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The Devil's Tickets: A Vengeful Wife, a Fatal Hand, and a New American Age

The Devil's Tickets: A Vengeful Wife, a Fatal Hand, and a New American Age

by Gary M. Pomerantz
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


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 Roaring 1920s 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. 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.

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. Ina time when such fearless women as Amelia Earhart, Dorothy Parker, and Marlene Dietrich were exalted for their boldness, Culbertson positioned his game as a challenge to all housebound women. At the bridge table, he insisted, a woman could be her husband’s equal, and more. In the gathering darkness of the Depression, Culbertson leveraged his own ballyhoo and naughty innuendo for all it was worth, maneuvering himself and his brilliant wife, Jo, his favorite bridge partner, into a media spectacle dubbed the Bridge Battle of the Century.

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.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“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.”
—Erik Larson, author of the New York Times bestseller The Devil in the White City

“A great story, a real drama, a perfect window on American culture–and best of all, beautifully written with the lightest touch.”
—Susan Orlean,author of the New York Times bestseller The Orchid Thief

“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.”
—Louis Sachar,author of the National Book Award winning Holes

“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.”
–Bob Hamman, eleven-time bridge world champion

“Masterfully reported, beautifully written, and all but impossible to put down.”
—Jonathan Eig, author of the New York Times bestseller Luckiest Man

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt


Ely and Jo


New York City in the twenties was a melting pot of seven million, full of show, big and brawling, an industrial behemoth with enough smokestacks and skyscrapers to fill the skylines of a dozen cities. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote of young love and glittery tea dances, as the twenties dawned, suggested New York City had "all the iridescence of the beginning of the world." Its streets swelled with noises of the Old World mixing with the New: gramophones, gangster gunfire, European accents, tinkling champagne glasses, backfiring Model Ts, and tabloid newsboys hawking the sensational. In these high times, New Yorkers could rush to Broadway to see Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor--known to their Eastern European parents as Asa Yoelson and Israel Iskowitz--or thrill to the last acts of the amazing Harry Houdini, born in Hungary as Erik Weisz. They could read a dozen and more local dailies, choose from among thirty thousand speakeasies, marvel as the big-bellied Babe Ruth launched home runs at Yankee Stadium, and see their Democratic governor, the derby-hatted Al Smith, passing through the five boroughs on his way (he hoped) to the White House. Alive and thrumming at street level, the city teemed with gangsters, ad agency pitchmen (selling sex, Sex, SEX!), Wall Street fat cats, socialists and garment district workers, cafe society personalities and cynical, self-absorbed writers sitting at the Algonquin Round Table thinking up laugh lines. A constellation of celebrities brightened the Prohibition-era night, from the brassy hostess Texas Guinan, who with her pancake makeup and jangling jewelry, greeted nightclub guests with "Hello, sucker!"; to the waiters at Small's Paradise in Harlem, who roller-skated the Charleston across the dance floor with trays overhead; to Jimmy (Beau James) Walker, the dapper mayor of the Tammany Hall machine, who so frequently courted his showgirl all over town that many New Yorkers--not including, of course, Walker's wife--assumed the two were married. In the spirit of the times, Walker later divorced his wife and married the showgirl.

In 1923 Ben Hecht, the writer and playwright, arrived in New York from Chicago and discovered an adventurous city running from the dark memory of war and hedonistically giving itself to the _pleasures of the hour, including, he wrote, "the pleasure of not giving a damn." "It was a bold town," Hecht wrote, "indeed, sharp-tongued, and individualistic. Its credo had it that New Yorkers were a master race."

We busied ourselves putting up the only show possible against doom, which is to seize all the fun there is. Thus people sang louder, drank deeper, danced longer and squandered themselves in every direction. . . . Its finest ladies, including happily married ones, engaged in promiscuous sex as if they were college boys on a spree. . . . New York insisted all its idols wear a grin. It regarded all foreign events, including the first World War, as entertainment. It believed that any war could be won by writing the right songs for it, and not losing your sense of humor. Its patriotism consisted of admiring itself ardently.

In the daily frenzy of New York City, twin journalistic revolutions thundered like elephants down Forty second Street: the tabloids and Walter Winchell. The New York Daily News, America's first tabloid, or half sheet, wailed into existence like a colicky infant in June 1919 with bold headlines and an eye-catching array of photos and illustrations. Within five years, it claimed a readership of nearly one million, easily the largest circulation in the nation. Its success begat another tabloid, the Daily Mirror, which arrived in 1922 promising "90 percent entertainment, 10 percent information"; a few years later came the next, the New York Evening Graphic. These tabloids took the bygone yellow journalism of Hearst and Pulitzer, Spanish-American War vintage, circa 1898, and ripened it. New York pulsed with a thousand wars in miniature--social, cultural, legal, and, best of all, marital--and the tabloids used them all to their advantage. They reveled in stories of debauchery, extramarital affairs, abortions, murders, union battles along the Bowery, mob violence, heroism, hedonism, mayhem, threats, controversies, and dynamic courtroom trials.

