VIP: Exclusive membership clubs

2012-10-02 08:41

The phrase "gentlemen's club" has gained something of a dubious reputation over the past few decades, as images of dark, smoky lounges with velvety couches and semi-clad girls inevitably pop to mind. But, as with words like "weed," and "ecstasy" there was a time when the term was somewhat less loaded and more innocent, though in retrospect, only marginally so.

Believe it or not, back in the eighteenth century, gentlemen's clubs were merely a place for British men of the upper class to gather over stiff drinks (or coffee - actually anything that wasn't tea, I suppose) and engage in some intellectual conversation, civil debate as well as a tiny bit of illicit gambling (ooooh!) just to add that thrilling edge. No pole dancing, no Eastern bloc blondes, no topless waitresses, and incidentally, also no members whose blood wasn't at least a little blue.

Mostly located in London's West-End, these clubs were infamous for their strictly enforced, aristocratic-tinged membership rules, and often became the sole pursuit of the plebian wealthy's ambitions.

Although gentleman's clubs - in the old-fashioned sense of the word - are hardly as popular today as they were in their hey day, the tradition lives on... especially in countries that bore the yoke of British rule/influence for a substantial time.

However, these days they are known as "private membership clubs" and most are open to both men and women. One thing that hasn't changed, however, is the exclusive aspect, as these clubs are still frequented by those who are influential enough to crack the nod, and rich enough to pay the fees.

We take a look at six of the most exclusive and intriguing membership clubs in the US and UK.

Soho House

Barrington House in Somerset England is one of the Soho clubs country estates. Photo:

Soho House was founded in London, in 1995, as a private members' club for those in film, media and creative industries and has since grown to incorporate various properties across the UK, Europe and the US. Each of these properties aim to create a home away from home feel with clubs, bedrooms, restaurants and spas.

The club is popular among celebrities and VIPs of all sorts and its famous exclusivity has even been the focus of a Sex and the City episode, where Samantha Jones tries every means to join the sought after guest list.

Membership requirements: Each applicant must be nominated by two existing members who can belong to any of the Houses.


The ever popular Groucho club. Photo:

Widely considered to be an antidote to the more traditional, stiff upper lip membership clubs, Groucho was established in Soho, London in 1985 and has become a haven and a heartbeat to the more fun-loving type of elite. In fact, if you do a quick Google image search for Groucho Club, the images that come up reveal celebs as varied as Kate Moss, Courtney Love and Miley Cirus in different stages of jolliness and drunkenness. As with Soho House, Groucho's members are mostly drawn from the media, entertainment, arts and fashion industry.

The inspiration behind the club's philosophy and name was this famous quip by American comedian, Groucho Marx: "I don't care to belong to any club that will have me for a member," and it is well known for the rollicking good times had by its VIP members. The club spans several floors, houses three bars, 20 bedrooms, a billiards room and four function rooms.

Membership requirements: Anyone can apply for membership assuming they have a proposer and seconder who are current Groucho Club members. Preference is given to those who work in the arts and media industry.

Century Association

The 43rd Street club house. Photo: wikipedia

Unlike Soho and some of its more glitzy counterparts, this distinguished New York arts and letters club - established in 1847 - has always preferred keeping something of a low profile, as its membership was originally limited to only 100 men. And when I say men, I mean men. Yup, for 142 years, the club did not have a single female member, and liked it that way... up until 1989 when a strenuous legal battle compelled the club to allow the fairer sex to join.

The Century is located on New York's 43rd Street in a Italian Renaissance style palazzo, which also happens to be on the Big Apple's list of landmarks. Although the membership numbers have way exceeded 100, the club still keeps things rather close with about 2400 current members. In the mean time the club's profile has also changed to include businessmen, merchants, lawyers and doctors. Sticking with its original understated stateliness, the Century's website gives very little away, but does state quite empathically: "Its main activity is conversation."

Membership: Membership is by invitation only and costs round about $1 900 per year.

One Alfred Place

Light and bright - the One Alfred Place interior. Photo:

Established in 2008 by a group if like-minded individuals from the music and publishing industry, One Alfred Place is a new kid on the London club scene block. The club is housed in a magnificent 10 000 square foot space in London's Fitzrovia neighbourhood and aims to merge business and leisure with their multitude of lush features including loads of natural light, original contemporary art, bespoke furnhishings four boardrooms, a restaurant complete with a top chef and a very well stocked bar. Oh, and of course there's super speedy wi-fi and everything else you may need to keep connected and counting the pounds.

Membership: In order to apply for membership, you have to be suggested by one of the members. If your application is accepted, expect to pay about 1470 pounds a year.

The Bohemian Club

The moss-covered Owl Shine at the Bohemian Grove retreat. Members of the club are said to hold their 'cremation of care' ceremony here. Photo:

This men's only club was founded in 1872 by a group of newspaper journalists who referred to themselves as Bohemians. From here it grew to include influential men professionally involved in literature, art, music and drama as well as business, politics and entrepreneurship... however, the doors still remain closed to women.

The Bohemian Club also likes to keep things low-key, but in a somewhat different manner to the Century, as they try to keep their traditions, activities and guest lists as secret as possible. Despite this, their annual two-week social retreat to the 7 200 acre Bohemian Grove in Northern California is a widely known fact, and one that raises many eyebrows and suspicions. Did I hear anyone say, Illum... oh never mind.

Membership: Membership is by invitation only and the club limits itself to about 2700 members at any given time. This means that often wealthy and influential men who are invited to the ranks have to wait up to 15 years for a spot to actually open up on the list and allow them entry.

Belizean Grove

The feminine answer to the Bohemian Club, the Belizean Grove is an elite, invitation-only, American women's social club located in New York. It was founded in 1999 and includes about 125 members from the military, financial and diplomatic sectors. Like their Bohemian, male counterparts, these ladies meet annually for a big get together in Belize or a similar Central American location and spend the rest of the year meeting at their base camp in New York.

Membership: Membership is by invite only and the current list includes influential women from five continents.

South African equivalents

The Owl club, Cape Town

The Rand Club, Joburg

The Durban Club


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