Attorney Gloria Allred, who became the first woman regular member of the exclusive Friars Club in Beverly Hills, is involved in fractious negotiations with club leaders over use of its health facilities, and a Friars attorney expressed fears Tuesday that it could end in a lawsuit.
With the 700-member club having reached the plateau of four women members, Allred held what she described as "a very heated meeting" Monday evening with three club officials to discuss her demand that they be permitted to use the Friars health club--including the sauna, the Jacuzzi and the showers.
Allred, who joined the club last May, said that at one point the male officials suggested that an alternative would be to allow the women "to go in naked with the men naked. They were saying maybe that could work."
She said she rejected that suggestion.
William Sarnoff, chairman of the club's legal committee, said the question of such a compromise had been raised at the meeting, but only as a "remote possibility" and even then, "perhaps in jest."
But Sarnoff, who was present at the meeting, said the demands to use the sauna are a serious matter. He added that the club leadership might either have to accede in some fashion to Allred's wishes or "we might be on the wrong end of a lawsuit."
The club board will discuss the issue at its next meeting, which will be held in a week or two, he said.
"She's going to milk this thing for all the story's worth," said Sarnoff, who accused Allred of dragging the club into controversy for reasons of personal publicity.
"Ridiculous," Allred responded.
The attorney said she is trying to suggest reasonable compromises, such as allowing men and women to use the sauna together, but "appropriately clothed," or setting aside certain hours each week for the women members and the male members' wives to use the facility.
The Friars Club dispute is uncommon only in that it involves one of the nation's most celebrated exponents of women's rights. Dispute over the use by new--if less well-known--women members of such facilities as dining rooms, golf courses and health clubs has also marked the integration of other clubs in Los Angeles and elsewhere.
The Los Angeles city attorney's office recently settled a lawsuit with the Brentwood Country Club to further integrate that club's dining areas and golf course. And it sued the Jonathan Club last month in a move to integrate the men's bar and grill there. The possible integration of the all-male dining room at the California Club has been an issue in the prospective admission of women to that club.
Allred has not been quiet about alleged slights since joining the Friars Club. Last fall, while on a business trip to New York, she filed a charge of sex discrimination with the New York City Commission on Human Rights after the New York Friars Club declined to honor reciprocal club privileges and refused to serve her lunch.
"The policy of 'no women before 4 p.m.' is outdated, discriminatory and wrong," she said at the time. "It is a policy that may have been rooted in the archaic and male chauvinistic tradition that women should not be present when men are doing business at lunch, but may be present at dinner which has traditionally been thought of as a romantic or social occasion when women can be present for the purpose of providing pleasure to men."
There has been no dining room segregation at the Friars Club in Beverly Hills, which is operated independently.
But on Jan. 7, Allred wrote the club's House Committee chairman, David Ehrnstein, asking that the health facilities be opened.
"There are a number of options available, and I am sure that we will be able to develop a plan that will protect the rights of all members," she said.
Ehrnstein joined Sarnoff and Friars First Vice President Herb Baerwitz at Monday evening's meeting with Allred.
Allred said that during the hourlong session the men had suggested to her that "100 members might resign if men couldn't go in there (the sauna) nude." They also suggested that she was being too assertive in demanding rights for just a very few women members.
"I have to admit to believing in equality," Allred said. "I also believe we ought to practice it."
Sarnoff, however, said Tuesday he thinks it "sounded like Gloria trying to create a problem."
"The physical facilities don't suit men and women going in together," he said. "The Jacuzzi and the showers are in the same room."
But, he added, "We've got to live in the present time. We know women, God love 'em, are here to stay."