This article was originally published in the February 2018 Princeton Echo.
Thirty one years ago a neighbor asked my husband, Toby, if he would like to join the Nassau Club. I wasn’t asked because women, aside from widows of former members, were not allowed as members.
It was 1987 and the club represented a bastion of the old Princeton. It had been founded in 1889 by eight Princeton professors and eight townsmen. It was, as reported in a history of the Club, to serve “in lieu of a faculty club and … as a male university club for the community of Princeton.”
The main part of the building, at 6 Mercer Street, was constructed in 1813-’14 and purchased as the clubhouse in 1903. In the succeeding years, there were building additions and upgrades but, again as noted in its centennial history, “the club has undergone fewer transformations during this past one hundred years than the society in which it has thrived.” Unlike a country club, which features athletic facilities, the Nassau Club has always been a venue solely for dining and social activities.
Toby and I had already been to the Nassau Club on several occasions, primarily for wedding receptions. One of our daughters was in her teens and the other was about to enter. Planning for the future and in a very motherly fashion, I thought joining the Nassau Club was a great idea because it would be perfect for our daughters’ wedding receptions.
Toby thought beyond that. It turns out there was a push for younger members (defined as those under age 46) and as part of this, the initiation fee was quite low. Joining at the moment was a rare bargain. He also saw it as a place where he could meet other clients in his financial services business.
And so he joined. The club still retained an atmosphere similar to that found in classic 1930s British literature, one that was suffused, as a member put it, “with dignity and character.” Though the club never achieved the mayhem of the Drones Club in P. G. Wodehouses’s Bertie and Jeeves stories, it did come close in 1984. That was the memorable year when those partaking of a meal found that the dining “room ceiling decided to come cascading down” while in the next room were “approximately 40 life insurance salesmen having their annual Christmas dinner.”
Fortunately the ceiling had been fixed and the club had undergone other upgrades when Toby became a member, allowing the club to retain its classic atmosphere. This, of course meant that women were not allowed to become members in their own right. While there were about 100 female members, they were all widows of former members and effectively barred from the Gentlemen’s Lounge. And should these women remarry, they lost their membership although they could encourage their new husbands to join. This state of affairs did not sit well with Princeton University and, as a result, the concept of a faculty club and a town and gown collaboration had become severely frayed.
William Bowen can be credited with upping the schism when he refused to join the club as an honorary member after assuming the presidency of the university in 1972. “President Bowen was not comfortable belonging to an organization which does not admit women,” his assistant said.
In 1985 the university pushed the matter further by requesting the club to open membership to women. The request was denied and suitably buried by being referred to a committee. Three years later the committee suggested the members should be canvassed on the subject but it was decided that such a canvas would impede the centennial observations and so no action was taken.
Though the club did not act that year, the U.S. Supreme Court did. In 1988 it unanimously upheld a 1984 New York City law aimed primarily at requiring female admittance to large, private clubs that play an important role in business and professional life. That meant state and local governments could ban sex discrimination by business-oriented private clubs. New Jersey had had a law against sex discrimination for decades.
The question arose: was the Nassau Club a business-oriented organization? There had been complaints. In 1973, for example, the president of the Princeton Bar Association complained that female members could not attend business meetings in the basement Grill Room, which was open only to men and their male guests. A more recent example occurred in 1989 when Toby, my husband, who was working for Philadelphia National Bank, was told that he could not be reimbursed for hosting business lunches or breakfasts because the club would not admit women. The club, in other words, had been and was being used for business purposes.
Some enterprising club member then discovered that nothing in the original founding documents specifically excluded female members. It was not necessary to change any by-laws; a simple vote to admit female candidates was all that was needed. The club celebrated its centennial and then, in 1991, a huge majority voted in favor of female membership.
Not being able to join the club in my own name was never an issue for me. I did not need it for business and I could always use Toby’s club number to attend lectures or host friends. In many ways, he and I were both peripheral participants.
We rarely took advantage of the activities offered and generally used the dining room for special occasions only. The setting, if not the food, was perfect for such times. When a New York friend’s daughter, Princeton Class of 2001, neglected to make any dining reservations in town during graduation, we hosted the entire family for a festive meal gathering before the daughter headed off to parties. There were 10 of us and, as our friend commented, the dining was more intimate and congenial than any that could be had in a crowded, noisy restaurant in town.
