Elite social clubs do not make headlines all that often, and when they do they are typically discussed in a cultural context. See this 2011 New York Times piece on the Core Club, for instance, which appeared in the Fashion & Style section. The opening fixates on a Birkin handbag which “sells for about the price of a new Lexus sedan” before reporting that the Core Club caters to families with incomes in the top 1% of US households and charges $15,000 a year, plus a $50,000 initiation fee.
But despite rarely making the news, elite social institutions like the Core Club – which exist in every most cities in the US – play an important role in weaving together power networks. Most are open enough to allow for the socialization and integration of new elites, but closed (and expensive) enough to ensure that they are not overrun by the rabble. In this setting, away from the pressures of the boardroom and the public eye, common social bonds can be formed by elites who would not otherwise talk, eat, and drink together. And naturally, because this happens in all social settings, people form relationships and talk politics and gossip and decide to work together on projects.
This would not really be all that interesting if not for the elite nature of the clubs, and the fact that the people in these contexts have disproportionate influence over policy. From a power research perspective, membership lists and other similar data from elite social clubs can offer a window onto the contours of the power elite in a regional context or, in some cases, on the national level.
Unfortunately, these membership lists are rarely publicly available, and when they are, they tend to exist in a paper format that is not easy to import quickly into LittleSis (OCR, generally, is still pretty unreliable and error-prone). The membership list of one elite club was sent to our offices a while back, but we have not had the time to import it into LittleSis yet (it is quite lengthy). I came across this Alfalfa Club seating chart, turned up during Occupy, but have only had time to upload a portion of the list. Still, the interlocks are interesting.
If you would like to research elite social clubs and have not yet stumbled on a treasure trove of membership lists, you can get started by uploading board lists for the nonprofits behind the clubs. In some cases, board lists will offer a telling picture of the network behind the club and who some of its more powerful members (within the club context) are. As long as the club has a nonprofit, it has to provide a board list in its 990, or tax return. You can find 990s at a variety of sites, but one especially useful resource is CitizenAudit.org. If you search for the name of the social club (or any nonprofit) or its address, you can pull up a list of recent 990s, which always include a list of board members. Some of these documents will be OCR’d, but typically the board lists do not come through perfectly, so you will need to check the list of names against the original 990 pdf.
Using the add bulk tool, I recently uploaded the board of The Brook, an exclusive gentlemen’s club in Manhattan (I found its 990s here. The connections on this interlocks page are not fully built out, but already show how the club’s members have ties to companies like the Blackstone Group and nonprofits like Lenox Hill Hospital. You can find more gentlemen’s and country clubs on this page, drawn from a list of social clubs compiled by UC Santa Cruz power researcher William Domhoff and posted at his research site. Once you’ve uploaded a board list for a club, you can develop a better picture of the network behind the club by adding relationships for each board member (to their employers, for instance) and importing their political contributions.
In Buffalo, where PAI is based, rumor has it that many a major business deal (and public swindle) gets done at the Buffalo Club. This sort of gossip, which is generally peddled by people who are just outside of the Buffalo Club’s social sphere (losers!), rarely makes it into the newspaper. But last week, it did. Here is Buffalo News columnist Donn Esmonde:
With all due respect, the proposal has the musty, old-school odor of a deal hatched in the Buffalo Club, nurtured in a corporate law office and presented as a veiled ultimatum to overly pliable public officials.
Esmonde was discussing a proposal by a developer, Uniland, and a large concessions company, Delaware North, seeking millions of dollars in public subsidies for a new office building (to learn more about Delaware North’s predecessor, Emprise, I encourage you to read this wikipedia page on investigative journalist Don Bolles).
Notably, Michael Montante of Uniland is a former Buffalo Club board member and his father Carl Montante is a former Buffalo Club president. Delaware North’s Jeremy Jacobs, Jr is also a member of the club, and his cousin, Luke Jacobs (who is not an executive at Delaware North but is from the same family) is currently on its board. We know this because PAI obtained a recent Buffalo Club newsletter from an informant (who we refer to as “G”). The newsletter lists Luke Jacobs as a board member and Jeremy Jacobs as a sponsor of the new membership of William Clough, the head of the Nichols School. To join the club, you need to be sponsored by a current member.
Now, the fact that a particular class of Buffalo elites congregates at the Buffalo Club does not mean that it is particularly classy. Here is a page from the recent newsletter, advertising a night of “Wine, Women, and Kors” in evocative fonts:
The Buffalo Club’s book club looks particularly open: “We welcome all Mothers, Wives, Singles, and Readers wanting to meet other ladies to discuss fabulous books and make some new friends.”
Lest you think the Buffalo Club is backwards, note that ladies may wear pants for informal dining:
Really, this should put your fears to rest: the women’s locker room is “every bit the equal” of the men’s locker room!
The Buffalo Club may not have the modern orientation and polish of the Core Club, or the wealth – Kors handbags top out at a paltry $3000, a fraction of the price of a
new Lexus sedan Birkin handbag. Sabres tailgates, bowling, and ‘2-4-1’ dinners probably aren’t selling points for constituents of places like the Core Club. But the class dynamics and functions are similar. The original Times article on the Core Club described its pitch as a “place for a geographically and socially diverse set of wealthy people to gather and meet others of the same disparate tribe.” The Buffalo Club may not prioritize social diversity in the same way, and it lacks appeal beyond the immediate region. But in the end, it’s all about elite tribalism. And sometimes that tribalism can smooth the way for tax breaks for a scion who is already worth close to $3 billion.
If you’re interested in building out the Alfalfa Club list or compiling more research on elite social clubs, click here to sign up for LittleSis.org or sign in to edit. And if you’ve got any newsletters or membership lists for us, you can always drop us a line.