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On the nude

March 15, 2010

The Tao of Skinny-Dipping


By Dana Vachon
Published in The New York Times on April 28, 2005

AFTER long days spent defending their positions atop New York’s most competitive fields, Manhattan’s alpha males need to unwind. From mistresses to treadmills, these men have as many forms of relaxation as sources of stress. But some of the city’s titans have a secret. They meet around private pools in private clubs and swim together, naked.

Men swimming together in the nude dates back to before the fall of Rome and was commonplace just 50 years ago in New York City and its affluent suburbs. Yet today the practice survives at only a handful of exclusive clubs, where members hold onto it with a fierce devotion. It is for these men a peerless form of bonding, with nostalgic links to youthful activities like group showers at prep school and skinny-dips at summer camp.

“If you meet someone swimming naked in a pool, surely you’re going to do much better in an interview with them,” said a 24-year-old bond trader who swims as a guest at the Racquet and Tennis Club on Park Avenue.

The Racquet Club (five recommendations needed for admission) was designed by McKim, Meade & White in the style of an Italian palazzo, its height exactly twice the width of Park Avenue to achieve an understated but unmistakable distance from the world below. It is as much of a time capsule of the Gilded Age as can be found in Manhattan, and members observe a strict code of silence about all that takes place behind its thick stone walls.

“It’s a matter of the WASP ethic,” said one investment banker in declining an interview about the club’s swimming practices. “What goes on at the R.T.C. stays at the R.T.C. We don’t want the general public having a peek at the last bastion of old-school pleasure, the last oasis.”

Nude bathing is strangely like the Tao: those who know the way of it speak not of it. Nonetheless, at the Racquet Club and the University Club on Fifth Avenue, another New York outpost of nude male swimming, sympathetic members took me under their water wings, allowing me to breast stroke a few laps in their pools to observe one of the city’s most curious, enduring rituals.

Inside the Racquet Club are cavernous rooms for backgammon, billiards and obscure racquet sports played since the time of the French Revolution by the kind of people against whom the French were rebelling. The walls are lined with oil paintings of polo players, fox hunters and long dead horses of undying pedigrees. The club’s membership is no less distinguished. George Plimpton frequented it for decades, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was also a member, although he resigned in an egalitarian gesture before becoming mayor. Members include a leveraged buyout king, Henry R. Kravis, and a Greek Prince, Pavlos.

My host, a hedge fund analyst in his 20’s, took me to the top floor, where we stood first in towels and then in nothing at all above a perfectly placid pool best characterized by its limitations: it was too small for serious lap swimming yet too deep for simple wading. A small vaulted ceiling provided a womblike dome for a feeling more of relaxation than of athleticism.

On the street below taxis honked, and pedestrians shouted, but all sounds were muffled by the lapping of water. An elderly man with a Churchillian physique walked to my side of the pool. He began to swim his laps, and soon came perilously close to my area of treaded water. “You’ve got to watch out for a naked collision,” warned my host, who detailed the worst injury sufferable in modern nude aquatics. “One guy wasn’t looking when he was coming out of a lap and grabbed another guy. He felt something strange, but familiar.”

The disturbing possibility of such a man-on-man collision perhaps explains why those who look most disapprovingly on nude swimming are often the wives and girlfriends of its practitioners. When asked what his spouse thought of his morning dip, a private equity investor in his early 30’s was brutally honest: “She just laughs and says that it’s very, very, very gay.”

THE roots of male nude bathing are planted at least partly in homoeroticism. Older Athenian men regarded watching the swimming of ephebes, young men undergoing physical and military training, as a great pastime. But the more modern roots of the practice seem to draw on the urban decay of the late 19th century, the historian George L. Mosse wrote in the Journal of Contemporary History (April 1982), a subject he later developed in “Nationalism and Sexuality” (1985).

At the turn of the last century, Mosse explained, naked swimming and nudism in general gained wide acceptance in Europe following centuries in which Christian modesty made the naked body shameful, and leading medical authorities advised a thick dirt patina as the best protection against sickness. “Cities were condemned as breeding grounds of immorality and moral sickness,” he wrote. “The enthusiasm for nude swimming, athletics and sunbathing, even while condemning false shame, harnessed the rediscovery of the body to respectability.”

The idea that nudity could be a healthful antidote to modern life traveled to America, and it was during this era that Manhattan’s great bastions of nude bathing were built. First was the University Club in 1900. Then came the Yale Club on Vanderbilt Avenue in 1914, the Racquet and Tennis Club in 1919 and eventually the New York Athletic Club on Central Park South in 1929.

