Snug Harbor : Balboa Bay Club Offers Haven for Well-Known, Well-Heeled

Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

It's one of those summer days you dreamed about when you decided to come to California: cloudless and bright and still cool enough in the morning to drive the 928 to the club with the top down. You swing easily into the circular driveway, and your door is opened by the valet almost before the wheels stop turning. As he eases the Porsche away to be washed and detailed, you step onto the carpet that leads to the lobby, stroll through the bar and out onto the sunny veranda. You toss a quick wave at a group of friends sipping their morning mimosas on your way down to the yacht dock.

There sits your spotless, 80-foot, $3-million treasure, fueled up, manned and ready to motor off to Catalina. Breakfast is on the table in the main salon and champagne is chilling in the bucket. You've just gone from home to car to yacht, and you haven't even gotten your feet sandy.

It may sound like ad copy for the California Lottery, but this sort of thing happens all the time at the Balboa Bay Club. At the BBC, Orange County's enclave of laid-back luxury, extraordinary wealth is often ordinary, and the vessels at the clubhouse dock are far too large to be called mere boats.

For the better part of its 40 years, the Balboa Bay Club has been the playground of choice--and sometimes the home--of hundreds of Southern California's most influential, powerful and famous people. It has played host to presidents, prime ministers and kings. It is unquestionably the most famous private club in the county and it has become synonymous with privilege, Newport Beach style--which means, club members and officers said, all of the goodies without all of the stuffiness.

"When somebody asks what the Bay Club is," club president Tom Deemer said, "you have to tell them what it isn't."

"It isn't a yacht club, although we have yacht facilities. It isn't a social club, although we offer all the social considerations. It isn't an athletic club, but we have those facilities. It isn't a dining club, although we offer dining seven days a week. It's a combination of all those, and members can pick as many or as few of them as they want.

"And stuffiness is the furthest thing from the truth. The relaxed atmosphere disavows that. We don't do things that are stuffy."

That's not to say that many of the members are just plain folks. The latest demographic survey of members, taken late last year, offered this profile of typical BBC members:

Most are in their late 40s and have families. Their annual income is at least double the median income of the area in which they live. And that area is likely to be the most affluent city in the county, Newport Beach, where 65% of the members live. Most are homeowners, and 85% live in the county. About a third are boaters or have boating interests, although they may not necessarily own boats.

The beginnings of the club were substantially humbler, almost comically so. Even though a local newspaper, the Newport-Balboa News Times, trumpeted in September, 1947, that a "deluxe yacht club" was to begin construction on a beachfront off West Coast Highway, the reality a year later amounted to no more than a stretch of cluttered sand on Lower Newport Bay's Lido Channel.

The founder of the club, Kenneth Kendall, heir to a Manhattan real estate fortune, spent the early days standing near the highway and drumming up business.

"Why, those guys were selling memberships from a hamburger stand at the end of a small path covered with blacktop, leading straight from the Coast Highway," said early member Morrie Smith in a BBC history titled, "Host of the Coast."

"Everything around was junk," he said.

Apart from the hamburger stand, the only feature that identified the property in the early days as the Balboa Bay Club was a large sign at the corner of the property bearing the name. Still, Kendall talked several people, who had come to Newport Beach on holiday, into buying $100 memberships.

As the clubhouse and adjacent facilities were completed, Hollywood began to discover the BBC. Clark Gable, David Niven, Ruby Keeler, Victor McLaglen, Lana Turner, Leo Carrillo, Bonita Granville, Sonja Henie, Danny Thomas, Dinah Shore, Jack Benny, William Holden, Andy Devine, Jack Oakie, Jascha Heifetz and others either took out memberships or spent time at the club as guests. Humphrey Bogart, an avid yachtsman, occasionally docked his sailboat, Santana, at the club--and used the facilities to court Lauren Bacall.

Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, actress Dolores Del Rio and bandleaders Freddie Martin and David Rose have lived at the club as tenants, and the John Wayne was an active member and served on the club's board of governors. Comedian Joey Bishop, who lives in Newport Beach, has also served on the board.

In 1957, when club president Edward Crowley was married at the club, Phil Harris was best man and Bing Crosby gave away the bride.

Politicians and sports personalities have made stops at the club. In 1960, California Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown stayed there, and rallies for both presidential candidates, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, were held in the BBC's larger rooms.

During his presidency, Nixon once requested--and got--almost immediate use of one of the largest yachts at the club, the Mojo, during a visit to the county, according to club public relations director Dorothy Yardley.

Pitcher Don Drysdale, auto racer Dan Gurney, tennis players Billie Jean King, Jack Kramer and Rod Laver, diving champion Sammy Lee, football coach Vince Lombardi, gymnast Cathy Rigby, Los Angeles Rams coach John Robinson, on-again, off-again New York Yankees manager Billy Martin and jockey Bill Shoemaker, among others, have been named sports "hall of fame" members.

(Celebrities often receive honorary memberships at the discretion of the club and are entitled to the same use of the club as are dues-paying members.)

The growth of the club, particularly in the past three decades, has paralleled that of the city itself, club officials said.

