Thursday, December 23, 2010

Seaview Country Club

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Bill Kelly conversation with Jack Lacy – June, 2K.

Kelly: When did you start working at Seaview?
Lacy: Officially, March, 1954, but I caddied there in 1949 as a kid I caddied on summer there.
Kelly: Where are you from originally?
Lacy: Locally, I went to Pleasantville High School.
Kelly: Elwood Kirkman was still there when you first started?
Lacy: Oh, yes, I knew him well.
Kelly: When did Kirman leave there?
Lacy: Yea, there were a lot of shady deals in the papers and the Glenns, the President and Treasurer and the stockholders kind of voted him out. That was prior to 1985 when they sold it to Marriott, so it was probably in 1983-84 when they knocked him out of the box.
Kirkman was the young lawyer who tied it all together after Clarence Geist died. And he was President there for years and years and ran it with a strong arm.
Kelly: It seems like Geist and Kirkman were both interesting characters.
Lacy: I have a lot of stories about Geist. Of course I wasn’t around, since he died in 1938, but a lot of the original employees were still there when I arrived. I worked with one fellow who used to have to go up and help him with his shoes off after he’d been out on the course playing in his limousine – he had the world’s first stretch limousine, an old Cadillac or Pearce-Arrow stretched out, and they could only use it on the Bay Course. They would play cards, play a few rounds of golf, they would be out there all day with waiters running drinks and food out to them.
Kelly: Is it true about the machine gun?
Lacy: Yes, whenever Al Capone was in town – Atlantic City, or any of the gangsters, he had bars put on the old Presidential Suit and had a guard stand outside with a German police dog and a machine gun at night time. He had his own information, in the 20s Gist was so paranoid about being kidnapped, you know, he would often have them follow him around, one guy had a sawed-shot gun and another guy with a machine gun when they played golf.
Kelly: Seaview was the place to be in the Roaring 20s?
Lacy: One of the bellman told me that when the crash came in 1929 and they were jumping out of windows in New York, they couldn’t wait to get to the papers to see who jumped because they knew most of them. I have some good old stories I tell on my little tour.
Kelly: Did you know any of the Frasers when they were at Seaview?
Lacy: I didn’t know Sonny, but I heard a lot of stories about him. We had a bartender named George that worked there, who was a scratch golfer and he grew up with Sonny, they were neighbors near where the Bay Course Cart building is now. That’s where their homes were. And he told me stories about Sonny, who was like six foot four, and he said Sonny had the biggest wrists he ever saw in a man, and could drive number one and some of the other holes in the 30s, with a hickory-shaft clubs and the old balls. They talk about long-hitters today, I’d like to see what Sonny Fraser could have done with the equipment they use today.
Kelly: The Fraser house was there on the first fairway.
Lacy: It was on the bayside corner, right where they have a lot of trailers right now.
Kelly: The house was there until recently?
Lacy: It was there until Marriott. They used it as a sort of dormitory; they called it the “Animal House,” where a lot of the assistant pros would stay when they came in to work for a year or so.
Kelly: What about the clubhouse? That has a lot of history too.
Lacy: When I do my walking tour I show them when they did a lot of construction, which was in 1962, the major year. I tell them about the front door, I was told that in 1942 they took out revolving doors and put in the present vestibule there. It always amazed me because when Marriott first came in their people said that the first thing they were going to do was modernize the front doors and put in revolving doors. Well they had revolving doors and took them out in 1942. It kind of tickles me.
Kelly: Where you there when the Rolling Stones came through?
Lacy: Oh, yes. Well the complexion of the whole place changed when Marriott took over, I mean the attrition was terrific, the Rooneys of Pittsburgh and all of the majors ones just turned in their resignations because they didn’t want to be around the dungaree crowd. That was in 1985.
Kelly: You mention the Rooneys of Pittsburgh, can you give me the names of others of that stature who were at Seaview?
Lacy: The Duponts, Mellons, all the big corporate people who were from the original industrial families who founded these companies. Back in the early 1960s we had all the big horse people – the Whitenys and their trainers, you know, Elliot Birch and the Duponts, Dr. Lee, the guy who gelded the famous horse Kelso. The talk around was that they should have gelded him for gelding Kelso.
Kelly: Can you tell me what was the highlight of your entire experience there?
Lacy: Oh, my, I guess that would be President Eisenhower, he would come to play and he would always go around and shake hands with everybody. He would sign one-dollar bills and he would carry around a whole pack of them and pass them out to everybody –employees at the front desk and through the building. He was my hero because of the war, and was President.
I was almost shot by the Secret Service one time. I came down the stairs from the third floor to the Presidential Suite, it was a busy night and I was in a hurry and a guy jumped out in front of me with a gun in his hand. Of course he recognized me immediately, and said, “Jack, slow down.” And I said, “Boy, you scared me,” and he said, “You scarred me,” and I learned you can’t just run fast near his room, as he almost shot me.
Yea, I’ve had a lot of experiences at Seaview.
Kelly: How many years were you there?
Lacy: I was there for 43 and a half years.
Kelly: Is there anybody left from when Geist was there?
Lacy: I don’t think so. They’re all pretty much gone.
Kelly: What is the best story you’ve heard about the place?
Lacy: I’ve heard a lot of stories, and the best ones I wouldn’t want to be quoted on today.
Kelly: So we’ll have to wait and hear them when you give us a tour. Thank you Jack Lacy for sharing some of your more interesting experiences with us.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Clarence H. Geist

