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Playing with Mallets

Welcome to the Brutal, Take-No-Prisoners World of Competitive Croquet
John Kehoe
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96

(continued from page 1)

 

In 1875, the All-England Croquet Club set aside a patch of ground at its Wimbledon playing grounds for an amusing new game called lawn tennis. A hundred and some years later, tennis has eclipsed croquet as the club's marquee sport, but it's worth noting that until very recently Wimbledon was still officially known as the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club.

Croquet has its roots in a game called "paille maille," played by French peasants in medieval times. From there it jumped across the channel to Ireland, where it came to be called "crooky." By the late 1800s, the game, now called croquet, was perhaps the most widely played sport in Victorian England, offering one of the few opportunities for men and women to compete against each other. To be sure, there had always been the appeal of a little sub-rosa romance in the game's possibilities; Tolstoy used a croquet game as the setting for Anna Karenina's trysting with the handsome Vronski.

 

In the United States the game found followers in high places. Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) was known to enjoy a game and President Rutherford B. Hayes, an early enthusiast, allocated the grand sum of $6 in government funds to purchase "good quality" croquet balls. His congressional critics were quick to claim it "an outrageous expense" and demanded that the profligate president repay the country out of his own pocket. Political budget battles aside, the golden age of American croquet dawned in the 1920s, when the game was taken up by the bon vivants and wits now remembered as the Algonquin Round Table, which included drama critic Alexander Woolcott, playwright George S. Kaufman and Harpo Marx.

The game became an obsession for all, but for no one as much as Woolcott. Visitors to his island summer home in Vermont were denied use of the launch to return to the mainland until he'd beaten them in a game. Described by writer Moss Hart as "impossible in victory, irascible in defeat," a galled Woolcott once threw a croquet ball at mystery writer Rex Stout, missing him by inches. Woolcott was not the only player whose passion ran rampant on the court. Newspaper publisher Herbert Bayard Swope built an elaborate and enormous course (complete with sand traps!) on his Long Island waterfront estate. Swope, a very aggressive player, once ordered his partner to knock another ball off the court. When the partner began to protest, Swope bellowed, "Don't argue with me, damn it! Just do as I say!" The partner shrugged and sent the ball in the general direction of the ocean. "Good shot," Swope said. And then Swope shouted, "Good God! That was my ball!"

Harpo Marx took the game so seriously that he turned a spare bedroom into a climate-controlled storage facility for his assemblage of mallets. (Harkening back to the game's romantic possibilities, Harpo liked to invite showgirls to his apartment to view his collection.) When the Round Tablers went west to work in the movies, the game traveled with them and was soon taken up by the film colony's elite. Darryl F. Zanuck, who ran 20th Century Fox with an iron hand, quickly became known as "the terrible-tempered Mr. Bang" for his style of play. Zanuck, Hart once said, had "the true croquet spirit. He trusts no one but himself, never concedes--no matter how far behind he may be--and he hates his opponents with an all-enduring hate."

Producer Samuel Goldwyn installed two courses at his Beverly Hills estate, where celebrities such as Humphrey Bogart, Tyrone Power, Douglas Fairbanks and Howard Hughes enjoyed the game. Goldwyn, who hated to lose, once pleaded with actor George Sanders not to leave him with a difficult shot. "If you don't do it, George, I'll buy you a Rolls-Royce," Goldwyn said. Sanders paused, thought about it and said, "I already have one," and sent Goldwyn's ball flying. The actor Gig Young was once on the Goldwyn courts and faced with a particularly difficult match shot when a mild earthquake struck, causing the players to momentarily desert the course. When they returned, Young's ball had rolled into a new and perfect position. "An act of God," Young said, and made the shot.

The war years put a damper on croquet court frivolity; when peacetime returned, the high-profile croquet game faded even as the backyard game bloomed in popularity. Discount stores sold inexpensive sets in huge numbers, and no barbecue get-together was complete without a quick tour through the wickets. There were those, however, to whom casual croquet was a barbarous degradation of a fine tradition. The flame of the true game was kept burning at a few lonely outposts, primarily the exclusive country clubs that dot New York's Hamptons and Florida's Gold Coast.

The revival of American tournament croquet took form slowly; in 1966, the Westhampton Mallet Club traveled to the venerable Hurlingham Croquet Club in England, where 1,000 members crowded its seven courts. (Clearly croquet had retained its cachet among the English.) Brashly challenging their hosts to a game or two, the Americans were summarily and severely thumped in open competition. The loss stung, and when disparaging remarks were made about the "primitive" form of croquet played in America, pride rose in the national gorge; shortly thereafter the United States Croquet Association was formed.


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