New Canaan 53



The Avenue Club sits on the west side of Park Avenue between 53rd and 54th Street. It is large, it takes up almost half a city block, but to the average passerby it’s easy to miss. There is no sign on the door, no emblem on the awning, and there are no snarling gargoyles on the grey limestone façade to catch your eye. The club was designed in the 1870s on the model of an Italian palazzo, and the man who designed it was later murdered by his mistress on a plat- form at Grand Central Station, but none of that romance is visible in the architecture. In fact, the only thing that makes the building re- markable is that it still exists. Stop for a moment on the sidewalk nearby and look up. You’ll notice the club is dwarfed by giant glass office towers on all sides, and that tells you something important. Because while it takes money to build a skyscraper in midtown, it takes a lot more money to resist building one, and so far the Avenue has resisted for over a hundred and thirty years. What else in New York can boast such longevity? On a warm spring afternoon Wallace “Puff” Penfield passed under the club’s navy blue awning and pushed his way through its revolv- ing door. Puff Penfield was the President of the Avenue Club, and in his opinion, it was the best private club in New York. It was older than the Century, friendlier than the Brook, richer than the Metropolitan, and unlike the University Club, it wasn’t choc-a-bloc with women and for- eigners. At the Avenue it wasn’t enough to be suc- cessful, you had to be the right sort of person, and that, Puff believed, was how it should be. “Hello Freddie,” said Puff amiably. “Good afternoon Mr. Penfield, sir.” Freddie was the doorman at the club and

he’d been sitting behind the same mahogany desk since before Puff ’s father died more than twenty years ago. Puff was an awkward man in many respects. He was ill at ease with his social inferiors, and outside the club he wouldn’t have known how to speak to someone like Freddie. But inside the club Puff could talk to anyone, and he es- pecially prided himself on his relations with the staff. He knew all their names, and he knew all their wives’ names; and although he under- stood there was a distinction between members and employees, in his heart he felt they were all part of the same family. Blinded by affection, he confused the pleasure of swimming in the club pool with the pleasure of cleaning it. Puff now started walking up the wide stair- case (he never took the elevator) toward the changing room on the fourth floor. He ran into various members on their way down, and he greeted each one by name:

functions were held; past the dining room and the bar and the library; past the billiards roomwith its extraordinary brass spittoons reaching up to your waist; and when finally he reached the fourth floor, he stopped halfway along the corridor to poke his head into the club’s little barber shop. “Hello, Mr. Penfield,” said Carlos cheerfully. “Good afternoon, Carlos. I’ll be with you right after I get a little exercise. Have my chit ready.” If you’ve never heard of a chit, a chit is a little piece of paper and it’s how everything at the Avenue Club gets paid for. Because another of the club’s great traditions was that no money should change hands within its walls. Cash was useless. Haircuts, drinks, and poker debts were all paid for by chit, and if anyone wanted to leave a Christmas tip for Freddie or Carlos, he signed a chit for that, too. Puff entered the dressing room and walked over to his locker. It wasn’t a locker per se, but rather a decent sized cubicle, complete with hooks, hangars and a cushioned bench to sit on. Each cubicle had a curtain, for those who wanted privacy, but Puff never closed his curtain because it was considered bad form. The dressing room was a social place. It was more like a lounge than anything else, and in addition to the changing cubicles that lined the walls, there were armchairs and sofas scattered throughout. There was even a collection of small dining tables where the mem- bers could eat lunch. The great benefit of eating lunch in the dressing room was that you got to eat naked. At the Avenue, the freedom of nudity was highly prized, and standing in front of his locker, Puff was completely surrounded by male flesh. The top three floors of The Avenue Club were

“John.” “Puff.” “Henry.” “Puff.” “Baxter.” “Puff.”

Each of these exchanges was accompanied by a quick nod of the head, and taken together they reflected one of the club’s strongest tradi- tions. It was the tradition of courtesy. At the Avenue, members did not pass in the hall with- out greeting each other by name. “Hello Puff. How’s Trixie?” “Well thanks, Peter.” Puff climbed past the smoking room and the walk-in humidor where the members kept their cigars; he climbed past the Pratt Roomwhere club

Excerpt of P aisley Mischief by Lincoln MacVeagh courtesy of February Books. © 2014.


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