The most unique experience in my life has been the dinners given to me by the Montauk Club of Brooklyn on my birthday. The Montauk is a social club of high standing, whose members are of professional and business life and different political and religious faiths.
Thirty years ago Mr. Charles A. Moore was president of the club. He was a prominent manufacturer and a gentleman of wide influence in political and social circles. Mr. McKinley offered him the position of secretary of the navy, which Mr. Moore declined. He came to me one day with a committee from the club, and said: "The Montauk wishes to celebrate your birthday. We know that it is on the 23d of April, and that you have two distinguished colleagues who also have the 23d as their birthday--Shakespeare and St. George. We do not care to include them, but desire only to celebrate yours."
The club has continued these celebrations for thirty years by an annual dinner. The ceremonial of the occasion is a reception, then dinner, and, after an introduction by the president, a speech by myself. To make a new speech every year which will be of interest to those present and those who read it, is not easy.
These festivities had a fortunate beginning. In thinking over what I should talk about at the first dinner, I decided to get some fun out of the municipality of Brooklyn by a picturesque description of its municipal conditions. It was charged in the newspapers that there had been serious graft in some public improvements which had been condoned by the authorities and excused by an act of the legislature. It had also been charged that the Common Council had been giving away valuable franchises to their favorites. Of course, this presented a fine field of contrast between ancient and modern times. In ancient times grateful citizens erected statues to eminent men who had deserved well of their country in military or civic life, but Brooklyn had improved upon the ancient model through the grant of public utilities. The speech caused a riot after the dinner as to its propriety, many taking the ground that it was a criticism, and, therefore, inappropriate to the occasion. However, the affair illustrated a common experience of mine that unexpected results will sometimes flow from a bit of humor, if the humor has concealed in it a stick of dynamite.
The Brooklyn pulpit, which is the most progressive in the world, took the matter up and aroused public discussion on municipal affairs. The result was the formation of a committee of one hundred citizens to investigate municipal conditions. They found that while the mayor and some other officials were high-toned and admirable officers, yet the general administration of the city government had in the course of years become so bad that there should be a general reformation. The reform movement was successful; it spread over to New York and there again succeeded, and the movement for municipal reform became general in the country.
The next anniversary dinner attracted an audience larger than the capacity of the club, and every one of the thirty has been an eminent success. For many years the affair has received wide publicity in the United States, and has sometimes been reported in foreign newspapers. I remember being in London with the late Lieutenant-Governor Woodruff, when we saw these head-lines at a news-stand on the Strand: "Speech by Chauncey Depew at his birthday dinner at the Montauk Club, Brooklyn." During this nearly third of a century the membership of the club has changed, sons having succeeded fathers and new members have been admitted, but the celebration seems to grow in interest.
During the last fourteen years the president of the club has been Mr. William H. English. He has done so much for the organization in every way that the members would like to have him as their executive officer for life. Mr. English is a splendid type of the American who is eminently successful in his chosen career, and yet has outside interest for the benefit of the public. Modest to a degree and avoiding publicity, he nevertheless is the motive power of many movements progressive and charitable.
Twenty-four years ago a company of public-spirited women in the city of Des Moines, Iowa, organized a club. They named it after me. For nearly a quarter of a century it has been an important factor in the civic life of Des Moines. It has with courage, intelligence, and independence done excellent work. At the time of its organization there were few if any such organizations in the country, and it may claim the position of pioneer in women's activity in public affairs.