Long Island. Today those words evoke suburbia, endless miles of housing developments and shopping centers connected to New York City by an infamous expressway and a hapless commuter railroad. Once upon a time, though, Long Island was dream country. In the imaginations of millions of moviegoers, readers of fiction and sports fans in the 1920s and '30s, Long Island was Bel Air, Palm Beach and Grosse Pointe rolled into one, a semirural paradise where beautiful people of enormous wealth drove fabulous open cars along leafy lanes amid vast country estates, and where everyone, when not drinking cocktails or sailing to Europe, played polo.
At the core of the fantasy was fact. In the warmer half of the year, Long Island's North Shore, rightly known as the Gold Coast, was home to the most visible segment of America's aristocracy of wealth. Whitneys, Bostwicks, Phippses, Burdens and others owned estates there, the boundaries of which were marked by narrow tree-lined lanes. And they did play polo. The rest of the fantasy, the embellishments, the chronicling of the exotic ways of the privileged few for the consumption of the enchanted many, came from the typewriters of screenwriters, novelists and newspaper reporters.
In the person of one spectacularly gifted athlete, however, fact and fantasy came together. Tommy Hitchcock was everything a Long Island blue blood was supposed to be. He was rich by birth and richer still by marriage to a Mellon from Pittsburgh. He had been educated in the right places—St. Paul's School and Harvard—and he spoke French before he spoke English. Although Hitchcock was not handsome in the languorous fashion of the day, he was a model of physical well-being thanks to an athletic regimen that had been instilled in him virtually from birth. He had been bred to the sporting life and was at home in the out-of-doors. Dressed for polo in shining boots and white breeches, with a camel hair coat thrown over his muscular shoulders, Hitchcock appeared clothed where other men looked costumed.
Polo was Tommy Hitchcock's game, and to American sports-page readers of his time, polo was Tommy Hitchcock. From 1922 until 1939, with the exception of one year, Hitchcock was ranked at 10 goals, the highest possible assessment of a polo player's skill. For six of those years he was the only 10-goal player in the U.S. By his strength, his reckless courage in a game fraught with danger, his near miraculous abilities and his relentless determination to win, he made every team he played with look good.
"I played with him and I played against him," says James P. (Jimmy) Mills, 78, a breeder of thoroughbreds at his Hickory Tree Farm in Middleburg, Va. "There was no player like him, ever. If these Argentineans today are 10s, Tommy Hitchcock was a 12!"
Most of the best polo in Hitchcock's day was played by a small band of Long Island amateurs who were also New York "socialites," a word coined by TIME magazine in 1928. They played on the eight fields of the Meadow Brook Club in Westbury or at one of the other 10 private fields that lay within a few minutes' drive of the club. The spectators at a typical weekend match in Westbury or Jericho or Sands Point were families, neighbors, guests and friends of the players; they drew their cars around the edge of the field and watched from running boards and camp chairs. Midway in the match, between the fourth and fifth chukkers, the spectators would take to the field, tamping down divots with well-shod feet.
Nicknamed Ten-Goal Tommy by the tabloids, Hitchcock carried polo to a much larger audience. By 1930 major events such as the Westchester Cup—the U.S. versus England—and the U.S. Open drew tens of thousands to the "robin's egg blue" grandstand of Meadow Brook's International Field. Bostwick Field in Westbury, property of George H. (Pete) Bostwick, a celebrated amateur steeplechase jockey and high-goal polo player, was opened to the public in 1934. For 50 cents and the price of a short train ride, city people could sit in the sun watching horses worth thousands and men worth millions playing the 2,000-year-old game of Persian courtiers.
Hitchcock was born in 1900 into a world devoted to horses. His childhood homes—Broad Hollow Farm in West-bury in summer and Mon Repos in Aiken, S.C., in winter—were equipped with everything a horse or a horse fancier could possibly need, including regulation-sized polo fields.
Tommy was sent away to boarding school at 10, already the master of such gentlemanly pursuits as hunting, jumping and shooting. At school he played football and hockey and he rowed, but polo was his calling. From the age of 12 on he devoted all his vacations to the game. At 14 he was a prodigy playing with men twice his age. By the time he was 16, he was a top-ranked junior player. Then World War I intervened.
At 17, while still president of the sixth form (senior class) at St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., Hitchcock wangled his way into the Lafayette Escadrille, a flamboyantly romantic arm of the French Aviation Service made up of American volunteers, young men bedazzled by the possibilities for heroism in the brand-new game of aerial combat. In a war being fought by anonymous armies in muddy trenches, the only visible, nameable heroes were the fliers in their fragile single-engine craft.