Feature: Wednesday, October 1, 2003
The Final Fortress


By Samuel Hudson

If there is any fort left in Fort Worth, it is downtown, in a building that occupies an entire city block defined by West Seventh, Throckmorton, West Sixth, and Taylor streets. The large brass plaque at 306 W. 7th St. says “Fort Worth Club.” The club was established in 1885 by the white men who were already busy inventing Fort Worth as a city.

The old Fort Worth Establishment has social intercourse with itself here: Breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks with the fellows, business meetings, card games with the fellows, wedding receptions for daughters and the fellows they marry, basketball games with the fellows, parties for friends, casual get-togethers with some of the fellows you’re doing business with (or want to), sentimental reunions, political strategy meetings with the fellows, business conferences, a fight night with the fellows cheering on young black and Latino boxers, anniversary celebrations, working out with the fellows, business conferences, dinners with the fellows and their wives, a romantic private dinner for a fellow and his girl ...

And when someone a fellow does business with comes to town, why, what better place to take him than to the club? He’ll see what a friendly place Fort Worth is and what a fine city for business Fort Worth is. He’ll see what a comfortable and accommodating city Fort Worth is for the right people. He can spend the night in a suite in the club’s hotel.

Club general manager Walter Littlejohn says that women make up about 10 percent of the membership and that there are people of color who are members, although he won’t say how many.

So 90 percent of club members are white fellows, and the populist clichés still apply: The Fort Worth Club remains a bastion of white, male, prevailing-class privilege. Inside their club, men with real clout are making plans for Fort Worth, not to mention Texas and the United States of America. The legislation that welded the FW onto the D in DFWInternational Airport, for instance, was initiated at meetings in the Fort Worth Club.

The Fort Worth Club is a private world. Do not try to spend your cash or use your credit cards here. The member who brought you will sign the check. The club is for members and their guests. Period. It doesn’t matter who you are. Don Peters, who was the club’s general manager in the 1960s, gave an example: When Jeane Dixon, prophetess and best-selling author of Astrology for Dogs, was staying at the hotel in the club, H.L. Hunt, the Dallas millionaire oilman most charitably described as eccentric, demanded to be taken to her. No. Mr. Hunt was not a member of the club, and no member would bring him as a guest. For once in his adult life, H.L. Hunt could not buy or bully his way in. (Jeane Dixon had foreseen it.)

The Fort Worth Club owns the building it occupies, and except for the plaque by the front door, it looks like any other downtown commercial office space. Most of the building is commercial office space, both in the 1926 building and in the high-rise annex completed in 1976, and in good times it is a steady source of income for the club — and the reason the club is not a tax-exempt organization. The Club has dealt with the problem of taxes by operating at a loss.

The parts of the Fort Worth Club that are open to members and their guests have an atmosphere of unfussy luxury, of conventional good taste. The décor is straight out of a 1982 issue of Architectural Digest. There are no sharp edges or overtly modern motifs. Nor is there the blithe, old-money scruffiness of the Yale Club in New York City, where oil portraits of Yale alumni who were U.S. presidents hang on walls that haven’t been painted for 20 years.

Like similar city clubs, the Fort Worth Club sells and sustains an illusion. Sociologist Peter Martin Phillips describes the phenomenon in his study of the super-elite Bohemian Club in San Francisco:

“A man is an aristocrat within the confines of his club. He has supportive staff to wait on him and other aristocrats with similar interests for stimulating interaction. An elite men’s club is a system of ordered civility in what is perceived as an otherwise chaotic and disorderly world.”

Phillips says that there are no more than 200 elite men’s clubs in the United States, with a total membership of about 200,000. These clubs are not at all like service clubs — Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions — which are made up of middle-class people who work to build up community in small increments. Elite men’s clubs are introspective, inward-looking. Phillips says, “Major activities and interactions tend to occur within club boundaries primarily for their members and their guests’ own self-gratification. Elite men’s clubs tend to establish traditions and maintain an internal club culture to which new members receive some form of indoctrination before or after joining.”

Like all men’s clubs, the Fort Worth Club is a sacred space of continual male bonding — in the bars, in the dining room, in every meeting place in the club, but most especially in the club’s athletic facilities. Fellows who sweat together stick together. Swatting a freshly showered bare butt with a twisted wet towel is a playful greeting among comrades. Playing a game in the club’s basketball league makes teammates of passing acquaintances, especially when a fellow is on a winning team. When feminists denounce “the old boy network,” they are talking about men who stand unzipped, side-by-side at adjacent urinals, discussing business deals while taking a brotherly piss.

