Standing in front of The Players on Gramercy Park South, the grandeur of the brownstone townhouse’s façade, with its Renaissance style wrought iron working gas lanterns, is impressive yet not intimidating. Of all the remaining private clubs in New York – and they are an endangered species, to be sure – this is the most welcoming, approachable and outgoing. Perhaps I’m a bit biased as I’ve been a member for the last five years.
It helps that this is a very storied place. If this club is haunted, the ghosts include Edwin Booth, Stanford White, Sarah Bernhardt, Mark Twain, James Cagney and Helen Hayes, among many others. When you step inside, you’re stepping not only into the 19th Century, when the club was first established, but into the entire history of the club since. The crack in the communal table in the Grill, happened when Cagney rapped his fist onto it when engaging in a particularly heated debate. There are multiple portraits of cultural icons from Booth and Twain right up to Jimmy Fallon and Martha Plimpton. The office next to the Library is where Actors Equity was first formed. Theres a skull in the Booth Apartment that he used when playing Hamlet. In the Mad Men era, Sinatra would depart The Friars uptown and have his final drinks of the night at The Players.
The club was the vision of Booth, the preeminent American actor of his time, renowned for his interpretations of Hamlet and Richard III, among others. Despite his success and prominence, actors were not a widely respected lot back in the day, seen as disreputable and untrustworthy. Booth wanted to create a space where they and other theater artists could mingle with respected individuals from other professions, and be given the same level of respect and regard. In 1888, he purchased the townhouse and, along with Stanford White, Mark Twain and William Tecumseh Sherman, among other bold face names of the time, established The Players. White redesigned the interior of the building, transforming it from a residence to an elegant private club. Booth only retained a small, one-room apartment for himself and his daughter, and it has been preserved exactly as it was when he lived there. It’s where that skull I mentioned lives. And that’s another story – it was donated by a condemned man who had seen Booth ‘s father perform, and, well…let’s just say he lost his head over the Booth family talent.
However historically significant, there is nothing staid about The Players. This is a place to belly up to the bar, carouse and canoodle, as it always has been. During Prohibition, it basically functioned as a speakeasy; reputedly there was an opening in the basement wall between Players and the National Arts Club next door, so if there was a raid on one club, the hooch was quickly dispatched to the other club for safekeeping. The atmosphere in the Grill downstairs is familial and welcoming. Should you ask if you can sit next to a member at one of the communal tables, you’re told not to ask permission, just simply sit down and say hello. Members basically regard the club as a second home. It’s an enclave for theater, film and television artists, as well as musicians and visual artists, and professionals from all walks of life who are staunch supporters of the arts.
One of the other reasons The Players is my favorite place to imbibe is Eddie Castillo, the head bartender. Eddie has been working in the club for 23 years, and I’m guessing he has at least one juicy tale he can share without the walls caving in on us. But no dice – Eddie won’t break the bartender’s code of silence. It seems that what happens in Players stays in Players. I guess that’s good news. He also makes the best Perfect Manhattan in town, for my money. We have a ritual: Eddie pours the cocktail up to the very rim of the glass, necessitating me to bend down and sip before I can move the glass without spilling. I’ve dubbed this little bit of choreography “The Labrador Retriever”. Given that Eddie is generous with his pours, he continues to refill each time I take a sip. This can go on for 2 or 3 sips before I can carry the glass to a table.the author with bartender Eddie Castillo
I ask him about his favorite cocktail. “My favorite cocktail is a classic Martini. It’s an elegant drink. And by ‘Martini,’ I mean gin – not vodka.” Eddie’s recipe is straightforward: Gordon’s gin mixed with ½ ounce of Martini & Rossi Extra Dry vermouth. The James Bond way – stirred, not shaken. Garnish with either olives or a twist, whatever your preference.
And so I sip one of Eddie’s genuine Martinis, savoring it and the festive atmosphere of The Players. The history, the camaraderie, the beauty of the club all combine to make it my favorite place to imbibe.
Interested in knowing more about becoming a member of The Players? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also learn more about the club here.