But these days, it is home to something far less polite: a gut-wrenching, at times acerbic internal battle over the rights and privileges of its female members, a matter that was supposed to have been resolved decades ago when the club granted admission to women.
At issue is whether the Century — which has counted Brooke Astor, Henry Kissinger and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis among its members — should sever ties with a prestigious, all-male club in London, called the Garrick, that allows women to enter only in the company of men.
It seemed like a simple administrative question when it was posed a few months ago. But inside the Century, where a typical evening is spent dissecting literary portrayals of Victorian England and rising sea levels in Antarctica, the subject quickly became grist for a fierce intellectual confrontation. Speeches were delivered in black-tie. Strongly worded treatises were disseminated. Voices were raised in usually hushed lounges.
The dispute has polarized many of New York City’s most learned and powerful figures, pitting luminaries like Floyd Abrams, the venerable First Amendment lawyer, against Seth Lipsky, the founding editor of The New York Sun, and Catharine R. Stimpson, former president of the Modern Language Association, against Marian Seldes, the Tony-winning actress.
“This issue,” wrote the club’s board, in a letter to members, “has generated uncharacteristic disharmony in our otherwise civil world.”
Throughout, the fight has been waged in terms befitting its wealthy, well-schooled combatants: one side invoked the words of Isaiah Berlin, the other George Orwell.
At one point, those who have defended the Garrick asked whether their opponents would turn their backs on the city’s exclusive single-sex private schools, which have educated many of their families for generations. In a letter, they asked, should no Centurion “send her children or grandchildren to St. Bernard’s, Brearley, or Chapin?”
“Institutions like these,” they wrote, “have a character that is a product of their history.”
Club rules strictly forbid members from publicly discussing what happens inside its walls, but two dozen of them detailed the contours of the disagreement. Most did so on the condition of anonymity, to avoid being expelled or ostracized.
“Our affairs are private,” said George C. Newlin, a well-known scholar of Charles Dickens. “We’d like to keep them private.”
The fracas began in the fall, when about 50 members of the club signed a petition calling on the leadership of the Century to end what is known as a reciprocity agreement with the Garrick that gave members access to both clubhouses.
The agreement itself was rich in history: it had been written shortly after World War II, and was regarded as a model of Anglo-American hospitality. For decades, male Centurions, as members of the Century are known, relished their access to the regal British club frequented by H. G. Wells, Dickens and William Thackeray.
But for many female members of the Century, who were admitted under duress in 1988, after New York City passed a law requiring integration, the partnership seemed like the last gasp of the old boys’ network. While male Centurions had unfettered Garrick access, females were, according to the 2010 Century handbook, “welcome at most times as guests of male members or reciprocal members.”
In September, with the petition in hand, the Century’s management approved a resolution to end reciprocity. “It is the policy of the Century Association,” it read, “not to discriminate on any basis in the extension of privileges of membership.”
The decision drew howls of protest, from scores of Centurions — Anglophiles, conservatives and Garrick devotees — who demanded a clubwide debate.
In a letter signed by 46 members, including Mr. Lipsky of The New York Sun; Mitchel Levitasof The New York Times, a former editor of the Book Review; and Richard L. Feigen, the art dealer, they pleaded for respectful restraint. Even as they underscored their own embrace of women’s equality, they called the Garrick an “irreplaceable human achievement” and as
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