The Fort Worth Club’s athletic facilities for women consist of privileges at the Larry North Fitness branch on Commerce Street, three blocks east of the club.

The Fort Worth Club was not begun as a retreat for the elite. In 1885, Fort Worth was 36 years old, a raw cowtown on the prairie with maybe 35,000 inhabitants, and most of Texas was still a third-world country. A group of local white men, go-getters, civic boosters, promoters, and improvers — most of them young and eager to make their fortunes — formed the Commercial Club of Fort Worth. The club was to serve “as a medium for advancing the business interests of the city” and to “support any literary or scientific undertaking and the maintenance of a library.” When the club’s first building was completed in 1887, the Fort Worth Gazette proudly reported that “the club’s library now numbers 1,700 standard works, and is second to no select library in the state.” (Nowadays, if you want to read a book in the room of the Fort Worth Club called the Library, bring it in with you.)

Like other nineteenth-century boosters of ambitious towns, members of the Commercial Club went east where most of the money was and talked up Fort Worth, a great city in the making. They were enthusiastic. They were eloquent. Sometimes they told stretchers. Sometimes they just plain lied. In the fall of 1888, club charter member T.J. Hurley addressed members of the Merchant’s Club of Boston. The Fort Worth Gazette of October 18, 1888, printed his remarks, six columns of them.

“Now let me say a word about our own city, Fort Worth, called by all Western People, ‘The Queen City of the Plains,’” Hurley began. His facts and figures attesting to the growing wealth and civic resources of Fort Worth were lengthy and impressive, although without named sources. “Fort Worth has 17 churches, 40 miles of graded streets, 40 miles of water mains,” Hurley said. He wound up his speech by describing Fort Worth as having “the most progressive citizenship of any city in the state; the most attractive suburban additions of any city in Texas; and the brightest prospects and most prominent future of any city in the state.” Hurley also mentioned in passing “a social club with the finest library rooms in the state and a $40,000 club building.”

It wasn’t all striving and hype. A year after the founding of the Commercial Club of Fort Worth, 14 young members and the small snowman they had made stood for their photograph in the middle of a muddy street. They look jaunty, a bit ornery, small-town cornball, and not for a moment worried about which salad fork to use. John Burke, a cigar stuck in his grin, mirrors the snowman’s pose. These are not the kind of young men who are likely to be invited to join the Fort Worth Club nowadays.

The Commercial Club was renamed the Fort Worth Club in 1906. As Fort Worth grew and prospered, club members prospered with it. These were the men after whom large objects were named , among them Captain B.B. Paddock (the Paddock Viaduct, the bridge between downtown and the North Side), E.M. Daggett (the elementary school), T.J. Hurley (the street), and in the 20th century, Brigadier General John A. Hulen (the street and the shopping mall on it), Ed Landreth (the auditorium at TCU) — and most exalted of all, the man for whom a high school, a street, a lake, a YMCA camp, a city park, an art museum, a Pullman sleeping car, and a grand but now defunct airport were named, Amon G. Carter, Mr. Fort Worth.

Amon Carter was a force of nature. The founder of the Star-Telegram and its editor and publisher from 1906 until 1955, he loved Fort Worth entirely. Amon — everybody in Fort Worth called him Amon, along with Dallas leaders who hated him — was absolutely determined that his Fort Worth would become a grand and gleaming city and that Dallas would not eat it alive. He was the president of the Fort Worth Club for nearly 35 years and maintained a large suite of rooms there. By a wonderful coincidence, Amon’s Star-Telegram building is directly across Taylor Street from the club, 99 paces from front door to front door.

Amon saw to it that the 1926 club building was designed not only for the use and comfort of its members but also as a staging area for the promotion and management of Fort Worth. Its meeting rooms are of such varying sizes that four people or 320 can meet there behind closed doors. In these rooms, Amon and his cohorts romanced executives who could bring their companies to Fort Worth. They cajoled or commanded politicians who could direct tax money for the city’s infrastructure and pass legislation that would promote Fort Worth’s growth and keep Dallas at bay. Amon brought an unending parade of movie stars, millionaires, captains of industry, and people who were famous for being famous to the club. Photos showing them smiling at Amon ran on the front pages of the Star-Telegram. People in Fort Worth who did not think that he was as wonderful as the Star-Telegram did said that he would not be content until the city was renamed Amon, Texas.

