These days the Royal Automobile Club in London is one of the swankiest private clubs in the world with grand and luxurious premises on Pall Mall. But in the beginning, in 1897, when Eleanor was hired as a secretary, the club made do with more cozy quarters in Whitehall. And there was no royal stamp of approval yet. That wouldn’t come for another ten years. Now the Royal Automobile Club accepts women as members but back in those days it was only for men. Who would dream of it being otherwise? Private gentlemen’s clubs were a well-established element of upper-class society. These members-only clubs were where men went to be with other men, to savour fine cognac, to smoke cigars, play billiards, talk politics, cook up schemes, make bets and generally divide the ownership and management of the whole world among themselves. Wives, mothers and daughters never set foot in these male enclaves and what happened at a man’s club stayed there. Privacy was an unspoken guarantee.
The best, most desirable clubs had been in existence for many, many generations. Sons followed fathers and joined their clubs and their sons followed them. Membership was exclusive and rigid. The characters of these clubs were thus fossilized. No surprise then that this new car club, a rebel upstart centered on what was a disturbing and exhilarating technological revolution, was suddenly the coolest club in London.
For Eleanor, landing a job at this motorcar club would have been a great coup. She would have felt the smug pride of being part of the “in crowd”. And more than that. She must also have felt a nervous elation just being in proximity to the members. These men were the geniuses of the era, the equivalents of Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates. They were doing incredibly exciting things.
So how on earth did this seventeen year old girl get a job like that? Well, don’t forget that unlike most girls, she was actually qualified to be a secretary because she had stayed in school. She was energetic and bright and someone put in a good word for her. Did her looks help her get the job? My guess is yes, of course they did. To be fair, it wasn’t Eleanor’s fault that she was beautiful. And when has personal appearance ever not been a factor in the job market. We all know that even now men and women alike put huge stock in their appearance when they go for a job interview. No doubt Eleanor’s beauty and appealing personality would have been great assets to this hip new club. Along with the artwork on the walls and the fine furniture, why not get a beautiful girl to dress up the place?
The other question that begs to be asked is why didn’t this men’s-only club hire male secretaries? If the club was off limits to wives and daughters then why was it OK to have this charming seventeen year old girl around? Of course the bald answer must be that it was OK because Eleanor was lower class. She was an outsider, not a part of their social circle. They didn’t have to worry about what Eleanor saw or heard. Who would she tell who mattered? And they didn’t have to care about her reputation the way they would care about their own wives and daughters.
Regardless of how she got the job and putting aside the whole issue of whether that job was even appropriate, Eleanor was a success. She didn’t coast on her looks. She worked and worked hard. By what little snippets of information exist, it seems that Eleanor was a great secretary, reliable, capable, efficient and amazingly on the ball. She was appreciated – and noticed.
And it was through the club that she met the man who would be the love of her life.
(To be continued...)