Bankers Book Bucks

At Northern Trust's version of cafe society, participants trawl for business while trading literary metaphors

The crowd at a recent meeting of the San Francisco Literary Society was atwitter about the possible motives of the Lady Macbeth character in Shakespeare's famous play. Was she driven solely by personal ambition? Was she a victim of unavoidable destiny? Was she a pawn to her husband's designs?

"Lady Macbeth did urge him on," insisted one earnest, smallish, middle-aged woman. "But it's kind of a cop-out to lay the blame on her instead of the king."

The choice of subject, Lady Macbeth's ambiguous motives, was an apt one for the 30 or so discussants seated in the wood-paneled and tapestry-lined downtown offices of Northern Trust Bank. The offices are awash in ambiguous motives every time the San Francisco Literary Society meets in them. That is because the society is a lightly disguised marketing ploy, created last year, and funded with the purpose of signing up urbane-minded millionaires for Northern Trust's line of private banking services.

Northern Trust hosts the group's catered, bimonthly evening meetings in its lobby and conference room; it pays the printing costs for the society's glossy, four-color newsletter. It staffs the society's meetings with courteous, attentive bank officers who greet members at the door and then mingle amiably during hors d'oeuvre breaks. Bank officers serve Northern Trust's own label of estate-bottled wine to guests after they arrive, then scoot armchairs and coffee tables back in place when society meetings have broken up.

Northern Trust Managing Director Robert Condon won't specify how many customers he has signed up from the Literary Society's ranks, but he says it has been successful.

"Of course, the business side is there," Condon says. "But this has turned out to be an exciting opportunity for people to interact with very prominent and exciting authors."

Not so exciting and prominent, however, that clients find the experience intellectually daunting. The level of discourse is comfortably middlebrow and middle of the road.

The society's recommended reading list provides a light mix of material -- some literary, some not -- including the lyrics of Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin, the films of Monty Python, and a work by best-selling action novelist Richard North Patterson.

The Literary Society is one of seven independently run, nonprofit book clubs the bank has set up in cities such as Palm Beach and Chicago, where Northern Trust is headquartered.

The society would seem a nonprofit more in the manner of the Virginia Slims tennis tournament than a literary club. But that's a matter for the bank to sort out with the IRS, says Daniel Langan, spokesman for the National Charities Information Bureau in New York, a watchdog group.

"From an individual viewpoint, I would have to applaud a commercial enterprise sponsoring a literary society," says Langan. "But also as an individual, if I am paying taxes to support a successful commercial enterprise's marketing plan, I don't feel at all good about that."

Northern Trust Bank hasn't just created literary opportunities for its members. By bringing money-changers into the temple of literary discourse, Northern Trust has created a distant relative to traditional, highbrow, book-club kaffeeklatsches. In this bankers' version of cafe society, San Francisco Literary Society members are nearly as likely to trawl for business contacts as plumb the depths of literary metaphors.

Starting with the society's executive director, Peter Robinson. Robinson is a free-lance writer of corporate reports and the like, who has used the society to fashion himself as a scion of the Bay Area literary world while cultivating business clients.

"Obviously I have members who are considered ambassadors that talk to their employers about the kinds of things that I do," says Robinson, a former college English teacher who lives in Mill Valley. "It's a fairly cosmopolitan group, with lawyers, accountants, marketing directors. We have some people who travel into the city on Thursday to go shopping and add the literary thing to their day. Then we have people from Silicon Valley who want to find a balance from the computer world and the literary world."

The literary world, as viewed from the bank's 18th-floor, California Street bay windows, includes a view of Alcatraz so stunning that a kitchen worker took time out before a recent meeting to take photos before the sun went down.

Another regular, small-book publisher Don Ellis, attends monthly meetings in hopes of picking up literary crumbs from some of the better-known authors the society hires as speakers. By signing them to contracts for works rejected as too minor or too flawed by larger houses, he hopes to add prestige to his small Berkeley press. He hasn't convinced any authors yet, but he's hoping future society meetings will prove more fruitful.

"I think that a lot of well-known authors have things that they don't get big advances for," says Ellis, owner of Creative Arts Books in Berkeley. "For that, a small publisher like mine could do."

Antoinette Constable, an Oakland chef and caterer, only had to attend a few society meetings last year before convincing Northern Trust to switch caterers and hire her. She was first attracted by the chance to ponder great writing, but now Constable's in charge of the menu, which includes "colorful spirals of lahvosh bread with herb cheese, petti di pollo alla Gabrielle, and marinated ocean prawns."

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