Amon and his cronies were called the Seventh Street Gang because their banks, law firms, and business offices were within easy walking distance from the corner of Seventh and Main — as were city hall, the Tarrant County courthouse, and the Star-Telegram. At a time when democracy was legal in Texas, the Seventh Street Gang selected and elected the mayor, city council, and county commissioners, whose political appointees were also members of the gang. U.S. congressmen and the Tarrant County members of the Texas Legislature served at the gang’s pleasure. At the height of Amon’s power, it was commonly said that there should be a sign over the entrance to city hall that said, “Clear It With Amon First.”

It turned out that Amon was mortal after all, and he did finally grow older and weaker and his influence waned. Jim Wright, who rose through the ranks of the U.S. House of Representatives to become speaker of the House and who did almost as much for Fort Worth as Amon did, won his first election by running, not against his opponent, but against Amon. “You have at last met a man, Mr. Carter, who is not afraid of you,” Wright said in a newspaper ad that ran just before election day, “... who will not bow his knee to you ... and come running like a simpering pup at your beck and call.” Wright’s ad ran in the Star-Telegram.

As he lay dying in June of 1955, Amon’s last reported words were, “Am I still here?” Few doubted that he meant still in Fort Worth.

As usually happens when El Supremo departs, a coalition of his friends, allies, lieutenants, supporters, and silent opponents — a junta — tried to carry on his great work. The Seventh Street Gang tried their best, but no strong leader emerged. The Fort Worth establishment watched in dismay as Fort Worth began to wander off in all directions. The men who met at the Fort Worth Club were particularly concerned about “the mess at city hall.” Then, in the early 1960s, in the nick of time, Babe Fuqua began to put together a new and smaller Seventh Street Gang.

H.B. (“Babe”) Fuqua was chairman of the board of Fort Worth National Bank, (now a morsel in the belly of Bank One) and knew intimately the men he gathered around him. They called him Babe. They called themselves the Citizens Committee and, later, the Good Government League. Their mayor and city council would meet in the Fort Worth Club, settle the business at hand, and then walk four blocks to city hall for the public performance. Harmony in civic affairs was good for Fort Worth, all of Fort Worth, Fort Worth at large.

In an interview for the book that the Fort Worth Club published to celebrate its first hundred years, Babe Fuqua told writer Irv Farman, “During the days when we had a good City Council, I collected the money and paid the campaign expenses. My job was to keep city hall straight. We kept a good council. The system worked for about 15 years.”

The system worked because, until the U.S. Supreme Court said otherwise, city council members were elected at large, which meant that they did not represent a single district but were each elected by a majority of all voters. In theory, each city council member thus represented the whole of the city and not just a small slice of it. In practice, at-large elections diluted the votes of racial, ethnic, and economic minorities and insured the election of the white men the Seventh Street Gang bankrolled.

At the close of his interview for the Fort Worth Club’s centenary book, Babe Fuqua grew nostalgic and told Farman that his Seventh Street Gang “was very selective. That’s why it was organized. There was never any doubt about who was running things. The Fort Worth Club crowd was running things. It couldn’t happen again. Too many things have changed, especially the advent of single-member districts [in 1977]. I really believe that has hurt the city government more than anything else, more than most people realize.”

Breathtaking. And perhaps an old man recalling a greater glory than was his. But like the founders of the Commercial Club of Fort Worth, Babe Fuqua and his cronies had made their lives in Fort Worth. They stuck and stayed stuck. They would be buried here. They were not climbers up the corporate ladder, here briefly to get their tickets punched on their way to higher rungs. Like almighty Amon, the Seventh Street Gang loved the city they called theirs, and they were working to amass capital, attract industry, create jobs, plant cultural institutions, and make the city grow and prosper. Within their narrow limits, they very often were disinterested citizens working to make Fort Worth a better place. When they, too, prospered — well, that proved their efforts effective and their leadership sound. It’s an old American story.