The city’s earliest nude swimmers worked in the same broad fields – law, finance, industry – as naked bathers today, but they enjoyed far more relaxed schedules. After two hours of a three-martini lunch, a white-shoe lawyer might take an hour to soak his white bottom among other white bottoms before returning to the office.

This golden era of nude bathing ended in the 1980’s, when Mayor Edward I. Koch signed a bill banning discrimination against women at private clubs. For nude swimming it was the sack of Rome all over again. The New York Athletic and Yale clubs abandoned nude bathing for coed covered swimming; the Racquet and Tennis and University clubs, along with the Harmonie Club on East 60th Street, emerged as keepers of the naked flame.

The Racquet Club was able to remain all male by arguing that so long as no business was conducted within its walls, no discrimination was practiced. The University Club, for its part, balked at the legal costs associated with continuing as an all-men’s club and began admitting women in the 80’s. But naked swimming was so important to the men of the University that they paid to keep it afloat.

Men at the club pay $625 for a year’s access to the locker-room and fitness facilities, including the pool. Women pay only $325 and can use what they save to find suitable swimming facilities elsewhere. In this way the world remains egalitarian, and the bath stays naked.

The University Club was also designed by McKim, Meade & White just after the peak of the European nudist renaissance. The clubhouse occupies three grand stories at Fifth Avenue and 54th Street. The U., as members call it, was originally intended as a meeting place for the graduates of America’s top universities. On the fourth floor is a vast library of soaring ceilings and ornate design that inspired Le Corbusier to remark that only in New York did he really learn to appreciate the Italian Renaissance.

Inside the University is a soaring lobby of pink marble and gold leaf, from which a small staircase leads down to a changing room of white wood, where spotless windows look out onto the pool. At the far end of the small slip, fresh water flows from the mouth of a brass lion’s head, and above it is a ceiling painted in gentle shades of blue, a trompe l’oeil sky.

There could be no more perfect refuge from the big and dirty city. “It’s really meant to be a leisure pool,” said one member of the University, a real estate investor in his late 20’s, who explained why the idea of swimming alongside other men doesn’t strike members of these clubs as particularly strange.

“At boarding school everyone showers in gang showers,” he said. “It was like a social occasion. It’s not a far leap to make a connection between showering at prep school and naked swimming in New York.”

I took a naked swim at the University Club with a money manager in his 60’s, who shared in the schoolboy’s glee at escaping from the world at large and insisted that I cut out of work to meet him for a midday dip. We swam a short lap of the pool, then rested beneath the spouting brass lion’s head, where he informed me with a smile, “They’re going to wonder why you smell like chlorine when you get back, you know.” I didn’t care. It was hard to think of much beyond the trickling of water and the pleasantness of floating in the great amniotic pool.

EVERY great secret carries with it a paradox, and nude swimming is no exception. To understand the present state of this ancient practice fully, you really have to put on a bathing suit.

The New York Athletic Club was a naked swimmer’s paradise until the decision to admit women with full aquatic privileges. Older members lament the loss of naked swimming, and it is said that septuagenarians still emerge from the lockers with full manhood on display, shocking women swimmers as they shuffle toward what they remember as a perfectly good naked pool.

Yet younger generations at the Athletic Club don’t seem to miss nude swimming at all. Their pool is not ornate and womblike. Indeed it seems principally designed for exercise, built along utilitarian lines at odds with the Jacuzzilike aesthetics so highly prized by nude bathers.

At the Athletic Club, Speedoed athletes swam fast laps with quick strokes, causing me to feel more self-aware in my hibiscus-print trunks than at any of the nude pools. The members were more than happy to go on record about their bathing habits and seemed almost proud to have abandoned naked swimming.

“This isn’t just some blue-blood club,” said Jamie LeFrak, a managing director of the LeFrak Organization, the giant developer of middle-income housing. “This is a place for serious athletes. Some of the members here have won Olympic medals.”

I stepped onto the diving block and did my best to enter the pool with some semblance of athleticism, but the leisure of my nude dips had taken a softening toll. I completed one of the most aesthetically displeasing laps in the modern history of the New York Athletic Club. There was something to be missed about the warm, soothing leisure of a nude plunge, the slow pace and easy conversation of bobbing high above Park Avenue, or cozily beneath Fifth.

I soaked in a whirlpool, contemplating the future of nude aquatics. It wasn’t the admission of women that ended all male nude swimming at the New York Athletic Club. After all the University Club has many women as members. Nude swimming at the Athletic Club fell as Rome did, a victim of the very things it was created to guard against and control. The frenetic pace of Manhattan simply overwhelmed the placid nude waters. All around me athletes clocked their laps, waited for lanes and looked nervously at their watches, hoping to complete the workout in time for the evening’s next engagement.

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