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For two small but highly articulate groups at either end of the country, the game these days is not gin rummy or charades or baseball, but croquet—an imported version that bears little resemblance to the genteel pastime of the 1890s, and is at once deft, argumentative and deadly. Originated some time around 1925 by a few wealthy estate owners in the East (among them Ogden Phipps, Mrs. Margaret Emerson, Averell Harriman and Herbert Bayard Swope Jr.), "scientific" croquet is played with expensive, closely calibrated English equipment, high wickets and hot tempers. Moss Hart, the playwright, is credited with transporting the game to Hollywood, where it quickly attracted a coterie of converts among the high and mighty, some of whom are pictured opposite.
The real Pooh-Bah of western croquet, however, is Darryl F. Zanuck, production chief of 20th Century-Fox, whose court is shown below and who appears in person on the following page. Zanuck is a fierce and dedicated croquet player; he also is a fierce and dedicated croquet talker.
LUNCH AT A DOGTROT
At one o'clock every day—regardless of what multimillion-dollar movie epic hangs in the balance or how many calls are backlogged on his chattering telephone switchboard—Zanuck puts aside the cares of running Hollywood's second-largest studio, puts a sport jacket on over his button-down sweater, takes his sawed-off polo mallet from the wall and sets off at a dogtrot for the studio executive dining room.
When Zanuck hits the dining room—which he does with the zest of a fullback trying for a first down—one of Hollywood's interesting tribal councils takes place. There are usually a half a dozen or so of the movie industry's prime movers on hand. Most often, these are all Fox producers, but occasionally there is room for a mere actor and sometimes even a jester or a major politician.
On this afternoon, attendance was high: Producers Sam Engel, Herbert Bayard Swope Jr., Nunnally Johnson, Frank Ross, Buddy Adler and Frank McCarthy were present, as were the actor James Mason, the studio press agent Harry Brand and the casting officer Lew Schreiber.
Immediately after Zanuck hung up his polo mallet on a clothes tree—a ritual of Zanuck arrivals—he snatched a saltine and sat himself down at the head of the table. The pre-Zanuckian talk ceased and the boss was permitted to regroup the talk.
Sometimes the conversation quickly veers around to the movie business, but this was a croquet day—as Zanuck indicated even before he had given Nick Janois, the respectful ma�tre d'h�tel, his order.
Glaring at Harry Brand, Zanuck demanded: "What's that junk you gave me from the encyclopedia about croquet? Migod, I'll never believe the encyclopedia again! They said croquet was played with two balls! Good Lord, if they're as wrong on other things as they are on croquet, where are we?"
Zanuck bit into a chunk of corned beef, then pointed a fork at Swope. "There's one of the greatest croquet players in the world," he said hotly. "His father was one of the best. One of the best—and probably one of the noisiest. He was playing in Florida once—against Harpo Marx, I guess, and his partner was not as good a player. Only the fellow thought he was. Two or three times during the game the partner would ask Swope, 'Don't you think I should go away with this shot?' Migod, it was driving Swope crazy and finally he couldn't take it any more. He told the fellow, 'All right, now, put the blue ball out of the game. Don't give me any argument, just drive it out in the weeds as far as you can.' The fellow began to protest and Swope exploded, 'Dammitall, I said the blue ball out and shut up, dammit!' So the fellow did. Hit the best shot he hit all day and drove the blue ball practically into the Atlantic Ocean. And then Swope turned white! It was his ball!"