23 Nov 2020

History:

Lost Capitol Hill: Shady Doings at the Quorum Club

Ellen Rometsch

Last week, we looked at the origins and some of the famous and infamous residents of the Carroll Arms Hotel, just north of the Capitol. Today, we will look at its most infamous resident.

It was not a person who earned this accolade, but a club: The Quorum Club. It had been founded by Bobby Baker, Lyndon Johnson’s right-hand man in the Senate. Baker had begun his career as a Senate page, but had remained in Washington, working his way up to Secretary of the Majority Leader of that body. Baker, along with many others, frequented the bar at the Carroll Arms Hotel, but found that it was too public a spot. Baker and others decided to rent a few rooms upstairs, for a private club. Baker described it in an interview:

The Quorum Club was a place where a guy wanted to get away, you know, from being at the bar downstairs at the Carroll Arms, where there were too many reporters or too many gawkers. It was an easy place for a lobbyist to get together with a Senator, or a Senator’s girlfriend.

Pictures from the time show a fairly small, wood-paneled place, with an upright piano and a padded leather bar, and a mildly racy picture above a low mid-century modern couch.

The club’s most infamous moment came in 1963, when Ellen Rometsch, who had been either a member or a cocktail waitress at the club, was deported back to Germany over suspicions that she was a spy. Rometsch (whose picture can be seen above) had been born in East Germany before fleeing to the west in 1955 with her family. She then married a US Army sergeant and moved to Washington, where she was employed by the West German embassy. She was considered quite beautiful – Baker compared her to Elizabeth Taylor – and soon all sorts of rumors began swirling about her. Chiefly among them was that she’d had an affair with President Kennedy after JFK’s “wingman” Bill Thompson spotted her in the club. At least, that’s what Baker claimed. The FBI investigated her, not the least because of Rometsch’s origins and her membership in the Communist Party in her youth. The investigation turned up no evidence, though an FBI informant of dubious integrity insisted that Rometsch had told him of her high-level contacts. She was nonetheless deported back to Germany. Baker also claimed, in a wide-ranging interview he gave in 2009 (from which the above quote was taken) that he had been in touch with Rometsch recently, and she had refused huge offers to tell her side of the story.

Detail of a 1947 brochure advertising the Carroll Arms Hotel

The investigation ended with Baker being indicted for tax fraud and grand larceny and spending 18 months in jail. His connections to Johnson were also investigated, but those were dropped after the assassination of JFK and LBJ becoming President.

The investigation did not quite kill off the Quorum Club. In 1964, it became a public establishment. Later, when the Carroll Arms Hotel was closed in 1965, it, too, closed. Its accoutrements were auctioned off in 1966. However, even as these last remnants were being sold off, the club was being reborn, just around the corner, in Schott’s Court.

When this location was demolished to make way for a Senate office building, the club moved once again, this time to 3rd Street NE, where it continues to operate today as The 116 Club.

The 116 Club today. Photo by Maria Helena Carey


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