CLARENCE H. GEIST – Part 1 Chapter 12

Birth of the Birdie – The First 100 Years of Golf at Atlantic City Country Club
by William Kelly

One member of the Atlantic City Country Club who really stood out was Clarence H. Geist, one of the most eccentric individuals of all time.

A self-made man, “C.H.” was rich beyond imagination. He was the owner of a number of major utilities which earned hi over $2 million a year. With so much money he was paranoid of being kidnapped and was known to take along two caddies, one for his golf bag and the other to protect him with a submachine gun.

Born in LaPorte, Indiana in 1874 of Pennsylvania Dutch ancestry, he refused to go to college because college men were “saps.” Instead he traded horses until he was eighteen when he discovered there was not a lot of money in the West. After working as a breakman on the railroad, and dabbing in real estate, his big break came when he met Charles Dawes, of the South Shore Gas Company. While Dawes went on to become Vice President of the United States and ambassador to the Court of St. James, Geist found his fortune in gas.

According to William A. Gemmel, “Geist aggressively began to acquire utilities. In 1909 he acquired Atlantic City Gas & Water Company and Consumers Gas & Fuel, both serving Atlantic City and vicinity.” Gas was an important commodity and Geist was one of the men who bought and consolidated competing gas companies creating “natural monopolies.” He owned the gas companies and other utilities that served Pennsylvania, Delaware and South Jersey.

Geist maintained homes and offices in Atlantic City and Philadelphia, but spent much of his time playing golf. Geist was the President of the Whitemarsh Country Club near Philadelphia and was a member of the Atlantic City Country Club.

Geist was one of the first to travel to the Atlantic City Country Club by automobile, rather than by train and trolley, or horse and buggy. “Among the automobile parties” one newspaper item noted, “were Clarence H. Geist, who had as his guest A.W. Atterbury, one of the vice presidents of the Pennsylvania lines.”

In 1914, Geist became impatient as he waited to get to the first tee at the Country Club of Atlantic City. With him was realtor Maurice Risley, who had been quoted as responding to Geist’s displeasure by saying, ”Mr. Geist. If I had as much money as you I’d build my own golf course.”

Geist told Risley to find him the land, which he did, just north of Absecon, and it was there Geist build the Seaview Country Club, which opened a year after construction began in January, 1915.

Geist hired Wilfred Reid to be the first golf professional at Seaview. He also hired a Scottish golf professional to teach his wife and daughters to play. Reid lasted less than a year before he moved on to the Wilmington Country Club and was replaced by James Fraser.

James “Jolly Jim” Fraser was the pro at Seaview when President Warren G. Harding played a round of golf there in May, 1922.

After the death of James Fraser in an automobile accident (collision with a trolley), Geist went through a series of golf professionals though he treated them all with respect.

“Dad told me Geist treated his golf professionals like staff executives,” said Jim Fraser, “but it took a long time before golf professionals were admitted to most other club houses.”

Jolly Jim’s son Leo Fraser also attributed the growth and popularity of first class country clubs to Geist, although he didn’t believe it was such a great thing for golf.

Besides the Seaview Country Club, Geist also developed the Boca Raton Country Club in Florida, where Tommy Armour later became the club professional and where many of the Atlantic City golfers retired during the winter months.

