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OUR GRADUATE CLUB

a Wistful World, Fondly Remembered

 

by William McGaughey, Sr.

 

“Write and tell us of your experiences there.” (the N.Y. Club)
-- Editor’s Advisory
Summer, 1991

THE RETURN

The out-of-town visitor lingered across from a nine-story high red brick building in mid-Manhattan, noted the high plate glass windows overlooking W. 55th Street had intact a bronze fraternity plaque, and sighed, “home again”.

A line from Thomas Hardy that flashed into mind seemed appropriate:

“It was a spot which returned upon the memory of those who loved it with an aspect of familiar and kindly congruity- “The Return of the Native”.

The sullen sound of a buzzer freed the door to No. 106. Inside, the stubby but solid oak reception desk had been replaced. The cautious guardian of the door, tie-less but friendly, peered out from the opening of his pine kiosk, took my name and advised, “Brother Turnbull is busy now. Look around if you like. His office is upstairs.”

The lobby of the old Phi Gamma Delta Club had undergone change - drastic change - since my last visit. The once mislabeled “all-male” bar, the dining room just beyond, the coat racks and telephone booth all had vanished. Out of curiosity, I stepped into the lavatory across from the elevator and, seeing no ice cubes floating atop the water accompanying the urinal’s flushing, I concluded that this gesture to sanitation and odor retardation no longer was offered guests.

On proceeding up the twenty-two steps leading to the second floor, formerly the site of the Phi Gam library and lounge, I heard the cheerful chirping of voices, an octave or so higher than those once sounded there, and on turning into what had been a Fiji reading room, I noted that the fluttering of female activity now provided the dominant notes. Women on the upper floor? Incredible!

My cultural shock intensified. Missing were the cushy red leather chairs, each with its reading lamp. Gone were the Steinway grand piano that had stood in a far corner. The lounge now appeared singularly naked without the damask drapes that had framed the eight-foot-high glass windows looking out on W 56th, once a nondescript side street whose only prominent structure was the Phi Gamma Delta club of New York.

I was approached by a female employee. Lola had emerged from a modest office off to the side. “The managing editor will see you now,” she informed me.

A mild-mannered, neatly-dressed man, half my age or perhaps younger, stood up and offered his hand.

“I’m Frank. I work here. I have your letter. I’m glad to show you around, of course. Then let’s talk. Perhaps you’ll tell me something of your days here. I’ve only been around for a dozen years, and both the peace and the pace have changed somewhat.”

My accommodating guide toured the work space, pointing out the five word processors and the typesetter used to publish the Jesuit weekly magazine, “America”, which was Frank’s principal responsibility. As with other editorial offices I had worked in, the large room lacked frills. The Jesuit, obviously, operated a no-nonsense shop, lean, sparse but functional. Of the twenty paid employees, about half were busily occupied in the old lounge and most were women. So vastly different from the room I had fondly remembered! The words of Thomas Wolfe, the prolix novelist of my youth, surfaced. “You Can’t Go Home Again”.

Hold it! Frank walked briskly into another room, smaller but quite elegant. Here, another surprise! This, the former Club library, now was the Jesuit’s board of directors room, renamed the John La Farge lounge. Dominating the room was a long, highly polished mahogany table. Lined up as straight and orderly as Buckingham Palace guardsmen were eleven red leather chairs, apparently from the same family of chair makers that had fashioned the snooze-inducing red chairs once in the lounge. (Did the Fuji Archons sell these furnishings to the high bidder, the management of the Hotel Mount ___ , when in 1962 the fraternity relinquished the site?)

An antique writing desk, a red leather settee with a reading lamp added to the lounge’s splendor, as well as a fuel fireplace set in the far wall. Two bookshelves, each with five levels, were built into the wall beyond the fireplace, providing a repository for encyclopedia and historical literature of Jesuit days in French Canada and the untamed North American wilderness.

Non-smokers, the modern Jesuits placed no ash trays in the room, but most noticeably lacking, NO newspapers: once there were ten dailies arrayed on the mahogany table now the wide table was completely devoid of reading matter.

Frank now returned me to his office where he expressed a keen interest in what had gone on before.

