I was excited to get a glimpse inside the stately brownstone.
From its sturdy position on the edge of Gramercy, the 125-year-old Club and former home of Booth (a well-respected actor and brother of the infamous John Wilkes) has seen the likes of industry notables from Mark Twain to Tony Bennett to Jimmy Fallon pass through its exclusive doors.
I checked my coat and walked up a marble staircase covered in plush red carpeting.
The Players Club maintains all of its 19th century glamor and some of its homeyness from the days when it was a private residence. The floor of the reception room was covered with a large Persian rug and yellow flames licked at a marble fireplace in the center of the main parlor. The ceilings swept twenty feet high, and from the brocade walls, portraits of well-known actors, done by well-known artists peered at me while I got my bearings.
Literary and theatrical greats have mingled in this front room, shielded from the public eye and free to converse with ease. I felt like any moment, a vivacious flapper would waltz into the room on the arm of a dashing actor, wearing a slinky smile and a cigarette. Smoking, as I later learned, was only outlawed in the club in the late 1980s, around the same time women were permitted as official members.
The staff was quick to take our drink order– Beer? Wine? Cocktail?– as we waited for the tour to start. Quite briskly, Selloni whirled into the room. Ordering a glass of red from the mobile bar near the fireplace, he paused for a few moments to chat with Michael Barra, Chair of the Managing Committee, before determining where we would start our tour.
We ascended five flights of stairs until we reached the top floor, closed to the public and rarely seen by club members. On the upper floors, portraits of theater’s greatest bump into each other, competing for wall space. Their subjects peer out from dark backgrounds, as if the light was dimmed inside the confines of the frame. These are the unrestored portraits, covered by a thin film of over 100 years worth of cigarette smoke, and they are awaiting restoration on before being moved down to the public area of the club.
Illuminated by a central skylight original to the structure, this floor was originally servants quarter before serving as overnight rooms for visiting club members. Now, Selloni says, many of these rooms are climate controlled and hermetically sealed, and store important theater documents belonging to the Hampden-Booth Theatre Library.
The portraits watch as we head down to the fourth floor.
Selloni unlocks a door with the master key he carries. Before we even walk in, a strong smell of dust swirls about us.
This was Edwin Booth’s bedroom. He shared this floor with a friend of his, whose room was on the other side of a shared bathroom. The shades were drawn, and it was dark inside. Behind velvet ropes is a chaise lounge and a small bed.
“This is where every Booth died,” says Selloni, gesturing to the bed, and we all shuffle in place a bit.
The room was left mostly untouched after Edwin’s death. Small mementos adorn the surfaces, including an iron cast of him and his daughter’s clasped hands on the center of a large table. In the corner, a blackened, real human skull rests atop a chest of drawers, which Booth used in his portrayal of Hamlet.
Additions to the room included a photo of John Wilkes Booth, which was undoubtedly added post-mortem since Edwin remained estranged from his brother until the day of his death. Before exiting, I notice a small patch of wallpaper that has shrugged itself from the plaster, a reminder of the building’s age and fragility despite its strong brick exterior.
We retreat back into the hallways, lined with display cases filled with costumes from Booth’s performances.
After visiting the home’s library on the third floor, where a copy of Booth’s letter to the public after his brother assassinated Lincoln is on display. Ashamed by his brother’s deeds, Booth attempted to resign from the public realm until demand coaxed him back into the spotlight.
Down the hall, we head to a private room where two club members casually work on a song together at Sam Clemens’ (Mark Twain’s) poker table with an ease as if they were sitting in their own living room. They smile at us as we ogle the table in disbelief.
The tour concludes in the Dining Room covered in wood panelling and lit by an antler chandelier. At the far end, there is a stage. The area formerly opened into a courtyard and garden dining area, but was converted to add indoor gathering space in 1888.
Selloni pauses by a painting of one of the club’s founders, Joseph Jefferson, by the leading 19th century portrait artist John Singer Sargent. The wall space on either side of Jefferson’s is conspicuously empty.
“We used to have three paintings here,” explained Selloni. “One of Edwin Booth and the other of Lawrence Buffet. We had to sell two of them– ”
“Which we don’t plan on doing ever again,” Barra interjected.
Together, the three Sargent paintings portrayed the club’s founding members, but the club was forced to sell the paintings in order to keep operations running. The club has encountered criticism in recent years as it struggled to manage its assets amidst declining membership and questionable former management, reported the New York times in 2012.
New management, Barra amongst them, are thinking of innovative way to encourage new membership and improve the experience for existing members. As part of this new programming, the club has opened a Friday night pop-up restaurant aptly titled ‘Edwin’s.’
Earlier in the evening, as the jazz band warmed up in the formal parlor now known as the Kintsler room, Barra explained the inspiration behind Edwin’s.
“With our lovely view of the park we thought that doing some fine dining here occasionally would be a nice thing,” said Barra. “Then we decided to make it recurring so our members will be able to count on a Friday reservation.”
Everett Kintsler, the renowned contemporary portrait artist and Club member after whom the room is named, suggested the pop up restaurant. However, the restaurant will not be open to members of the public.
“We’re a private club, so it’s open to members and their guests,” explained Barra.
But if even if you aren’t a member, you may have a chance to sample the Friday night fare. Members are permitted to bring guests to dine, and the club hosts events and mixers with different clubs and industries.