The 1920's inspired nationwide fads–flagpole sitting, marathon dancing, swimming-pool endurance floating. But of all the mad games that cheered Americans between the wars, the least likely was contract bridge.
Through these larger-than-life characters and the timeless partnership game they played, The Devil’s Tickets captures a uniquely colorful age and a tension in marriage that is eternal.
The short answer is Warren Buffett, a man I’ve never met. Buffett, the billionaire investor, is an inveterate bridge player. So is Bill Gates. They’ve played bridge in tournaments and online. Smart, competitive, successful people have always been drawn to bridge. It’s a partnership game that consumes them.
I was told by a friend that Buffett, in a private conversation, waxed on about the bridge craze that swept across America during the late 20’s and the Depression.
In that era, Buffett said, bridge was all the rage. He said bridge hands, were analyzed on radio, and the game was captured in best-selling books, and on newsreels. And once, he said, there was a bridge-table murder.
A bridge-table murder?
I decided to look into it. In the best case, research is like quicksand: the story thickens and you fall deeper and deeper into it. For me, this was a best-case scenario. I discovered a subculture that teemed with colorful, crafty and eccentric characters. In the sparkle of elite bridge clubs in New York and London, and in a Kansas City courtroom, there were renaissance men and rogues – and philanderers abounded. There were also impressive strong-minded women. They were archetypes of the age.
Bridge really was played all across America then – in living rooms, on trains, in private clubs. The Marx Brothers played bridge, and so did the future First Lady, Bess Truman, and the catty writers at the Algonquin Round Table. In Hollywood the moguls Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer played for high stakes. The New York Yankees’ Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig played bridge with sportswriters on trains and in hotel rooms. Hemingway and Fitzgerald wrote about bridge in their fiction.
At its core, The Devil’s Tickets is a sensational Battle-of-the-Sexes story. That battle didn’t begin, as many believe, in 1973 on a tennis court with Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. It started long before that – during the Roaring 20’s when women were finding voice in exciting new ways. It started at the bridge table, of all places.
They were called the Roaring 20’s for a reason. A 1928 survey revealed that one-quarter of married American men and women had engaged in at least one extramarital affair. Sex was a regular conversation piece at cocktail parties. It was in the air. And when husbands and wives played as bridge partners, it wasn’t just the cards that were on the table. So was the marriage. If a fissure existed in a marriage, bridge often exposed it.
The Battle-of-the-Sexes at the bridge table often pitted husband against wife.
Cross words flew. And once so did bullets.
It happened late in the Jazz Age, September 1929, a month before the stock market crashed, in Boss T.J. Pendergast’s Kansas City. Two attractive young couples sat down to the bridge table in a lovely apartment in the Country Club district, the Bennetts against the Hofmans. They spiced up their game by gambling at a-tenth-of-a-cent-a-point, and they drank in defiance of Prohibition.
Past midnight, the cards turned and the Bennetts got into a spat.Myrtle Bennett called her husband Jack “a bum bridge player.” Jack wouldn’t take such insubordination. An alpha male, known to Myrtle as an adulterer, Jack stood and slapped her in front of the Hofmans. The Hofmans recoiled and Myrtle wept. Jack announced he was leaving, and began to pack his bag.
He asked Myrtle to retrieve his gun, which he carried for protection on road trips. She got his .32 Colt automatic and four bullets later, Jack was dead on their living room floor.
It was a wild Old West moment. It harkened to 1876 when Wild Bill Hickok was shot dead in a Deadwood, South Dakota saloon holding the so-called Dead Man’s Hand, two pair, Aces and Eights.
Of course, that was poker, and a gunslinger.
This was bridge, and a perfume salesman.
The Bennett killing was beyond sensational. Newspapers seized the story, and ran with it.
Maybe this was why the Puritans viewed playing cards as Satanic seeds of corruption and vice, and called them The Devil’s Tickets.
To answer that would spoil the story!
She hired the most famous man in Kansas City as her defense attorney, a former U.S. Senator and Democratic presidential candidate – the handsome orator, James A. Reed, who had his eye of the 1932 presidential nomination. Naturally, the Bennett murder trial was front-page news, and a high society event in Kansas City. Plenty of women showed up in the courtroom wearing furs. The bailiff pushed the unseemly spittoons out of sight, beneath the benches. These women wanted to hear about bridge and also to watch the charismatic Reed in what was believed to be his final courtroom drama. Even the family of Boss Pendergast came. Reed was a Pendergast machine man, as was Harry S. Truman, who held a courthouse post in Independence at the time.
Reed put on a courtroom show of logic, drama, and a few tears. Three times for jurors, he play-acted the shooting of Jack Bennett with the .32 Colt automatic in his hand. Seeing the killing weapon, the jurors’ eyes grew wide.
Reed reminded the jury about the sanctity of womanhood. But what no one in the courtroom knew was that Reed was involved in an extramarital romance with his next-door-neighbor, a millionaire dressmaker (a quarter century younger than he) by the name of Nell Donnelly.