Winchell was an indefatigable, ink-stained gadfly who, as a columnist first for the Evening Graphic (a lowbrow daily ridiculed by competitors as the "Pornographic") and then for Hearst's Daily Mirror, seized upon gossip and turned it into his own high art of ballyhoo. Like the tabloids that launched him, Winchell was abrupt, catty, and always hustling. A _night owl, he wrote about Broadway personalities and turned his flashlight upon their tangled, often secretive romances. He challenged the traditional standards of journalistic good taste, maddening competing newspapers and his own editors, who were often unsure whether to publish his latest unverified piece of gossip. Winchell finessed his way around potential libel suits by creating his own "slanguage," a vernacular of the streets, breezy and colloquial. He wrote of secret lovebirds who were "Adam-and-Eveing it" and of a man who felt "that way" about a woman as they awaited "the blessed event." A mention in Winchell's column was greatly coveted, and feared. The column had a chatty cadence, a rapid song-and-dance-man's beat. He dropped names, often of celebrity writers, when possible: "At the opening of a play recently Baird Leonard turned to Dorothy Parker and said, 'Are you Dorothy Parker?' and Dorothy replied, 'Yes--do you mind?' " Winchell reacted physically to gossip, and one observer noted that he "seemed to purr with delight when he had a particularly juicy item... He was as fascinated and unself-conscious as a four-year-old making mudpies." Ben Hecht thought Winchell wrote "like a man honking in a traffic jam." There were other gossip artists at work in New York, but none so widely read, or so intensely despised. The actress Ethel Barrymore, who feuded with Winchell, would say, "It is a sad commentary on American manhood that Walter Winchell is allowed to exist."

Amid this cacophony was the Knickerbocker Whist Club, a noiseless oasis at 26 West Fortieth Street. Here the self-satisfied elites of American auction bridge, the reigning card game of the era, built and burnished their reputations. By requirement, the Knickerbocker's more than 250 members exhibited good temper and a strict adherence to an honor code of card play nearly two centuries old, as attendants, moving with stealth, placed fresh glasses of water at their elbows every half hour or so. Some of the club's older members had been wearing their eyeshades and stroking their chins, deep in thought, since the Cleveland and McKinley administrations. Women were not allowed as members--as bridge players, they were considered conservative and easily intimidated--though club rules permitted them in Thursday night games.

By 1915, auction bridge had forged two world capitals, London and New York, and the most prestigious gentlemen's bridge clubs in both became like fortresses, where wealthy members in evening attire shared stiff drinks with men of their own stature, and tried to take their money at cards. The Portland Club in London was the recognized rule maker of British bridge, a role held in America by the Whist Club of New York, at 38 East Thirty-ninth Street, with its small, exclusive membership (well heeled enough to play auction bridge at fifty cents a point), which included sportsman Harold S. Vanderbilt and club president Charles Schwab, the steel titan who was once Andrew Carnegie's right-hand man.

But for most of the East's leading players, the Knickerbocker was the bridge club of choice. Typically, its members were moneyed men of leisure who, if not natives, had migrated to the city from the Midwest, the South, and Europe. They shared intellectual gifts, competitive intensity, and an unswerving devotion to bridge. Founded in 1891 by twenty enthusiasts of whist, the Knickerbocker started at the Broadway Central Hotel. It led a nomadic existence over the next three decades, migrating from whist to auction bridge, and moving, after the war, for the seventh time, to the brownstone on West Fortieth. When the New York dailies first devoted columns to card games after the turn of the century, Knickerbocker members became regular contributors, spreading the good name of the club: Robert F. Foster in The Sun, George Kling in The Tribune, and E. T. Baker in The Evening Mail. The club's top players wrote bridge books for posterity and one another, and sought to prove their cognitive superiority at the table. Between games, they gossiped about other members and boasted of success in business and with mistresses.

On the brownstone's fourth floor lived perhaps New York's most influential bridge authority, the Knickerbocker's president, Wilbur Whitehead. One floor below was the inner sanctum of the club's best players, entered by invitation only.

In that inner sanctum, in early 1922, Josephine Dillon made her startling breakthrough. Only twenty-three years old, tall and slender with bright Irish eyes, her reddish gold hair carefully marcelled, her eyebrows expertly penciled, "Jo," as she was known, played bridge with a growing confidence and tenacity. Her table presence and subtle movements were elegant and ladylike, her long, supple fingers dropping the cards softly, her cigarette holder cutting broad arcs, her voice, small as a hummingbird's, passing heartfelt compliments: "Nicely played, Whitey," and "That was magnificent, Sidney." Her women friends called her the Duchess for her regal coolness. Jo Dillon let no one close to her. She shielded her deepest thoughts and feelings. The men liked her immensely, and sought her attention with suggestive comments and furtive glances. Since the war years, she had been a part of their group on Thursday nights. Jo bullied no one at the table. She credited their brilliance, and the experts liked that, too.

