On May 25th, a group of twelve men will meet for a ritual that has been shrouded in secrecy since 1868. Like their fabulously wealthy predecessors, the men are titans from our New Gilded Age, and they guard their privacy zealously. Their institution, The Zodiac Club, has met for dinner six times each year, unimpeded by both World Wars, the Great Depression, the unrest of the '60s or the terrorist attacks on September 11th. We've obtained a rare glimpse inside their clandestine culinary club.
The Zodiac Club has done an admirable job of keeping their dinners and membership rolls under wraps. Breathless newspaper articles from the late 19th and early 20th centuries detail the spate of twelve-person private dining clubs formed by the titans of the Gilded Age. A book by Stephen Birmingham published in 1987, America's Secret Aristocracy, claims that J.P. Morgan founded the Zodiac Club.
I became aware of the Zodiac Club after I took a tour of the Morgan Library & Museum with William Voelkle, the Curator and Department Head of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts. When we walked into a room that was once J.P. Morgan's private library, Voelkle pointed to the ceiling of the old library and noted the discordant arrangement of astrological signs.
Voelkle said it led him to consider that a "Morgan Code," might be in place, comprised of a secret language of symbols, so he decided to punch the word "Zodiac" into the library's research database and discovered that the library held two volumes of the Zodiac Club's minutes. The curator had the books pulled from the stacks and found that Morgan was known in the organization as "Brother Libra."
I made an appointment to see the material myself. Expecting to find handwritten notes, I was instead handed a striking seafoam green book with an intricate monogram embossed in gold.
The volumes were richly illustrated with photographs of the members and the special menus from their dinners. Only a hundred copies were printed (by Charles Scribner & Sons, the letters designed by Tiffany & Co.) and they were distributed among Zodiac Club members and their heirs for a sum of $4,800.00 (the equivalent of around $100,000 today). The two volumes cover the club from its genesis in 1868 up until 1928.
It turns out that the Zodiac Club's founding member was not J.P. Morgan, as Birmingham's book stated, but Edward Elmer Potter, a New York City native and Columbia College graduate best known for "Potter's Raid," a successful Union campaign in North Carolina during the Civil War.
The Zodiac Club had no bylaws or superfluous ceremonies. The group's purpose was simple: meet for dinner on the last Saturday of every month between November and May. Only twelve members could ever be part of the group at one time, and each would inherit a zodiacal sign, unrelated to his birth sign (Potter chose Leo, king of the zodiac). Members left their seat by death or resigned, usually because of old age and ailing health. New members had to be chosen unanimously and then invited.
Each month one of the Signs, as they called themselves, was appointed the "caterer." He would be responsible for organizing dinner at one of the city's exclusive dining spots like Union Club, the Metropolitan Club, Delmonico's, or Sherry's.
The waitstaff at Sherry's restaurant, 1902 (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
Sometimes dinner was held in one of their Manhattan homes. The Signs included men from the highest echelons of New York society. All were extraordinarily wealthy and boasted degrees from Yale, Harvard or Columbia. Many were native New Yorkers.
- Judge Alonzo Castle Monson, a.k.a. Brother Cancer, survived the sinking of the S.S. Central America in 1857; 425 people drowned and around two million dollars worth of gold was lost.
- Founding member James W. Clendenin was a millionaire coal merchant who was tragically killed by a plumber's runaway horse on Central Park West near 60th Street.
- Prior to Morgan, the seat of Libra was held by Peter Marie, noted in his New York Times obituary as the "last gentleman in the old school of New York Society." This avowed bachelor was noted for his impeccable manners, supposedly derived from the "old court life of France." His family were plantation owners in what was once the French West Indies (today: Dominican Republic) that came to New York after escaping the "terrors of the famous revolt of Negroes in San Domingo."
- James Hampden Robb, the second Leo, was a New York state senator and the city's Parks Commissioner. He had Stanford White build his residence at 23 Park Avenue, which has since been divided into co-ops.
- Lewis Cass Ledyard, or Brother Aquarius, was J.P. Morgan's lawyer and the co-founder of the New York Public Library.
- Nelson Aldrich, a powerful Republican senator and Zodiac Club member, was the visionary of the Federal Reserve Act. Aldrich's daughter, Abigail, married John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
In 1916, President William H. Taft was invited to join the group, though he politely declined because he was too busy. He did note that he was appreciative of the "peculiarly complimentary character" of the invitation.
