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To most Americans, Harold S. Vanderbilt, sailor extraordinary, inventive genius, creator of contract bridge, is more a legend than a man. Few know him well, yet millions have felt the impact of his achievements. His is a story of tall ships and brilliant intellects; of men of wealth and wit and sportsmanship who could and would give all they had in international contests—a story whose final chapter, perhaps, has not been written yet.
An argument which never fails to interest, sometimes to the point of blows, has for its topic whether this figure of sport or that is the greater champion—the better candidate for a sportsman's Valhalla. Virtually every sports fan has a candidate to offer, his qualifications to enumerate, his deeds to recount and his name to pronounce with holy fervor. Too often, though, the qualifications of a candidate are expressed in the terms of his natural gifts: the sense of timing so essential to the track champion and to driving baseballs against stadium facades, the pile-driving legs that propel a fullback into the opponent's secondary, the wrist control of the drop shot in tennis—these are among the qualities discussed and praised. Naturally, such physical gifts are essential to top-level ranking in most sports. But the true champion would seem to have an additional endowment, an almost fantastic competitive urge that enabled, to give an example, baseball's Joe DiMaggio to hit Bob Feller during the latter's great years in the American League as if he were being served up batting-practice pitches. Some years back Billy Talbert, the U.S. Davis Cup captain, wrote an article in which he discussed this necessary quality the true champion had to have. Talbert had difficulty in defining it. The x quality he called it, and in his own sport Don Budge had it, and Bill Tilden, and it was that ineffable something that gave them an edge over opponents of equivalent, or even greater natural ability.
Last winter a man strode across Manhattan's 44th Street on his way to a crucial meeting at the New York Yacht Club who provides a striking example of one whose physical attributes are no more than normal (except perhaps for a voice whose power on a still day would carry across any small harbor in the world), and yet whose x quality, to borrow Talbert's phrase, has made him a champion in not one but two national pastimes—yachting and bridge. His contributions to both are such that his name should be virtually synonymous with them. He invented contract bridge. In yachting he is without doubt one of the greatest racing skippers this country, if not the world, has ever produced. Yet few, if any, 44th Street pedestrians would have recognized him as Harold Stirling (Mike) Vanderbilt, though he is a striking and memorable figure of a man: 72 years old but looking 20 years younger, a tall man (6 feet 3 inches in height), impeccably dressed, and his walk a slight indication of his character—brisk, a long armswing, and toes turned out in strides that seem short and quick for his height, an aggressive walk that carries him a foot or two in advance of any walking partner. Even in the New York Yacht Club, though the word would quickly pass that Mike Vanderbilt was in the clubhouse, he is still to most members more the legend than the man. Vanderbilt abhors the impetus which has driven many to championship status—the quest for fame—and as such he has kept himself out of the public eye.
His sailing trophies alone, however, are tangible tribute to his abilities. The historic America's Cup, the symbol of international yacht racing competition and linked in memory with the great J boats of two decades ago, was three times successfully defended by Mike Vanderbilt in the name of the New York Yacht Club and his country with the J boats Enterprise, Rainbow and Ranger. His success in the J boats is paralleled in every class he has sailed in. On the shelves in the trophy room of his Shenandoah Valley farm stand the testimonials to his skill, including the cup for winning the New York to Bermuda race in 1910, and seven King's and nine Astor cups, won between 1921 and 1940. But Vanderbilt's reputation as a yachtsman is not limited to his winning ways as a skipper. The hundreds of thousands who race boats in North America are indebted to Vanderbilt for the rules they race under—derived largely from a code formulated by him and so radically different from the preceding rules that they were not adopted throughout the continent until after an eight-year test period starting in 1940.
Vanderbilt has had an equally profound effect on all of the diversified fields that have interested him. In terms of sheer numbers the largest bloc who have benefited from a Vanderbilt contribution are the estimated 32 million people in this country and the further millions throughout the world who play contract bridge, originated by Vanderbilt in 1925 and a game in which he is still ranked as one of the great experts. A smaller group, but no less interested, appreciate Vanderbilt in his capacity as a farmer. He took up farming in 1942, not knowing what a heifer was. Now, Virginia farmers and agronomists from nearby agricultural stations come by the score to inspect twin hay-drying sheds designed by Vanderbilt and which—judging from the interest shown in them—may one day be the prototypes of similar structures throughout the country's farmlands. If this should happen, it will be purely because of the proved design and operation of the prototypes, for Vanderbilt has never tried to popularize any of his inventions, not even contract bridge. Their popularity, as evidenced by their widespread adoption, is due solely to their excellence—the best that can be produced by a man who has excelled at whatever he has put his hand to. Even in farming Vanderbilt has achieved championship status. Two years after he bought the farm he won the DeKalb Virginia State corn-raising championship, and the following year a national trophy, the DeKalb corn-raising championship of the U.S., the first time that annual award for the largest number of bushels of shelled corn per acre has ever been won outside the western cornbelt.
What, then, is the Vanderbilt x quality? Obviously, such a quality is an amalgamation of many factors, chief among them what Vanderbilt himself calls "the instinct to excel," inherited perhaps from his great-grandfather. When he was a boy, the famous Commodore started ferrying passengers from Staten Island to lower Manhattan in a sailboat which he skippered with such speed that he outdistanced all his rivals and attracted enough customers to start a career leading to the ownership of one of the largest railroad systems in America.
But some of the opponents the present-day Vanderbilt has met in competition describe his instinct to excel in different terms. "The Vanderbilt killer instinct," they call it, and they speak of it in considerable awe.
It is not a quality which one would expect of Vanderbilt on meeting him when he is not in competition. He is a friendly and warm man, his conversation punctuated with a loud infectious laugh so distinctive that a friend would recognize it anywhere he heard it: it seems to come about through the process of inhalation, as if the pleasure which gave rise to the laugh had to be drawn in and savored rather than exhaled. But he is also a shy man, only completely at ease with a small but dedicated group of friends and with those with whom he shares a particular interest. Back in the '30s a woman reporter from the old World sailed out in a catboat to try to interview him aboard the moored America's Cup defender Enterprise. "Various conversational efforts evoked no response whatsoever," she reported, and described sailing briskly around the Enterprise while Vanderbilt studiously kept his back turned. So complete was his reserve in the early '30s that reporters accused him of taking a Trappist oath as far as the press was concerned.
Since then, though, and in keeping with the times, Vanderbilt has mellowed somewhat from the Edwardian attitude that a name should appear in print only at birth, marriage and death. But he still talks uneasily about himself, shouldering aside the credit he could justifiably take. He speaks of playing in an all-expert bridge game as "a wonderful intellectual treat," with never the suggestion of pride which would indicate he was in any way responsible for the game. The Vanderbilt convention, a once-popular bidding system invented by him in the early days of contract bridge, he has always referred to as "the club convention." His skill at racing boats he attributes not to any inherent genius, but to long hours spent in training his crew, tuning up his boat, perfecting his sails and in acquiring the feel of the helm—"becoming a part of her," as he puts it. And it is curious that in recounting the greatest moments of his sporting career, he does not refer, however modestly, to examples of his own prowess paying off in victory, but rather to the circumstances of chance, and to the little but costly mistakes that his opponents have made that led to their defeat and a Vanderbilt win.