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Men Behaving Badly

Published online July 17, 2007, 5:59 p.m. MST COPYRIGHT 2007, Phoenix New Times You wouldn't think, in 2007, that a restaurant would be allowed to serve only men. In this day and age, surely even the Phoenix Country Club wouldn't forbid women from entering one of its dining rooms, much...
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Published online July 17, 2007, 5:59 p.m. MST
COPYRIGHT 2007, Phoenix New Times

You wouldn't think, in 2007, that a restaurant would be allowed to serve only men. In this day and age, surely even the Phoenix Country Club wouldn't forbid women from entering one of its dining rooms, much less enjoying a cocktail there.

And you certainly wouldn't think that, if a female PCC member challenged the segregated Men's Grill, certain gentlemen at the club would resort to calling her a "bitch" and a "whore."

In graffiti.

On their own golf course.

These days, the Phoenix Country Club is like 1965 Selma — only instead of racists defending their lily-white elections, we've got Thurston Howell III fighting for the right to drink his gin without his wife interrupting.

It might be funny if it hadn't become so vicious.

After all, it's easy to shrug off the issue of whether rich men should be allowed to dine without rich women around, even if you don't quite see the point. Not to mention the fact that no one has ever been forced to join a country club. "My view is that people who aren't happy with a private club should leave," says William Maledon, a prominent lawyer in town and the president of the club's board of directors.

Really, it's hard to argue against his point.

But then you look at how nutty some club members have acted, and you'd think that someone violated their grandmothers with a 9-iron rather than simply pushed for fully integrated dining.

After a pair of longtime members, Logan and Barbara Van Sittert, asked for the Men's Grill to be opened to women, all hell broke loose, at least by country club standards.

Members responded by vandalizing the golf course with the above-mentioned graffiti against Barbara, according to a letter written by the Van Sittert's lawyer.

They also, apparently, vandalized Logan Van Sittert's locker. (Rumor says that a stream of urine was involved, although the board president wrote in a letter to membership that "many of the rumors" are "wildly inaccurate.") According to the Van Sitterts' lawyer, some members also confronted Logan Van Sittert at the male-only grill, calling him a "traitor" and telling him to "get out."

Bullies always seem to surface in battles like this, even at exclusive clubs. Okay, maybe especially at exclusive clubs. But based on the documentation I've seen, the board's official reaction hasn't been much better.

After the Van Sitterts filed a civil rights complaint with Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard in February, the club actually tried to strip the couple of their membership — first by attempting to expel them, and later, as a compromise, offering to buy them out.

Then, according to a letter from the couple's lawyer, the board of directors also put in a place a policy threatening to expel any member who makes "derogatory or otherwise injurious comments to the media."

You'd think we were talking about state secrets, not about men who want to eat cheeseburgers without women around.

I mean, really. This sort of thing requires a news blackout? And just because a guy dares to challenge a very old, kind of weird policy, he's a "traitor"?

All this over a restaurant!

I think F. Scott Fitzgerald was right: The rich are different than the rest of us. For one thing, they take life a lot more seriously.

For months now, the fracas over the Men's Grill has been the subject of cocktail party chatter. I'd heard the rumors, but the situation stayed just that: something to talk about, not something to write about.

Then I got a packet in the mail. Sent anonymously, of course, but clearly the goods. There was the civil rights complaint from the Van Sitterts — still pending — as well as a follow-up letter from their lawyer.

I have to admit, I began reading a bit skeptically. If women don't like the policies at PCC, why not find another club? There's also a good argument to be made that, with all the serious problems in the world, this is low on the totem pole.

Part of it, I'm sure, is generational. Like a lot of women my age, I've never considered myself a feminist. My mother is a baby boomer, not me. Her generation won the important battles long before my peers and I had bras to burn and admissions essays to write. We've always thought of ourselves as capable of just about anything, not to mention welcome pretty much everywhere — even, for us female reporters, the men's locker room. If guys want a place to eat without us, no big deal.

But I began to feel differently as I continued to read the paperwork. Instead of wondering why the women wanted to get in so badly, I began to wonder why the men were so desperate to keep them out.

The men, in this case, didn't seem conspiratorial so much as pathetic. Like 7-year-old boys in high dudgeon, telling girls to get lost. Or bloodless WASPs lamenting the good old days when you could get a nice Irish girl for a servant rather than someone who speaks Spanish.

And here's the dirty little secret of the Men's Grill.

They let women in there, all right. Women who can't afford membership.

The women at the Men's Grill are waitresses — servers, in the politically correct parlance.

I'm beginning to see why the good old boys at the Phoenix Country Club reacted so angrily to suggestions they provide their female membership with equality. The Men's Grill may be one of the few remaining vestiges of a time when men did the deals and women served the drinks.

