A Place in the Sun: Upper Crust Loves to Bake at Exclusive La Jolla Club

Times Staff Writer

The caller was actor Gregory Peck and he had a favor to ask. It so happened that Jacques Chirac, a personal friend and the mayor of Paris, was in town--could he possibly stop by the club for the day?

"Oh, we said yes to that request," said William J. Kellogg, president of the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club. "Mr. Peck has been a guest in the past. So we invited the mayor to the beach, had him to lunch. It was a fine day."

For many club visitors past and present--people such as Lord Mountbatten, Emperor Hirohito, Adm. Chester Nimitz and a galaxy of professional tennis luminaries--such red-carpet treatment is standard fare.

They are escorted past the swaying palms lining the club's oval driveway to dine at the famous Marine Room restaurant, play a game of tennis or just relax along one of the few privately owned beaches on the California coast.

Visiting the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club is one thing. Becoming a member, however, is a different matter entirely.

A Respite From Beverly Hills

In the 1950s, club membership became a hot ticket for Hollywood jet-setters seeking a nearby escape from Beverly Hills.

Today, the venerable club, established in 1927 along the southern end of La Jolla Shores, maintains about 1,200 members--with another 3,000 on its waiting list. This summer, applicants first considered in 1980 finally were gaining membership.

For many wealthy members, the club is the place to see and be seen, do the social shake and bake, exchange business cards over a patio lunch or just sit back and relax in luxury.

Club memberships often are passed down like cherished family heirlooms. Many members are third and fourth generations to belong to the club.

Location Sets Club Apart

So what is it about the place that attracts this kind of attention, making its membership the prime jewel in a La Jolla socialite's crown?

"Location, location, location," the 37-year-old Kellogg said recently, walking along the 11-acre club's private beach, gazing out at the jagged, palm-studded coast.

"There's a lot of very nice and very exclusive clubs in the area. We've just got that location to add to the package. We couldn't be in a better spot. But there's only so much private beach, only so many tennis courts.

"The demand for membership is so great, we just can't let everyone in. We have to draw the line somewhere."

But these days, insiders say, change has come to the club atmosphere that four generations of Kelloggs have striven to preserve--ever since F. W. Kellogg helped develop the grounds from a patch of coastal marshland more than 60 years ago.

Since his son, William Scripps Kellogg, died in 1985, a new six-member operating partnership has been formed--including F. W. Kellogg's grandson William Crowe Kellogg and members of the blood-related McKellar family.

Change in Philosophy Feared

In January, when the ailing William C. Kellogg retired as president of the operating board after 17 years, son William J. Kellogg took over.

The change, some members fear, could signal a shift in philosophy--that the club will be run more like a business than a family passion.

Recent months, for example, have seen board members voice differences over the

development--and even the possible sale--of La Jolla's trademark resort, several members said privately.

"The question is, 'Do you want to maintain the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club as an elegant institution or see it commercialized to the hilt, possibly sold off for future condo rights,' " said one club member.

Kellogg dismisses the rumors, saying that, although he and board members Jim McKellar and son Chris McKellar, both La Jolla developers, come from different backgrounds, their differences will remain family business.

"The McKellars' background is obviously oriented to develop property to its maximum potential," Kellogg said. "But the whole group has decided that the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club is something they like and want to keep the way it is."

Club Is Not for Sale

Although offers routinely are made on the club and adjacent Sea Lodge Hotel--most recently from major American hotel chains and Japanese business interests--the club, Kellogg said, is simply not for sale.

James McKellar echoed those sentiments.

"No way. We just won't sell," he said. "We don't want to see any more development; we want to keep the membership within limits. We want to keep it the way it was."

He acknowledged, however, that there have been power struggles behind board-room doors in the past.

"Sure, I would have liked to have been board president," McKellar said. "But the Kelloggs are running the place just fine."

Selling Issue Divides Clan

One La Jolla resident who knows both families said the selling issue has in recent months divided the clan, known as one of the wealthiest and most powerful in La Jolla.

"The McKellars are strictly business; they'd sell the place in a minute," he said. "I applaud the Kelloggs for trying to keep this part of La Jolla's past intact."

One possible issue, Kellogg acknowledged, is the building of apartment-style guest rooms along the club's eight-hole executive golf course. The club now operates 91 guest rooms, which are available to both members and the general public.

"Years ago, this land was zoned as a private recreation facility, which means we can't increase the floor area by any more than 10%," Kellogg said. "We're certainly not going to change this place into any Miami Beach."

True to Its Roots

Despite such talk of change, Kellogg insists that the club will remain true to its roots: a site of La Jolla's annual Jewel Ball, a training ground for tennis greats and a place where business deals can be struck in a restrained social atmosphere.

"We still primarily view ourselves as a family and tennis resort," he said. "It's not for swinging singles--it's somewhere parents and children alike can get away from things."

Critics maintain that the exclusive club is maybe a little too exclusive--that few blacks and other minorities have been permitted membership.

"In my 43 years here, it's been the general understanding that people of the Jewish faith haven't been welcome there," said Rabbi Morton J. Cohn. "For years, there seemed to be a gentleman's agreement that people in La Jolla wouldn't rent or sell to minorities."

Salk, UC Bring Changes

Much of that changed, however, with the arrival of institutions such as the Salk Institute and the emergence of UC San Diego as a major university, Cohn said.

"These places attracted people of great social and intellectual eminence who just happened to be minorities," he said. "Things had to open up, including the clubs in town."

Kellogg said he didn't know the number of blacks or other minorities in the club's membership.

"I don't know the number of black members--if there are or there aren't," he said. "The club's membership reflects the La Jolla community and possibly whatever biases there are out there."

