Gatsby Sent Us

1196282971As kids, we loved places that required a password to access. We tortured our younger siblings, demanding they learn an elaborate series of phrases to enter our bedrooms. Now that we’re adults, we thought we’d outgrown the idea of a secret club. That was until we were given the secret password that allowed us to attend the Boston Athenaeum’s Roaring Twenties Speakeasy Party last night.

For those not in the know, the Boston Athenaeum is the oldest private library in the United States, celebrating its bicentennial this year. Only members can access its half-million volumes, some of which are over 100 years old. We were skeptical at first, anticipating an event filled with remnants of the Boston Brahmin tut-tutting about Harvard’s victory over Yale.

It seemed we were correct when we arrived after last night’s public lecture about Athenaeum members Sara and Gerald Murphy. White-haired couples lingered over blocks of cheese and told us we looked nice. But once we spied a stout man in a suit guarding a door, we knew what to do.

“Gatsby sent me,” we said, and he opened the large wooden door with a smile. With that, we were ushered up several flights of stairs. We walked the narrow frosted glass platforms between huge stacks of books until we reached the reference floor.

It felt as if we were back in the 20’s. The long desk in the middle of the room had tomes from the prohibition era on display, which we examined while a jazz trio played quietly in a corner. The two-level room was completely lined with hardcover volumes in tall shelves.

Gone were the elderly crowd from the lecture. This party was for the associate members, which is the classification given to people 41 and younger. The crowd wasn’t exclusively Ivy League—we spoke to people who graduated from (gasp) state schools. So why is there a disconnect between the outsider and insider perception of the Athenaeum?

“We’re hidden in plain sight,” reference librarian Stephen Nonack told us. He correctly pointed out that we’d walked by the building and never noticed it was there. The institution is trying to change the perception that it’s an elitist club—all it takes to join are four references (they don’t have to be from members) and a $115 annual fee for an individual associate membership.

Aside from having access to one of the most beautiful buildings in the city, we’ve added a membership to our Christmas list to have access to the great events. writer and Athenaeum member Lauren Clark brought notable mixologists Misty Kalkofen of the Green Street Grille, Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli from Eastern Standard and John Gertsen of No. 9 Park in to prepare delicious Prohibition-inspired libations for the thirsty crowd. And much like prohibition itself, the fun was over with the announcement that the party was moving to the 21st Amendment. Now that’s commitment to a theme.

PHOTO: Cheryl Colombo