Raised in the Bronx, the young Josephine Murphy was graduated from Morris High School (where she played the adolescent game of basketball in steel cages) and later served briefly as secretary to an executive in baseball's Federal League, Pat Powers, who turned to promoting six-day bicycle races. Then she worked as a stenographer for Whitehead. Whitey adored Jo (there were whispers that she had been his mistress) and offered her indoctrination in bridge. Jo admitted to him that she barely knew a heart from a spade, but while working for him she developed a keen interest in auction bridge. Since Whitey was club president, if he wanted Jo on the Knickerbocker's third floor, no one dared challenge him. There, Jo discovered bridge experts pitiless in applying the principles of scientific and practical accuracy in their bidding. They hoped their systems were much like the club's brownstone: built methodically, and solidly, to stand the test of time.

Jo proved a quick study and soon found herself among America's great players: Whitehead, Sidney Lenz, Winfield Liggett, P. Hal Sims, Waldemar von Zedtwitz. Here was a Murderer's Row of American bridge, an eclectic mix of sportsmen and Renaissance men: an amateur magician from Chicago (Lenz); an old soldier/Virginian (Liggett); a banker from Selma, Alabama, who once tried to irrigate the Congo (Sims); and a lexicographer who fought as a baron in the Kaiser's army and whose maternal great-grandfather ran for president of the United States against Abraham Lincoln (von Zedtwitz).

What these men shared was card-playing brilliance.

To them New York City was the center of bridge, the Knickerbocker its pantheon, and they were its gods. They wrote newspaper columns and books about bridge (with modest sales), and believed that every meaningful bridge-bidding system and convention had been conceived in New York. The mention of London would invariably cause one of them to harrumph: "Irrelevant, behind the times!"

These experts saw themselves as a master race, and knew each other by agreed-upon nicknames--Whitey, the Shaggy Giant, Commander, the Baron--monikers earned by amiability, appearance, military service, and birthright.

Of course, the game had long had similarly memorable and celebrated characters, dating to contract's forerunner, whist, and the colorful British writer Henry Jones (whose pen name in his whist writings of the late ninteenth century was Cavendish) and, even earlier, to the famed French gamesman and whist champion Guillaume le Breton Deschapelles. A brilliant light of his age, and a genius and braggart of the first order, Deschapelles possessed, according to a contemporary, "a brain of so perfect an organization for the acquirement of games of skill, that it may be fairly said, the world never, in this respect, saw his equal." Born to prosperity in 1780, his father gentleman of the bedchamber to Louis XVI, Deschapelles as a young man volunteered to march with the spirited youth of Paris in battle against the Prussians. Trampled by a horse, his skull laid bare by a saber, another gash traversing his face on a diagonal from brow to chin, his right hand slashed off at the wrist, Deschapelles, left for dead, rose. He mastered chess in four days, he boasted (which led to cynical comparisons to the seven days of Moses), and then turned to whist. He played one-handed, holding and sweeping up his cards with dexterous elegance. A bold and daring player, he saw his fame overtake the card clubs of Europe. It was said that backers agreed to deposit a quarter million francs to support any whist match Deschapelles undertook. To the Knickerbocker experts, he was remembered for the Deschapelles Coup, a stratagem of playing the king, or other high card at the head of a suit, to force out the ace or other high card held by an opponent, thereby making good a lower card in his partnership's possession.

Ambling through the Knickerbocker corridors, Wilbur Whitehead usually had a protege or secretary by his side. Whitey, a hale fellow with a gray mustache, was former president of the Simplex Automobile Company. A giant of auction bridge, he had invented conventions of bidding and play: the quick trick table of card values, the Whitehead system of requirements for original bids and responses. When he wasn't lecturing (occasionally on the vaudeville stage) or writing about bridge, Whitey was playing it, or analyzing his most recent hand. By his fiftieth birthday, in the world of bridge at least, he had done it all.

Sidney Lenz, a wiry, athletic Chicagoan, was also part of the auction old guard. Lenz would soon become The New York Times's first bridge writer. His wry sense of humor revealed itself at the table, and in his columns for Judge, a humor magazine. The evolution, beginning in the 1890s, from whist to bridge-whist to auction bridge had hardly troubled Sid Lenz, as the hundreds of auction trophies in his showcase testified. He made his money in the timber business, and retired in 1910 at the age of thirty-seven to devote his life to hobbies and games. A man of many interests, he pursued his hobbies aggressively. He once bowled an average of 240 across 20 consecutive games (a long-standing record), played chess with the famed Cuban champion Jose Capablanca, and spent a year in India studying magic, becoming a member of the Society of Amateur Magicians, a genius at sleight of hand befriended by Harry Houdini.

P. Hal Sims, from Selma, once represented U.S. banks in foreign nations, and possessed the ultimate bridge table presence. With a thick shock of perpetually mussed-up brown hair, the Shaggy Giant was six foot four and three

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

GARY M. POMERANTZ is an author and journalist and serves as a visiting lecturer in the Department of Communication at Stanford University. His first book, Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn, was named a 1996 Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times. He also earned acclaim for Nine Minutes, Twenty Seconds and Wilt, 1962. A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Pomerantz lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and their three children.

From the Hardcover edition.

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