SI Vault
George Plimpton
November 05, 1956
Whist, bridge and a cruise; Vanderbilt invents contract; the game sweeps the world; great tournaments and winning hands; life at home
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November 05, 1956

House Of Cards

Whist, bridge and a cruise; Vanderbilt invents contract; the game sweeps the world; great tournaments and winning hands; life at home

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There's the baron and Schenken and Os Jaco-bee,
And they talk about bridge hands from breakfast to tea.
Then they play the darn game 'til a quarter past three;
They've purloined my boy friend from me.

There's the Vanderbilt club and the Culbertson two;
There's the one over one and the Sims' ballyhoo.
I've studied them all 'til my brain's in a stew;
They've purloined my boy friend from me.

Whatever I bid, it's too strong or too light;
I can tell by his stench face I never am right.
And it usually ends in a marital fight;
It's a hell of a game for a wife!

Watching Vanderbilt at the bridge table or at the wheel of a yacht one can hardly believe that both bridge and yachting are simply what he calls pastimes. Though undeniably Vanderbilt has brought to all his activities the rigor of the professional outlook, he considers his true occupation businessman. Until the New York Central proxy fight two years ago he was the fourth generation of his family to be actively engaged in the management of the New York Central Railroad. He was one of the leaders in the proxy fight to keep Robert Young from gaining control of the Central, and Vanderbilt's loss, caused by the opposition controlling over a million shares more than the management, was one incalculably more bitter than any suffered with cards or racing boats.

His ability to shift from his business affairs to his pastimes with such success can be attributed to a mind which is of a specific rather than a general nature. If the average man's mind can be compared to a bonfire at night which lights up a substantial area, Vanderbilt's mind is like a thin, intense searchlight beam—lighting up one object to the exclusion of all else. His two excellent books on yachting—On the Wind's Highway and Enterprise—are remarkable in that, though they cover the decade from 1930-1940, there is not a hint in either of the outside world: the Depression, the fall of governments, the rise of fascism, or even, for that matter, closer at hand, the limited but colorful social whirl of Newport during the Cup series. Vanderbilt's mind is concentrated on his yachts and their races—to the exclusion at the moment of what is neither of concern nor even of interest to him.

In the sporting world, such singleness of mind, whether it leads to success or not, does not capture the imagination of the general public. True, he has been widely acclaimed—thousands of handkerchiefs fluttered from the slopes of Newport's Castle Hill and the concentrated blare from the horns of hundreds of parked cars saluted his victories in the America's Cup series. But as a champion he is in the tradition of golfing's Ben Hogan: shy, reserved, Vanderbilt is not at home with the amenities of sport; he is not a man to be found amid the convivial company in the barroom of the yacht club following a race; he abhors the type of bridge play which is a front for dispensing gossip.

Fate itself seems to take a hand on the few occasions he has catered to the theory of the camaraderie of sportsmen. On one occasion in 1939 in England, during what was in essence a goodwill tour, Vanderbilt gave a dinner to which he invited a multitude of yachtsmen he had defeated that summer. Short on spelling but conscientious, Vanderbilt's Swedish steward laboriously copied out special menus to put before each plate. Startled yachtsmen picked up their menus to read that vicious soose was their soup course, to be followed by a fish course not calculated to put them at ease: sole manure.

That the amenities of sport come hard to him can be no reflection on Vanderbilt. It is difficult to think of a sports figure who has made such a profound contribution to the public. When he left college, Vanderbilt told his father that he wanted to take up an active interest in the New York Central. His father would not recommend it. "You are fortunate enough not to have to work," he said.

Vanderbilt's decision not to follow his father's advice, and to bring his instinct to excel to everything he's tried, has had a strange latter-day echo. "The public be damned" is a phrase every schoolboy knows—a famous tag to the Vanderbilt family name. It is a statement Vanderbilt and his family are very sensitive about, believing firmly that the circumstances under which his grandfather made the remark have never been fully appreciated. Whatever the spirit of the remark, by his contributions to the millions who sail and play bridge, Vanderbilt's life has been a refutation of that phrase, and a ghost has been laid low.

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