By today's Kozlowskian standards, nothing overly titillating appeared in the first volume of minutes. (That would change in the second volume, as you'll see below.) It was so banal that it seemed to confirm a 1913 article in the New York Times that suggested that these ultra exclusive clubs were nothing more than a place for powerful men to let their monacles down around others with similar heft.
The first volume included notes like:
Brother Pisces produced pickled scallops which were pronounced admirable.
SL Ward presented a cheese to the Signs, which was ordered to be stored in a jar for the next meeting.
For men of such extraordinary wealth, they tracked and commented on the money used to pay for dinners to a fanatical degree. There seemed to be no modesty in discussing and recording every cent spent. It was in their constitution that each member pay $5 toward the cost of each dinner and the attending members pay any additional costs to defray the cost of the meal. (Rarely were all twelve members present.)
While New York society was curious to know more about the Zodiac Club, the Signs were curious about another rumored club of the same name in London, composed of authors and publishers. They sent letters abroad, put out feelers and reported on their fruitless search during meetings.
They also read aloud an 1894 New York Sun article that speaks of the Zodiacs and their specific tastes in wine and food. It flattered them so much that it was printed in the back of the first volume of minutes.
Dinners were always unrestrained, multi-coursed, gout-inducing affairs of French cuisine or some variation of meat and potatoes. They drank exquisite French wines like Mouton Rothschild 1878 which came from what was considered a magnificent period in Bordeaux. In 1909 they drank a bottle of Château Haut-Brion 1881, one of the most expensive wines of the 20th century due to the vineyard's ancient origins.
This menu from January 1, 1887 at the Knickerbocker Club, catered by Brother Taurus was typical:
Green turtle, clear
Creme de petit pois aux croutons (Cream of peas with croutons.)
Ravioles (At this time and well into the 1960s, Italian food was often given a French name when in the context of fine dining.)
Terrapins a la Knickerbocker (The Zodiacs ate a lot of Maryland terrapins and frequently disagreed over they were better to serve them with bones or de-boned.)
Saddle of mutton
String beans, potatoes hashed and fried
Ailes de perdreaux a la financiere (Young partridge wings with a garnish of cock’s combs and kidneys, quenelles, sweetbreads, mushrooms, olives and truffles.)
Canvasback ducks (Canvasback duck was a frequent favorite, supplied by Chesapeake Bay hunters to all the finest Gilded Age dining establishments until the ducks were nearly extinct. If not for legislation in the early 1900s, these ducks might now be extinct.)
Celery, mayonnaise, fried hominy
Cheese, fruit, café, nuts
It was noted that the meal cost $63.81, the equivalent of about $1,600 today.
In 1903, J.P. Morgan was elected to the sign of Libra, and catered his first meal at Louis Sherry's private apartments at 5th Avenue and 44th Street. To celebrate, he commissioned original artwork for the menu.
The artwork commissioned by J.P. Morgan for his inaugural dinner in 1903 was reproduced for this 1907 menu. Though elegant, isn't it kind of gauche that old J.P. didn't commission new work for the occasion? (courtesy Morgan Library)
Sherry was one of the top restaurateurs of his day, catering to the Gilded Age elite at his Stanford White-designed restaurants and banquet halls. Known for producing ostentatious meals like a $250 dinner on horseback for the matinee-riding enthusiast C.K.G. Billings (whose mansion occupied the land where the Cloisters is now placed), Sherry's became eponymous with the decadent, overfed generation.
The Zodiac Club dined at Sherry's forty-two times, and Sherry personally oversaw the club's meals that were held in his own private apartments. When Sherry's had to close because the building was purchased by the Guaranty Trust Company of New York, the Signs gave him a custom-made silver bowl engraved with all of their names in gratitude for his years of service.
The dry annotations of the dinners in the first volume of minutes were replaced with stories and jokes in the more slender second volume. This later generation of Signs thought they were hysterical, and recorded their long-winded witticisms, rife with the predictable stereotypes: ditzy women, backstabbing Jewish bankers, unintelligible African-Americans, lazy Italians, drunken Irish, orderly Germans and New Jersey, where people are notorious for being "loafers."