Now that the “Fort Worth Club crowd” is no longer running things, among old hands at city hall (no names, please) there is something like nostalgia for the days of strong civic leadership, when everybody knew who was running the city. “It was so much simpler when you were working on putting a bond package together,” one said. “There was a unified city council that worked with the mayor. Now we have a mayor and eight mini-mayors mainly interested in their own districts.” Another sighed, “The trouble with democracy is ... drift.”

Today, on www.fortworthclub.com, the General Information page says, “Our members are the past, present and future of Fort Worth and the camaraderie of those ages at the Club is unequaled. The commitment of the membership has been a cornerstone to the Fort Worth Club’s historic success.” The History and Tour page says, “...Through the years, the Club has figured prominently in the life of this community. Its oak-paneled walls have witnessed the famous and the infamous with equal dignity. In fact, the history of the Fort Worth Club is, in many senses, the history of Fort Worth. The men who built The Fort Worth Club were visionaries of the city ... . [The club] was and is the place where key decisions regarding Fort Worth are made. Meetings at the Club brought General Dynamics, now Lockheed, the city’s largest employer and Casa Mañana, Fort Worth’s greatest entertainment of the era. Other landmark associations consummated at the club include the General Motors plant in Arlington, the Bell Helicopter Textron plant in the Mid-cities and the Swift and Armour packing houses.”

On a summer afternoon at a table near the eastern windows in the Top of the Town, the Fort Worth Club’s 12th floor dining room (where “Jeans, hats, sandals and non-collared shirts would not be appropriate”), four middle-aged white fellows in dark business suits have given their waiter their orders and are talking quietly. An eavesdropper hears them discuss, in no particular order, their children, the direction of the economy, and the inability of the Fort Worth public schools to turn out high school graduates who can read and write and show up for work on time.

The waiter returns with their orders. As the men eat, the older fellow wearing a quiet, blue-striped Giorgio Armani necktie, brings up a business deal he is putting together. Pause. The younger fellow sitting on his left and wearing a bright red rep tie, says, “What kind of numbers do you have?” Blue-striped Armani says, “I’ll be back in town next Monday. Let me see if we can get together then.” The conversation returns to the public schools. Where is Supt. Thomas Tocco headed? Really headed?

The transitions in the conversation from personal to politics to professional to civic matters are casual, seamless, unnoticed. Although the Fort Worth Club is not in the Fort Worth that most people live in, plans being made and the coalitions being put together inside the club still direct and change the life of the real city. Sociologist Peter Martin Phillips says that, among members in such clubs, there is not a fixed vision, but “a mutually shared, conscious knowing of the way things should be. It is a knowing deeply rooted in expressed values and feelings that go beyond the rational.” Or, as the ancient Chinese proverb says, “Fish do not know that they are swimming in water.”

In the Card Room, at a table across from the pool table, an enormous white man has finished breakfast. He is sitting in his shirtsleeves, his suspenders bulging around his belly. He is holding a newspaper out in front of him. He is halfway into what smells like a $20 cigar. He radiates contentment with himself and his world. Club rules say, “There is no smoking in The Fort Worth Club.”

On a summer mid-morning in the club’s athletic facilities, the exercise machines, which early risers put into motion at 5 a.m., are empty except for a treadmill taking a gray-haired white man nowhere. Assistant athletic director Darren Dawkins and front-desk manager Freddy Martinez are folding fresh towels for the afternoon rush. Athletic director David Lockner describes his summer Young Men’s Fitness Camp for sons of club members. He points out a photo of this summer’s Seal Team, 12 boys wearing diving goggles and diving gear. “They learned the basics of scuba, but they also learned about the club’s traditions, the club’s etiquette, the way we do things here. These boys will know what to do when their fathers bring them for lunch.”

An elderly white man is the only customer in the club’s barbershop on the 11th floor. Mary Arrons, one of the last remaining barbershop manicurists in America, is perched on her chair in front of him, working on the cuticles of his left hand. On the shelf behind him are bottles of Jeris hair tonic and Pinaud Lilac Vegetal aftershave cologne. When he arises from the barber chair, he will smell like an American gentleman.

Membership in the Fort Worth Club is by invitation only. Candidates for membership are sponsored only by current members. The club offers potential members an opportunity to meet members at frequent Candidate for Membership Receptions. The initiation fee varies and is lower during membership drives, but is usually somewhere between $4,000 and $7,000. Membership information may be requested by contacting the membership office. At present, the waiting list is surprisingly short.

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