The Claremont Park Book Club is distinctive for several reasons, not least the fact that its members, when they meet up, don’t discuss books. But by far its most impressive trait is that it is still going strong — albeit with an influx of new members along the way— since its founding in 1917.
This week, the women-only club celebrated its 100th birthday with an elegant party at the Claremont Assembly Club on Hillcrest Road. The hall, built in 1914 and designed by Charles Kaiser Sumner, was a fitting setting for the event.
Beautiful book-themed table decorations, some crafted by club members, others on loan from the Berkeley Public Library Foundation, graced the tables. Other decorative elements were supplied by This Into That artist Jim Rosenau. While retro music played, around 100 guests — club members and their partners and friends – socialized and reminisced, many wearing formal-wear and period costumes. Their instructions had been to garb themselves from “any decade of the last 100 years.”
Dorothy Berndt, who as the club’s centennial chairperson said she had spent the past two years overseeing the planning for Monday’s celebration, said the whole club, as well as its centennial committee, felt it was important to do something special to mark the momentous birthday.
Berndt traces her own love of books to her grandmother in Ohio who would read poetry to her. The club’s members all enjoy reading, she said, though their gatherings don’t involve discussions of books.
In fact, the club wasn’t even founded as a book group. The original group of women came together to knit socks and roll bandages for the British War Relief during World War I, rather than for literary pursuits, and then they did the same for American soldiers and sailors when the U.S. joined the fight.
Over the past 100 years the group has seen momentous changes and accomplished great things – both as individuals, as philanthropists, scholars and professionals, Berndt said, as well as “through their influence on and support of their husbands, sons and daughters who went on to lead interesting and impactful lives.”
Marilyn Johnson is among the club’s most longstanding members, having acted as its treasurer for 41 years. There have been many mother-daughter members, including Margaret and Leslie Emmington. Indeed, Margaret, who was born in 1904, hosted one of the club’s early gatherings at her home, and a celebratory luncheon was thrown for her by the club on the occasion of her own 100th birthday. She died in 2008 at the age of 104.
Judith Glass, who has been a member for a comparatively short eight years, said she loved the club because it was neighborhood-centric but also inclusive. “People are very committed,” she said.
Jane Zaloudek, who attended Monday’s party with her husband, Charles, has been a member for 20 years. “The club has a strong sense of community,” she said. “We all look out for one another.”
This was never more true than in 1991 when the devastating Oakland-Berkeley firestorm tore through the very neighborhood in which most of the club’s members live. Sixteen of the members lost their homes in the fire and the tragedy brought the group even closer together.
When the club meets, as it does every month between September and May, it always does so at a member’s home. Lunch or tea is served and doilies are a fixture, as is a guest speaker. Books do figure largely, with a system of buying a set of books each year and distributing two every two weeks among the members, who read them and pass them on. Often this means delivering by foot a black bag inscribed with the club’s name at a neighbor’s home, as the members all, by definition, live close to one another.
The composer John Adams, who attended the centennial bash with his wife, club member Deborah O’Grady, said he often takes a peek inside the distinctive black bag when he spots it on his front porch. “There’s always something interesting inside,” he said, noting how nice it was that the books were always hardbacks.
O’Grady, a photographer, recalled being invited to join the group soon after she first moved to Berkeley. She felt she was too busy, tending to young kids as she was at that point, but years later she was asked to speak about her work at the club and became a member shortly after that. She has now been with the club 26 years.
Club member Jacquelyn McCormick, whose day job is senior advisor to Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, said she values the group as “there are very few opportunities to connect with the neighborhood,” unless you count running into friends at Star Market every few weeks, she said.
A short film chronicling the origins of the club and its members, as well as the history of the Claremont Park neighborhood, was shown at the birthday party. Produced and directed by McCormick, it can be viewed below.
After watching the film, and receiving copies of a special book published to mark the centennial, the guests on Monday raised a glass to the club — and to its next 100 years.