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April 28, 2005


Even if I never wrote a word about politics, the New York Times would be a bottomless pool of material.

Today, the Times drops its fig leaf of respectability by publishing a long and surprisingly dull article about the vestiges of nude male swimming at clubs in the City.

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.
Ah, yes, skinny-dipping as an interviewing strategy. Why didn't I think of that? Well, perhaps you need a goyische kop.
"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."
Of course, the Times must, absolutely must, place this in historical perspective.
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."
This history perhaps explains the views of the women in these men's sick lives.
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."
Not that there's anything wrong with that! But maybe there's a simpler explanation.
"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."
On the other hand, if I remember A Separate Peace, maybe it's the same explanation.