Members Only: Inside LA's Private Clubs
BY MICHAEL VENTRE
There are clubs, and then there are clubs. By the word's very definition, membership in a club connotes a special relationship, an intimate partnership between individual and entity. Only those select few need apply. But there is a difference in exclusivity, say, between the Hair Club for Men and The Jonathan Club, although there may indeed be overlap. The Wine of the Month Club has its criteria for inclusion, but it is much less restrictive than The California Club.
And at Soho House, there is currently a silent frenzy going on, because agents, actors, directors, producers, studio executives, publicists, and others in Hollywood who desperately want their names on the membership rolls are finding the gatekeepers are rather stingy when it comes to handing out good news. Because Soho House is the new paradigm in members-only LA clubs, hopefuls are finding the hotter the spot, the colder the shoulder.
In Los Angeles, the private club is quiet and unassuming. It is both detached and ingrained. In some quarters, it is revered—in others, not so much. Indubitably, it is as much a part of the city's history as the martini at Musso and Frank Grill and the French dip at Philippe. For some perspective, consider that former LA Mayor Richard Riordan recalls that he first joined The California Club around 1965. At that time, the club was already 78 years old. "You go back to the early days of Los Angeles," he says of visits there.
The California Club, established in 1887, began as a humble space above a livery stable where businessmen—and indeed, only "gentlemen" were allowed entry—could drink, gamble, hobnob, and discuss issues of the day. In 1895, The Jonathan Club joined the cliquish ranks of mustaches and pinstripes, later establishing two locations: one tony edifice Downtown and one idyllic site at the beach.
Shortly thereafter, a wave of such associations swept across the city. The Beach Club began in 1923, one of 11 established around the same time that combined sand and privacy along the Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades coastline. Alphonzo Bell, a developer and one of the most assertive movers and shakers in Los Angeles history, started the Bel-Air Bay Club in 1927 as part of the larger real estate project that established the town of Bel Air. Of those original 11 clubs, The Beach Club, Bel-Air Bay Club, and The Jonathan Club Beach are the only three survivors. Other private clubs have come and gone, of course, including the Regency Club, which began in 1981 and closed its doors last year due to declining enrollment. One of its shortcomings in later years was an inability to appeal to younger members.
That's clearly not a problem for clubs like Soho House—which began in London and opened a location in West Hollywood in 2010—that are vying to become the hot brand of upscale privacy for the new wave, particularly those in the entertainment business. With comfort lures like a 50-seat screening room with 3-D capability, plush chairs, cashmere throws, an elevator to access the club, and other opulent touches, Soho House attracts the famous and well-heeled anonymous by offering palpable insider mojo mixed with the type of secrecy that would make members of Fight Club seem like blabbermouths. "We've been incredibly grateful to have been welcomed by LA the way we have over the past two years," says Shelley Armistead, general manager of Soho House West Hollywood. "We think LA is a vibrant, exciting city [with] a bright future ahead—[one] that may be filled with more private-members clubs."
Soho House is known for being "ultra insider" and celeb-friendly. Stars traipse in and out for late-night drinks or early-afternoon script meetings. If the dusty adage that states, "The people who run Los Angeles belong to The Jonathan Club; the people who own Los Angeles belong to The California Club" is correct, then the people who own and run Hollywood are well represented at Soho House.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARC WANAMAKER/BISON ARCHIVES (BEL-AIR BAY CLUB, THE JONATHAN CLUB BEACH, THE BEACH CLUB)
Cover shoot: September 2014 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.