Members Only: Inside LA's Private Clubs
BY MICHAEL VENTRE
The luxurious roof garden at Soho House West Hollywood.
Of course, prestige isn't released into the air with the popping of a Champagne cork. Although Soho House has been warmly embraced for the most part and is off to an admirable start, it has a challenge ahead in order to establish equal footing with its staid local competitors.
The California Club, for instance, first attracted some of the more accomplished and flamboyant men of the late 1800s, such as real estate developer H. Gaylord Wilshire, banker Isaias Wolf Hellman, and Los Angeles Times city editor Charles Fletcher Lummis, known for his gray sombrero. It continued along, eventually settling at its current location on 6th and Flower, the fourth Downtown site since it was first established. "It's better run than any other club," Riordan boasts.
Then there is The Jonathan Club, perhaps the best known of all private clubs in Los Angeles. That might have something to do with its two locations: The Jonathan Club Town, located in the heart of Downtown's business district, and The Jonathan Club Beach in Santa Monica. "Both are wonderful representations of what's so special about Los Angeles," says member Stacy Cramer. Abby Walsh, a native of Chicago, moved here in the '90s and joined The Jonathan Club because her parents belonged to a reciprocal club in the Windy City. "I was a young lawyer then and didn't know anybody," she says. "I needed a place to work out."
The Jonathan Club had a long and stuffy history that it has worked to improve over the years with inclusion (more on that later) and more events for kids, such as movie nights complete with popcorn. But it has actually reached out to families for decades. A look at a December 1940 copy of The Jonathan, the club's official publication, reveals a slew of events like "Boys and Girls Supervised Gym and Swimming," "J.C. Family Nite," and "J.C. Father's and Son's Annual Dinner."
Michael O'Hara recently celebrated his 50th year as a member. A volleyball pioneer at UCLA and author of Volleyball: Fastest Growing Sport in the World!, he says the contacts he made at The Jonathan aided him in his management-consulting business. Lunches with Ronald Reagan at the beach location were a highlight of his membership, he says. "It was fun to see him there," O'Hara says. "A lot of people having lunch would really get a kick out of seeing him come in with his Secret Service people."
The Beach Club, established in 1923, and the Bel-Air Bay Club, which opened in 1927, offered privacy and recreation under the sun. Novelist Raymond Chandler wrote Farewell, My Lovely in 1939, and he reportedly used the Bel-Air Bay Club as the model for his fictitious Belvedere Beach Club.
Down the freeway in Orange County, The Balboa Bay Club & Resort in Newport Beach joined the ranks of selective membership in 1948, when there were just under 12,000 residents in the seaside village. The club attracted entertainment giants including John Wayne, Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood, Bonita Granville, Jack Wrather, and many others. Rallies for both John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were held there.
Of course, it's hard to mention private clubs without also mentioning discrimination. Today, there aren't the same complaints that plagued some of the older clubs over the years. Yet it wasn't that long ago that certain potential members were not encouraged to apply. "It certainly is a way to network with some important people," The California Club's Riordan says. "It's also a way to make enemies. I was instrumental in getting the first Jewish member admitted. Some people were really angry with me. But once it happened, everybody accepted it. It's surprising that when you let minorities into clubs, it's as if the people who were dying to keep them out accept them like any other member."
It wasn't until the late 1980s that The Jonathan Club began to admit women and African-Americans as members. Other clubs soon followed suit. Some of that evolution was the natural progress and pressures of the time, including dogged efforts by the late Mayor Tom Bradley. But there were also practical reasons. For instance, in 1985 the California Coastal Commission demanded The Jonathan Club change its membership policies if it wanted approval to expand onto state land; the club eventually relented. Of private clubs and progressive membership policies, Riordan adds, "Quite honestly, it's doubtful they would have survived if they had not done that. People don't join clubs as readily as they used to."
To illustrate the "that was then, this is now" nature of LA's club establishment, Walsh recalls visiting The Jonathan Club Beach during Passover this past spring. "There was a Passover service at the club. It was really beautiful," she says. "They were sitting on the sand reading the Torah. Would that have happened 20 years ago? I don't think so."
In 1995, Soho House was founded by British entrepreneur Nick Jones in London as a private-members club for film, media, and creative types, and it expanded to include houses in Berlin and North America. Members can sign up for a Local House (annual membership fee: $1,800) or an Every House membership ($2,400). Designer Waldo Fernandez, a Cuban-born Angeleno whose clients include Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Darren Star, and Tobey Maguire, created the almost 12,000-square-foot penthouse space atop Luckman Plaza at 9200 Sunset. He had been assigned the nearly impossible task of combining elements of Old Hollywood, a proper English gentleman's club, and Midcentury Modern design. Reviews have been mostly of the rave variety.
"In an ideal world, any club would want to have Soho House as a template," says a Hollywood producer who has been an Every House member for years and adores the food, features, privacy, and overall atmosphere at the West Hollywood location. "But it's taken 20 years to find that formula. That's not something that happens overnight. If you and I have the funds, we could create a private members club. But that doesn't mean it will have the exclusivity of Soho House."
Jones has said he doesn't just want "one set" of young Hollywood as Soho House members, but rather a mixture of the new and the established. Theoretically speaking, all that would then separate Soho House from places like The Jonathan Club and The California Club is a hipper vibe, a less WASP-y heritage, and maybe edgier flicks in the screening room.
Memberships do indeed have their privileges. In Los Angeles, they just vary by age.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARC WANAMAKER/BISON ARCHIVES (BEL-AIR BAY CLUB, THE JONATHAN CLUB BEACH, THE BEACH CLUB)
Fashion shoot: December 2013 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.