Leo, who became the Seview professional in 1935 said, “There was nothing like Seaview in the rest of the country. How many other clubs at the time had an indoor swimming pool, a French chef and liveried chauffeurs who drove Rolls Royces and Pierce Arrows? Every affluent club used Seaview as its standard. There was not a dining room in Philadelphia or New York that could excel Seaview’s. They had horses, squash courts, tennis courts, a trap shooting range, and of course, the golf course.”

“It only cost $100 to join Seaview,” continued Leo, “but it took more than money to get in, and if Mr. Geist heard anyone complain about the price of anything, he’d just go up to that person and say, ‘You’re resignation has been accepted.’ That’s the kind of guy Geist was. He despised dogs, thought airplanes were the product of the devil, couldn’t stand cigarettes and his feet always hurt.”

“I talk so much about Mr. Geist,” Leo Fraser said, “ because he was one of the greatest characters I’ve ever met during my whole life in golf. And he had a lot to do with my career in the early years. But you know, he was also a part of the game’s history in this country with the golf resorts he built.”

“He probably fired me and rehired me a dozen times. I probably argued with Mr. Geist more than I should have. My brother Sonny didn’t argue with him and he got along very well with C.H. They played a lot of golf together, too. Yes, he was a character, but he owned the finest club around and he never got the credit for all his accomplishment that he deserved. He was a man ahead of his time.”

Seaview Pro "Jolly Jim" Fraser


Birth of the Birdie – Chapter 13

By William Kelly

James Fraser came to America from Aberdeen, Scotland in 1907, obtaining work as a golf professional at Van Cortlandt Park, New York, the first public golf course in America, and at Great Neck. While working in New York he met Millie Leeb, from Albany, N.Y. on a Flushing train. They were married and had four children, Sidney, Leo, James “Sonny” and Elizabeth.

According to Mrs. Elizabeth Fraser Jordan, her father, was the son of an Aberdeen, Scotland constable who served in Singapore. “Jolly Jim,” as he was called, came to America on a Silver Quill award scholarship, apparently because of his literary talents. His passion, however, was golf.

James Fraser was named the Seaview’s second golf professional in 1916 when he replaced Wilfred Reid. At Seaview he became associated with a number of great golfers including Mac Smith, Walter Hagen, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. The Fraser family lived in a house on the first hole at Seaview that is still there. “In the early days the house had coal heat and an outhouse,” recalls Elizabeth Jordan. “We were a close family; they used to call us a clan.”

With his ten year old son Leo serving as their caddy Jolly Jim Fraser and Walter Hagen defeated Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in a Pottstown, Pa. exhibition tournament in 1920. According to Leo, his father had designed the course where the exhibition was staged and it was one of only two losses the British champions experienced on that tour, during which Ray won the U.S. Open.

Jolly Jim also won the Philadelphia Open, a significant accomplishment at the time.

“My father was a marvelous man,” relates Elizabeth. “ He was a fun man who liked to collect and tell jokes, and was a good friend of Harry Lauder, the comedian. He was a bit heavy, talked with a thick Scot accent, drank Scotch, naturally, and used to bring home every dog imaginable. He was a great hunter, who often went duck hunting with Dr. Allen, and he used to raise birds and dogs. Al the club members loved him because he was such a great joke and story teller. He kept a batch of brandy for the member down in the cellar and going down the first hole they used to stop for a sip.”

Millie (his wife) also played golf, and practiced on the putting green the morning that Sonny Fraser was born.

The world of the Fraser Clan changed on February 15, 1923, when Jolly Jim Fraser died in an accident with a trolley on Shore Road.

Elizabeth recalled, “He was on his way to pick up Sonny and me at school, and to mail somebody some jokes and collided with the trolley. Now the front and the back of the Toonerville Trolley looked the same so couldn’t tell if it was coming or going, and he died of his injuries.”

Sidney, the oldest son joined the Navy and much of the burden of being the man of the hosue fell on young Leo Fraser and of raising the family on Millie.

“Millie was a phenomenal women,” recalls Bonnie Soik. “She was a tiny thing with a charismatic personality. The world loved Millie. Against everyone’s wishes she used to sneak out to play cards with the caddies at the 19th Hole across the street from the Seaview club. Later she married Flo Ciriano, the only grandfather any of us really knew. Flo worked at Seaview and later as a bartender at ACCC, and was a very handsome man from Spain, who adored Millie ‘til the day she died.”