In response, I reached in my coat and extracted a letter postmarked November 7, 1991, Sun City, Arizona.

In preparation for today’s mission, I had sought the help of an old fraternity friend, now retired from Dow Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal. Ted Callis, Depauw ’30, joined the Journal’s sales staff five years before I was to be hired as a cub reporter on the business and financial daily of prestigious but modest circulation (33,000). Did Ted recall the “good old days”, I’d inquired. Indeed he had.

Dear Bill:

.... About the Phi Gam Club. Yes, it served me well as it did a lot of other young college grads landing in the big city. Starting at the Journal in September of ’30, I lived for several months with my brother. In the summer of ’31 Buren McCormack appeared at the Journal and living at a “Y” in Montclair. The two of us decided to share a room at the Club starting in August or September of ’31. We each paid $40 a month - our room was the size of a horse stall - contained a double-decker bed, a chest of drawers and one small easy chair. The lounge and library at the club was very impressive - the dining room was not and too expensive. We did spend a lot of time in a rec room in the basement. No liquor, of course, was served in the club. We got around this by buying bootleg alcohol - $5 for a gallon of “sugar water” delivered to the office. This was rapidly converted into two gallons of gin by using the wash bowl and some juniper berries. This was employed to spike near beer and provided a lot of drinking while we played ping-pong. Our main recreation was going for long walks at night in Central Park - imagine! Our main eatery was Child’s Restaurant where, for awhile only, they offered a special “all you can eat for $.60. This was discontinued shortly after Perry Tewalt went through two complete dinners. The Club was mainly “home” to a lot of young guys like ourselves, shortly out of college and trying to get a start in the big city. Most of us worked on Saturday mornings which happened to be the time when companies let guys like ourselves go. This happened to a lot of fellows we got to know at the Club. Most of them packed their bags and went back home, wherever that was. In July ’32 I moved out to get married and not too long after that Mac did too. Since Joanna arranged their honeymoon in Milford she should know more details about that. Enough of the “olden days” and back to the present. Oh, I went to the club because Barney had stayed there in the fall of ’29. Whether Charlie ever did I don’t know.

Regards,

Ted”

On handing back the letter, Frank smiled his easy smile, commenting, “Most interesting. Who were these guys?”

Most interesting were members of Phi Gamma Delta, I explained. Buren McCormack was a ’30 classmate of Ted’s at the Lambda chapter; Ted’s brother later became a top executive at the Hilton Hotel chain; Perry Tewalt, the first graduate of the Columbia school of Journalism to be hired by the Journal, was a fellow Hoosier, like the rest; “Barney” was Bernard Kilgore of South Bend, In, a columnist for the paper; “Charlie” was Charles E. Robbins, assistant managing editor and later a bureau chief in the mid-West. Yes, he did live at the Club, but not until years later, when he served as chairman of the Club’s board of trustees. Joanna, also a Columbia School of Journalism graduate, later became an Associated Press feature writer and still later my wife.

Editor’s Note: See the magazine’s Spring, 1989 article, “BARNEY KILGORE AND THE WALL STREET JOURNAL” by Mark D. Johnson, DePauw, ’89, for an account of the Journal’s astounding success, led by Kilgore, McCormack and Callis.

Off we went to an upstairs room, the hideaway office of the managing editor for writing “think” pieces. He showed me a nearby room, bare and unused.

“These quarters are like the ones you had occupied on the fifth floor. I can’t take you up it’s now office space. But like your old room this looks out on the back alley. Your letter mentions that fact.”

“How big?” I asked.

We each stood at a wall, stretched arms, touched hands, and measuring against our respective heights, agreed: “Twelve feet by twelve”. Not spacious, but adequate for a young bachelor.

The radio during the olden days had filled the airways with Cole Porter’s tunes, and one of the most haunting, “Night and Day”, had alerted late sleepers to the “roaring traffic’s boom, in the silence of my lonely room”. Prophetic news for a newcomer.

Back in his office off the lounge, Frank told his secretary to shut off calls while he recalled his days as a native-born New Yorkers.

