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Franklin Inn Club is Philadelphia’s Longest Surviving Literary Society

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Photos by Jared Castaldi.

Times certainly have changed. Back in the day, members of the Franklin Inn Club lived in Center City during the week and sought out friends for long lunches. On weekends, they retreated to their estates—many of them on the Main Line. “Let’s face it, you can’t just say, ‘I’ll be back in two hours,’ and saunter out of your office anymore,” says Jan Gordon, a long-standing member and a former FIC president.

Philadelphia’s longest surviving literary society was founded in February 1902—so old it’s located on one of the city’s last surviving wood-paved streets. Originally, blocks were inlaid to soften the sound of horses’ hooves, later replaced with quarter-sawn oak. 

Today, Camac Street runs between 12th and 13th streets, south of Walnut. It was once called the “Avenue of Artists” because so many arts and drama clubs lined it. Only a few remain. Known as “Innmates,” FIC members still gather for cordial but lively discussion on current issues, and for presentations by representatives of the arts, the sciences and more. 

The FIC’s slogan salutes the art of conversation—maybe even pontification: “Be Sociable, Share!” And that’s exactly what a few Main Line members are working on today at the upscale Beaumont retirement home in Bryn Mawr. Now 90, Peter Binzen joined the FIC in 1969 in the midst of his 50-year editorial career at the Philadelphia Bulletin and the Inquirer. His credits include Nearly Everybody Read It (a history of the Bulletin), Whitetown, U.S.A. (about working-class whites) and The Cop Who Would Be King (a Frank Rizzo biography). Another book, on former Philadelphia mayor Richardson Dilworth, is about to be published. “I’m not [at the club] as much,” he admits. “But back in the day, it was a stimulating place.” 

There was a time when former president Edwin Wolf (onetime director of the Library Company of Philadelphia) would introduce a speaker with an original essay worth publishing. “No matter who you sat next to, it was always interesting,” Binzen says.

John Rosso has been head of the classical languages program at West Chester University for the past 45 years. He began his involvement with the FIC when he feared that his beloved Rittenhouse Club might fold. (It never did.) The FIC was his backup, and he’s since put it on the front burner, becoming a life member. Now 70, Rosso points out that if more members would pay lifetime dues, the club could establish an endowment—or, at the very least, recover from a deficit. 

Also active in historic preservation, Rosso lives in Daylesford in a tavern dating back to 1715. The place has indirect ties to former FIC member A. (Alfred) Edward Newton, one of history’s best-known bibliophiles. A captain of U.S. industry, he wrote seven books about his collection, and his country estate, Oak Knoll, once stood directly across from Rosso’s home. 

After Newton and his wife died in the early 1940s, the house was torn down, and their daughter, Caroline, bought Rosso’s house, adding a massive bay window so she could look out on Oak Knoll’s ruins. She, too, was a bibliophile and literary patron. She was also a patient and pupil
of Sigmund Freud, later working as a prominent psychoanalyst herself. 

 

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.

Visit www.thefranklininn.com.