The Bellevue Club ain't your grandmother's socialite spot anymore. The ladies of leisure in minks are relics of a time past when the elite social club on the banks of Lake Merritt excluded the guys and anyone who wasn't the right color or class.
That pretty much left the WASP socialites with Piedmont addresses and a penchant for bridge, as a Tribune reporter once put it.
The excluded didn't have to storm the gates of the Bellevue to finally win membership rights.
The club invited them in when times started getting tough in the 1980s.
I made my way into the Bellevue last week for "FAB" — Fridays at the Bellevue cocktail hour — at the invitation of Sarah Kidder, the second youngest member in the club. The youngest is 24, according to Kidder, who was quite a contrast to the antique lady in a tailored Chanel-esque black suit and red pillbox hat.
She might have been around when the five-story building opened in 1929, nine years after women won the right to vote.
The organization was called the Women's Athletic Club when Kidder was a wee girl, and there were many more mem bers — 1,200 at its height.
Men were accepted in the 1980s, and the name was changed in 1991 to the Bellevue Club (the street address is 525 Bellevue). But the heated pool, workout rooms, library, salons, guest rooms and sprawling patio stayed true to their era. The lush ladies' lounges are posher than most of the bars and nightclubs with which the club competes.
Kidder said the club is more diverse these days but still on the older side.
"It's like having a whole bunch of aunties," she said.
Former Alameda County Sheriff Charles Plummer became a member after the Lakeview Club — a modern movers and shakers kind of place —- shut down.
"They are all nice people," Plummer said of the Bellevue's board in a 2006 East Bay Express article, when the club barely escaped the same fate.
"A lot of them are ancient though," Plummer added. "I'm old, but they are old old."
Donors bailed the Bellevue out of at least $600,000 in debt, and members rallied to loosen the place up, as well as go after the under-65 crowd and business clientele with special memberships.
"We are struggling, but we're going to make it," said former board member Polly Jackson, 81, dressed in a red pantsuit and necklace.
She was on the board about a year ago when the club changed its bylaws to officially accept gay and lesbian members. "We're not in the dark ages anymore. This is the center of acceptance," Jackson said. I think she meant the Bay Area.
The Bellevue had gay members before, but it wasn't discussed, said Nancy Conway, a two-year member who was sitting with a boisterous, champagne-and-chardonnay-sipping crowd for the club's monthly poetry reading.
"Get this woman a drink," exclaimed a blond man in a pink polo shirt of a hue that defies adjectives when I entered into their lair overlooking The Dining Room. The Cinderella Room would be more apt for a ballroom dripping with crystal chandeliers.
Conway and her wife, Mischelle Mandel, are the club's first gay married couple. Their 17-year-old son accompanies them to the club occasionally, "to be nice," Conway said.
People who were once excluded, by definition, are now ardent supporters. But from what I saw, which was limited, the club is mostly white.
The Bellevue's decor is colorful, with billowing drapes, gilded moldings, rose-colored walls, crystal chandeliers, marble fireplaces and bronze cherubs that sit atop a marble mantle clock. The perfect setting for Sunday musicales, dinner shows, film screenings, book clubs, bridge or mah jongg games and Oscar Night, which was "out of this world," according to Allegra Harris, Kidder's guest.
We were lounging in the faded Crystal Room, a salon with pink fleur-de-lys patterned settees, a few low-slung 1960s era cocktail tables and four-person dining tables. The best thing was the view from the fifth floor, which in one direction was of the sunset over the lake and in the other direction clusters of rooftops and palm trees that made it look like we were in a Mediterranean town.
Most of the tables were occupied by the older set munching on such offerings as filet mignon with a truffle mash and the American Kobe burger with truffle "pomme frits." The catering manager, Mauricio Luna, delivered a plate of bleu-cheese-stuffed figs in balsamic vinegar to nibble on and a Bombay Sapphire martini (two olives, thank you) to sip on.
I was tempted to join the Bellevue. It's like the tanned 30-something Jorge Orozco said about his and his partner's membership: "It's our way of keeping the place alive."
That's all for now, ladies and gentlemen. But if you have a cool shindig, e-mail me at email@example.com or visit the Night Owl blog at www.ibabuzz.com/nightowl for more events and oddities.