Oral Histories

Helen Culiner

An Interview with Carol Ann Rogers

Helen B. Culiner was born in Quebec City. She fondly remembers walking along the boardwalk that borders the St. Lawrence River and then climbing the steep stairs of the old city, fascinated by its history.  “That was my great delight as a child.” She was raised bilingually and remembers how she used to love to tease the tourists who would ask her questions in fractured French and were then astonished to hear her respond in perfect English.

“I adored my father,” recalls Helen. “He must have been the first feminist that existed. He had complete confidence in my ability to do anything and everything. He liberated me before anyone ever thought of the word.”

A student at the University of  Toronto, she was studying psychology when she met her husband Norman and moved west with him and finished her studies at the University of California at Berkeley. “I really wanted to study mathematics, “ Helen recounts, “but my brother, whom I adored, convinced me that as a woman I would never find a job in that field. Frankly, I never really liked psychology because I found the thinking too loose for me. Mathematics was much more precise.”

Helen and Norman had two children, a daughter and a son. Tragedy struck when their 16 year old son contracted meningitis and died within a day.  It was after that time that Helen decided to enroll at Hastings School of Law. “I loved it the very first week. It was perfect for me because all of the professors were older, and I was older.” This was in the late 1960s and there were only two other women in her class, and only five in the entire school.

After graduating, Helen began the search for a job. Rather than opportunity she found many of the law firms asked to interview her out of curiosity. “Remember, this was after the Civil Rights legislation,”  she recalled. “The law firms were slow to catch onto that law.”  Eventually Helen was hired by Melvin Belli as a litigator. There she had to deal with her own personal experience with discrimination when she discovered she was being paid less than her male colleagues for the same work. After three years, she started her own practice, specializing in employment discrimination. More than two decades later she switched to arbitration and mediation which she found “a superior way to resolve conflict.”

“I was reading Herb Caen,” recounts Helen, “ and he talked about the pool, so I just came over to the Club and said I was interested in joining.”  Becoming a member in 1973, Helen swam daily. “It was really a lifesaver for me.” She had developed lupus while in law school and, not wanting to encounter the side effects of steroids, she began the discipline of lap swimming and the lupus went into remission permanently. “I also can’t tell you how many legal conclusions I came to while doing the backstroke.”

Asked by then President Penny Mallen to join the Athletic Committee, Helen started her involvement in the committee system, culminating in her serving as President of the Club in 1991.  During those years, the Club went through a difficult time over the issue of whether to adopt gender neutral bylaws. “The City – in fact the whole country – was gung-ho on the issue of private club discrimination,” recalls Helen.  “I was very conscious of the fact that so many members had limited incomes and that if we weren’t careful they would have to leave the Club, which could change the nature of the Club.”

Helen points to three strengths that she values at the Club. The first are the athletic facilities, which are unique. The second is the camaraderie among Members. “Once you become involved in the committees, you make friends who are very dear.” Third, Helen cites the convenience and the feeling of home. “You have an ownership interest and the pleasantness of the employees is really from an era gone by.”

“I am very lucky,” admits Helen. “I love certain people and I love that they love me back.”




Emmy Phillips

An Interview with Carol Ann Rogers

The Woman’s Athletic Club was only six months old, awaiting the completion of its clubhouse, when Mary Elizabeth (“M.E. or Emmy”) Phillips was born on April 2, 1916, in Shreveport, LA. Emmy’s family had roots in Alabama. Her grandfather was on his way to Texas when the train broke down in Louisiana and he decided to stay, opening up a country store in Lafayette.

Emmy attended LSU, hoping to enter the newspaper business, and met her first husband, an Annapolis graduate, while visiting her sister and brother-in-law in Houston.  A young bride, Emmy and her husband moved to San Francisco in 1937. “I almost start to cry when I think how wonderful San Francisco was at that time,” remembers Emmy. “We had a lot of wonderful restaurants. And we used to go over to Larkspur in our second-hand convertible where there was an open-air place to dance.”

The happiness of those years was interrupted by the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor – Emmy’s husband was on the battleship USS Pennsylvania, and for seven days she did not know whether he had survived. Although unhurt in that event, he was killed in the South Pacific in 1944, and Emmy found herself a young widow working in San Francisco as an accountant and sharing an apartment with two other young women. The rent was $40 a month. Following the war, Emmy moved briefly to Hawaii but soon returned to her beloved San Francisco.

In 1947, Emmy joined the Woman’s Athletic Club. She recalls her primary interest was to swim. Work kept her from getting actively involved until the 1970s. She loved participating in the Aquacades. “I was not one of the top performers,” recalls Emmy with a smile. “But it was a lot of fun and there was great camaraderie.”

