Franklin Inn Club is Philadelphia’s Longest Surviving Literary Society
But what about the isolating effects of technology?
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Rosso was first introduced to her as a “bookish lad,” who might “find and fetch her books as she needed.”
As for Gordon, the 83-year-old Radnor resident first joined the city’s Cosmo-politan Club, later becoming its president. Her late husband, Ken, a child psychiatrist and Jefferson University Hospital faculty member, had found the FIC through a friend. “He figured it was a place to eat on days he was teaching” she says.
Like the FIC’s founders, Gordon had her own medical career in neuroendocrinology research. But the avid art collector wasn’t able to join the society until 1983, when a battle royal over female membership was decided. A number of loyal Innmates resigned over the decision. “It saved the club, really, to open it to women,” says Rosso.
At the Franklin Inn Club, the walls are lined with books, all written or illustrated by club members—except for a recently added shelf with work from outside speakers. The FIC’s three prominent early members were physicians: S. Weir Mitchell was a novelist, a poet, and a famed neurologist fascinated with wounded soldiers and rattlesnake-bite victims. Also a pioneer in psychiatry, he despised Freud and psychoanalysis. A surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania, J. William White started the school’s athletic programs—and was the last man in Pennsylvania to be challenged to a duel. Physician R. Tait McKenzie was a famous bronze-relief sculptor.
The FIC’s early members are honored at the annual J. William White dinner, held as close to Ben Franklin’s birthday as possible. Toasts are made between courses of a traditional meal of snapper soup, lamb with sherry, and chocolates shaped like the Liberty Bell. During this year’s toast to White (whose $4,000 bequest covered the meal for some years after his death in 1916), member Gregory Harvey suggested, “Duels are still fought in Philadelphia, but not in proper duelist tradition.”
Not surprisingly, FIC members worry about the isolating effects of technology. “Face-to-face intercourse is central to human life, and there seems to be a threat that it’s being lost,” important,” says Rosso. “We’re all in the process of restructuring curriculum to put everything online. To the young, books are useless or decorative.”
Regardless, the FIC remains a bastion of intellectualism, academic dissertation, culture, art criticism, and social and political conversation. “Let’s hope these are not lost arts,” Rosso says. “We’re trying to help keep them going. Henry James once said that a social club improves the cultural life of a city, and I agree with him. Of course, we once had a slide lecture on all of the Philadelphia clubs that did exist but are now extinct.”
Popular speakers may draw 50 people to a monthly FIC dinner. At noon on Thursdays, a roundtable speaker is free to tackle any subject. But keeping the FIC viable has necessitated survival techniques like scheduled programming. Among the most popular is “Monday Morning Quarterback,” moderated by Gresham Riley, once the president of Colorado College, who has returned to Philadelphia with his English- professor wife, Pam. Every week, attendees are required to read the recent op-ed pages of the Inquirer, the New York Times and, occasionally, the Wall Street Journal. Typically, 30 members vie for one of 16 seats at the club’s legendary center table, with a rotating quarterback at the head.
It was once the rule that, to join the Franklin Inn Club, you had to publish a book that wasn’t about medicine or law to prove your literary merit. Not anymore. Times certainly have changed.