That era isn't dying only because most guys these days would rather buy us a glass of vino than huddle without us. As the Van Sitterts' attorney, David Bodney, wrote in his complaint, country clubs in Massachusetts, California, and Louisiana have had to abandon similarly segregated facilities after lawsuits — and, in Massachusetts, after an appeals court upheld a $2 million jury verdict. That club's policy was strikingly similar to the one at PCC.

Now, the Phoenix Country Club isn't the only spot in town with a restaurant for men only. The Paradise Valley Country Club, which has a less-progressive record on race and religion, has one, too.

The legal question is whether or not these clubs are "public accommodations" under the law. Private clubs can make their own rules. "Public accommodations" have to treat everyone equally.

It seems like a no-brainer. With entry fees of up to $70,000, PCC seems private by definition. But it's not that easy. Other country clubs have been found to be public accommodations simply because they open their doors to outsiders or rent out their conference rooms. As Bodney argues, the Phoenix Country Club hosts a number of events for outsiders, including, in the 1990s, the Maricopa County Democratic Party. It could ultimately qualify.

If it's a public accommodation, the club will have no choice but to move with the times — or, more accurately, to move just a few decades behind them.

If it's a private club, well, the men over at PCC can keep their splendid isolation.

Established more than 100 years ago, long before central Phoenix was the hub of a giant metropolis, the Phoenix Country Club isn't that expensive, by today's standards. It has none of the new-money glitz of the Paradise Valley Country Club, just a certain functional, sporty prettiness.

What it has is an enviable roster of names. The late Barry Goldwater was once a member; so was former Governor Bruce Babbitt. Today, Dennis Burke, chief of staff for Governor Janet Napolitano, can dine in the Men's Grill. So can Jerry Colangelo and, believe it or not, that renowned golfer Alice Cooper.

Beyond the whole "private club" argument, the members' answer to the charge of segregation is, as far as answers go, a classic. Think Plessy v. Ferguson, separate but equal. You know the drill: The Men's Grill may ban women at all times but Sunday evenings, but only women can eat at the Women's Grill blah blah blah.

Problem is, the Women's Grill is a lot less cool. Even the male members, if they're being honest, will tell you that.

The Men's Grill has a patio. The Women's Grill doesn't.

The Men's Grill has three high-definition TVs. The Women's Grill has none.

And, while the Men's Grill has a bar, the Women's Grill doesn't. You can still drink there — on a recent day, when I poked my head in, there were a few groups of hens playing bridge and drinking Manhattans. But it's a much different atmosphere.

Stephen W. Myers, a member who supports the Van Sitterts, spelled all this out in a letter to the board of directors in April. As Myers wrote, even as a woman may be paying up to $70,000 for a membership in the club — plus monthly dues of $570 — she's not allowed in the Men's Grill.

Meanwhile, a guy paying for a cheaper "clubhouse membership," which starts as low as $500, is in.

"This seems particularly arbitrary," Myers writes. "In this instance, the club's practice is akin to requiring a female member to pay the same price as a male for a first-class airline ticket, but solely because she is female, she can only be seated in business class."

The question of whether that's legal now lies in the hands of Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. (His spokeswoman declined comment.)

It's hard to imagine Goddard can win on this one. If he ignores the situation, he'll undoubtedly face speculation that he's a toady of the powerful lawyers with club membership. One of them, it should be noted, is Goddard's closest political ally, Don Bivens, the presumed soon-to-be-chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party.

But if Goddard takes on the civil rights complaint, he may have a bigger mess on his hands: taxpayers wondering why the attorney general doesn't have bigger things to worry about.

And I can't imagine the club would accept any legal determination meekly. The board of directors has certainly shown its willingness to fight back so far. It's also hired Gallagher & Kennedy — the same firm that helped Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien evade jail time for his hit-and-run — to defend its private club status. Maledon, the board president, says he doesn't want to get into any of the details of the fracas, but assures me that "we're going to resist." Based on the club's actions so far, I have no doubt he's serious about that.

And for all its members' bad behavior, the club has an ace in the hole on the public relations front. Logan Van Sittert was on the board of directors for six years and served as president for one. "At no time during that period did he or Ms. Van Sittert seek to eliminate any gender-based restriction on the use of the Club's dining facilities," writes Donald Peder Johnsen, the club's lawyer.

As it turns out, Mr. Van Sittert is also an architect. And in that role, Peder Johnsen writes, he was "instrumental" in the club's renovation in the 1980s. One of the things Van Sittert worked on, according to Peder Johnsen? The design of the separate men's and women's grills.

As far as skeletons in the closet go, it's nothing nearly so dirty a secret as a prominent doctor or lawyer graffiti-ing "bitch" or "whore" on the golf course. But I have to admit, the irony is pretty delicious.

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