And at that moment, Nell was pregnant with Reed’s son.
As the trial went on in Kansas City early in 1931, a dark, brooding Russian was watching from New York. He was the tuxedoed, spotlessly manicured Barnum of the bridge craze by the name of Ely Culbertson. He used mystique, brilliance and a certain madness to transform bridge from a friendly social game into a national cultural movement, and it would make him rich and famous.
Culbertson used the Bennett killing and trial – as well as fear, ego and sex – to sell bridge, his bridge instruction books, and himself, to the masses.
For women at home, those housewives whose achievements went unnoticed, a sociable game of bridge offered a place at the table where, by dint of their intelligence and skill, they could prove they were the equal of men, if not their superiors. But many husbands weren’t ready to follow their wives’ lead or to view them in anything but a subordinate role.
Culbertson’s marketing genius was to position the game as a challenge to women, a dare really. If a woman wanted true equality, she had only to buy a deck of cards and, of course, Culbertson’s books of bridge instruction.
Remember this was the Age of Advertising and self-invention. Culbertson used the new media – talkie films and radio – to project himself three-dimensionally. He was suave, and sophisticated. Housewives adored him, and rushed to his bridge lectures by the thousands. Culbertson referred to his own lovely wife, Josephine, as My Favorite Partner. And the housewives really loved hearing that.
A husband who loves and respects his wife!
In his new magazine, The Bridge World, Culbertson stirred up the Bennett tragedy whenever possible. He wrote about the killing. He wrote about the trial. His magazine even analyzed “The Fatal Hand.” Never mind that neither Myrtle Bennett nor the Hofmans remembered the distribution of cards from that last hand – not with a dead body on the floor!
But Culbertson knew that murder was a powerful marketing tool.
Famously. When he and Josephine won the Bridge Battle of the Century at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1931, a match that found its way onto national radio and newsreels and the front pages of American newspapers for nearly six weeks, it was the tipping point of the bridge craze. That bridge battle was observed by the likes of Ring Lardner and Grantland Rice and the cartoonist Rube Goldberg and steel magnate Charles Schwab, Grand Duchess Marie of Russia and Mrs. Vincent Astor.
Ely and Jo became millionaires. Ely endorsed Chesterfield cigarettes and Wrigley’s Gum. The Culbertsons were the most conspicuous consumers. As Depression-era radio played “Brother, can you spare a dime?” Ely spent seven dollars a day on cigarettes.
But his demise would be nearly as swift and startling as his rise. He would turn away from bridge. During World War II, Ely Culbertson decided he was the only man alive smart enough to save the world from nuclear destruction.
He created a world peace plan, and he did that in a secret hideaway, behind a sliding bookcase in his apartment. Poor Jo.
In time I came to view The Devil’s Tickets as a story about three couples; the Bennetts, the Culbertsons, and Jim Reed and Nell Donnelly.
In economic hard times – whether during the Great Depression or today – Americans have always turned to games. Games are universal. They’ve been around throughout human history. Games provide an escape, but I think there’s more to it than that. Instead of carrying a person away from hard times, bridge, and certain board games, bring life to them on a small scale with the world to win. Monopoly, for instance, gives you a chance to be J.P. Morgan. Bridge gives you a chance to create the perfect partnership, to know your partner intuitively, and to speak the same language. That’s invigorating. It exercises the emotions and the intellect. It is timeless.
Nowadays, with the Internet and television and so many diversions, it’s difficult to find a craze that connects a nation. For a time, I suppose the Obama campaign took on craze dimensions. But everything is so fragmented now.
Poker certainly spiked in recent years. Look how many people play poker online and watch it on ESPN. But poker takes about 30 minutes to learn. Bridge takes weeks, or months.
But when you think of the raw power of games, and then bring husbands and wives together, not much has changed since 1929. Some husbands still have difficulty following their wives’ leads.
There is a tension in marriage that is eternal. When that tension is placed in the competitive cauldron of bridge, combustion sometimes happens.
Immersing myself in the Roaring Twenties. What an excessive, hedonistic, and disaster-haunted era it was. So many iconic pop culture figures moved in and out of my story: Sinclair Lewis, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Franklin Roosevelt, Damon Runyon, and the curious flagpole-sitter Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly. I immersed myself in the fine fiction of that age and read The Great Gatsby, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and The Sun Also Rises, among other novels, and also in the music. Sometimes, I wrote while listening to the jazz of Bennie Moten & his Kansas City Orchestra.
I also learned to fire a .32 Colt automatic. It took some time to find one; they haven’t been made in more than 50 years With a gun shop owner, I went to a shooting range, put on ear protection and fired a .32 to learn the physical sensation of Myrtle Bennett’s killing act.
Yes, though not particularly well. As part of my research for this book, I took individual and group lessons. Thankfully, I have a bridge partner who is patient with me.
No, she does not, and I have come to believe that is one of the secrets to marital bliss.