“I grew up in Brooklyn. That borough now is vastly incredibly changed. And this part of town is changing too. Except for a health and racquet club next door, not a single building in this block between Sixth and Seventh Avenues was here when the Jesuits took over from the hotel a dozen or so years ago.

“What were your impressions of this site and its neighborhood? Much different? Tell me about it,” he suggested.

“I’ll try.”

 

THE ARRIVAL

March 31, 1935

Tipping a dime, I dismissed the Yellow Cab at the corner, lugged a bulging suitcase to the door of 106 W. 56th and walked with less-than-a-confident stride to the reservation desk.

Chris, the night clerk, wasted few words on what he must have perceived a a hick-from-the-sticks.

“We got your letter, you have a room and here’s your key. Room 501 is off the elevator to the right.”

Chris called out while I was awaiting the elevator, “No women allowed upstairs, understand?”

“No problem. I don’t know any.”

The size of my room was in keeping with its bargain price, $35 a month. But it was neat, clean, and with a shower and lavatory. The bed looked inviting. After a train ride across five states, a taxi trip from Penn Station (85 cents) and no dinner, I was ready to sleep.

It was short-lived. The first cultural shock of New York occurred before dawn: noise, unGodly noise. Outside my window!

 

THE WAY IT WAS

Rattle, bang and resounding smash of metal against tough metal sounded in the alley below. Squinting in the semi-darkness, I saw a massive garbage truck in the brick alley with three workmen emptying over-loaded trash containers. The deep-throated roar of the truck’s engine seemed less unnerving than these raised raucous voices - guttural, coarse and high decibel in volume.

A large grey cat, or was it a rat, slithering along the bricks, provoking more swearing.

It was just the beginning. Ninety minutes later the blaring of horns rose to racket levels, as uptown-bound motorists jousted with the downtown-destined flow. Drivers from Long Island laid on their hors and maneuvered, impatiently, trying to capture a few feet of space from unrelenting motorists struggling to turn left, right or to proceed straight.

The curse of the auto horn, which the new mayor, feisty Fiorello LaGuardia, vehemently was trying, with scant success, to discourage, made the newcomer aware that New York was different indeed. Paul Dreiser’s song, “Back Home Again in Indiana” now better suited the visitor’s mood than Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”.

Fighting off a spell of angst, I sought the comfort of the club dining room and waited until a white-coated waiter discovered me. The modest-sized room was virtually deserted at 9 a.m. Accustomed to grabbing a quick snack from a White Castle shack, the quiet elegance of the Fiji facility promised an adventure. Mike, my waiter, deposited a fancy blue goblet at my place, snapped up the unused Gorham silverware across from me, took my order, and, with panache, fetched it from the kitchen on a silver tray. Wow!

The next cultural shock occurred when he gave me a check for coffee, toast, one egg: $1.35. Sensing my discomfort, Mike quickly assured me I could sign the chit and pay later. I left a 15 cent tip, but was waved off by Mike who icily reported that the gratuities are added to the bill.

With what I hope was a touch of Hemingway’s “grace under pressure”, I went to the front desk, inquiring about a morning newspaper; told that all papers were available in the library - free! - I sprinted up the carpeted stairways to the second floor.

There was an embarrassment of reading riches competed for my attention: the 48-page New York Times, the 32-page N.Y. Herald Tribune, the compact Daily Mirror, the tabloid N.Y. Daily News, the garish Hearst’s American. Down the table were laid out an array of afternoon newspapers remaining from Saturday: the N.Y. Sun, World-Telegram, Post, Hearst’s Journal, and the Brooklyn Eagle. But I searched in vain for the Wall Street Journal. Was it not important enough to be included? My anguish intensified.

“Get rid of your fidgits,” I told myself, “get some fresh air.”

I headed up the street toward Central Park and soon found the megadecibel madness of Sixth Avenue distracting, not relaxing.

Nerves under control from a brisk walk, I headed west to Columbus Circle, found the IRT-West Side subway, deposited a nickel fare, and rattled noisily off to Wall Street. I now recalled uneasily that my economics professor had warned all of us to stay away from Wall Street as “it rises out of the East River and ends in a graveyard.” I proceeded warily to 44 Broad, which housed the Wall Street Journal.

