Cultural Caviar

The Myth of the Golf Nazi

November 19, 2014

Multiple Pages
The Myth of the Golf Nazi

For most of history, being a hereditary aristocrat was a good job. The only catch was the old concept of noblesse oblige, which suggested that people of wealth, power, and influence were honor bound to defend the general public.

Today, however, it’s more prestigious to be a victim of the majority. That seems to release you from any nagging worries about aristocratic responsibility.

Being an actual victim, though, is still no fun. So the best thing is to be recognized as a member of a hereditary victimocracy. The president, for example, is a victim-by-blood, as illustrated by New Yorker editor David Remnick’s bestselling 2010 biography, The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama. Remnick pleased his intended audience by interspersing thrilling chapters about heroic civil rights protestors in 1965 being beaten on the bridge in Selma, Alabama with admittedly less thrilling chapters about the young Obama building sand castles on Waikiki Beach.

One of the most popular varietals of hereditary victimocracy is to claim to be related to somebody who couldn’t get into an exclusive golf club and thus had to found his own country club.

This widespread obsession with WASP country clubs as the locus of evil in America runs throughout a 4,000-word New York Magazine article, “Barbarian at the Tee,” in which novelist Peter de Jonge recounts the mental terrors he endured sneaking on to play the old-money Maidstone golf course in the Hamptons. Here’s a representative sample:

In Frankfurt in 1938, well after ARYAN ONLY signs went up at the Opera House, my fair-haired Jewish father, then 12, kept attending performances on his own. It wasn’t a protest. He did it because he felt like it and thought he could get away with it, and I’m playing Maidstone for about the same reason.

The article ends anticlimactically, with Maidstone’s golf Nazis failing to even notice the author’s transgressive intrusion.

“Eastern European Jews were typically shot down by German Jewish country clubs who saw the nouveau riche immigrant Jews as pushy and crass Al Czerviks.”

In his memoir, The Wolf of Wall Street, swindler Jordan Belfort—who was portrayed so energetically by Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s movie—reflects upon his motivations. In a prose style he evidently developed from reading The Bonfire of the Vanities and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in prison, Belfort rationalizes:

The country club was remarkably close to my estate … But, of course, I never bothered applying for membership, what with my status as a lowly Jew, who had the utter gall to invade WASP heaven. And it wasn’t just the Brookville Country Club that restricted Jews. No, no, no! All the surrounding clubs restricted Jews, or, for that matter, anyone who wasn’t a blue-blooded WASP bastard. … I came to realize that the WASPs were yesterday’s news, a seriously endangered species no different than the dodo bird or spotted owl. And while it was true that they still had their little golf clubs and hunting lodges as last bastions against the invading shtetl hordes, they were nothing more than twentieth-century Little Big Horns on the verge of being overrun by savage Jews like myself, who’d made fortunes on Wall Street and were willing to spend whatever it took to live where Gatsby lived.

Rob Eshman, publisher of the Jewish Journal, noted in an interesting essay, “‘The Wolf’ and the Jewish problem”:

The hole in him wasn’t from poverty, but from desire for acceptance. The “blue-blooded WASPs,” Belfort writes, “viewed me as a young Jewish circus attraction.”  Belfort had a chip on his shoulder the size of a polo pony, and so did everyone he recruited. They were, he writes, “the most savage young Jews anywhere on Long Island: the towns of Jericho and Syosset. It was from out of the very marrow of these two upper-middle-class Jewish ghettos that the bulk of my first hundred Strattonites had come.”

Belfort named his pump-and-dump boiler room “Stratton Oakmont” to imply WASP respectability. Oakmont, an elite golf club outside Pittsburgh, has hosted the U.S. Open more often than any other course. Eshman goes on:

It’s not complicated, really. Poor little Jordan wanted to show those WASPs whose country clubs he couldn’t join that he was smarter, richer, better. What he failed to understand is that just about every Jew, every minority, shares the same impulses. But only a select few decide the only way to help themselves is to hurt others. Belfort, like Bernie Madoff, is an extreme example.

The surprisingly common Jewish-American preoccupation with vague family legends of a grandfather being blackballed at a country club has led me to study up on the history of private clubs. It turns out that most of what we think we know is a retconning of American social history.

Contrary to mythos, as far as I can tell:

First, as early as 1925, a higher percentage of Jews than gentiles may have belonged to country clubs.

Second, Jewish country clubs were, on average, more luxurious and expensive than gentile clubs.

Third, a 1962 study by the Anti-Defamation League found that Jewish country clubs were more discriminatory than Christian clubs.

Fourth, historically, Jewish applicants were mostly excluded for ethnic reasons by Jewish country clubs.

