Tuesday, January 3, 2012
The Center of the Cosmos
Just down the street from the monument to Gandhi is the elaborate Cosmos Club, probably the most historic and exclusive social club in DC. Presidents are members, as are Nobel Laureates. Established in the 1870s, the Cosmos Club has been a meeting place for Washington (and international) elite for nearly a century and a half. There's a lot of mythology surrounding the club, as there often is anywhere where there's an air of exclusion. It's hard, especially in today's environment, not to look at such institutions derisively, wondering how unattached the members must be from the average American's reality. But if we, god forbid, where to set aside cynicism for a moment, it's just as difficult to resist romanticizing the era that gave birth to such architecture, that gave birth to the Cosmos. Sure, we could look at it as an urbanized country club, designed to keep out riffraff like the working class, racial minorities, or those pesky suffragettes--women weren't allowed membership until 1988. On the other hand, we could see it as one of those Gilded Age London Clubs where Ernest Worthing would retreat to dine and smoke cigarettes with Algernon Moncrieff. The truth probably lies somewhere between the two extremes, but the truth itself is enough to whip up the imagination. Even if you don't entirely buy the club's official idealizations that sweep unpleasant realities under the rug, this is still the place, according the club's website, where scientists met in secret to discuss the Manhattan Project, and it's where Rudyard Kipling sat in awe as Teddy Roosevelt held a crowded room's attention. And it may very well be a place where, even today, scientists and poets debate philosophy and politics. I like to imagine that such a place really exists.