Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Boring Postcards

[posted by Callimachus]

Looking like a French chateau lifted by alien gravity beams and dropped whimsically atop an insurance company's headquarters, Philadelphia's Bellevue-Stratford Hotel rules over Broad Street in 1904, the year it opened as the most glamorous hotel in the nation.

Two years later it became the home of the Philadelphia Assemblies, an annual social event that was like a debutante ball for grown-ups. According to Nathaniel Burt's Perennial Philadelphians, it is "of all Philadelphia's many institutions the most socially venerable and the most venerated, and combines in a fine bouquet almost everything characteristic of the city. It is both a club and a family occasion,and though a dance, involves food and drink, and a good deal of sitting."

The Assemblies date back to colonial times (though it was not founded by Ben Franklin), and early guests are said to have included an Indian chief who terrified the ladies with a war dance, and his wife, who offered herself sexually to the governor of Pennsylvania in a traditional gesture of hospitality.

Its exclusiveness is legendary, and the rules of who's on the list and who's not seem harsh and dates, but Burt (writing in the 1970s) found they served the purpose.

If a daughter marries out of the Assembly, she stays out. A son however can marry anybody and stay in. "A man can bring his cook, if she's his wife," is the usual way of putting it. He can't bring her if she has been divorced, however, or come himself if he has been. In older days this hard and fast rule was said to have kept many Philadelphia marriages together, but now it just means the continual weeding out of possible subscribers. Archaic as the rule seems to outsiders, in as tight a world as this, most divorced members of the Assembly immediately remarry other divorced members of the Assembly, and if they all got together in the same room it might be deuced awkward.

Needless to say, Mohawk maidens no longer were invited, though by the 20th century some of the debauched and eccentric Philadelphia gentry behaved little better. Nonetheless, in more recent times, as divorces and marriages out of class rose, some civic leaders from even the old families found they had to pull every wire in reach to get a daughter and her escort invited -- only to have them skip out early, finding the event insufferably stuffy. It seems likely (at least to me) the Assemblies are the source of the society slang phrase for "huge fashionable party where everyone knows everyone, characterized principally by socializing," said to have been coined by Averell Harriman's second wife: Philadelphia rat-fuck.

The hotel was well past its prime when it hosted an American Legion convention in the summer of 1976 and hundreds fell mysteriously ill with what subsequently came to be called Legionnaire's Disease. The hotel closed for a while, and it has been remodeled and reopened several times since, as part of various chains, but its glory days are over.

You can't get into the Assemblies, but you can get into the building and marvel at the marble stairs, hand-wrought iron railings, and gilt ceilings. But they sit awkwardly amid the upscale chain shops that now occupy the chopped-up and walled-up space of what used to be the large downstairs public areas. There was still an excellent and cozy bar on the top floor, last time I was there, where you can get nicely smashed in good old debauched Philadelphia style.