First Diary Entry

Barney (Kilgore) took me in hand, instructed me in headline writing (I’m to start on the copy desk).

Casey (K.C. Hogate) called, asked Barney to bring me to the Publisher’s 8th floor office. Mr. Hogate was not taking me to lunch (not expected). He told me to ask Bill Grimes (the managing editor) what my starting salary would be. It was later set at $35 a week after Grimes consulted with McCormack to verify what I’d be paying at the Club.

Mr. Grimes turned me over to the head of the copy desk, wished me luck, and said that I could go home around 10:45 p.m. as I’d already had a long day.

But good one.

-- April 1, 1991

Pushing a pillow over my head, I slept long after the next morning garbage pick-up. Wen I returned to the dining room, Mike asked if I’d like to sit with someone and turned me over to a well-informed source of information, a divorced fellow and a long-time Club member.

Learning that I had come from DePauw (he was a Phi gam from Purdue), he momentarily took me under his wing and proceeded to cite several of the advantages of the site of the graduate chapter’s building. On the next street over, he explained, is the world-famous Carnegie Hall. In the same block on 57th is the Russian Tea Room (“expensive”) he warned. “Stay away from the Club Richmond on Sixth Avenue. It’s a front for Prohibition day bootleggers, Dutch Schultz and his mob.”

Footnote: The night club’s singer, Harry Richmond, had acquired a modest measure of fame in the early talkies, belting out “Putting on the Ritz”.

I interrupted to ask why the lobby-floor bar was said to be for males only. Not really, my adviser whispered. “It’s a dirty little secret that there are exceptions.” Tex, our noon-til-six p.m. bartender, met a scion of the John Jacob Astor family at the races. He’s dating a cutie from the Earl Carroll Vanities, and wanted a quiet place for his trysts. So he brings his dame in here about twice a week, and so far Walter Winchell hasn’t spotted him, and Mrs. Astor hasn’t caught on. Tex puts them in the back of the room, and they come in at a time when the rest of us away trying to earn an honest buck for beer. Astor always orders champagne for the broad,” he reported.

Diary. Surprise! Pete, another Depauw Fiji, ’30, lives here. He’d lunched with Mac (McCormack) who told Pete to keep an eye on me. He’s working usually late into the evening, at a big downtown law firm. When he gets some free time, he’ll show me around, he said.

-- late April

In a subsequent encounter around midnight after both of us had returned to the Club, Pete suggested we repair to the bar off the lobby for a Bud on tap. From the moment we entered, when bar stool occupants greeted him, it was apparent that my companion was a man of some distinction. He’d made a solid impression on his friends, and I soon learned why.

During FDR’s fearsome Bank Holiday, a comely Kappa, a 1932 Depauw graduate, had come tearfully to Pete’s office. She said she was nearly broke and couldn’t cash the government check in her purse. Pete promptly took her into the office of the head cashier of Cravath deGersdorff, Swain & Wood, pointed out that the check was guaranteed by “the good faith and credit of the U.S. Government”, and the cashier handed over $147.65

She wiped her tears, powered her nose, thanked all concerned and taxied back to her Madison Avenue job, parting with a small portion of the $2 bill that Pete had pressed into her hand.

Returning to his over-loaded desk, Pete noted on his memo pad, “Keep in touch”.

Months later, after a nasty fall on the ice at the Rockefeller center ice skating rink, Pete fractured his right leg, I was later told. Ordered to bed, Pete hunkered down in room 715, scanning some legal briefs on which his comments were overdue, and fretted over his enforced inactivity.

Around 5 30 p.m. on his second day of confinement, the telephone rang. Pete’s initial apprehension was allayed on hearing Chris’ voice from downstairs.

“There’s a lady here, sir. She wants to leave flowers and books for you.”

“Send her right up,” was the patient’s enthusiastic response.

“No way. You know the rules, sir. No ladies upstairs.”

From deep in his voice box emerged an intimidating growl, and Pete barked forth his stern ultimatum.