Granted, it’s difficult to find hard information about any private golf clubs, since they value privacy, so my surmises aren’t always rock solid. In particular, Jewish country clubs are far more obscure on average than comparably big-budget non-Jewish clubs, because Jewish clubs stopped hosting major championships a half-century ago.

I had expected to find that traditionally Jewish country clubs don’t hold big tournaments because of residual anti-Semitism from the super-WASPy United States Golf Association and the less upscale Professional Golfers of America. But it turns out that the USGA and PGA had Jewish clubs host their major championships back in the bad old days of the 1920s and 1930s.

For example, Bobby Jones won the U.S. Open at Inwood on Long Island in 1923, and Gene Sarazen triumphed at Fresh Meadow in Queens in 1932. The PGA Championship also visited Jewish clubs in the Tom Buchanan era: Walter Hagen won at Inwood in 1921, Leo Diegel at Hillcrest (the famous movie industry club in Los Angeles) in 1929, and Tommy Armour at Fresh Meadow in 1930.

Ever since the civil rights movement turned its unwelcome attention upon the all-Jewish (and thus all-white) Brentwood Country Club in Los Angeles for planning to host the 1962 PGA Championship, it’s been hard to learn anything about the membership policies of Jewish country clubs. The highest profile tournament hosted since then by a traditionally Jewish club might be the 1997 Walker Cup (an America v. Britain amateur match named for George Herbert Walker, great-grandfather of the previous president), held at Quaker Ridge in Westchester County.

Still, we can piece together some general impressions.

One irony is that, even in the early 20th century, Jews were more likely to belong to county clubs than gentiles. According to Sports and the American Jew, in a 1925 article in American Hebrew entitled “The Common Ground of Golf,” Italian-American champion Gene Sarazen

… praised their courses as among the best in the country. Noting that of the estimated five hundred thousand golfers in the United States, more than thirty thousand were Jewish, he argued that this number, “entirely out of proportion with the Jewish proportion of the populations,” demonstrates the popularity of the sport among Jews.

Why have a higher proportion of Jews than gentiles belonged to country clubs? Because, with the possible exception of a couple of decades around 1900, Jews in America have always tended to be richer on average than gentiles. For instance, Hillcrest was said to be the most expensive club to join in the country during the Gatsby era.

Jewish clubs tend to have surprisingly dull golf courses relative to the lavishness of their facilities for socializing. The WASP urge to invest in the golf course rather than the clubhouse surprised even the Quaalude-hindered brain of Belfort. In the most memorable of the many scenes of excess essayed by DiCaprio, the self-proclaimed Wolf of Wall Street finds himself in need of an unbugged telephone after taking a Quaalude. He drives his Lamborghini to the nearest pay phone, which is at the Brookville Country Club. Belfort recounted for New York Magazine his Tom Wolfe-style thoughts when he collapsed in the clubhouse:

“I’m lying on my back and see the ceiling has cracks in it,” Belfort says. “I’m like, Why are the WASPs not paying for their ceiling? What a troubling thought that they don’t fix the ceiling in this WASP heaven—maybe they’re running out of money?”

Bradley S. Klein, a GolfWeek writer who has done much to publicize Jewish country clubs, recounts an anecdote from 1990 told by an Inwood member:

The conversation turned to annual fees. I forget the exact numbers, but it was something like $5,000 for Olympic and about $5,500 for Medinah. Our host from Oakmont said that his dues were right in the middle.

Olympic, Medinah, and Oakmont are all world famous courses that regularly host the U.S. Open or PGA Championship.

Inquiring minds naturally turned to Davidson.

“I said, ‘We’re about where all of you are—combined.’” Back then, Inwood charged a princely sum of $18,000.

Jewish clubs were universally acknowledged to have had much better dining rooms than gentile clubs. Robert H. Boyle reported in Sports Illustrated in 1962:

…members of Jewish clubs habitually eat more and drink less than do Christian club members. … Significantly, of all the clubs surveyed by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, the one most esteemed for its food was the Hillcrest Country Club in Los Angeles, a predominantly Jewish club drawing heavily on show business. … “Hillcrest,” Milton Berle, a member, once remarked, “is a dining club with golf.”

Hillcrest’s golf course, while located on rolling hills close to the superlative North Course of the Los Angeles Country Club (which will host the 2023 U.S. Open), is surprisingly pedestrian. Golf architect Tom Doak rated Hillcrest only a 3 on his 0 to 10 scale in The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses. Nothing much has changed since Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, and George Burns had the big table in the Hillcrest dining room. Sports Illustrated wrote in 1995:

Today, in many ways golf is secondary at Hillcrest. … Is there anything different about the predominantly Jewish clubs? Food, it seems, is the only thing. Both Brentwood and Hillcrest are renowned for their chow because their members demand it. “Our members would rather spend money on upgrading the food than the golf course,” says Brentwood V.P. Bennett Wolf with a wry (rye?) smile.

