By RICH BARBER
Adapted from remarks made at Founder’s Night 2007:
Tonight is, as it has been for the past 118 years, one of remembrance and rededication. Albert Einstein once said, “There are two ways to live your life: one is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle.” I belong to the latter group. And tonight we celebrate the miracle bequeathed to us by our founder, Edwin Booth. That we are here tonight in this wonderful place is in itself miraculous. A little of our history is always worth remembering.
When did the idea of creating this club occur to Booth? Some believe it was shortly after his brother’s heinous crime, when all actors became shunned just after enjoying an elevation during the celebrations surrounding the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Booth had bought a house at 14 West 24th Street in 1869, which he wrote a friend was to become his club, but he gave it to his daughter and her husband when Edwina fell ill. Some attribute the idea to a fortuitous engagement in London, when Booth first visited the Garrick Club. Still others think the notion came into focus after the death of his second wife, Mary McVicker, who had slipped into psychotic periods after the loss of their infant son Edgar. Add to these tragedies the early passing of his beloved first wife Mary Devlin, an assassination attempt on him, a bankruptcy, and a fire that destroyed his Booth Theatre, including many of his papers and a large library, and one wonders how Edwin Booth could possibly remain steadfast to his dream.
But dream he did, and during the summer of 1886, just before his penultimate transcontinental tour and after the sale of his house in Boston, Booth discussed the venture with his friends William Bispham and Albert Palmer. Bispham was charged with finding a suitable house. During the tour Booth called his troupe from their attached Pullman into his “hotel car," named "The Garrick," and spoke openly about what he intended for his club. “We do not mingle enough with the minds that influence the world," he told them. "We should measure ourselves through personal contact with outsiders. I do not want my club to be the gathering place of freaks who come to look upon another sort of freak. I want my club to be a place where actors are away from the glamour of the theatre.”
Sadly, a place had not turned up by the following summer as Booth was planning his final tour. “The Commodore,” Booth’s friend and financial advisor Elias C. Benedict, asked Edwin to bring along a few friends on a late summer cruise to Newfoundland on his motor yacht, the Oneida. Becalmed in the eponymous Boothbay Harbor, our founder gathered these friends on deck to discuss his plans. They included Lawrence Barrett, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Laurence Hutton, William Bispham, and Parke Godwin. Aldrich suggested the name be "The Players," derived from the famous speech in As You Like It.
Back in New York in September, Booth met with Augustin Daly, a theater manager and playwright, and Albert M. Palmer, manager of the Union Square Theater, as well as his friend Barrett, and agreed to finance the cost of housing The Players. During a brief Christmas holiday return to the city, this group agreed to merge the Actors’ Fund Library with Booth’s as a centerpiece of the club. Then, on Friday, January 6, 1888, Daly brought together in the Red Room at Delmonico’s a group of fifteen of Booth’s friends – actors, managers, writers and artists – for the purpose of incorporating The Players. Among them were Mark Twain and General William Tecumseh Sherman, who four years earlier had turned down a draft by the Republican Party for President with the famous telegram, “I will not accept if nominated, and will not serve if elected.” He did, however, accept membership in Booth’s club. (Had he run, it would have been against fellow Player Grover Cleveland.)
Thus began a feverish year in which Bispham identified the Potter house at 16 Gramercy Park, negotiated a deal, and arranged the transfer of deed. Meanwhile, Booth began acquiring additional art and rare books. Thirty-five-year-old Stanford White, already a charter member of the group, came on board to design and begin renovations, all done freely as his gift to the club. White was passionate about the theatre; as Commodore Benedict put it, “He was a first nighter, an every nighter – and an all nighter.” Incredibly, the club stood ready, pretty much as you now see it, on New Year’s Eve 1888.
The following day, January 1, 1889, Booth wrote his first letter on club stationery to his daughter Edwina. “Last night’s delightful success, the culmination of my professional hopes … the success of everything – except my speech. I broke down toward the last, but it passed off with éclat … White, the architect, went into ecstasies and exclaimed ‘even the log [a yule sent by Edwina] burned without smoking.’ We had feared for the new chimney … The pages are full of it, but I’ve not yet had a chance to read them … Barrett and I got to bed about 5 A.M. … Since I rose at one, I’ve been busy packing my things to bring over here…. Several of the best men in New York are here, and it will no doubt be a rendezvous of the choicest. Some are in the library, reading…. It really seems as if we had been going for years instead of one day.” Booth had created a home for the rest of his life.
Judge Daly provided our original Constitution. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary defines a club as “an assembly of good fellows, meeting under certain conditions,” and it has often been noted that our conduct of etiquette is modeled on the legal code of the realm of King Pausole: 1, Harm no man; 2, Then do as you please. One could add civility and humor and pretty much have it summarized, except possibly that pretensions should be happily deflated.
So, when the last smoker has gazed lovingly at the Park before coming in to have dinner, the last songsters moved on from the piano, the last pool players have sidled to the bar for a final round, the ghost of Booth will still stand musing on the stair. I hope his Merry Band of Jealous Fellow Ghosts are happy and proud at the wondrous thing he wrought, and that we accept the obligations that go with the miraculous gift he entrusted to us.
Rich Barber is a literary agent, writer, and President of A. Richard Barber & Associates, a marketing consultant to publishers. A Player for 53 years, he was a board member as well as First Vice President to Johnnie Planco. He has co-authored two books, on Revolutionary history and on humor.