Monday, February 2, 2009

Why We Can’t Wait

The day I stood up and did something right that everyone else thought was crazier than hell!
by Charlie Leck

My lord, I think it was about 8 years ago now. Anyway, it was about that long ago. It happened in New York City – Manhattan – the Knickerbocker Club – the Coaching Club Room.

I left a lot of guys shaking their heads at my apparent stupidity. The fact is, they didn’t get it.

They wanted me to wait, to be patient. I quoted Doctor King and told them I couldn’t wait – waiting around while there is injustice, segregation, prejudice and discrimination is wrong. Doctor King’s advice was to not be a part of it. If we're a part of it, we're condoning it.

It was that night that I found out the Knickerbocker Club was a “men-only” membership organization. That pissed me off and the evening was getting under way poorly.

It was the annual meeting and dinner of a distinguished group called The Coaching Club. They’d been around since 1875 -- founded by Alfred Lord Vanderbilt -- and membership was then and was always by invitation only. Somehow I’d gotten invited and accepted. They were a nice enough bunch of guys and I was pretty flattered at first. A few of the members were genuine high society guys. The rest of us were just pretenders. Some of us played the part more poorly than others.

The President of the Club, one of the nicest guys in the world, even though he was an unapologetic snob, had asked me to come to the city a day early and have lunch with him before the evening meeting of the Club. I did. He had one item on the agenda about which he wanted to chat with me. He was going to suggest that the membership begin discussing its "men-only policy" and begin considering if it wasn't time to make a change.

The possibility excited the living daylights out me. I knew I was a member of the Club only because my wife couldn't be. She was the "coachman" in our family. She drove a four-in-hand of horses incredibly well. She taught me how to drive acceptably, but I wasn't a tenth the driver she was. I didn't mind driving the four to smaller, sporty carriage, but moving that 2700 pound coach, loaded with several hundreds of pounds more of passengers, wasn't my cup of tea. The members of the Club knew that I lacked the enthusiasm of my wife for this sport.

My luncheon partner saw the excitement in my eyes and felt obliged to warn me that this was only the beginning of the discussion. It wouldn't happen in one night. It probably wouldn't happen in one year.

The Knickerbocker Club is at 62nd Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan. Not a bad address. Central Park is right across the avenue. Some of the most expensive housing in the world surrounds the building that has been the Knickerbocker Club headquarters since 1915, 44 years after the founding the of the all-men club of the same name. The building was designed by William Adams Delano. It includes beautiful dining facilities, conference rooms, a health club and a small number of sleeping rooms.

A number of the members of the Knickerbocker Club were also members of Vanderbilt's Coaching Club, which held its annual meeting and dinner right there in the building starting in 1916. The Coaching Club also housed its library and stored its records in the 62nd Street building. One of the large, private rooms on the lower level, where the library is housed, eventually became known as the Coaching Club room.

We gathered in that room for cocktails early in the evening. We were all turned-out in our formal uniforms and white tie. Following cocktails a short business meeting always took place and then we would move to a formal room upstairs for a lovely dinner.

In a conversation with another of the Coaching Club members, I learned about this business of the Knickerbocker Club's all male membership policy. I had sworn once, a number of years earlier, that I would never be involved with a male-only organization. I had consented to join the Coaching Club only because, when the invitation came, my wife insisted. Now, here we were also holding our meeting in a building owned by an all-male club.

I was a man with four daughters. I didn't like it, but, perhaps, on that night, I thought, we might make progress with the Coaching Club.

When it was apparent that everyone was on hand, we found seats around the big conference table and sat down. The President of the Club made sure I was immediately next to him. He went through the first few items on the agenda and then came to the item simply labled, "A discussion of the possibility of women members."

Things went badly from the top. All of the veteran members of the Club spoke against the idea strongly. One of the more outspoken even used quite foul and course language -- and very inappropriate humor. When I pointed out that I probably shouldn't be in the Club and was there only because of my wife's talent and interests, that same fellow made it clear that he agreed with me. He then said something very ungentlemanly about my wife and used a gross obsenity in doing so.

I immediately considered that I had only one option and that was resignation. I felt very insulted and I believed it was wrong to be a part of an all-male organization.

A younger member, sitting on my left, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson family, whispered to me, to be patient and to wait. He didn't understand, but I told him that Doctor King had said there are certain things for which we can not wait because it is wrong to do so. There comes a point, King told us, when we must stand up for our ideals. The young man looked at me as if I were crazy.
I stood and announced my resignation and said good night, declining to join them for dinner. Many kind members tried to restrain me and asked me to reconsider, but, in seconds I was on night-time Fifth Avenue, pulling on my top coat and heading back to the Plaza. To hell with the dinner. To hell with the Coaching Club.

I didn't feel regret or rage. I felt proud that I had shaken this membership off my chest. I hadn't belonged in the Coaching Club and I shouldn't have been in the Knickerbocker Club. Coaching was not my love. It was hers. I took large gulps of the cool night air and thought about how much I dispised discrimination in any form.

The courts had ruled that sexual discrimination was illegal when it deprived the unincluded from the "market place." If, for a second, you think that the Knickerbocker Club is not a part of the market place, you are foolish. The same, I can attest, is true of the Coaching Club. It is a joke to think that places like Pine Valley Golf Club and Augusta National Golf Club, and many similar organizations, are divorced from business and commercial enterprise.

But, even beyond the court's ruling, there is the question of basic fairness. For me, anyway, membership in the Coaching Club was wrong. It was unfair that many of the great women whips were not a part of it.

In one quick moment that evening, I realized I had broken my own oath about disassociating myself from such organizations. In the end, though, I got it right.

Charlie driving the coach into Cherokee Plantation, in Yemesee, South Carolina. In three days, the Coaching Club had driven two coaches completely across the state, from Aiken to Beaufort in the Low Country. Two coaches made the entire trip, changing horses and drivers about every 13 to 15 miles. Arrivals in towns along the way, always to community welcomes, were precisely scheduled and the coaches always arrived right on time. On the final day all the coaches were brought out and nine coaches, including ours, made the grand entry into the plantation. We were welcomed by a large crowd and lots of champagne.

The former photograph showed Anne driving her Hackney Horses, while Charlie is driving Cleveland Bay Crosses in this photogaph (a much simpler horse to command).

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