We did occasionally dine at the club before attending performances at McCarter. I remember once asking Anne, our younger daughter, to invite an eighth grade friend when we had two extra tickets. It was late May and I forgot to mention the dress code. When the four of us sat down for dinner, a waiter rushed up with an extremely ugly jacket and told the young man he had to wear it. I think we were more embarrassed than he was.
The jacket dress code in the formal dining rooms still holds for males during the academic year. As of 1977, however, ties are no longer required. That ruling relieved one duty for the head waiter, who had long held a large supply of neckties for improperly dressed guests. Appropriate attire for ladies in the formal dining rooms today is listed as dresses, skirts, dressy pant suits, and business pant suits.
What Toby and I most enjoyed about the club during his first two decades of membership was the opportunity to stay at reciprocal clubs. These are located in major cities throughout our country and in many countries abroad. We have stayed at nine so far and they are all situated in wonderful locations, usually within walking distance of many city attractions. We first booked the Caledonian Club, found just around the block from London’s Hyde Park corner, in 1994. The price was great and the service terrific. We asked about visitors from clubs in the U.S. and learned that more came from than Nassau Club than any other one. We Princetonians know a bargain when we find one.
Several things have remained constant over the decades. Among these are the weekly Wednesday lunches. Held throughout the academic year calendar, they feature speakers presenting a variety of subjects. This spring, for example, Princeton Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta is describing what it is like to be an undocumented immigrant; Tom Gulbransen of the National Ecological Observatory Network is reviewing climate and climate change; Salam Fayyad, former Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, is discussing Palestinian issues; and Princeton University Press Director Christie Henry is talking about the workings of the Press.
While there have always been members who meet to play bridge or poker or to take part in special interest groups, such as a roundtable on finance, it appears to us that the level of activity has increased over the years. In addition to the usual dances and special dinners, outside guests continually fill the various rooms. With a member as a sponsor, organizations, including the Rotary Club and the Chamber of Commerce, as well as businesses such as Weichert Realtors use the club as a meeting venue, often in the private dining rooms.
The Thursday night buffet is another great tradition but one that has been enhanced with a newer kitchen and better offerings. We belong to an informal gathering that meets once a month for this dining experience. There is no hemming and hawing over what to order and there is always prime rib. You can eat what you want when you want. It’s a fun way to meet with a diverse group of friends – sometimes as many as 22 — without any preparation on a host or hostess part.
There have been changes, however, some more significant in the 21st century than any that occurred in the club’s first century. There are, for example, no longer extended stay members. One gentleman lived in the club for 40 years; he would quietly come down in the evenings, wearing a dark suit and tie, and was a constant but lonely presence. Toby remembers seeing another gentleman walk into the dining room and, as soon as he sat down, notice a waiter promptly bring a martini to his table.
We feel the recent extensive renovations have led to the most significant changes. The overnight rooms, once described as “quite dingy” by friends who stayed there, have been totally modernized and updated. There are no longer permanent residents. The bathroom on the first floor is now unisex (previously, ladies had to go downstairs).
To us, the best of all is the remodeling of the basement’s old Grill Room, now known as Club 6. It offers one of the tastiest hamburgers in town and great fries. Attire is casual and as is true of all dining at the club, you do not need to shout across the table. In other words, you can relax and enjoy both food and conversation. We joined friends there during the extreme cold last month and the place was filled with young families, old timers, and much camaraderie — so different from decades ago and definitely not reminiscent of a staid British club.
Was I right about it being a great venue for our daughters’ wedding receptions? Not quite. We did, however, hold Katherine’s at the reciprocal Union Club of Boston and I was most gratified when she said, “This was just perfect.”
Nassau Club, 6 Mercer Street. nassauclub.org. 609-924-0580.
By the numbers
Currently club membership is around 1,250. As described on its website, membership is by invitation only. Three resident members (members who live or work within 20 miles of the club) prepare and submit an application to the Admissions Committee.
Current annual dues are $1,320. In April, there will be changes in resident status and the accompanying initiation fees. The age for younger resident status has been lowered to under 40 (currently under 46) and the initiation fee will be raised from $1,110 to $1,750. The initiation fee for older applicants (currently 46 and older; to become 40 years and older) remains at $3,940. Meals vary in price. The dinner buffet is $40, which includes a glass of wine.