She remarried, becoming Emmy Long, and moved to Redwood City. Finding herself with little time to enjoy the Club, she resigned but reinstated in 1962. During her years away from the Club, she opened Elizabeth’s Antique Shop in San Mateo. The February 1952 issue of Antiques Dealer did a feature story on her that stated she wanted to “ put her prospective customers in a buying mood” so she opted for giving “the feeling of approaching an old southern home with high windows, gabled porches and ‘old south’ French windows.”

Moving into the field of interior design, Emmy was eventually hired by the sales department of Leisure World Walnut Creek, now known as Rossmoor. Emmy lost her second husband and moved back to San Francisco. While working for Rossmoor, she was invited to a dinner party given by past Club president Helen Lamont, and met her third husband, John Phillips. “All three of my marriages were happy,” says Emmy.

Emmy and John joined friends at the Club weekly to play bridge and have dinner.  Smiling, Emmy recalls how they made plans to ring in year 2000 at the Club, but were so sleepy after dinner that they were asleep as the new century dawned.

Emmy has fond memories of the Club’s Boutique which sold Club bathing suits, caps, robes and gifts, and was run by Club volunteers. “It was one of the saddest days for the Members when it closed.”

“There was a very close relationship between the Club employees and the Members,” explains Emmy. She remembers how happy she and her friends were for then very young employee Luz Reyes when she got married. Patrick, Pepe and a very handsome, Harvard educated bartender – a favorite of the young members – are other memories she has of Club employees.

“I have been privileged to live an interesting life,” reflects Emmy on her 97 years. “The Metropolitan Club has been very important in my life and I have met some of my dearest friends there – very interesting, stimulating ladies. I am an optimist, although like everybody I have had my down periods. Now, when I am alone, I live in the past too. I look at pictures and they remind me of the good times.”

Should you be fortunate to sit with Emmy over a cup of tea, you will find she is still creating good times as she shares her grace, humor and life stories with any privileged to be within earshot.


Jo Wallace

The following is an excerpt from Betty Lampen’s interview with the late Jo Wallace taped April 12, 1988.

By Gee Gee Platt

JW: At the former Madison School, now the Claire Lilienthal School on Clay Street between Cherry and Arguello that goes all the way to Sacramento Street, as soon as school was out, the little girls that belonged to the Club would go tearing out the Sacramento Street entrance and we’d run and stand on the corner waiting for the Number Four streetcar to come.  We would climb on the streetcar and misbehave terribly all the way downtown, exiting either at Mason or Taylor Street.

JW: At Madison School, we had organized sports for the boys.  But the girls didn’t have any.  Some of us wanted to play basketball, so we got the boys in our class to be our coaches.  But those of us who belonged to the Woman’s Athletic Club, you see, got special treatment because we were coached at the Club.  There were at least three athletic directors: for swimming, for gymnastic equipment and one for basketball.

JW: Way back in the earlier days, every Saturday, they let all the water out of the pool and scrubbed it and filled it again on Sunday.

BL: Really!  How extravagant!  Oh, it was saltwater though.  When did they change to freshwater?

JW: I have no idea when they changed to freshwater, but I remember distinctly the idea was that you had to get down and swim early because otherwise it would be too shallow to swim.

BL: So, they had no chlorine in those days, it was ‘just change the whole pool’.

JW: Yes, change the whole pool.  Then Sunday it was being filled up and Monday it would be ready to go.

BL: And not heated, of course.

JW: Of course not.  Nothing like that.  And we didn’t mind it.

BL: Where did you actually learn to swim?

JW: We learned to swim through the Red Cross at the YWCA next door.  Then we went to what is now the Marines Memorial formerly the Western Women’s Club…then I went to the Women’s City Club, which is now the St. Francis Tower, and there I learned how to swim properly.

BL: I learned how to swim entirely from the Women’s Athletic Club.  Mrs. Mackie was my teacher.  I don’t think I ever enjoyed swimming anywhere else as I do in that particular pool; Tahoe was always too cold, and everyone else’s pool was too small, and the river was too dirty.

JW: Actually, I learned to swim before I belonged to the Women’s Athletic Club.  Not nicely, I didn’t have a good stroke at all but I did learn from Mrs. Mackie too.  I don’t ever remember her wet.

BL: No, I never saw her in the water.

JW: No, I never saw that woman in the water, ever.  And I’m told that she does know how to swim.

BL: She did, she did know how to swim.

JW: But I never saw her wet, she was always in a bathing suit.

BL: But she was an inspiration.

JW: Yes, and she taught by the book.  I’m not sure what the book is.

BL: Well it was a book she and her sister wrote.

JW: Then after we finished swimming, we would take a shower quickly, run downstairs and get our clothes on as fast as we could and bolt upstairs to the tea room on the fourth floor.  And we used to eat lovely confections that had some sort of crispy cookie on the bottom and then a great big gob of marshmallow stuff and then it was all covered with chocolate and it was the best thing in the world…

BL: And did you know that tea cost $.25?