“Now listen, Chris. I’m grabbing my crutch and I’m telling you to bring that girl up, immediately. If you’re not here in three minutes, I’ll be downcoming and you’ll be outgoing.”

While still slipping into his purple bathrobe, the imperious occupant of room 715 heard the elevator shut, and a demure Kappa beauty entered the room. “Hi, Liz, nice of you to come. Sit down,” Pete beamed.

The room clerk retreated to his command post, summoned a white-coated waiter, told him to get his silver tray and take tea to Pete’s room “Make sure they keep the door open,” he advised, “and get back to the floor periodically to make sure they do.”

Without further incidents Betty’s visits continued daily, usually after 5:30 p.m., and at noon on Saturdays and Sundays. But sadly before Pete was firmly back on his feet, Betty’s previous employer - the Agricultural Assistance Administration, the source of her 1933 paycheck - offered her a job in Washington. It was $20 a week higher than she was getting at her current job and some pension and other benefits were also assured. She needed the money, she said, and accepted the offer.

But, happily, it was not bye-bye Betty.

Not long afterwards, several engraved invitations arrived for Pete’s close friends at the Club, and to Chris’ surprise, one was for him:

Mr. and Mrs. ________ (name withheld)
are pleased to announce
the marriage of their daughter
Elizabeth Anne
to
Mr. ___________ (deleted) of New York City

They will make their home after January 1 in Washington D.C.

 

A GREAT PLACE TO LIVE

To a bug-eyed newcomer, New York City offered the greatest show on earth, and most of it free. In the mid 1930s, Manhattan was actually a bunch of small towns held together by the nucleus of mid-town. Located at this vortex were the large shopping and other service jobs. People lucky enough to have employment rattled to work on the subway (which cost a nickel) and used during coffee breaks the telephone (at a nickel a call) to inquire about better jobs. Some even walked home to save the five cents. It wasn’t the worst of times (the bottom had been reached in 1932-33) but it was far from the best.

Working nights, I had time to explore the disparate “towns” that made up the various clusters of communities: Greenwich village, Gramercy Park, Tudor City, Hell’s Kitchen, Yorktown, Gracey Square, upper Riverside Drive, Columbia University, the Bronx, Harlem and other localities.

Yet the neighborhood where the Phi Gamma Club was located had priority, and the important magnet for my morning constitutional was Central Park. Plunked down in the midst of the asphalt jungle, this verdant oasis extended from 60th to 110th Streets and offered hills, trees, lagoons, bicycle trails and a large reservoir among its many delights.

From college sociology courses, I’d retained a smattering of information about the Park’s origin: the architect, Frederick Law Olmstead, prodded and encouraged by William Cullen Bryant, the editor and poet, in the mid-1850s lobbied Tammany Hall to preserve the rapidly diminishing green spaces in the burgeoning city. Regular contact with nature was absolutely necessary, the visionaries argued, if the human species was to survive its evolutionary phase. Living in the modern city, Olmstead jawed at the city fathers, brought on “exhaustion, nervous irritation and constitutional depression.” Man’s regular contact with nature must be sustained even in our densely-packed urban environment, insisted the persuasive architect, and we must preserve a sizable stretch of acreage in mid-town, sparing it from the developer’s axe and shovel.

Thanks to an architect and an editor-poet, a magnificent stretch of greenery was handy, five minutes away from my newly-claimed urban habitat. A brisk morning stroll provided the spiritual insulin that revived lagging spirits and suppressed yearnings for the open fields and farms of Indiana.

 

BABYLON ON THE SUBWAY

What a wonderful town! And what an exciting neighborhood: Up one block at the corner of Fifth Avenue and W. 56th was an internationally renowned jewelry store, Harry Winston’s offering “Rare Gems of the World”. To the north, Tiffany’s windows on both the Fifth Avenue and the E. 57th Street sides stopped passerbys with their dazzling displays of watches, necklaces, pendants, tasteful table settings and other expensive items for the discriminating and well-heeled shopper. Another sumptuous salon, Cartiers, at 52nd, displayed pearls of deposed Central European royalty, trinkets from Indian rajahs down on their luck, exquisite carvings from the Orient and gorgeous diamonds from the mines of South Africa. Within a few blocks of Fifth Avenue, the sight-seer discovered treasures in quality and quantities not available elsewhere in the western hemisphere, and it was all free, for the looking, at least.

