Canada

Upstairs, Downstairs at the Rideau Club

Roy MacGregor November 5 1979
Canada

Upstairs, Downstairs at the Rideau Club

Roy MacGregor November 5 1979

Upstairs, Downstairs at the Rideau Club

Ottawa

When he rose and dressed last Wednesday morning, Donald King decided to permit himself one small indiscretion. Not his tie, of course, which would still be choked tight and pinned, nor his pants, which would remain as pressed as folded paper. But his shirt—striped for once, rather than the usual starched white. He had never gone down to the Rideau Club in casual dress before. But then, the club had never burned down before. And, as of that day, his job as hall porter was probably gone forever. Later, he would smile at the small ironies. His daughter, Carol, had her French class that evening and was fretting about her assignment—to write about a major local fire. And only the afternoon before, he had sold one of the slim histories of the club to a new member, leaving only five left of the original printing of 2,500. On Tuesday he had thought they would be ordering more.

The dapper, white-haired man left his house in the city’s west end, the same house he had lived in for 70 of his 73 years, and took the bus down to Wellington Street, where he stood between the gutted remains of the club and the Parliament buildings. There were other employees gathered and several members, and many of them were crying as the rising smoke reminded them of what once had been. It had, after all, been 114 years since Sir John A. Macdonald and 62 other members of the colonial gentry had created this national symbol of snobbery and elitism. And it was only fitting that the last member to use the club had been a former governor-general, Roland Michener. Anyone lesser would have been unseemly.

In a way, Donald King himself dated from Jan. 2,1879, when the Rideau Club minutes decreed “that a Servant in livery be stationed just inside the entrance door of the Club.” And though he had been at the post only 10 years—neither as a servant nor in livery—King had his own precious memories. He recalled when the U.S.S.R.’s Alexei Kosygin came to lunch during his 1972 visit and how, with the lobby filled with RCMP security, he had accidentally elbowed the propped-up lift entrance to his desk and it had fallen like a gunshot. And the first time Governor-General Edward Schreyer came in and King failed to recognize him. And the member who gave him a roll of Saran Wrap each and every Christmas.

Others had their own memories. How Pierre Trudeau was always a late-arriving guest. How Lester Pearson knew to keep his hands off the table. The member who climbed the Christmas tree one year. The member who successfully challenged the strict jacket-and-tie dress rules by showing up in jacket, tie and shorts.

It is understandable why, in recent years, the club ceased to be as much an ambition as a joke. The Rideau Club was originally established to provide a leathered and sherried shelter for kindred souls: rich, powerful, at least if not rich, well-born, well-bred, white, male and Christian. Jews were finally admitted in 1964 only after certain members threatened to speak out and embarrass their prejudiced colleagues. Women, however, had an even rougher time getting in. The club survived for 52 years before the first waitress was hired and, although women dining at the club was first discussed on Jan. 17, 1918, the Carillon Room was not opened up to them until 1963. Women made it into the main part of the club only after a series of protests in 1972—including, unbelievably, heated debate in the House of Commons—and it took until August of this year for the first woman member, Jean Pigott, special adviser to Prime Minister Joe Clark, to be admitted. Ironically, the women’s dining room was the sole survivor of the fire, and when firemen broke through the doors they found fresh flowers defiantly commanding the tables.

Though the membership had recently topped 600, the Rideau Club was today but a pocket of its former stuffed shirt. Joe Clark wasn’t interested in paying out the $650 entrance fee and the $500 annual fee, nor had been Pierre Trudeau or John Diefenbaker before him. Only one member of Parliament, Liberal House leader Allan MacEachen, was a club member at the end. New members often had the money but not the prestige, and old members were fading. Donald King had been keeping oxygen and other life-support systems close at hand. But still, it was a way of life both members and employees loved, and will undoubtedly remain a symbol long after the ashes cooled. Donald King talked with Frederick Gall, a member, for a while before he went home, and he completely agreed with Gall’s parting words: “It was an anachronism, I suppose. But it was a harmless one.”

Roy MacGregor