The Right Burgee by Henry Lee was a novel published in 1965 which created an uproar in the Yacht Club crowd. It put in writing all the unspoken truths about yacht clubs, and the fact that they have nothing whatsoever to do with yachts. The East Coast yacht clubs in 1965 were a social class measuring tool.
You could not just pay a membership fee and get in. How much money you had was only one factor. You also had to be of the proper race, religion and ethnic background. How you made your money was also important. “Old money” was many times more valuable than “new money”. If you came from Old Money it meant your family had been part of the upper classes for generations.
The Right Burgee takes place in the fictional Housatonic Yacht Club. Of course, readers in the know realized it was actually the Stamford Connecticut Yacht Club, of which Henry Lee was a member. It is well written and the characters all come across as real people rather than stereotypes.
The Right Burgee cleverly shows the incredible stress on people and families when their main goal in life becomes trying to prove to the world that they belong as part of the chosen few. You see, just getting into a yacht club is not enough. It has to be the right yacht club. A burgee is that little triangular flag that people fly on the front of their boats to show what yacht club they belong to.
Not all burgees are created equal. The top of the top in The United States was the New York Yacht Club, which in 1965 still proudly displayed the America’s Cup trophy in its clubhouse. In their hearts, the members of the Housatonic Yacht Club know that despite all their pretensions their burgee really ranks somewhere in the middle rather than closer to the top.
The main character in The Right Burgee is a man who in the beginning of the story has completely bought into the whole system. His goal in life is to become Commodore of the club, and wear the stripes on the sleeve of his yacht club blazer. He has no interest in boating, but keeps a small sailboat, since that is the only way to obtain “flag rank”.
However, along the way, he begins to question the point of the whole system. He sees the stress his wife is under to always be invited to the correct parties. He sees how his daughter is crushed if she does not get to go to the proper cotillion. He eventually falls in love with a beautiful woman in New York. Getting a divorce and marring her would ruin him socially forever. Not because of the divorce, but because she is Jewish. He will have to choose between love and social standing.
The Right Burgee is hard to find, but there are still a few copies floating around on Amazon. It is worth getting, to see a glimpse into the social structure of a half a century ago. It may seem silly that grown men were willing to spend huge amounts of time, money and effort just to be able to wear a blue blazer with little gold stripes on the sleeve. But it wasn’t about the jacket. It was about the right to show the world that you were better than everyone else. The yacht clubs of those days were not about who got in. They were about who got kept out.
Even in 1965, the whole yacht club structure was beginning to change. Irish-Americans had recently been admitted to some of the clubs, and there was even talk in some clubs of possibly letting in Italian-Americans. Traditional members argued that letting in the Irish-Americans was the beginning of the end for the whole system. Of course, they could still not even imagine a future where Jewish-Americans or African-Americans would ever be admitted to any club with a proper burgee.
When I was young, I met the author of The Right Burgee, Mr. Henry Lee. He was eating at the Stamford Yacht Club, and my mother introduced me to him. I had read the book and I was surprised that he was still a member of the club all those years after its publication. However, it was obvious that the other members of the yacht club had neither forgiven nor forgotten the theme of The Right Burgee. Henry Lee was in the main dining room, eating at a large table, completely alone. The dining room was packed, but Mr. Lee was being studiously ignored by the other members of the club, while they happily chatted to each other. As you can guess, he never became Commodore of the yacht club.