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Inside L.A.'s Newest Power Club : David Murdock Needed a Nice Place to Entertain a Few Friends. So He Built the Regency Club.

September 20, 1987|DONALD R. KATZ | Donald R. Katz is a contributing editor and columnist for Esquire magazine. His book, "The Big Store: Inside the Crisis and Revolution at Sears," will be published by Viking in October.

ONE RECENT EVENING 40 Los Angeles residents in the throes of young success were invited to an elegant cocktail party at the Regency Club. Though many older members of the city's corporate establishment had been relegated to a waiting list, officials of the elite 6-year-old club had carefully culled an assortment of rising functionaries of the city's professional firms and invited them to the antique-lined clubhouse 18 stories above the corner of Wilshire and Westwood.

"You ever been here before?" a young employee of the investment bank Goldman, Sachs inquired of a young Salomon Brothers banker.

"Only once," he responded. "For one incredible closing dinner."

"Me, too," said the Goldman, Sachs man. "Best end-of-the-deal meal in town."

The candidates for membership wandered down the parqueted central hallway and peeked into one of the club's smaller rooms, where Drexel Burnham Lambert heavyweight Michael Milken had a few days earlier chosen to lunch away from the public eye. In another, a few days before, the notably aggressive banker Joseph Pinola had been introduced to the notably aggressive airline executive Frank Lorenzo. "You are to be congratulated," the leader of First Interstate Bancorp was overheard to say to the leader of Texas Air. "You are one of the most interesting people around." It was in one of the smaller chambers back in 1984 that the creator and owner of the Regency Club--David H. Murdock--looked up after a big lunch and declared to Dr. Armand Hammer, chairman of Occidental Petroleum, that Hammer was too old to run Oxy and that he--Murdock--wanted his job.

Twenty-six leaders of Los Angeles' 50 largest industrial companies are members of the Regency Club. Thomas V. Jones, chairman and chief executive officer of Northrop Corp. does most of his business entertaining at the club. Lew Wasserman, chairman and chief executive officer of MCA, and Sanford Sigoloff, chairman and C.E.O. of Wickes, are seen there often with associates. Many of the 956 members say they belong to the club, which has no golf course, tennis court or swimming pool, just to have access to its cuisine. Some cite the convenience of being able to show up at a good restaurant without a reservation, while others admit to relishing the sound of their own names when they exit from an elevator. But many membersmade their applications, risked rejection or relegation to a waiting list, and ponied up the $5,000 entrance fee in response to precisely the same natural tropism that has drawn the powerful and wealthy together into the contrived enclosures called clubs for centuries.

The truly great private clubs of history were spawned during periods of social transformation and economic activity. The leaders of colonial empires created private clubs that often evoked an idealized sense of the mother culture the colonialists had left in order to gain the very status they were now underscoring by forming clubs. Early in this century, the burgeoning economies of U.S. cities caused people to form clubs, as each wave of new achievers sought to distinguish their level of attainment. Over time, those kept out of the older clubs on the basis of sex, ethnic origin, religious preference, method of financial attainment or the relative length of time one's money had been in the bank seemed more important to the invented tradition than those allowed in.

The Los Angeles of 1981--the year the Regency Club was opened--still contained two examples of these turn-of-the-century preserves. The downtown California and Jonathan clubs, with their hushed plutocratic decor and Maalox-smooth cuisines, retained images of being haunts of gentlemen possessed of significant municipal bond portfolios and modestly Anglo-Saxon surnames. The downtown "power palaces" still seemed to define the old downtown / Westside dichotomy--the divide between old money and new, Christians and Jews, and gray-haired white men and everyone else.

The vogue in starting private clubs had ostensibly died out toward the middle of the century, as most of the movers and shakers of the post-World War II surge seemed content to integrate themselves into the downtown clubs or the Westside country clubs instead of starting their own. A few newer country clubs were built, but somehow the pervasive big-power aura of the urban eating clubs is diffused by talk of golf handicaps. There really hadn't been a new power palace in Los Angeles for many decades by the early '80s, so leading members of the community were surprised to get calls from friends about a new club start-up. They heard that the Regency Club would be different from the clubs to which they belonged, if for no other reason than that its conception and execution sprang directly from the powerful mind of David Howard Murdock.

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