The Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth, founded The Players Club, the members-only theater club on Gramercy Park, as a way to restore the Booth family name, after his less-successful brother, also an actor, assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. The Players Club was founded in 1888 and is the oldest club still operating in its original location.
Booth hired renown architect Stanford White to renovate the Greek Revival townhouse he purchased at 16 Gramercy Park South. The deed of the club, read by Booth on New Year’s Eve to the initial fifteen other founding members of the club (which included Mark Twain and William Tecumseh Sherman) provided for a furnished room in the club for Booth’s own use. The aim of the club was to bring people of the arts together with those in other professions, a mission that remains to this day.
One of the most notable places in the stately townhouse is Booth’s very room, on the top floor of the Players Club, that has remained intact and preserved in time nearly exactly as he left it when he died in 1893. A specific key opens up this room, which is not open to the public normally. It’s the most off-limits place in an already off-limits club.
When you walk in, you’ll get a strong whiff of the very distinct smell of tobacco. Just under the crown molding is the hand-written phrase, “And when the smoke ascends on high, thou beholdst the vanity of the worldly stuff. Come with a puff, thus think and smoke tobacco.” The decoration is heavy, in the Victorian style with a twin-size canopy bed. There’s a day bed just next to it and other highly decorative furniture. There’s a marble fireplace and mantel, atop which sits an ornate clock and a triptych mirror. A chandelier, now electrified, lights the dark room which always has its shades down.
This is what you’ll take in initially, until you start inspecting the numerous collectors items in the room. The most creepy is probably the human skull that Booth used in performances of Hamlet. As Christian Campbell, a Players Club member who recently let us into the room tells us, the skull belonged to a horse thief named Fontaine with whom Edwin’s father, Junius Brutus Booth, also a renown Shakespearean actor, once shared a jail cell. Fontaine was hanged for his crimes but requested that Junius receive his skull, which was shipped to the Booth home in Baltimore. On the skull itself is engraved the phrase, “And the rest is silence.” There are many more interesting things o discover inside Booth’s Room, which include photographs of his family, items he saved from his theater productions and more.
The Players Club, after quite a few years of controversy over mismanagement, has been refreshing its board as well as programming. One of the prized artworks, a painting by John Singer Sargent which had been put up as a pawn for a loan, was recovered. Lunch is served again in the club, harkening back to an era where it was a popular destination for business deals in the arts. There are after hours parties to attract a younger membership, hoping to bring back the club as a place for actors to come after their shows.
To celebrate the new era of The Players Club, we are offering readers a chance to see not only inside this special room, but take a tour of the rest of the club led by one of their docents. Tickets below, with dates through July: