Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
New Yorkers, as we know, love to document their peer group—even colonial New Yorkers did it, as Curator Bruce Weber recently described in a post on the City Musuem’s exhibition Picturing Prestige: New York Portraits, 1700–1860. The members of New York City’s historic Lotos Club followed suit.
The Lotos Club—so named for Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Lotos-Eaters”—was founded in 1870 by a group of young writers, journalists, and critics. According to the club’s constitution, it sought to promote and develop “literature, art, sculpture, music, architecture, journalism, drama, science, education and the learned professions,” to encourage the professionals who work in these fields, and “provide a place of assembly for them and other persons interested in and sympathetic to them, their objectives, effort, and work.”
The club remains in existence today, at 5 E. 66th Street, and forms part of New York City’s long history of private clubs, many of which are documented in our collection through photographs, invitations, and programs from events. Over the past year and a half, we’ve been processing and digitizing our ephemera collections, thanks to a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and have been working with a number of items related to New York City’s clubs, societies, and associations. As we made our way through the collection, we examined more than 60 programs for dinners held at the Lotos Club honoring a variety notable individuals. These programs stand out in the collection in comparison to materials from comparable clubs and associations both in size and design. They are remarkably large – the majority measure a foot wide, by nearly a foot and a half high – and elaborately illustrated.
The Club featured a roster of recognizable names, including author Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain); art collector and philanthropist Solomon R. Guggenheim; 34th United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower; writer, director, and actor Orson Welles; newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst; and steel magnate Charles M. Schwab. Though membership was originally limited to men, the club began admitting women in 1977, welcoming opera singer Marilyn Horne, writer Mary Higgins Clark, and actress Angela Lansbury, among others. The program from the 50th anniversary dinner held March 13, 1920, pictured below, features images and signatures by some of the earlier club members.
The program also depicts the first four clubhouses: 2 Irving Place, (1870-1878), 147 Fifth Avenue (1878-1892), 556-8 Fifth Avenue (1892-1909), and 110 57th Street (1909-1947), which is also pictured above and the the right. The club moved to its present, more modest home on 66th Street in 1947. The lavish affairs that accompanied these programs and menus were referred to as State Dinners, and often honored scholars, artists, collectors, writers, and political figures. Many of the more elaborate programs were illustrated by Thomas Sindelar, also a Lotos Club member.
This program below honors Commander Robert E. Peary, arctic explorer, shortly following his return from a 1905-1906 expedition to establish the record for having ventured the farthest north. The majority of the 60 Lotos Club programs donated to the Museum came from the estate of Joseph Morris Alexander in 1985. Only basic information is available on Alexander: he was born in the Bronx in 1902, died in Florida in 1983, leased properties on East Broadway, and had on office on the Bowery. I spoke with Nancy Johnson, Archivist at the Lotos Club, who confirmed there were a number of club members with the last name of Alexander in the earlier years, and Joseph was likely a descendant.
Some of the events were held to honor Lotos Club members themselves, such as this program for an evening in celebration of Andrew Carnegie. The dinner was held March 17, 1909, and you will see an image of the new West 57th Street clubhouse inside, for which Carnegie served as the financial backer. In addition to highlighting his commitment to the Lotos Club, this program is particularly rich in personal details. Carnegie’s Scottish heritage is called out with the placement of a piece of tartan plaid fabric behind his portrait, and images of a bagpiper, golfers, and Carnegie’s Scottish estate Skibo Castle (ironically, Skibo is now operated as the Carnegie Club, a members-only hotel and country club). The program also acknowledges his role as a steel industrialist, with the placement of the steel mill. Nancy was also able to shed some light on the significance of the reptilian creature featured in the menu that I had always fondly referred to as the Loch Ness Monster. Nancy said this was in fact a representation of Diplodocus carnegii – nicknamed “Dippy” – a dinosaur skeleton Carnegie acquired for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.
This particular program was donated by Mrs. Arthur Hays Sulzberger, whose husband was publisher of the New York Times from 1935-1961, and a Lotos Club member. However, Nancy confirmed Mrs. Sulzberger’s father, Adolph Ochs (who ran the Times before her husband), was also a club member and the likely source of the Carnegie dinner program; he was honored at a State Dinner in 1921 himself.
The Museum is grateful to the National Endowment for the Humanities, whose support has allowed us to share approximately half of the Lotos Club programs online, along with several thousand other images from our ephemera collections. The remainder will be available by early 2017.
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.