The Devil's Tickets Book Cover

The Devil's Tickets

A Night of Bridge, a Fatal Hand, and a New American Age

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Kansas City, 1929: Myrtle and Jack Bennett sit down with another couple for an evening of bridge. As the game intensifies, Myrtle complains that Jack is a "bum bridge player." For such insubordination, he slaps her hard in front of their stunned guests and announces he is leaving. Moments later, sobbing, with a Colt .32 pistol in hand, Myrtle fires four shots, killing her husband.

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.

Now ninety, Bob Cousy, the Hall of Fame Boston Celtics captain who led the team to its first six championships on an unparalleled run, has much to look back on in contentment. But he has one last piece of unfinished business. The last pass he hopes to throw is to close the circle with his great partner on those Celtic teams, fellow Hall of Famer Bill Russell, now 84. These teammates were basketball's Ruth and Gehrig, and Cooz, as everyone calls him, was famously ahead of his time as an NBA player in terms of race and civil rights.  But as the decades passed, Cousy blamed himself for not having done enough, for not having understood the depth of prejudice Russell faced as an African-American star in a city with a fraught history regarding race. Cousy wishes he had defended Russell publicly, and that he had told him privately that he had his back. He confided to acclaimed historian Gary Pomerantz over the course of many interviews that at this late hour, he would like to make amends
At the heart of this story is the relationship between these two iconic athletes. In a way, the book is also Bob Cousy's last testament on his complex and fascinating life. As a sports story alone it has few parallels: A poor kid whose immigrant French parents suffered a dysfunctional marriage, the young Cousy escaped to the New York City playgrounds, where he became an urban legend known as the Houdini of the Hardwood. The legend exploded nationally in 1950, his first year as a Celtic: he would be an all-star all thirteen of his NBA seasons.  But even as Cousy's on-court imagination and daring brought new attention to the pro game, the Celtics struggled until coach Red Auerbach landed Russell in 1956. Cooz and Russ fit together beautifully on the court, and the Celtics dynasty was born.  Yet to Boston's white sportswriters it was Cousy's team, not Russell's. As the civil rights movement took flight, and Russell became more publicly involved in it, there were some ugly repercussions from the community, more hurtful to Russell than Cousy feels he understood at the time.
As the Barnum of the bridge craze, Ely Culbertson, a tuxedoed boulevardier with a Russian accent, used mystique, brilliance, and a certain madness to transform bridge from a social pastime into a cultural movement that made him rich and famous. In writings, in lectures, and on the radio, he used the Bennett killing to dramatize bridge as the battle of the sexes. Indeed, Myrtle Bennett’s murder trial became a sensation because it brought a beautiful housewife–and hints of her husband’s infidelity–from the bridge table into the national spotlight. James A. Reed, Myrtle’s high-powered lawyer and onetime Democratic presidential candidate, delivered soaring, tear-filled courtroom orations. As Reed waxed on about the sanctity of womanhood, he was secretly conducting an extramarital romance with a feminist trailblazer who lived next door.
Image Credit: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

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.

To the public, bridge symbolized tossing aside the ideals of the Puritans–who referred derisively to playing cards as “the Devil’s tickets”–and embracing the modern age. Culbertson’s marketing genius was that he positioned his game as a challenge to women, a dare, really. If a woman truly wanted equality, she had only to buy a deck of cards – and, of course, his books of bridge instruction . . . Culbertson took advantage of the tension in marriage that is eternal. How much more interesting, he thought, if the game became a war of the sexes..



New York Times Bestselling Author of The Devil In The White City
Bridge and murder, two of mankind’s most engrossing pursuits. In The Devil’s Tickets Gary Pomerantz intermingles both to create a crackling portrait of a vibrant past age and a singular moment when a bullet trumped all..



Author of the New York Times Bestseller The Orchid Thief
A great story, a real drama, a perfect window on American culture–and best of all, beautifully written with the lightest touch..



Author of the national book award winning holes
Nowadays people tend to think of the game of bridge as old and somewhat fuddy-duddy, but once upon a time it was young and sexy. What a delight to read Gary M. Pomerantz’s engaging account of how all this got started.



Eleven-time bridge world champion
This remarkably entertaining tale reveals important truths about bridge, such as that the best players must check their egos at the door and that mental endurance and intimidation can be pivotal. But it also reveals truths about life, such as that women need a venue where they can compete with men and that a rare confluence of social factors can create men like Ely Culberston, who was only too happy to be Johnny-on-the-spot when there was money to be made or fame to be won. Anyone who’s played bridge, or ever been the least bit curious about the game’s appeal, will love this book.

Q&A With the Author

What inspired you to write The Devil's Tickets?

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.

How did that battle play out?

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.

Was Myrtle Bennett convicted of murder?

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.

How was this Bennett story connected to the bridge craze?

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.

How did Ely Culbertson capitalize on the bridge craze?

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.

How does this story relate to today?

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.

Could a Myrtle and Jack Bennett story happen again today?


What was the most interesting part of your research?

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.

Do you play bridge?

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.

Does your wife play bridge?

No, she does not, and I have come to believe that is one of the secrets to marital bliss.

Gary M. Pomerantz leaning on street sign at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco
Photo by Deanne Fitzmaurice.

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