Membership rules require that applicants be sponsored by at least two present members and submit to a personal interview. Initial fees are $7,500, with an additional $2,100 annually, he said.

Relatively Low Prices

Kellogg said the relatively low prices make the club competitive with other area tennis clubs and resorts--places like the San Diego Tennis & Racquet Club, the tennis club at the Hotel del Coronado and resorts in La Costa and Rancho Bernardo.

"The beach club doesn't even look at national origin or religious persuasion," he said. "I suspect there are Jewish and Italian members, but I refuse to comment on that, because I don't know."

George Hunt, a club member who made his fortune in the self-storage business, said he has seen no signs of discrimination at the club.

"Based on the number of applications, the number of minorities is extremely fair," he said. "I've known the Kelloggs for years, and I've never seen any behavior that even touches prejudice.

"I mean, a lot of the staff has been there a long, long time. If they weren't treated properly, they wouldn't stay."

Discrimination Claimed

Ben Press, tennis pro at the Hotel del Coronado, however, believes discrimination against Jews prevailed when he played at the club in the 1960s.

"They did have a problem for years there," he said. "I played there, but maybe they didn't know I was Jewish. I knew a lot of other Jews who got turned down for applications."

Herbert McCoy, a retired La Jolla physician, said he's not the only Jewish member today at the beach and tennis club.

"Jonas Salk is a member," he said. "Not all of us are the standard Caucasian Presbyterian types."

McCoy said he joined the club in 1950 as a way to become closer with his children. "I graduated all my children from there," he said. "In the summer, we used the beach a lot.

"I knew they'd grow up and leave me someday. So, while I had them, I made it sort of a daddy's summer camp."

Established in 1927

Perhaps that's what Frederick William Kellogg had in mind when he and a group of investors established the La Jolla Beach & Yacht Club back in 1927, dredging a channel from the ocean to the duck pond that remains part of the property.

But the channel soon collapsed and, with the arrival of the Great Depression, so did the national economy. The group went bankrupt and Kellogg bought their interests, changing the scope of the club and its name, in 1935, to the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club.

After the elder Kellogg's death in 1942, his son William Scripps Kellogg took over until 1972.

It was during those years that the club became a training ground for many of the great tennis players of the era. The likes of Bobby Riggs, Pancho Gonzalez and Bill Tilden could often be seen on the 12 concrete and asphalt courts.

Storms Damaged Restaurant

The Marine Room restaurant was also built. Twice over the years, the last in 1982, storm waves crashed through the restaurant's reinforced windows. Pictures of William Scripps Kellogg, serving drinks to patrons standing in knee-deep water, still hang in the lobby.

That's what many members like about the club--the fact that it's steeped in history, no Johnny-come-lately to the La Jolla social scene.

Neighbors of the club have not always shared the members' enthusiasm.

"They act like they own La Jolla," said Jose Tasende, who owns an art gallery in town. "They act like the beach and the sea belong to them, just because most of them have some sort of old family ties to the area."

Sculpture Leads to Dispute

Tasende last felt the ire of old La Jolla eight years ago, he said, when he placed a Henry Moore sculpture in Scripps Park--one that William Crowe Kellogg detested.

"He said he had never heard of the sculptor, and he didn't think it was an appropriate place for the work," Tasende recalled. "I told him that it was OK to put his bar and club on the water's edge but that a piece of art wasn't good enough."

A resident later sent the elder Kellogg a photograph--one that still hangs in his old office at the club. It shows a dog urinating at the base of the sculpture, which still stands in the park.

Other neighbors say the beach club management gets a little too territorial with the club's private beach, often chasing non-member swimmers from the waters just offshore. Although Kellogg denied the charges, he said the club is vigilant against beach "poachers."

Club a 'Snooty Place'

"It's a rather snooty place," said Russell Forester, an artist who has lived in La Jolla for more than 60 years.

"But that's OK. Most people just grin and bear it. It's there. They're just lucky somebody was around to acquire all that ocean-side property when the getting was good."

Inside the club gates, everything looks a little more hospitable. Just ask Jeanne Herberger, who, along with husband, Gary, was admitted to the club last week.

"I'm absolutely thrilled," said the longtime Phoenix resident, who recently purchased a second home in Rancho Santa Fe. "We think it's the most special place in the entire Southwest."

For 15 years, the Herbergers had rented an oceanside apartment at the club for the summer, in effect remaining outsiders looking in. All that's changed now.

"It was frustrating. Once we drove out of those gates at the end of our rental, we couldn't go back in. It's nice to know we can stop by and say hello to the friendly guard, give our identification number and play tennis anytime."

Sometimes, when William J. Kellogg takes a stroll on the beach or finishes a round of tennis, he senses the history of the place his family built.

He sees the image of his father taking children for a ride on the beach in a tractor used to collect seaweed. He sees the countless pictures of esteemed guests and memorable events that cover the walls of the club's museum.

And he laughs at the image of a school-aged pal who was banished from the club after driving a car over the golf course on a dare, only to be readmitted years later as a successful La Jolla attorney.

But he knows that some change must come to keep things the same. More than $1 million a year is being spent on face lifts here and there, to fix the cracks that in some areas give the place the feel of a fixer-upper country club in a nice neighborhood.

But the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club, he says, will survive.

"I like the fact that it's still a family business," he said. "We're not controlled by remote interests of some huge hotel chain with headquarters in some other state."

The place is a lot like the sea horse that has become the club's symbol, a figure seen on cabanas and swimming in an aquarium in the restaurant lobby.

"They're such delicate creatures," Kellogg said, peering into the clear waters of the tank. "They don't do so well with other fish in the tank. So we just like to leave them alone, let them do their own thing."

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