Ray Lee

The Devil’s Tickets

An important book about bridge is being published this week, by Crown:  ‘The Devil’s Tickets’, A Night of Bridge, a Fatal Hand, and a New American Age by Gary M. Pomerantz.  And it won’t help you win a single master point — sorry!

The author is a journalist, who seems to specialize in racy accounts of sports events and historically ‘significant’ episodes (his previous books include one about a plane crash in Georgia, and its effect on the survivors, and one about the night Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game).  It’s not clear why he decided to write about the history of bridge, since on the evidence of this book he isn’t a player himself, but he did.  He focuses on two stories from the 1930s: the Culbertsons, and the Bennett murder case.

The Culbertson story has been told before, and well, by John Clay amongst others, so this book adds little if anything to the literature on that score.  Pomerantz uses it as the backdrop on to which he pins his main themes: the rise in popularity of bridge in America (he mentions that other countries play, but doesn’t comment on the significance of the game in the UK, for example) as a symptom of the growing emancipation of women, and the fascinating issues surrounding the Bennett case.  The two stories are told in parallel, and we follow the rise and eventual decline of the fortunes of Ely and Jo, while in alternate chapters we follow the Bennetts as they come together, marry, and eventually meet tragedy.

The book is at its strongest when it is concentrating on the Bennetts.  I’ve personally never read a detailed account of the murder, let alone the trial.  Woollcott’s ‘While Rome Burns’ did include an account of the case, but has long been out of print.  In these pages, we learn about the political and legal characters in Kansas City in the 1930s, and it is perhaps no surprise that Myrtle Bennett’s trial makes the OJ extravaganza look like a sideshow.  And a bridge sidelight: the Encyclopedia includes a discussion of the fatal four spades hand which supposedly led to Jack Bennett’s death.   In fact, none of the three surviving principals could remember the deal, so Ely got Sidney Lenz to ‘recreate’ it for The Bridge World, and analyze it in an article that appeared there.  So the two narratives finally crossed, as Ely milked the sensational murder case for publicity for his magazine.

I found the least convincing strand to be the one where the author draws his sociological conclusions.  For him, the success of bridge was all about women being given an arena where they can compete with men on equal terms.  (Curious that in modern times, women argue that they can’t!)  And the Bennett murder is all about Myrtle being able to express that equality when her husband treats her in much the same way that most American women at that time accepted.  So for Pomerantz, Myrtle’s shooting of her husband Jack was in some ways the first blow for feminism, and her bridge career had everything to do with preparing her for it.  Unfortunately, the author doesn’t really have the credentials to be making this kind of statement, and whenever he did so, I found myself saying ‘Really?’ — there’s no supporting evidence, simply the repeated statement that ‘this is so’.  It’s an interesting point of view, but not one, in my opinion, offered here with any great credibility.  It’s almost as though he needs a grand design to justify writing the book. Actually he doesn’t.  As others have found before him, the history of bridge is a fascinating yarn without the need to find it a significant role in the history of the world.

The book is written in a breezy narrative style, as you would expect, and really holds up well through the middle sections.  However,’Tickets’ tails off in the last few chapters.  Here, we move to the present day, and follow the author as he researches some of the principals through their later years (some required no research — for example, future President Harry S. Truman was a major player in KC at the time).  The end results are interesting, but the story drags somewhat here, and too much time is spent on the process rather than the results.  We do meet the Culbertsons’ children, both emotionally scarred (how could they not be, given their parents and idiosyncratic upbringing?) and adamantly opposed ever to playing bridge themselves.  Myrtle Bennett, after a career in hotel management in New York, eventually retired to Florida, where she died relatively recently — she never changed her name, but it seemed no-one ever connected her with the famous murder case.  No-one from the local bridge club remembered, her, either.

I got the chance to see an advance reading copy, so the book may have been edited further before final publication.  Certainly, the version I saw could have used some tightening in places, as well the removal of a totally futile Appendix which attempted to summarize the rules of bridge in about 3 pages.  I’ve no idea why anyone at Crown even thought that was necessary, let alone useful.  You don’t have to know anything about the game to want to read this book, or to get pretty well everything out of it that can be got. The extensive bibliography and references were also curious — they seemed to be there to add an air of pseudo-scholarship to what is really a lengthy piece of pretty good journalism.

Overall, I’d rate this book a B.  If you want to know about Culbertson, read Clay’s book, as well as Ely’s own bizarre autobiography.  But it’s a superb and fascinating account of the Bennett murder and trial.


Chris HasneyJune 5th, 2009 at 7:26 am

I recommend another of the same sort of title: “Tickets to the Devil” by Powell. Although very dated (the little old lady heroine is chasing a half a red point at an NABC in Miami), it’s still quite funny and a nice look at the old days (and maybe the current ones?) in bridge. Ray, consider a reprint?

Ray LeeJune 6th, 2009 at 2:33 pm

It’s still in print actually — but it’s also a novel, not a non-fiction book. Good read, though.

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