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AROUND TOWN

Never Just Ones to Lunch

July 15, 1994|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Under its ornately carved and gilded ceilings, gentlewomen sipped tea as they pondered the meaning of Shakespeare and the witticisms of Dorothy Parker.

Their fur pieces biting themselves atop fashionable shoulders, the ladies of the Ebell of Los Angeles passed pleasant hours at musicales and chicken a la king luncheons.

But from the start--100 years ago--there was more to Ebell.

In the 1920s, '30s and '40s, these women were hosting talks on "Mexican Revolutions" and "Law for Women," learning about reforestation in the Sierras and the plight of California's Native Americans.

To peruse crumbling Ebell scrapbooks is to take a mini-course in cultural anthropology. Consider these snippets:

* 1919--Ebell telegraphs Woodrow Wilson its support of the League of Nations.

* 1945--In a gesture of patriotism, 10 members lunch on C-rations out of Army mess kits.

* 1950--At Ebell Juniors' Cinderella Ball, Mrs. Robert Olney wins for having the smallest foot.

* 1966--Ebell's first debutantes, the Adriannes, bow. (There have been no debs since 1990, due to a paucity of Ebell daughters of deb age).

Segue to June, 1994: In the imposing 55-foot-by-120-foot salon of the Italian Renaissance clubhouse at Wilshire and Lucerne boulevards, "My Blue Heaven" wafts from the grand piano (one of Ebell's five). Up in the loggia, one can almost see the chaperons who peered down on long-ago tea dansants.

Everything's been spiffed up. New carpets, new draperies. Ebell is celebrating its centennial.

But surely that isn't jug wine? Well, it is the '90s and, while it will never be said of Ebell that anything goes, some things do give. Until 1982, alcohol never touched lips under this roof.

Still, most traditions remain as solid as the clubhouse's three-foot-thick walls, which came through the January quake crackless.

New president Betty Jean Shea ("Mrs. Robert M.," in Ebell-ese), a retired attorney, says, "We are not just the ladies who lunch." Never were.

Ebell-L.A. was born of a meeting of forward-thinking women at the home of two spinster sisters in October, 1894. The minutes note that the mad scene from "Lucia di Lammermoor" was sung to accompaniment by a hired piano.

Although not L.A.'s first women's club, Ebell was surely the most provocative, a new link in an international network of women's literary and scientific societies founded by Ceylon-born, Yale-educated Dr. Adrian Ebell, who thought the world needed thinking women.

The club has always agreed. In the '50s, housewives amused themselves at bridge. So did Ebell women; they also debated the Korean conflict and studied money management.

Its study groups thrive today, although the Shakespeare and Robert Browning units disbanded for lack of interest.

Through Ebell's portals have passed some of the most interesting people in the world: Richard Nixon, Mme. Chiang Kai-shek, Thomas Mann, Carrie Jacobs Bond, Aldous Huxley, Carl Sandberg, Ronald Reagan. In 1937, Amelia Earhart spoke there shortly before taking off on her last flight.

Ebell has always had a split personality. In 1899, its monthly journal admonished women: "Do not be an echo." The modern woman should see and read everything "and then shut or open her eyes judiciously."

And she should practice how to talk "without wrinkling the skin."

*

Always, there was more on Ebell minds than canapes and calling cards. In the 1920s, Ebell boycotted potatoes to protest post-war profiteering. If these women fretted about sagging faces, as suggested by an early Ebell magazine ad touting "scientific strapping," they also explored the life of Benjamin Disraeli.

Think the anti-smoking movement is new? "The only person who ever smoked in this building and got away with it was the Queen of Romania," said Gloria Droguett, slipping out of the birthday gala for a cigarette on the patio.

Droguett--Mrs. Rudy Droguett--chaired the five-year $500,000 centennial face lift of the 67-year-old clubhouse.

A centennial drive netting 100 new members gave Ebell-L.A. further cause to celebrate. The largest women's cultural club in the world with 3,000 members at its peak in 1927, it had dropped to about 300. Today's thinking woman is busy tending her career and, Shea acknowledges, attracting the young is "a continuing challenge."

Traditionally, Ebell was for white women; now, there are a few Asian-American and black members. Shea wants more attention paid to diversity and to "learning more about our community." Recently, Ebell's fire-damaged neighbor, United Methodist Church, has held services in Ebell's dining room. That kind of open-door policy pleases her.

For years, Ebell's off-site rest cottage was an oasis for working women recuperating from illness. Interest on funds from the sale of the cottage in 1980 aids such charities as shelters for homeless and battered women. The Ebell scholarship fund, boosted by bequests, has given away $10 million.

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