Harold Vanderbilt is now 72—an age most people associate with retirement. But the doctrine of the easy and relaxed life seemingly is not one which he understands. It would not be hard for Vanderbilt to retire to a world of pleasant memories. Many of the rooms of his Virginia residence and his Florida home near Palm Beach are decorated with cups, framed photographs and paintings of yachts—so many of them that it would seem hard to escape the past. But to watch Vanderbilt stalk by them, to note his lack of interest in them is to guess that the memorabilia are mere decoration rather than the personal record of a great sporting career. Vanderbilt's dedication is to the present—and he continues to live each day with amazing vigor.
His day starts early and with typical intensity. He rises, rolls a mat out full length beside his bed, and on it performs a half-hour series of yoga exercises. Vanderbilt's exercises begin simply enough with controlled breathing but continue through to such awesome backbreakers as balancing on the base of his spine with legs outstretched and occasionally to standing on his head for minutes at a time, until finally he topples over, rolls up the mat and proceeds to the first of his day's swims. This over, he sits down to a frugal breakfast of prunes, a strawlike dry cereal and yogurt. He has been on this morning diet, which he dislikes but believes best for his health, for over 20 years. The exercises have been almost a daily habit since 1920 when he was introduced to them by a yogi who billed himself as the Great Oom. The Great Oom tried but he couldn't get Vanderbilt to study the more advanced mental considerations of yoga and had to be content with having one of his disciples teach Vanderbilt the physical aspects.
Physical fitness is an essential doctrine in Vanderbilt's life. Minutes after his J boats moored following a race, Vanderbilt would invariably head for Newport, there to exercise in the fading afternoon light on the tennis courts at the Casino. His yoga mat was always with him aboard his motor yacht Vara. He enjoys getting his friends to do the physical exercises, but few of them—even such athletically inclined companions as Rod Stephens, Vanderbilt's afterguardsman aboard the Cup defender Ranger—take more than one or two turns on the mat. Stephens used to rise at a startling hour to leave Vara and putter around Ranger, a handy excuse for escaping the rigors of yoga.
Following breakfast Vanderbilt sits down to his business affairs until high noon, when the Florida sun outside is at its blazing height. He then dresses in white shorts and floppy white hat and strides down to his tennis court through gardens breathless in the heat. As his wife says: "Only mad dogs, Englishmen and Vanderbilts go out in the noonday sun."
To watch Vanderbilt play is to see in its most marked form the intense concentration he gives his yachting, his bridge, indeed any undertaking. His mind is completely absorbed in the game. He awaits service balanced on his toes, leaning slightly forward, his body moving in a slight, cobralike motion, seemingly deploring the delay before he can leap forward to hit the ball. Left-handed, his wrists circled with the colorful handkerchiefs he uses as sweat bands, he plays an effective game, hitting looping lobs which keep his opponents well back toward the green canvas-covered backstop.
He plays as many as three sets before taking another swim. For the water he affects a gray bathing cap and earplugs, and, disdaining the steps of his pool, he dives in, barking out "hup!" in mid-flight. Occasionally, the "hup!" somewhat louder, he goes off the high board, some 12 feet above the water.
Lunch is held by the pool, an informal buffet, with Vanderbilt sitting at the head of the table swathed in a blue beach robe. Guests are usually friends of the Vanderbilts who live nearby. Often, though, particularly during an annual institution known as Bridge Week, the guests are bridge players—the best bridge players in the country. Lunch concluded—and no bridge player can remember a departure from the ritual—Vanderbilt stands and says, "Well, now...how about a digestive rubber or two?" The chairs scrape back and the bridge players head for the living room and its picture-window view of the Gulf Stream. There they will remain until 6 in the evening, when they take time out for a swim, dinner and then return to the tables where they stay long into the night.
Bridge is for many a form of relaxation; but this is not a term one would associate with Vanderbilt's type of play. The small armchairs quartered around the bridge table have been recovered four times since the yearly invitations to Bridge Week started in 1930, an attrition caused mainly by long hours of play, and more particularly by the wearing action of the so-called "squirmers"—players whose agony of concentration manifests itself in the creak and sway of the furniture. Almost all the great players have at one time in their careers journeyed either up from Miami or down from the north to participate in Bridge Week. They enjoy the hospitality of not only one of the best bridge minds in the country, but of the originator of the card game itself. Though it is a title he abhors, Vanderbilt is, as the press often described him in the '30s, the "father of contract bridge."
The game was devised one autumn evening in 1925 aboard the liner Finland on a cruise from San Francisco to Havana. Three friends were traveling with Vanderbilt—Dudley L. Pick-man, a Boston lawyer, Francis M. Bacon, a New York broker, and Frederick S. Allen, a longtime resident of Paris. Together the four sat down and played the first game of contract—scored almost precisely as it is today, and now played, according to the most recent survey of the Association of American Playing Card Manufacturers, by an estimated 32 million people in the United States alone.
Vanderbilt is a strong booster of contract bridge, but the personal pronoun never seems to creep into his praise of the game. Even his own bidding system, popularly called the Vanderbilt convention, he has always referred to as the club convention—modesty of a type which makes it no surprise that the majority of the bridge-playing millions are not aware that Vanderbilt contributed the game they play.