If you were to call the Belle Meade Country Club a relic of the 1950s, you’d be exaggerating its modernity. Only white men comprise the hallowed ranks of the “resident members” who can vote and hold leadership positions. They have first names like “Doyle,” “Bradbury” and “Wilford,” and they can shell out the club’s $40,000 entrance fee like a college senior unloading his pockets for 25-cent drafts.
Women have their own special and quaint category: They’re called “lady members,” and while they pay less in club fees, they have no say in how the place is run. They can’t vote on club affairs or hold a club office. Blacks, meanwhile, weren’t admitted into Belle Meade until 1994, more than a generation after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law. Even now the club has only one African American member—and, conveniently enough, he lives in Atlanta.
So it is against this backdrop of pride and prejudice that Gus Puryear, once seen as a safe bet to be confirmed as a federal judge for Tennessee’s Middle District, is struggling to defend his membership in the Belle Meade Country Club. Liberal members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hold the professional fate of this young GOP lawyer in their hands, as they examine the diversity and discriminatory practices of a creaky Southern country club whose weathered exterior and unremarkable grounds make its cachet all the more mysterious. But Puryear has fumbled his part in the query, raising questions about his honesty by choosing to give technical, misleading answers to very simple questions about the roles blacks and women play at this private bastion of Nashville privilege. And in the process, he’s put his own country club on trial for its antiquated ways.
After Puryear’s rocky appearance before the judiciary committee last month, during which he fielded testy interrogations about his lack of trial experience, Sens. Ted Kennedy, Patrick Leahy and Russ Feingold sent the nominee a series of written questions. The three liberal firebrands largely focused on his work as the general counsel for Corrections Corporation of America, a Nashville-based private prison company. The senators each asked him about the investigation into the mysterious death of Estelle Richardson, a CCA inmate found dead in solitary confinement with a cracked skull and four broken ribs.
During his initial appearance before the committee, Puryear seemed more intent on defending the company than being frank about the circumstances of her death. So in their follow-up questions, Leahy, Kennedy and Feingold each pressed the judicial nominee to reconcile his vague, self-serving account of what happened to Richardson with the more authoritative conclusion of the Nashville medical examiner, who ruled her death a homicide and indirectly pinned the blame on the four prison guards who came in contact with her in the final days of her life.
Compared to Puryear’s comments about Richardson’s murder and the subsequent $60 million federal lawsuit, his country club membership might have seemed like a footnote in the résumé of a judicial candidate. But both Kennedy and Feingold pestered Puryear about the practices of the elite social organization, with the Massachusetts senator himself asking four sets of questions about the place.
“Is it true that the Belle Meade Country Club does not permit female club members to vote?” Kennedy asked. “If not, please explain why, and state whether you have ever sought to change this policy.”
If Puryear wanted to give a transparent and accurate answer to the senator’s question, he would have simply said that while no bylaw specifically prohibits women from voting, they do not vote and never have. And this practice remains unchanged and unchallenged, even though this particular nominee joined the club seven years ago.
But such a statement about the role of women at the Belle Meade Country Club, though honest and cogent, would have compromised his seat on the federal bench. So instead Puryear, the 39-year-old appointee of President George Bush, offered something Clintonian when he submitted his answers last week.
“I understand that the only category that may vote is the ‘Resident Member’ category,” he wrote in a response to questions from both Kennedy and Feingold. “At present, there are no women who are in this membership category; however, I understand that the bylaws of the club do not restrict eligibility for the ‘Resident Member’ category.”
Puryear also added, “Thus, I do not believe there is a policy to restrict a woman from being proposed as a ‘Resident Member.’ ”
Like a good lawyer, Puryear provided a technically correct answer. But it’s not the most accurate, which Kennedy and Feingold will discover if they make a few well-placed phone calls to Nashville.
They could start with Ed Nelson, a civic leader, merchant banker and former club president. Asked flat-out if women could become resident members, which Puryear suggested was at least possible, Nelson says without the slightest hesitation, “No.” He adds that he’s not so much defending the practice as simply being honest about it.
Sixth U.S. Circuit Court Judge Gil Merritt, another member of the Belle Meade Country Club, is equally frank. “It’s true women do not have a vote, and it’s based on tradition,” he says. “I would hope that Belle Meade Country Club would change its policy and admit women as resident members.”
Of course, Merritt doesn’t feel strongly enough about the policy to relinquish his membership. And the woman who often accompanies him to social events, the super-rich Martha Ingram, is herself a “lady member.” Though far wealthier and more influential than just about any of the male resident members, because of her gender she can’t so much as vote on how often to trim the grass on the fairways.
Still, don’t cry for Martha Ingram. She’ll be just fine. But even if it’s hard to imagine Ingram and her lady peers as victims, the larger point remains: The Belle Meade Country Club treats women like second-class citizens. Not everyone thinks that’s a problem, given that women do receive a discount in club fees—kind of like when a cheesy bar offers free shots for women on special “Ladies’ Nights.”
“If you have a choice of something that’s more expensive or less expensive, I think that you’d have to say that a woman, who generally has better sense than a man, would take the lesser price,” says U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge George Paine, who is one of three federal judges who belong to club. “There is a lady’s membership that I wish I could have, quite frankly.”
Whether Gus Puryear can successfully pirate that logic before members of the Senate Judiciary Committee is unlikely. And the prospective jurist’s statements about blacks at the Belle Meade club aren’t likely to sway hearts and minds either. In his written questions for Puryear, Kennedy asked him “to inform the Committee of the racial diversity of the Belle Meade Country Club, in terms of the number of minority members in comparison to the total number of members.”
Here, Puryear didn’t even try to comply with the request: “I am advised that the club does not track its members based on race, nor does it respond to such requests,” he wrote in the answers submitted last week. “I am personally aware that there are minority members, but I do not myself know the number.”
The correct answer is, there’s one black member. He is Atlanta attorney Richard Sinkfield, who, by virtue of his address, does not qualify as a resident member. So he can’t vote either.
Interestingly, the supposed integration of the Belle Meade Country Club is actually one of Nashville’s forgotten fables. In the early 1990s, the club’s nominating committee asked Ed Nelson, a longtime banker, if he wanted to become its president. He initially declined. “I said I wanted to break the rules and have African American members,” he recalls. The nominating committee, though, gave Nelson the green light, and he and a few other members sponsored Sinkfield for membership. But 14 years after the place was supposedly integrated, Sinkfield remains the lone black member, though the applications of two local African Americans are currently being considered.
Sinkfield himself offers a limited defense of the club, saying he doesn’t know how many African Americans are interested in joining in the first place. “I’m very comfortable there and don’t feel any sense of latent discrimination,” he says, adding, though, that he only visits the club a few times a year, if that.
Meanwhile, if Puryear continues to face questions about the club, he won’t have an easy time providing further details. Belle Meade is fiercely guarded about its membership. George Savarda, the well-paid administrator of the club, writes in an email to the Scene: “I am the General Manager of the Country Club, and wanted to thank you for the courtesy of your inquiry to which I wanted to respond to you by the time you requested. Its subject, though, falls within a longstanding policy and practice of Belle Meade, and that is that matters and inquiries related to it or any member are not publicly discussed, no matter the specific topic.”That kind of answer won’t fly under the bright lights of a Senate hearing room, where a prospective judge would be better off going with the truth.
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