White’s: No Girls Allowed!
If you have read a Regency Romance, you have undoubtedly encountered White’s, the gentleman’s club on St. James’s Street in London. It’s where all our heroes and their friends went to discuss horses and women, make outrageous bets, and generally avoid the company of the fairer sex.
Perhaps it was naïve of me, but I was fascinated to learn that White’s is real, and not only that, but it is still in existence to this day. Naturally, when my mum, our friend Ann, and I were in London we took a stroll by. We considered walking in, pretending to be stupid Americans, just to see how far we could get into this exclusive male haven. Alas, none of us possessed enough courage.
White’s is unmarked (or course). We had suspected one particular building, and received confirmation from some bloke standing outside the neighboring building. Lud, did he have some juicy (unconfirmed) gossip, such as:
- Membership costs 85,000 a year (I forgot if that was in pounds or dollars, but either way, it is a ridiculous sum).
- A coke costs twenty dollars.
- When an heir was born years and years ago, a footman was sent to put his name on waitlist at White’s before registering its birth.
- Ian Fleming wrote the James Bond novels there…any coincidence that White’s is at the corner of St. James and Bond streets? Unlikely.
- Prince Charles is a member. In fact, it’s where he had his bachelor party before he married Diana. I wonder if Prince William belongs?
That last fact I learned from the excellent book White’s: The First Three Hundred Years. I discovered it in the window of a used bookshop in Oxford. I was just strolling aimlessly through the town, when the title caught my eye. I went in the store, confirmed that it was about the club, and purchased it for ten pounds (twenty dollars). I lugged this hardcover all the way back to the states—and was so glad I did not just because it was a good book, but because I discovered for sale (used) at Amazon for 150 bucks!
The author, Anthony Lejeune, earned my eternal respect on page 2 when, lamenting the lack of domestic details in most sources, he wrote, “Let no-one despise the Regency Romance.” He notes that fiction often makes use of such details, like how the chandeliers were lit, in order to achieve a sense of realism, whereas people generally don’t write about such mundane details in their diaries or in letters to their friends.
Anyway…this book was full of fascinating little stories about the members. It was as much a history of Whites, as club cultural in general, and how history and a drink at the club intertwined for three hundred years. Lejeune writes in the introduction:
A club in a miniature kingdom (or, more accurately, a miniature republic, in which all members are theoretically equal, although, in practice, some tend to be slightly more equal than others.), and tracing its history is not unlike telling the story of a nation. The institution is a continuous rope woven from the transient lives of individuals.
White’s was started by an, Italian Franceso Bianco (otherwise known as Frances White), due in part to the rising availability and popularity of beverages like hot chocolate, coffee and tea. Finally, one had a drink option other than beer. But it wasn’t just about the drinks. Much like Starbucks today, it was about being a communal meeting place, where aristocrats, tradesmen and commoners could pay a fee to read all the papers, discuss all the news and gossip (and talk of horses and women) and have a hot drink. After the founder’s death, his wife ran the place for fifteen years. The club would have many owners and managers over the years. In 1926, the owner was forced to sell the building (and the club), and the members raised the money for it: “White’s finally owned itself.”
I’m excited to say that I actually know someone who has been inside White’s, thanks to his friend, who is a member. Unfortunately, neither gentleman is amenable to escorting me, disguised as a boy, into the club. Oh yes, I did ask.
In another attempt, I kindly requested a tour of White’s for research purposes, and they kindly declined to give me one. My back up plan was to pretend to be a Stupid American, wander in, and ask if they had a ladies room I could use. Wouldn’t have gotten far, but I might have gotten in. Oh well.
To live out my dreams, Julianna, the heroine of A Tale Of Two Lovers sneaks into White’s. She’s that kind of gal.