May The Lambs Flourish

(Courtesy of The Lambs Archives,



“Let’s meet at my club,” he said. “The Lambs.” I had no idea what The Lambs was, but the thought of meeting Kevin Fitzpatrick at his club delighted me. Any attempt to explain why will sound snooty—clubs imply privilege and exclusivity. But they also suggest, if you remember the clubhouses of childhood and the clubs that hold small towns together, a calmer, warmer way of socializing. A club is a friendly and relaxing place, a place where at least one of you is already known and can greet other members warmly, introduce your guest, even ask for small favors or courtesies that might not otherwise be extended. I felt like I had been invited for drinks at the home of a friend’s wealthy, cultured, and debonair uncle. This would be a cozy rendezvous in New York’s otherwise chaotic theater district, which is clotted with strangers as clueless as I.

The point of our meeting was to talk about Dorothy Parker, but more on that later, closer to her birthday. Suffice it to say, Fitzpatrick is the founder of the The Dorothy Parker Society. He has her fur coat, which he drapes around the bony or plump shoulders of potential donors for selfies. And it was he who managed to get her body moved—but I am getting ahead of myself. When I contacted Fitzpatrick, I had no idea he was also the president—or “shepherd,” as they say—of The Lambs. Nor did he mention that the only reason he agreed to meet me was that he grew up in Webster Groves, and—before you ask—his high school was CBC.

He has made the same sort of small world for himself in the heart of Manhattan. Over a century and a half, the members of The Lambs club—the nation’s first professional theatrical club—have included Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan. W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, Cornelia Otis Skinner, John Philip Sousa, Danny Kaye, Douglas Fairbanks, Ring Lardner, Spencer Tracy, and Adolph Zukor. “When I was made a Lamb, I felt as if I had been knighted,” Fred Astaire remarked. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe met at The Lambs, teamed up, and practiced their lyrics on the other members. Hal Holbrook tested his Mark Twain Tonight monologue there.

Fitzpatrick is frank about the club’s origins: “In the 1870s, actors were one level above prostitutes, so they could not get into other clubs.” Meeting at the old Delmonico’s restaurant on Fifth Avenue for a post-theater dinner, a group of actors decided to start “a private social club for actors and gentlemen.” (This wording intrigues me: did they mean that the categories were synonymous or that did not overlap?)

Five years earlier, in 1869, a club called The Lambs had been founded in London for a similar purpose, and one of the group dining at Delmonico’s, an Englishman named Henry Montague, had served for a time as its president. He agreed to take the same role here. And why not borrow the name, as well? Though it sounded pastoral, it simply honored Charles Lamb, the essayist and theater critic, and his sister, Mary Lamb, who regularly opened their home to actors and relished their lively conversations.

The British club lasted only a decade, but the American one thrived. Standing on a terrace on one of the upper floors of The Lambs, Rockefeller Center across the street and St. Patrick’s Cathedral cater-cornered, I swirl a maraschino cherry through an old-fashioned and listen to the tales.

Once, the chair of a women’s club gave Wilton Lackaye—the actor who originated the role of Svengali—a fawning twenty-minute introduction, then beamed at her audience: “And now, Mr. Lackaye will give us his address.” He rose and said, voice resonant, “Ladies, my address is The Lambs club, One-twenty-eight West Forty-fourth Street, New York City.” Then he turned and left.

It was, I suspect, incumbent upon a Lamb to be witty, or at least nonchalant, defiant, or eccentric. One member, informed that a certain actress was leaving the stage, murmured how kind this was: “I really thought that she had decided to take the stage with her.” Bert Lahr, best known as Oz’s Cowardly Lion, often wandered around the club “in a worried haze,” clad in a camel’s hair polo coat. Richard Carle, who acted alongside Bette Davis and Greta Garbo, once watched a bartender stack glasses, then used his walking stick to sweep them all to the ground. He was suspended from the club for six months. When he returned, he was leaning against the bar, and someone asked where he had been. “I was suspended.” “What for?” “For this”—and he swept another row of glasses to the floor.

A pianist was once inspired, at The Lambs, to play for twenty-six hours straight. A mind reader died there after performing a dagger trick. (“Hysterical catalepsy,” reporters guessed, assuming he was concentrating hard to impress his audience. Epilepsy was more likely, a physician said dryly.)

Eccentricities aside, though, the club was a civilized and important one. When Prince Louis of Battenberg came to the U.S., he went from a horse show to The Lambs, where he was feted until the wee hours of the morning. During World War I, a 9,600-ton transport vessel was named USS The Lambs. Members had sold millions of dollars’ worth of war bonds, and when one of their own was killed in service, his widow had thrown a generous sum toward the war effort.

The nation’s oldest professional theatrical organization, The Lambs club was involved in the founding of Actors’ Equity, the Screen Actors Guild, SAG-AFTRA, The Actors’ Fund of America, ASCAP, Paramount Pictures, United Artists, and more.

Though you might have glimpsed Ethel Barrymore disguised by a tuxedo years earlier, in 1974 The Lambs became one of the first all-male clubs to admit women—well ahead of the Athenaeum, the Kiwanis Club, the University Club, the Bohemian Club, the Olympic Club, the New York Athletic Club, the Missouri Athletic Club…. These days, almost half the Lambs are women, Fitzpatrick tells me. Members’ ages start in the twenties and rise: one is 101 years old and can regale the others with stories about acting in New York in the 1940s.

Much has changed since then. After Times Square turned sleazy and scruffy and the club’s fortunes dipped, it moved house. Now a Lambs Club Restaurant has opened in the old building—which is now the Chatwal Hotel—on Forty-fourth Street. “We seek to reimagine the hospitable purpose of the original Lambs Club,” explains a team of chefs on its website. Today’s Lambs, now gathering seven blocks up on Fifty-First Street, have been forced to use #TheRealLambs on social to distinguish their lineage.

There are only a few hundred of them now, and I was not brave enough to ask how many are Lambkins (new members) rather than aging Rams. But they still gather for monthly frolics (is it the whimsical lingo that makes the past sound like such carefree fun?) and gambols, which are larger and intended for fundraising. There are Low Jinks (informal, unrehearsed entertainments) and Lambastes, merciless roasts of a member or guest. Floreant Agni is the club motto. May The Lambs Flourish. After every gathering, they sing “The Whiffenpoof Song,” which they borrowed from a Yale men’s chorus. Remember these lines?


We’re poor little lambs who have lost our way
Baa, Baa, Baa

We’re little black sheep who have gone astray,

Baa, Baa Baa.


Elvis Presley was tempted into recording them, as were Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Louis Armstrong, and one of the Lambs’ own, Rudy Vallee. Theirs were the decades of silly songs—and of sentiment, and an innocence preserved only in a few rare institutions.

“Since Lerner and Loewe met at the Lambs, when Loewe died, we got a piece of Brigadoon,” Fitzpatrick says, so earnest that for a minute I take him literally, my mind struggling to envision a physical piece of something. Then I remember the idyllic Scottish town, unaffected by time. We all need a place where we belong, a place we can count on, a place that preserves our past, a place we do not want to change.

When vaudeville star DeWolf Hopper came to St. Louis to act in Mr. Pickwick, he told the press his only regret was that he was so far from The Lambs club. I imagine Kevin Fitzpatrick feels the same way when he comes home to visit.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.