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Members Only: Inside LA's Private Clubs

BY MICHAEL VENTRE | June 6, 2012 | Lifestyle

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.

1 - Members Only: Inside LA's Private ClubsThe 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.

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