The culture of private clubs is at heart antisocial. Prestige aside, denizens of the Metropolitan Club, the Knickerbocker, the Union Club, and the Newport Casino have historically sought out these bastions not so much to partake of the improving influences of civilization as to find refuge from them. These institutions served for their fugitive members as the safest form of rebellion in a rigid turn-of-the-century society whose balance, according to Edith Wharton, remained so precarious that it could be “shattered by a whisper.”
A more dangerous mode of insurgency existed for the chosen class, however—at 5 East 44th Street in Manhattan. The cast bronze doors of this genteel address safeguarded the entrance to what was in actuality the city’s most exclusive gathering place, the home of one Mr. Richard Canfield, into which the scions of the houses of Astor, Vanderbilt, Whitney, and Goelet furtively slipped at odd hours of the evening. For inside could be found what was then the world’s most opulent and private casino.
If his reputation was somewhat shady, Canfield’s antecedents were not: Born in New Bedford, Mass., in 1855, he could trace his lineage back to the landing of the Mayflower. Very much the Gilded Age gentleman, he preferred Boccaccio to baccarat and Rabelais to roulette. Still, one has to make a living, and with Yankee resolve, he inaugurated private gambling establishments in Newport and Saratoga that fascinated the business elite of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. At Saratoga in particular—where the famed Thoroughbred races attracted scores of illicit gambling houses—Canfield’s establishment contrasted sharply with its rivals. The ground floor of this secluded country villa was an elegant restaurant whose French chef prepared gourmet repasts for horseflesh enthusiasts such as William C. Whitney, Pierre Lorillard, and Perry Belmont. The second floor was devoted to pursuits of a decidedly nonequine nature. William K. Vanderbilt was said to have lost $130,000 here on a few turns of the roulette wheel, while John Warne Gates, proprietor of the American Steel and Wire Co., after losing nearly half a million dollars at the races, disposed of $150,000 more that same night at faro.
The townhouse at 5 East 44th Street served as the nerve center of this franchise. Here, beyond the bronze doors, those formally attired clients who passed inspection by the doorman entered a world of sybaritic indulgence. Costly silks draped salons where crystal chandeliers hung like frozen cloudbursts. Butlers laid out buffet suppers and passed silver trays of fine cigars. The gaming tables were tastefully carved from costly hardwoods, and around them the refined clientele placed princely bets, while in his private apartments, Canfield quietly perused volumes of Plato or Epicurus. He was not above sharing tidbits of classical wisdom with his guests, often advising them that, if they played long enough, the house would always win. Doubtless he later wished that he had administered a more severe lecture to one of his young patrons, Reginald Vanderbilt, nephew of William K.
Reggie’s patronage was much discussed, especially after he lost $70,000 on the evening of his 21st birthday at another gambling house. This sum would have made a mere down payment on the stack of his IOUs that mounted at Canfield’s as quickly as the rumors. When the latter achieved the crescendo of a full chorus, District Attorney William T. Jerome could no longer turn a deaf ear. On a December night in 1902, detectives scaled ladders to the second floor of number 5, crashing through the windows with revolvers drawn, only to discover Canfield reading in his study. Canfield calmly allowed the police to search the premises, where they found nothing out of order. But one observant inspector noticed that the depth of the study did not match that of the rest of the house, and against Canfield’s protests, commenced upon the paneling with an axe. From the concealed chamber within, police extracted half a dozen roulette wheels, faro tables, thousands of ivory chips, and a safe containing, among other items, $300,000 in IOUs from Reggie.
True to his class, the beaten Canfield struck a deal with Jerome, agreeing to take full responsibility for the gambling operations, provided the D.A. protected his prominent clients’ names from scandal. Thus did Canfield’s club prove to be (socially speaking) more establishment than antiestablishment. If Canfield’s study walls were shattered by a whisper, thanks to good breeding, society’s precarious balance was not.
Senior Vice President, editorial