"This was the social center of Orange County in the early years, because there was nowhere else to go for that sort of thing," said Jim Dean, the editor of the Bay Club's monthly magazine, "Bay Window" (which, at age 35, is the county's oldest magazine, according to Dean). "And the fact that it was beside the water was like a bright light to a moth."

The beginnings were primitive, "but it got started with the right people and the right purposes," said Bill Ray, the club's present owner. "Newport Beach was always known as a casual resort community, and we've kept that character here over the years. You can go into the bar and there could be a guy in a tuxedo sitting next to a guy who just got off his boat. There aren't the structured demands of city life, nobody chewing out the waiters or stomping their feet. Actually, some people come down here to sort of hide."

At the Balboa Bay Club, that is easily done. Security at the club, particularly at the apartments and hotel rooms, is tight. If someone wants to do a bit of affluent cocooning, there is a large staff to ensure privacy.

"If I want room service or maid service, or if something needs to be repaired, I can call anytime and get what I need right away," said Annette Hurwitz, a 10-year resident at the club. "There's always a guard in the lobby downstairs. People who want an easy life and minimum maintenance live here. They tend to stay here too, and those who move out are almost always sorry. Nothing in Orange County can touch this place for prestige."

Deemer, BBC's president, said that "members come for all different reasons. Some want privacy and exclusivity and not to be bothered, and some come to see and be seen. We can satisfy both of those."

Well, most of the time. Ray told of a "voluptuous and beautiful and famous actress" who once visited the club, ostensibly retreating from the glare of Hollywood publicity. She told the owner that she was "hiding out" and didn't want to be recognized or bothered. She spent her days on the club's small beach and the staff, Ray said, took pains to ensure that no one bothered her. Even the waiters did not address her by name or acknowledge that she was famous.

"After a while," Ray said, "she got angry. It bothered her that nobody seemed to recognize her. She couldn't believe that absolutely nobody was making a fuss or recognizing her at all."

Privacy has its price, however. Monthly rents, predictably, are commensurate with the amenities. Ray said they range from about $1,500 for a 950-square-foot bachelor apartment to about $3,500 for a 3,200-square-foot, fifth-floor penthouse similar to the one in which Hurwitz lives. More than 400 people are permanent residents of the club's 144 apartments, he said, but many of them maintain homes or apartments elsewhere. Consequently, several BBC apartments are vacant much of the time.

Many apartments and suites are permanently leased by Southern California corporations such as Fluor, Smith International, Smith Tool and TransCom, which use them for meetings, gatherings and overnight stays.

While the nearly four-year wait for a permanent apartment at the club might seem long, there is a wait of five to seven years for one of the club's 140 vessel slips, Ray said. Although it is the largest yacht facility in Newport Beach, members guard their watery territory jealously.

The hardest slips to come by are the largest ones, directly in front of the clubhouse. It is there that some of the most impressive private yachts in Southern California are moored, a fleet worth a collective $50 million, with some yachts carrying an estimated price tag of more than $3 million.

There is the 83-foot, former Coast Guard cutter C'est La Vie, owned by county developer Bill Lusk. There is the 102-foot B.P. John, owned by Ben Bukewihge, president of the B.P. John furniture company. The largest yacht at the club, the B.P. John carries a piano, motorcycle, jet skis and two speedboats.

Then there is Felicidad, a 94-foot yacht owned by members Richard and Marilyn Hausman and considered the most elegant yacht at the Bay Club dock. The on-board amenities include shipboard elevators, a whirlpool bath in the master stateroom, more than 100 cubic feet of freezer space, a temperature-controlled wine cellar and indirect lighting throughout.

So how does one arrange for a slice of all this? Membership, Deemer said, is not considered expensive for a private club. The $6,000 basic initiation fee and the $100-per-month dues entitle the member and the member's family to full use of the club's facilities.

That, he said, is "probably the most reasonable price for a club in Southern California."

Entree isn't a problem either, Ray said. The recommendation of two current members is needed for a person to be considered for membership, but "if you don't know anyone, we'll help you get acquainted," he said.

Credit and character are checked, he said, but there is no personal-income minimum. There is also no lid on the number of members, Ray said.

However, because all monetary transactions at the BBC are done on members' club credit cards--no cash changes hands--members are expected to be solvent enough "not to be living from paycheck to paycheck," Dean said.

A current example of a new member, public relations director Yardley said, is author and Newport Beach resident Joseph Wambaugh.

"You can't be in the lower classes" and be a member, Yardley said.

The BBC, throughout its 40 years, has been something of a paradox. It is the home of yachts with wine cellars, but is also leased for one day a year by the International Chili Society for the California State Chili Championships, a kind of Mardi Gras with beef.

It is the refuge of stars and the stopping place for dignitaries, foreign and domestic, but also holds "Irrelevant Week," seven days of revelry in honor of the last college player picked in the pro football draft each year.

All those things, said member Paul Salata, who organizes Irrelevant Week each year, "are easily reconcilable. If somebody wants to throw a half-million-dollar wedding, for instance, that's their business. But our social agenda is for charity and for the fun of the membership. Those are reasons we belong. We try to do a lot of good for the community, even though we're a private club."

Deemer, however, explained it more succinctly.

"We are," he said, "everything to everybody."

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