 

God and Man in Manhattan

Mammon clearly was in the ascendancy here. However, God obviously had established a beachhead. On Sunday mornings nearby churches were packed with tourists and residents of nearby brownstones and high-rise apartments up and down Park avenue. Within a three-minute walk, the faithful Fijis found themselves in front of St. Thomas Episcopal at 53rd; across the street and two blocks further down the massive bronze doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral were open to all comers, rich and poor alike; at Park Avenue and 50th, ushers in dark grey morning coats welcomes the faithful and the timid tourists into St. Bartholomew’s, an elegant Episcopal church across from the even more elegant Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

Late sleepers at the Club, I soon learned, could make mass at high noon at the Catholic cathedral, and the musically-inclined could slip into St. Bart’s in the late afternoon for organ recitals and prayer, and the collection plate was never passed around.

 

TIME TO LEAVE

Diary: Scuttlebutt sweeping the office Barney is leaving! Hearst has offered him $25,000 a year to write his column for his afternoon paper (also called the “Journal”). Casey is arguing against the move, but the speculation is that money talks. - July

Diary: Good news: Barney has rejected the offer of the press lord of San Simeon, William Randolph Hearst. Casey and Grimes have offered Kilgore the Washington office. He’ll become Bureau Chief. Barney is said to have jumped at the chance to find out what Roosevelt’s New Deal is up to and to get to explain it to our readers. -- July two days later

Perry Tewalt phoned me breathlessly that evening. Would I like to share Barney’s one-room apartment with him after BK clears out his stuff? The site, Brooklyn Heights, was merely one stop from Wall Street on the IRT. Rent is $50 a month, and could be split between us. It has a swell view of the lower Manhattan skyline; Brooklyn Bridge can be seen from one penthouse window, the Statue of Liberty from another. “Hey our dates will love the view,” Perry enthused.

“I don’t know any,” I sighed, “but count me in.”

Over the weekend I packed my suitcase, turned in my key, said so-long to Chris, and got on the subway, which jolted, rattled and roared as it headed for the St. George Hotel stop in Brooklyn where I exited.

Another move. Would I ever return to my first home-away-from-home on 56th Street? It seemed doubtful. I recalled again what Thomas Wolfe had said in his 1,000 word tome (and I suddenly remembered Wolfe had written his novel in Brooklyn!)

I had few regrets and many fond memories from my recent months as a hick-from-the-sticks trying to make it in New York. My stay in mid-town had opened up exciting new vistas, instilled lasting impressions of a city in change, foreshadowed triumphs and deep frustrations, enabled me to overcome lingering loneliness, and launched me on a series of adventures of the mind, heart, and spirit.

After I moved into our five-flight walk-up, I consulted my bedside reading companion, a slender volume retained from college days. It summed up the Fiji graduate Club quite well, I thought:

It was a place in accordance with man’s nature - neither ghastly, hateful nor ugly; neither commonplace, unmeaning nor tame; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious ...

-- The Return of the Native
by Thomas Hardy, 1877-78

 

BILL MCGAUGHEY'S NOTE

Fresh out of college, my father went to New York City to seek his fortune. He soon found employment as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, then a small trade publication. A cadre of graduates from Depauw University in Indiana (including my father) worked for the paper and led it to the prominence that it enjoys today. Bernard (“Barney”) Kilgore was the acknowledged leader of the group; he is the one mainly credited with building the paper into a mass-circulation publication.

My father stayed at the Wall Street Journal for several years before taking a job in public relations at Western Electric. In late 1939, he married my mother (Joanna Durham). The young couple then moved to Detroit where my father became head of public relations for the Automobile Manufacturers Association and later a vice president of Nash-Kelvinator which became American Motors Corporation. My mother became a housewife who raised four children. The Wall Street Journal executives Kilgore and Callis both had summer cottages on Twin Lakes in northeastern Pennsylvania not far from my aunt’s place.

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