BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
With 175 of Chicago’s most dazzling denizens filling the drawing room at a private club recently, no one could doubt that the Social Register, the only national social association, is as relevant today as it was at its founding 130 years ago.
Owner Christopher R. Wolf, in his opening remarks, gave credit to SR Chicago Committee Chairman, Brian White, for the SR’s first ever cocktail party. The idea for the parties—which will also be held in Palm Beach, Washington, D.C., New York, San Francisco, among other cities—all began when a young member told White that the SR needed a dating app. Millennials today are looking for a greater connection, and the SR wants to be more responsive to its members by providing everyone with opportunities to renew friendships and make new friends in an elegant and fun setting.
As Wolf described:
“We have always been known as a bastion of civility. Our members are known for thoughtful philanthropy and also include a broad range of vocations, from writers Edith Wharton, George Plimpton, and Ved Mehta to explorers Hiram Bingham and Richard E. Byrd to designers Oscar de la Renta and Tory Burch, among many others making positive contributions to society.
“The Association was founded in 1886, and its first membership directory was published later that year. Most of the members were in New York, Newport, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. As people became more mobile, our books would follow their routes. From the 1930s through the 1970s, there were up to 18 books in 26 cities. In 1977, the Forbes family consolidated these regional books into one.
“Last year, we introduced the Locator, restoring the intimacy and ability to find old friends and new acquaintances by state, city, and zip code. This additional publication has been enthusiastically received. Throughout the years, the Association has held its membership in the highest regard.”
The Forbes family took ownership of the SR from the Beekmans and forty years later, the Wolf family, socially acquainted with the Forbeses for years, assumed stewardship in late 2014. In another forty years, stewardship will likely be transferred to another family, as has been the custom. The Wolfs plan to include historic preservation and philanthropy as part of the SR legacy.
“We now have created a Social Register Foundation, and one of our goals is to purchase a townhouse where members can meet and attend catered lectures. It will be used for charitable, educational, and social purposes, and to house the Association’s tremendous archives.”
According to Wolf, among the 2,000 boxes currently stored offsite are rare letters from its members:
“I discovered a letter marked ‘1998’ from a Bill T. Sherman. It turned out that it was mislabeled, and it was actually from Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman, written in 1898. We have one from Mrs. Jack Bouvier making sure that her daughters Jacqueline and Lee were to be listed, and then from Jacqueline giving her Washington address with husband, John F. Kennedy.
“There are letters from the wives of Presidents Coolidge, Taft, and Hoover, and several letters from Eleanor Roosevelt, first when she was 19, and then when she married Franklin and they moved to Albany.”
Digitizing the collection, helping members trace and contribute to their family histories, and producing relevant videos are part of the plans for the future. The SR Foundation will also donate to a variety of charities, such as those promoting literacy and libraries.
The Chicago party emphasized the SR’s multi-generational membership. Until recently, its oldest member was our city’s beloved Peggy Carr, who was born into the SR in 1913. The SR’s magazine profiled Peggy just before her death in November at 103. There are currently 25,000 members—the same number as in 1934—so membership in the Association remains, as always, a rare honor, allowing those listed in the Social Register to easily socialize with other prominent friends and families.
As White observed:
“The Social Register has always been the ultimate definition of true society . . . whether you were born into it, married into it, or got in through achievement. Our membership has never been stronger.”
Photo credit: Jennifer Girard