It was early on a Sunday morning this past July, the opening day of the Piatigorsky chess tournament at the Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica, Calif., and no one had thought to vacuum the carpet in the ballroom where the tournament was to be held. Mrs. Jacqueline Piatigorsky discovered the unvacuumed expanse of carpeting at 7 a.m. That is an early hour on a flawless California midsummer Sunday. The broad waxed corridors of the hotel were shining emptily in the reflected sunlight, there was no one around the swimming pool, the wide white beach beyond the palm trees was unpeopled, and Mrs. Piatigorsky could not find a vacuum cleaner. She hastened to her home, a small mansion in Brentwood a few miles away, picked up her own vacuum and returned to clean personally the carpet in the huge room. "If you don't check on every little thing," she said later with a smile, "someone forgets."
Especially great chess players. They come equipped with built-in memory lapses. Chess masters can forget everything except all the moves they make in every game they play. In the case of the chess masters at the Piatigorsky tournament there was some reason for their indifference to trifles. There are not more than 20 men who can compete at the top level of international chess competition, and 10 of these were present in Santa Monica. It was the most brilliant gathering of grand masters in U.S. chess history. Or, for that matter, in anybody's history.
The New York Times
's chess expert called it "the strongest collection of chess players ever convened."
So it was to be expected that Mrs. Piatigorsky would have a lot of checking to do on things other people forgot. Besides vacuuming the carpet and ordering milk and sandwiches for the players, she did things like answering the telephone and giving press interviews and, just before starting time, locating an electrician when the electric clocks used to time players' moves blew out the fuses in the ballroom. Then at one o'clock on Sunday afternoon, July 17, when the long tournament formally opened, she stood poised and cool in a gray flowered dress at the entrance, talking animatedly to awed journalists in whispers—everyone whispers at a chess tournament—and still worrying about last-minute details. She was present through all of the 18 rounds of the 27-day tournament, and as it came to its end, she was still there at the door, explaining with infinite patience and genuine regret to people who were trying to get in that there was no more room in the hall. In the climactic next-to-the-last round, when Bobby Fischer of the U.S. and Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union—tied for first place—were pitted against each other, the crowd reached 1,300, the largest crowd ever to watch a chess match in the U.S. All those hours of checking on every detail paid off, for Mrs. Piatigorsky's tournament was a triumph.
Not that Mrs. Piatigorsky had much preparation for the housewifely duties that were required to make the tournament a success. She spent her childhood in the mansion—at 2 Rue Saint-Florentin, overlooking the Tuileries in Paris—that had been the palace of Talleyrand before her father. Baron Edouard Alphonse James de Rothschild, purchased it. He was the head of the French branch of the House of Rothschild. "It was like a museum," said Mrs. Piatigorsky, as she sat chatting one day during the tournament. "It was so big I never saw the kitchen. I lived in that house until I was married, and I never saw the kitchen."
In weekend escapes from the formal grandeur of the mansion in Paris the Rothschild family lived at Ferri�res—built in 1862 by her great-grandfather, Baron James de Rothschild—a cozy little place located on 9,000 acres just east of Paris, with lakes, parks, a private zoo, 12 gardeners, five foresters and pavilions hung with Van Dykes and other old masters. Napoleon III attended the fete at the opening of Ferri�res, Rossini composed music for the occasion, and the guests shot 1,231 head of game in one afternoon on the Rothschilds' private hunting preserve. During the Franco-Prussian war, Kaiser Wilhelm I, Chancellor Bismarck and General von Moltke took over Ferri�res for their quarters, but the Kaiser refused to sleep in the owner's bedroom. He said it was too grand.
With this background, how did Mrs. Piatigorsky become concerned with chess tournaments? And how did it come about that she was willing personally to do all the housekeeping that chess tournaments require? "If I had a hundred million dollars," one chess player said during the tournament, "I wouldn't bother with chess players."
"Chess entered my life when I was 6 years old," explained Mrs. Piatigorsky. "I had a peritonitis infection, and I was in bed for months. There was no TV then to entertain a bedridden child, and reading all the time was tiresome. I was bored, totally bored."
An English nurse taught Jacqueline and her sister to play chess when Jacqueline was convalescing. This was during World War I, when the Germans were 30 miles from Paris. Her father, a tall, thin-featured man, did not socialize with the children, and Jacqueline thought of her parents as living in a different city. "When we were very young," she said, "they would come upstairs and visit us for about 15 minutes in the evening. As we grew somewhat older we would see them every day at lunch. That was the big family event, taking lunch together, but it was not very cozy or intime; we were surrounded by servants in white gloves." Presently Jacqueline became a good enough chess player to challenge her father, who had a rudimentary knowledge of the game. She beat him, which so irritated the baron that he quit playing. One evening, when a chess-playing friend came to visit, her father said to him, "Play Jacqueline, she's good."
"Of course, I was badly beaten," Mrs. Piatigorsky said. "I was also furious, just furious." She began to play chess more thoughtfully and even took a few lessons. She became a tennis whiz playing on the family courts and a good golfer playing on the family's private golf course at Ferri�res. But her life was very restricted. She and her sister did not go anywhere alone until they married. "I wasn't allowed to go into a store alone to buy so much as a spool of thread," she said.
A vague, opaque expression seems to settle on her features when she remembers Paris, but from the bits and fragments of her recollections you can recognize something: she lived in the sort of social and intellectual world that Marcel Proust described in the early, glowing volumes of Remembrance of Things Past. Devoted students of Proust have carefully traced the connections between the Rothschilds and the originals of some of the characters in Proust's great novel, and Gaston Calmann-L�vy, Proust's publisher, was a close friend of Jacqueline's parents. Faced in reality with the sort of elegance and sumptuous grandeur that Proust evoked so brilliantly in fiction, she wanted to get the hell out of there. At 18 she married Robert Paul Michel Calmann-L�vy, the son of the publisher, but the marriage lasted only four years. "I think I was unconsciously anxious to get out of the house," she said.