Morgan--s daughter Anne, formed THE COLONY in 1903, still one of the city's most exclusive — for the twinset-and-pearls crowd, that is.

In these old-school institutions, housed in mostly stunning landmark buildings, little has changed in 100 years. They're purely social establishments whose members happily subscribe to etiquette as old as the Gilded Age: no jeans, no cell-phone calls, no texting and absolutely no shop talk.

"There's a law," says Samuel Goldwyn Jr., a 20-year member of the Century, which counts Alec Baldwin, Matthew Broderick, Harold Evans, Salman Rushdie, Rosanne Cash, Christopher Buckley and John Lithgow among its now-coed ranks. "They don't want you to talk business." Adds David Patrick Columbia, editor of "These clubs are selling stodgy. They make people feel like they're a part of something that no longer exists." 

At the Colony on Park Avenue, prospective members undergo a nearly year-long application process, which entails securing upward of five sponsors. "It's like getting passed by a co-op board," says Cineflix Studios president and former member Christina Wayne. After one summer, Wayne found she wasn't using the facilities -- including squash courts and mud baths — and deactivated. "You're not allowed to do business in a club like that, and for the business I'm in, that didn't make sense."

There's another reason you'd be hard-pressed to find entertainment-industry faces in such places: They'd probably never get in. Park Avenue's all-male RACQUET AND TENNIS CLUB — the city's toughest to crack if you lack the correct lineage, schooling or Fortune 500 business card — scoffs at "any kind of people in the press," says a source with family ties to the club. "The members are generally blue-blood East Coast guys who would cringe at the very thought of seeing their face in a party picture." (In fact, as a mayoral candidate, Michael Bloomberg resigned from there — as well as Harmonie and Century — citing lack of diversity.)

Not so at the clubs that have sprung up in the past decade to cater to different New York subsets — among them SOHO HOUSE (Euro transplants, creative types), CORE CLUB (mega-moguls, executives), NORWOOD CLUB (hipsters, bankers) and Brooklyn--s revived MONTAUK CLUB in Park Slope (Wes Anderson-esque Brooklynites). Their missions range from providing "homes away from home" for members who should avoid "explicit corporate attire," says Soho House founder Nick Jones, to building a community that's "TED meets Davos meets Sun Valley 24/7," says Jennie Enterprise (nee Saunders), Core's chairman.

After leaving the Colony, Wayne and her husband aligned with polar opposite Soho House. Opened in 2003, the 45,000-square-foot Meatpacking District hotspot boasts members who span entertainment (Harvey Weinstein, Guy Oseary, Oz and Copper producer Tom Fontana), tech/media (Spotify founder Daniel Ek) and fashion (model Dree Hemingway, publicist Nadine Johnson). If you've got a cool-sounding job and know a member, you're as good as in. (The company maintains there is a wait list.) People in finance, though, are generally personae non gratae — most were booted in 2009 and 2010, when the club instituted a no-bankers rule to lure a more chic crowd (tragically including Sylvie Cachay, the slain designer whose body was found in the fifth-floor bathtub in 2010). The artsy Norwood, a quirkily furnished 19th century townhouse in Chelsea, is said to have absorbed some of the wayward young guns from Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.

For Soho House's $1,800 a year — a relative steal, especially compared to the titans-only Core--s $50,000 initiation — members have access to a refurbished restaurant and lounge ("a glorified Starbucks" during the day, says one regular), screening room, hotel rooms and rooftop pool — six floors in which to relax, entertain friends and meet colleagues (Fontana calls meetings in the lounge). In a city where "cozy" is apartment-listings code for "coffin-size" and trendy restaurants are crammed to the point of safety risk, "it's a perfect getaway," says Cinema Society founder Andrew Saffir.

With their Wi-Fi-enabled lounges and luxe amenities, the clubs of the 21st century bear little resemblance to their quaint forebears. For instance, the 7-year-old Core Club, whose founding members include Jerry Yang, Showtime's Matt Blank and the NFL Network's Steve Bornstein, offers workouts with Madonna's trainer Josh Holland and access to skin guru Dangene's high-tech spa.

But not everyone wants the lap of luxury. "The only club I belong to is the RUSSIAN [& TURKISH] BATHS," says writer Jonathan Ames, who laid down about $2,000 for a year--s membership to the East Village facility's authentic saunas and plunge pools. "I once met with [Curb Your Enthusiasm's] Jeff Garlin there," Ames says. "He wanted to have a meeting, and I said, 'I'll be at the Russian Baths.' The first time, we had a little herring in the cafe. And the next time he came, we sweated." 

Nick Axelrod lives in New York and is senior fashion news editor at Elle.