Although it’s almost universally claimed that the only reason Jews formed their own clubs was because of discrimination by gentiles, that seems increasingly like a tendentious talking point. After all, they had separate ideas of what was fun: WASPs and Irish Catholics liked golf and drinking, while Jews liked dining and entertainment.

A rare partial dissent from the conventional wisdom that Jews would never have built their own country clubs if not for anti-Semitism appeared in an elegy in D Magazine entitled “Goodbye, Columbian.” Curt Sampson wrote sadly of the Dallas country club that ran out of money, dropped its Jewish-only policy in 2007, and was now letting in golf-crazy gentiles such as Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and PGA legend Lee Trevino (who enjoyed finally being allowed to be a member of the club where he once worked on the maintenance crew). Sampson observed:

Why Jews felt compelled to band together was simple: they enjoyed their own company, and the other clubs were not letting them in. … Not that there aren’t abuses in this sliver of society—try joining Dallas Country Club, Mr. Goldstein!—but there is joy in banding together with people who look like you and talk like you and believe what you believe. We get enough melting pot in public schools and at the Cowboys game.

Despite the paucity of public information about Jewish clubs, Hillcrest, which is across the street from 20th Century Fox studios, is an exception because the movie industry has been so well documented. In short, the Hillcrest Jews had a blast being extremely Jewish at Hillcrest. Stephen Birmingham, author of the 1967 bestseller “Our Crowd:” The Great Jewish Families of New York, wrote in his follow-up, The Rest of Us: The Rise of America’s Eastern European Jews:

But in Los Angeles, as in other cities, the leading Christian club, the Los Angeles Country Club, would not accept Jews … So the Jews of Hollywood had formed Hillcrest, a country club of their own. … Since it was newer, its facilities were far more modern and luxurious than the Los Angeles Country Club’s … It was just as exclusive as the Los Angeles Club and membership was rigidly closed to Christians, though many, including Joseph P. Kennedy, tried to join. Its initiation fee of twenty-two thousand dollars was the highest in the country … Jokes and insults were swapped in Yiddish, a language never used in the office or on the set.

Interestingly, Jews were even more ferocious discriminators than gentiles. “A Study of Religious Discrimination by Social Clubs” was published in 1962 by by the Anti-Defamation League of the B’Nai B’rith. The surveyed reported on 803 country clubs, of which 224 (28 percent) were open to Christians and Jews alike. (Probably most of these were founded by Christians.) Of the 505 clubs that considered themselves Christian, 89 (18 percent) let in some number of Jews. In contrast, of the 74 Jewish clubs, only three (four percent) let in any non-Jews. Sports Illustrated pointed out:

The ADL report concluded that although “the extent of discrimination against Jews by clubs is far greater than the levels of discrimination against Jews in other areas such as education, employment, housing and public accommodations,” the fact that a significant number of clubs “were ‘Jewish clubs’ that discriminate against Christians is eloquent testimony to the further institutionalization of religious prejudice. When, as and if Jewish community relations agencies conclude that the problem of the ‘Christian club’ merits their attention, they will inevitably have to cope with the other side of the coin—the ‘Jewish club.’”

Hillcrest was one of the more tolerant Jewish clubs, admitting Lebanese-American television star and philanthropist Danny Thomas as its first Gentile member only a few decades after its founding. Jack Benny quipped that if they wanted to get credit for not discriminating, they should have picked somebody who looked less Levantine.

Interestingly, Christian clubs were slightly less discriminatory against Jews in the South, following a pattern of Jews being not rebels and dissidents in the old South (as many Jews assume today) but instead popular members of the local white establishment. For example, Augusta National, now the most exclusive club in America, is said to have always had local Jewish families as members, even when its Northern national membership of CEOs weren’t inviting their Jewish peers to join.

But an even bigger surprise I discovered in my research is that these common memories of grandpapa’s application for membership being turned down for ethnic reasons generally didn’t involve Jews trying to get into gentile country clubs. Instead, Eastern European Jews were typically shot down by German Jewish country clubs who saw the nouveau riche immigrant Jews as pushy and crass Al Czerviks.

Sports Illustrated reported in 1962:

In larger cities one sometimes finds two or more Jewish clubs, the top one composed principally of German Jews who tend to find eastern European Jews unacceptable.

For example, Birmingham, Alabama long supported two standoffish Jewish country clubs. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica:

Since Jews were frozen out of local country clubs, they established the Hillcrest in 1883 for German Jews, and the Fairmont in 1920, for East European Jews. They merged in 1969, forming the Pine Tree Country Club, which opened its membership to non-Jews in 1991.

