David's Reviews > The Devil's Tickets: A Night of Bridge, a Fatal Hand, and a New American Age

The Devil's Tickets by Gary M. Pomerantz
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's review
Jul 14, 2009

it was ok
bookshelves: read-in-2009
Read in July, 2009

During my junior year the bridge virus infected our entire high school. Like a particularly contagious strain of bird flu, it spread like wildfire – 400 students, living in close quarters with lots of free time on their hands was the perfect niche. My regular partner was a guy called Seamus, now a practicing doctor in Bailieboro, County Cavan (the home of Henry James’s ancestors). I can still remember the particular hand he played that lost us the Christmas tournament – failure to make a small slam in hearts, by one trick, doubled and vulnerable. And I can still recall the murderous rage that his mistake provoked, as if it happened only yesterday. But hey, at least I wasn’t married to the guy.

Murderous rage provoked by a partner’s mistake at bridge is one of two themes explored in Gary M. Pomerantz’s latest non-fiction effort, “The Devil’s Tickets”. By the end of the 1920s contract bridge had taken the U.S. by storm. Marriage, already a beleaguered institution, now had one more potential stress factor to contend with – the insidious deterioration in mutual respect that can result when spouses turn out to be bridge partners with greatly differing levels of ability. On a September evening in 1929 in Kansas City, Missouri, the marriage of Jack and Myrtle Bennett did not survive the strain: a heated altercation that broke out when Myrtle became infuriated by a blunder Jack made during play led to him slapping her before their guests and ended with Jack at the receiving end of two fatal shots. Not surprisingly, the “bridge murder” became a national cause celebre, and roughly half of “The Devil’s Tickets” is given over to Pomerantz’s account of events leading up to the “fatal hand”, and the trial that followed.

At this point, you can almost see the gears turning in the author’s head. He figures out (correctly) that the Kansas City murder alone is too slight to peg an entire book on. (One can only wish that someone had warned him that trial narratives are notoriously tricky, almost always ending up dull and uninspired, a trap that Pomerantz doesn’t manage to avoid.)
So he decides to add a second storyline, also revolving around a married couple – the famous bridge partnership of Josephine and Ely Culbertson. He tracks their rise to fame as bridge’s pre-eminent couple, Ely’s obsessive quest to prove his bidding method superior to all others, and to obtain complete domination in the area of teaching methods and punditry. This story also has a famous bridge game at its center – more specifically, a 5-week challenge tournament in which Ely and Jo took on (and trounced) the best of the bridge establishment, thereby sealing dominance of the Culbertson “brand”. Sadly, attaining the summit came at the cost of their marriage – Ely’s never-ending pathological need for adulation and ever-more outrageous delusions of grandeur proved too much for Jo, who began to develop a serious drinking problem. They divorced in 1937.

Pomerantz’s account of these two couple’s stories is workmanlike, but no more than that. As I already mentioned, he is not successful in making the trial scenes interesting. Spreading the trial account over three separate chapters, with other material interspersed, seems like nothing more than a desperate attempt to generate some fake suspense. Gossipy digressions about the private life of the defending attorney add nothing to the overall story and are little more than padding.

At about the three-quarter mark in the book I thought I had it figured – a somewhat pedestrian, but not completely uninteresting, account, organized around a central conceit that didn’t quite gel. But then things took a distinct turn for the worse, dropping the author several notches in my esteem. The final 50 pages of the book are given over to what the author grandiosely terms “The Search”, in which he takes it upon himself to track down what he appears to consider loose ends. In the process, he sheds any semblance of objective reporting and makes it clear that he has no qualms about violating the privacy of the dead, or engaging in posthumous speculation on the motives of those who can no longer speak for themselves. Thus, for instance, it takes no more than a walk through the apartment where Bennett died to inspire the following:

“Now, walking through the apartment, I see and feel and know that Byrd Rice’s story about the explosive moment is the way it must have happened” (there follows a detailed two-page account of ‘events’, presented as truth, despite being nothing more than a highly selective interpretation of the evidence). This is the “appeal to divine revelation as source of reportorial authority” gambit, which Pomerantz appears to consider sufficient to overturn the trial decision and declare his own guilty verdict on Myrtle. Given this willingness to leap to judgement, I found his rummaging through the details of her life for the remaining 61 years after she was found not guilty by the jury, including poking into the details of her will and cheap speculation as to her motives, distinctly unsavory. What should one make, for instance, of the author’s obvious relish at tracking down, years after Myrtle’s death, one of her co-workers at New York’s Carlyle Hotel, a man who had worked with her for fifteen years without knowing her past, then feeding the man file folders with every salacious headline about the 70-year old scandal. It is obvious that Michael O’ Connell, the co-worker in question, did not appreciate this revealing of information that his friend had wanted to keep confidential.

Truth is an elusive commodity, and expecting to find it in a work of non-fiction is probably the height of naivete. In the unsavory final section of this book, Gary M. Pomerantz reveals himself as a writer whose every sentence should be taken with a very large grain of salt.

Though intermittently entertaining, this book left a very bad taste in my mouth. Give it a miss.

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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Trevor (new)

Trevor Unlike this review, which is compulsive reading. Thank you.

David Hmmm. Now that I remember it, two of the werewolves were bridge champions in "Sharp Teeth" as well. (Yes, really).

Abigail: both my parents were members of the local bridge club. But they reached an agreement very early on not to play as partners, for the good of their marriage. My dad was keener on the golf anyway.

It's interesting how the mind works -- Dad could (and very often did, unless checked) bore the bejasus out of assembled company as he recalled the exact details of how he navigated the dogleg on the 14th hole in Lahinch, back in 1992, when he was playing with the monsignor and the bishop until they were rained out coming up the 16th ((a 2-iron up the fairway that hooked into the rough, after which ....). My mother, on the other hand, could give you an exact blow-by-blow account of bridge hands she had played twenty years earlier. Like most teenagers, my sister and I became very skilled at tuning them out.

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