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.
About 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.
“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