Stephen Birmingham writes:

But now, in nearly every American city of any size, there were at least two Jewish country clubs—the “good” one (German), and the less good (Russian). In New York, the best Jewish country club was the Germans’ Century Country Club in suburban White Plains [now Purchase]. The second-best was the Russians’ Sunningdale Golf Club in Scarsdale.

Birmingham observed in “Our Crowd”:

For years the Century was an almost exclusively German club, with an unwritten rule against “Orientals.”

The Century Country Club built its first golf course in 1908 (Sunningdale’s course opened in 1918), but didn’t begin to admit Russian Jews until after World War II. Birmingham notes in The Rest of Us:

Bastions of German-Jewish supremacy were falling on all sides by the 1940s. … At the Century Country Club, which considered itself not only the best Jewish club in New York but the best Jewish country club on earth, and where the anti-Russian bias had been all but written into the bylaws for generations, a few Russians were now being cautiously taken in as members, and one of the first of these, in 1948, was the Flatbush-born Dr. Herman Tarnower, the son of Russian immigrants.

Presumably, the imperious Dr. Tarnower was expected to never bring scandal to the club. His later publication of the bestselling The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet, however, set him on the road to national celebrity, murder by his jealous mistress Jean Harris, and commemoration in the greatest of all Seinfeld episodes, “The Summer of George,” in which (among much else) Kramer is handed a Tony Award for a Broadway musical about the Tarnower murder, “Scarsdale Surprise”.

If we go even further back into the past, did German Jews start their own country clubs solely because of golf Nazis? Or did German Jewish financiers build their discriminatory country clubs to strengthen their ties of friendship, business, and marriage?

After all, country clubs existed in the U.S. even before golf arrived in 1887. A major reason was to provide young people with romantic grounds, resembling the country estates in Jane Austen novels, upon which to stroll about and fall in love with suitable marriage partners.

And German Jewish bankers were famously endogamous. The most famous family of all, the Rothschilds, kept business in the family by practicing not just marriage between first cousins, but even uncle-niece marriage. (By the way, here’s Jonah Hill in The Wolf of Wall Street explaining to DiCaprio why he married his own cousin.)

The 1968 Commentary review by Marshall Sklare of Birmingham’s “Our Crowd” begins with a discussion of how profitable this endogamous clannishness had been to the German Jews of Wall Street:

Ten years ago, Barry E. Supple, an economic historian then teaching at Harvard, published a scholarly article which demonstrated that in the 19th century a significant share of American investment banking was concentrated in Jewish hands. In reviewing the history of such banking houses as Kuhn, Loeb; J & W Seligman; Goldman, Sachs; and Lehman Brothers, Supple drew attention to the fact that it was not only common for the children and relatives of the partners of a given firm to marry each other, but that marital alliances frequently occurred among, as well as within, the different Jewish banking houses.

Indeed, Supple’s careful analysis showed that the role of marriage in business went even further than this. The scions of banking families would marry the offspring of the owners of large German-Jewish companies in a variety of fields, and these companies—some of them later to become the country’s leading department stores and mail-order firms—would then raise capital through the banking houses with whom they had formed family connections. …

The Jewish firms had no monopoly over corporate financing, for Gentile houses—led by Drexel, Morgan—controlled a substantial share of the banking business. The Gentile houses, however, lacked the network of kinship ties which Supple uncovered in his patient genealogical probing. … it was his intention to show that the Jewish firms, and not their Gentile counterparts, constituted the “ideal type” of business combination prior to the rise of the mammoth corporation. He was particularly impressed by the tightly knit social network created by the Jewish firms around family, temple, city clubs, and philanthropic organizations; and he viewed their clannishness as “a valid and often necessary means of creating an identity of interests and attitude most conducive to business activity and development.”

Under such a system, it makes all the sense in the world to form country clubs with potential in-laws and keep out families you don’t want your children to marry into.

The enormous resentments engendered in the first half of the 20th century by German Jews blackballing Russian Jews have been almost forgotten as their descendants have patched over these rifts by coming to an unspoken agreement to blame it all on the gentiles.

Henry Kissinger observed that Israel’s foreign policy often seems less intended to advance Israel’s interests abroad than to heal domestic divisions among Israeli Jews by giving them somebody foreign to hate. While nearby Levantine countries such as Syria and Lebanon have suffered hideous civil wars, the fractious Israelis have managed to successfully direct their animosities outward. Similarly, the current American Jewish obsession with golf Nazis has less to do with whether Jews in ages past actually wanted to join stuffy WASP clubs than with healing gaps within the Jewish community by castigating Christians.

Indeed, this displacement process may be observed in many aspects of American social history, which has been repeatedly rewritten to foster Jewish solidarity by projecting blame for grievances held by one set of Jews against another onto the majority culture.

A future article, for example, may explore the Friedan-Steinem-Firestone-Abzug generation of feminists from this subversive perspective.

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