First Black California Club Member Signs Up

Times Staff Writer

Some time today, Dr. Joseph L. Alexander, a 58-year-old surgeon and former Army colonel, is to sign the register to become the first black member in the California Club’s 101-year history.

It is a sign of the sensitivity of membership issues in the exclusive downtown club that some members interviewed about Alexander said they believed that it would be better if the event was not reported. “He has to come in like Joe Doakes down the street,” one said.

Alexander said in an interview that he and his wife, Phyllis, are looking forward to participating in club activities and that he is prepared to cope with any awkward situations that might arise.

“I don’t mind if someone doesn’t want to associate with me,” he said. “I’ve always picked and chosen my friends myself. Being black in America, I’ve been exposed to things and I’m confident the transition into the club will not be difficult.”


Actually, he said, it is some of his friends who sponsored him for membership who seem more concerned about his being comfortable at the club than he is.

A resident of Bunker Hill Towers, a few blocks from the club, Alexander said he views his membership as a further opportunity to take advantage of the downtown area’s cultural and recreational opportunities.

“I don’t want to join just to be joining,” he said. “And it certainly wasn’t to integrate the club. It was to enjoy life and extend the friendships I’ve already made with club members.”

Other California Club members said the club’s membership committee already has approved a second black for membership and he is on a waiting list until a vacancy opens in the club’s roster of regular members, which are limited in the club charter to 1,275. He is Ivan J. Houston, the chairman and chief executive officer of Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co.


Approved for Membership

Alexander, who in 1951 was the first black student admitted to the University of Louisville Medical School, said he had been approved for California Club membership even before the City of Los Angeles adopted an ordinance last spring banning membership discrimination at most large private clubs.

But during the time he has been on the waiting list, a furor has developed at the club over the prospective admission of the club’s first women members, and a growing group of dissidents have written several letters to all club members seeking to get the club to defy the ordinance.

Last Friday, a member of the dissident group, who asked not to be identified, said in an interview that the issue of admitting women is now considerably more controversial in the club than the issue of admitting racial or religious minorities.


He said a number of Jews had been admitted to the club in recent years without objection and he said there was no objection to Alexander and Houston.

Mere Formalities

Two weeks ago, the club posted the names of its first two prospective women members, E. Cameron Cooper, a senior vice president of ARCO, and Linda Hartwick, a senior associate of the executive search firm of Korn-Ferry International.

At that time, members said they still have to win the final approval of the membership committee and pass through the waiting list, a matter of six months or more, but these were described as mere formalities.


Since then, however, according to some members, club President Lawrence P. Day, after a fractious exchange with the dissidents in a general club meeting, has agreed to a new, secret ballot vote more or less directly on the question of admitting women.

The club voted last June by a large margin to change a provision in its charter that banned women. The Board of Directors reported at the time that “of the club’s 1,275 regular members eligible to vote, a total of 1,045, or more than 81%, sent in their ballots. Of these, 952, or 90%, voted for the change in bylaws, 81 voted against and 12 returned ballots abstaining.”

Charges by Dissidents

The dissidents, however, charged subsequently that the club’s leadership had misled the members about their options and demanded a vote on a proposed house rule that would declare the club was not subject to the ordinance, and would keep women out.


Members report that Day has not yet set a date for the new vote but is under continuing pressure from the dissidents, headed by former club President John M. Robinson, to do so.

Alexander will sign the register today in the midst of this controversy, and even some of his strongest supporters in the club said they are nervous about his reception.

Alexander said he first applied to join the club, on the urging of attorney James H. Kindel Jr., and other members with whom he was socially friendly, about two years ago. It was their feeling, he said, “that the time was right.”

However, for many months, he said, his application did not move forward. “It sort of picked up a bit” when talk grew last spring about the impending Los Angeles anti-discrimination ordinance, he said.


Race Not Mentioned

Alexander said that when he met with the membership committee, no one mentioned his race or that he would be the first black member. Instead, the talk was the traditional kind about his friendships with club members and his social contacts.

Alexander, born in Oneonta, Ala., was chief of the organ transplantation service at Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington before moving to Los Angeles to become chairman of the department of surgery at the Charles R. Drew Postgraduate Medical School in Los Angeles, professor of surgery at the UCLA Medical School and founder and director of the general surgery residence program at the Los Angeles County-Martin Luther King Jr. General Hospital.

He now practices surgery and other medicine at St. Vincent’s and several other Los Angeles hospitals. His wife has been a member of Mayor Tom Bradley’s Commission on the Status of Women.


Outright Hostility

Until recent years, there had been a long period of outright hostility to blacks in the California Club. Some members say that as late as the early 1970s, a member who one day brought a black guest to lunch in the main club dining room found that no one would serve them.

Bradley, when he became the first black mayor of Los Angeles in 1973, adopted a policy of never going to the club.

The attitude reportedly began to change under the club presidency of John C. Argue in 1983-84, with the first hesitant moves toward admitting blacks. However, at that time there was too much opposition and the moves did not bear fruit.


No formal ceremony is planned when Alexander signs the register today. “I will just walk down the street and sign in,” he said.