Some gags were harmless:
Mention was made of a young woman who gave birth to a child, although her husband had been in the Foreign Service for more than a year. It was explained that the husband had been in constant correspondence. At which point one of the Signs observed, "Some pencil."
Others were cloaked in their social and business concerns. Jokes about Jews and money were rampant in the second volume.
The man of affairs tells us that the Jews no longer care to go to Heaven because business has all gone to hell.
They were very concerned that Columbia University was far too Jewish, and felt sure that Harvard could not suffer the same fate.
During World War I, the German jokes ran wild and included the belief that all gentlemanly Germans had either emigrated or expired before the Kaiser came to power.
They all heartily ignored Prohibition, utilizing the seemingly bottomless cellar of J.P. Morgan, J.R., who took over his father's sign of Libra.
Prohibition has brought a new unit of measure: It was asked about a man who had died,—"How much did he leave?" "Oh, a little less than a gallon."
After World War I and the recessions that led to the Great Depression, the club's lavish menus shrunk considerably. The Signs consoled themselves with the idea that their waistlines were trimmer, but yearned for the days when the meals had far more courses and they could still obtain those tasty canvasback ducks.
A chart of the members of the Zodiac Club from the second volume of minutes. The depiction of our solar system is unintentionally correct by modern standards: Pluto wouldn't be formally discovered until 1930, then demoted to dwarf planet status in 2006. We are digging the deranged depiction of Taurus in the upper right corner (courtesy Morgan Library)
In 1921, the Signs were enraged at Edith Wharton for selling out their class in her new book The Age of Innocence.
Edith Wharton's new story, "The Age of Innocence," has just been published. [Brother] Cancer slashed the book with sabre cuts of Saxon speech, declaring that New York society in the '70's was refined, intelligent and self-respecting and that the authoress did no credit to herself in attempting to belittle or disparage such a society in which members of her own family took leading parts.
The second volume of minutes also contains more navel-gazing on the part of the Signs. After Brother Cancer's (Frank K. Sturgis, one-time president of the New York Stock Exchange) rant about The Age of Innocence, he went on to share reminiscences of the amazing fund of his information concerning the financial and social histories of many New York families,
--their alliances and mésalliances. If he would only write them down for the Minutes what interesting reading there would be for the next generation.
In the recorded minutes of May 28, 1924 it is written:
Conversation ranged far and wide, but much of it will be lost to future generations because of the restraint that always attends the records of the Zodiac. From national politics, investigations at Washington and Congressional contempts, it turned to the unwritten history of the City of New York and the families and fortunes that go to make the tale.
Not a trace of the Zodiac exists beyond these two volumes, or so I thought, until one afternoon at the Morgan a librarian approached me and said, "Our archivist wanted to let you know that there is a deposit of Zodiac Club materials. Would you be interested in seeing it?"
A deposit is a box of unsorted "stuff"—a potential treasure trove—of course I was interested. Later I was given the email address for Robert Pirie, a lawyer, book collector, and current Zodiac member.
Pirie is the former president, CEO, and co-chairman of the investment banking firm Rothschild, Inc., and also worked as senior managing director of Bear Stearns from 1993 to 1996. A New York Times Magazine article from 1988 about Pirie's efforts to secure an acquisition for Rothschild describes the attorney, then 54, as "a hulking figure with an unruly gray mane," and sets a scene ripped straight out of the Zodiac Club's minutes:
Midway through the afternoon of September 26, Robert S. Pirie, president of Rothschild Inc., waits anxiously in the salmon-colored dining room opposite his office at 1 Rockefeller Plaza. The dishes have been cleared away but the banker, having lunched on turbot quenelles, partridge and tarte tatin, washed down with the house wine (Chateau Lafite-Rothschild '79), remains at the table, sipping claret and puffing on his third Davidoff cigar of the last hour.
Pirie thanked me for my interest, which he said he shared at the latest meeting of the Signs. But my request was denied, as they had recently employed their own historian.
I still had so many questions for Pirie: Who were the current members? Had they begun to admit women? What was on the menu at their most recent dinners? Pirie told me that the club has met continuously, partly from a sense of obligation, and it would continue to do so for as long as it seemed relevant.
But as to other questions about the clandestine nature of Club members, my curiosity was unrelieved by Pirie's succinct description of the Zodiac Club: "Never secret, only private."