Money Talks

1218730498Every Thursday, Francis Storrs will take you inside the corridors of high-stakes finance and dealmaking. This week: Who would want to be in a club that would have Clark Rockefeller as a member?

If nothing else, Clark Rockefeller understood the power of suggestion. The way a bit of name dropping would suggest he was Hollywood writer Christopher Crowe. The power that little more than a fancy business card had to convince people believe he was a scion of noble lineage. In Boston, it was his membership in the ritzy Algonquin Club that did more than anything else to burnish his image as a monied man of leisure.

In Boston today, as a century ago, membership in a private club still carries substantial social currency. The club you choose for your drinking, dining and socializing—or, to be more precise, the club that ultimately lets you in—still says a lot about how you are as viewed by a certain cross-section of society.

The Algonquin’s Back Bay neighbor, the St. Botolph Club, is for men and women accomplished in the arts and letters (Robert Frost was a famous member). The Somerset Club, overlooking Boston Common, has counted Crowninshields, Lorings, and Coolidges among its members. It remains, as one visitor put it years ago, “that haunt of ancient peace, shrine of Boston brahminism.”

Unlike the Somerset, the Algonquin has long had a more egalitarian bent. Founded a century ago by a group of businessmen and merchants not particularly welcome elsewhere, it retains something of a reputation as a place for movers and shakers to network.

Current members include BU president emeritus John Silber; developer Ken Guscott; former BPL chief Bernie Margolis; together with bank presidents, doctors, and attorneys. It’s easy to imagine what Rockefeller saw in the Algonquin. But what did the Algonquin see in him? The answer, apparently, is that he is exactly the kind of member it needs. In other words, he’s young.

It’s not much of a secret: As current members continue to gray, the Algonquin has been on the lookout for new ones. It’s the kind of search going on at many of the city’s storied institutions. “The Somerset Club, they’d love a lot of new young members,” says a member of one of Boston’s private clubs. “I’ve been in clubs all over the country and there’s not usually a whole lot of young people there. The demographic that’s kept them going is seriously shifting.”

Locals in their 30s and early 40s—the kind starting families, perhaps, and climbing the ladder at work—might not have the $5,000 to $10,000 in expendable income to cover annual membership dues. Meals and drinks cost extra. Meanwhile, lots of those who do have the money to join tend to still be at work when the club doors close for the night. And the Algonquin, for one, was closed most weekends in July—something of a holdover from the time when the entire city cleared out during the summer.

That’s not to say there isn’t a contingent of young Bostonians who have both the money and the free time to join up—they just don’t always leave the right kind of impression.

“A lot of these clubs are finding that people who don’t have to work for a living are not the kind of people you want at the club,” says the club member. “In the old days, the guys who didn’t work at least collected art–they could talk for hours about porcelain or Asian miniatures. Now, all these third and fourth generation trustafarians talk about is surfing.”

Clark Rockefeller, though, had a lot going for him. He could afford the membership fees, he lived nearby, and he was by all accounts a witty and charming conversationalist. The Algonquin’s manager didn’t return my calls, but recently told a reporter that Rockefeller was “a gentleman. He’s a kind man. Polite. Very, very intelligent.”

Perhaps most important of all, Rockefeller had plenty of free time. “He’s always going to be there for lunch,” says the member from a Boston club. “That’s exactly the sort of person any club would want.”

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Image from Algonquin Club website