Patrick stuns and heartens by shunning men’s night

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / December 8, 2009

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For more than a century, it has been a bastion of backslapping, brotherly bonhomie. Judges, governors, cardinals, and mayors have accepted the club’s invitation to hold court over dinner. Club members, wearing clover-leaf pendants over their tuxedoes, sing ribald songs, perform farcical skits in wigs and dresses, and roast their honored guests.

But Governor Deval Patrick, the nation’s former top civil rights official and the first black governor of Massachusetts, has suddenly sparked a debate about the propriety of the 126-year-old Clover Club’s thrice-a-year dinner, by deciding at the last minute to cancel his scheduled appearance last Saturday night. His reason: The club does not accept women.

Club members and their guests, who include many high-powered executives and political leaders, said they were stunned and disappointed.

“I’ve never heard of anybody who thinks it’s inappropriate,’’ said former House speaker Thomas M. Finneran, who said he has attended about 10 club dinners over the years. “Neither my wife nor my daughter, who are grown and very intelligent women, were ever offended that I was going to a guys-only event.’’

Former attorney general and House speaker Robert H. Quinn, who has been attending for three decades, also defended the group.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with men’s clubs,’’ Quinn said.

Patrick’s office explained his cancellation in a brief statement Sunday, blaming the governor’s staff for failing to alert him to “a full understanding of the club’s traditions’’ and saying, “When the governor recently found out about the fact that women were not allowed to attend such functions, he expressed his concern to the organizers and decided not to attend.’’ Yesterday Patrick, through a spokesman, declined to elaborate.

The governor’s decision was praised by several politically active Massachusetts women.

“I’m glad the governor did what he did, and he absolutely did the right thing,’’ said Cheryl M. Cronin, a prominent Boston lawyer and Patrick supporter who called the male-only tradition “just misguided.’’

“It’s one thing for people to socialize with their own gender - those are personal decisions - but to have institutionalized clubs or facilities that expressly exclude certain people based on gender or race and to have the governor participate in that is . . . not the place he wants to be,’’ Cronin said.

Shannon P. O’Brien, the former state treasurer, said her own father was once a speaker at the club and was thrilled by the honor. She said she has many friends in the club, which she described as “an opportunity for influential business people to mingle and listen to bad speeches.’’

But she said many women will welcome Patrick’s decision.

“That will warm the hearts of women who were not invited,’’ O’Brien said.

The club was founded in 1883 by leading Irish-Americans in Boston who were responding to their own exclusion from the city’s Brahmin social clubs, which were dominated by the Yankee elite.

Clover Club members wanted “to demonstrate that they were indeed gentlemen, and they knew how to behave, and use a knife and fork, and they could be a group who invited illustrious speakers, and their sons were good enough to go to Harvard,’’ said Thomas H. O’Connor, university historian at Boston College. O’Connor spoke at the club in the 1960s with Cardinal Richard J. Cushing.

Over the decades, the club has mixed windy speeches on history and politics with high jinks and tomfoolery. Club members once pelted James Michael Curley, the legendary mayor of Boston, with dinner rolls. Curley was lampooned as “King James the First,’’ and then, in 1936, club members elected as their president John F. Fitzgerald, the former mayor of Boston, who poked fun at himself by dressing as Napoleon.

The club holds three dinners a year, which for decades were staples of the city’s political scene. Although most of its members are of Irish descent, many of its speakers are not.

Leverett Saltonstall, the state’s famously Brahmin governor and senator, once drew laughs in an address to club members, proudly proclaiming himself “Irish on the chauffeur’s side.’’

Details about the size and makeup of the club’s membership are not public, and a past president yesterday was vague about requirements for joining, which he said is by invitation. The club’s president, James T. Brett, did not return calls seeking more information.

The Clover Club dinners, held at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel, still attract more than 600 men, but are now closed to the press.

Club members include William M. Bulger, former Senate president and former president of the University of Massachusetts; Kenneth K. Quigley Jr., president of Curry College; George J. Matthews, former chairman of the Northeastern University board of trustees; and Brett, president and chief executive of the New England Council, a business group.

“Every governor I have ever known has spoken at the club,’’ said Thomas P. O’Neill III, a club member, former lieutenant governor, and a son of the former US House speaker, who was also a member. “It never got caught up in that controversy about women or men-only clubs.’’