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.
January 30, 1956
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√Ætre 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!"
Zanuck didn't laugh himself. He waited patiently till the roars subsided before continuing. "The average croquet game takes an hour and 40 minutes—unless you're playing against Averell Harriman. When he plays, it takes four hours. He takes 15 minutes to make a move and ends up doing what every player figured he should have done in the first place."
HARRIMAN A FANATIC
"Averell is an absolute nut on the game. He even had a game set up in Russia when he was there. When he was Secretary of Commerce, he flew to San Francisco once to make a speech and telephoned me and asked me, 'Can I get in a game tonight? I've got to be back in Washington tomorrow afternoon.' He flew down to my house in Palm Springs and we lighted the field at 11 p.m. and played till 4 that morning.
"The game as we know it today in America originated on Long Island," Zanuck continued. "Alec Woollcott, Neysa McMein and that crowd played it a lot back in the '20s.
"There's a top echelon of players." Zanuck turned to Swope. "What's the best grouping of players, would you say?"
Swope reflected a moment: "Well, there's myself, and—well, Harold Guinzburg and Ogden Phipps; after that it's hard to say."
James Mason cleared his throat. "I read in the papers that George Sanders is a pretender..." he offered.
"George is a good player, he's good," shot back Zanuck politely. "He's irritating. The top players have to be irritating as well as good. The top players out here are Howard and Bill Hawks, Negulesco, Louis Jourdan...."
Lew Schreiber looked up from his soup. "Isn't the king any good?"
"Who?" snapped Zanuck.
"Romanoff!" said Schreiber innocently.
"Oh, Romanoff? No, no. Mike is coming up, he's coming, but he's second category—definitely second category."
Someone asked about Don Hartman, production chief at rival Paramount Pictures. "Hartman is in the second category too," sniffed Zanuck.
"Migod, can't you put him in first category?" lamented Schreiber. "We're trying to borrow somebody from him."
Zanuck ignored Schreiber. "Then there's Sam Goldwyn," he continued. "Sam is second category—but really.
"You know, Sam was playing with Negulesco. Sam would make a shot—and he'd miss. Then he'd say, 'Look, I got guests coming for dinner. Take this mallet....' But when he's ahead...you never heard such screaming."
At this point, Zanuck pushed his lunch plate away from him and sat back. Nick Janois hurried up with a box full of Havana cigars roughly the size of diesel smokestacks. Zanuck scooped up a handful, lit one and stuck the remainder in his breast pocket.
James Mason eyed the scene with interest, then rose and turned to go: "I can't contribute to this conversation," he noted imperiously. "I haven't played croquet since I was 11." He turned and left and Zanuck went on.
"Ratoff is another," he said. "Ratoff is an absolutely first-class player. But because of his belly he has to hold the mallet under his armpit." Zanuck rose and affixed a table knife under his armpit and demonstrated how Ratoff manipulated a croquet mallet. "Then he has a cigaret holder and this takes away one hand. But he can still hit a ball the length of the field."
"As a kid we used to play it," put in Harry Brand. Zanuck whirled on him. "It's not the same game," he shouted. "It's an absolutely different game. That's just the trouble. It's a different game and everybody thinks it's a kid's game or an old ladies' game, or some damn thing!"
He turned to Swope. "You can learn to hit the ball very easily. It's no trick to get the swing. But to learn the strategy of the game takes an absolute minimum of two years. An absolute minimum of two years till you appreciate that what appears insane is really sound strategy."
Sam Engel stirred. "Yet there isn't a toy store that doesn't have croquet sets," he said innocently. Zanuck became agitated. "That's what ruins it! That's what absolutely ruins it. That's what makes people get the wrong idea. You have to get your equipment from England and it has to be absolutely perfect—not toys, but weapons in a deadly accurate game."
"I gave up golf at the age of 11," put in Swope. "I found croquet much more fascinating."
"Right!" shouted Zanuck triumphantly. "On every shot, there are 20 different possibilities. You have to think, 'If I go here, they will logically go there,' and you have to go on through any number of exhausting possibilities. It's the side that keeps control of the game that wins. It's the control that's almost impossible to explain. Absolutely impossible to explain.
"There are four balls in the game. It's absolutely imperative to remember who you're dead on! You must remember your partner's deadness too. Maybe he's two-ball dead—or he's dead on his partner's ball. I have to be sure my partner is not dead on another ball before I push him into position.
"Then when you're a rover, you have to think constantly. A rover is a guy who has hit everything but the stake. He goes back and roves all over the place—absolutely all over the place. To show you how nerve-racking the game is, nine-tenths of the errors occur on the final wickets. The tension gets unbelievable. And then as a rover you can go anywhere—but God help you if you're three-ball dead. When you're three-ball dead, you're just a useless bum."
"In golf you don't need intellect at all," offered Swope, "just a swing, no intellect as far as I can see."
"In croquet," exclaimed Zanuck, "you have to have intellect, a helluvan intellect."
"My old man and Woollcott stopped talking for a long time over a fight they had on the croquet field," added Swope.
"Darryl used to play polo," quickly noted Harry Brand. "He quit polo for croquet."
"I quit polo because they made me—the insurance and those things," corrected Zanuck. "I rode No. 1."
And the No. 1 puffed moodily on his cigar for a moment.
"Croquet can be fun, too," he continued after a long silence. "It's not always absolutely serious. When we get someone new down at my place in Palm Springs, we always give him 'the ball.' This is a ball which looks just like every other ball except you can't hit the damn thing straight. You absolutely cannot hit it straight. We gave Romanoff one once that was painted just like a grapefruit. Then he hit it under a tree with a lot of real grapefruit lying around. He went around there for 20 minutes whacking the hell out of ripe grapefruit. He was absolutely drenched in grapefruit juice.
"Then there's 'the mallet.' It's my personal mallet, I tell Romanoff, and I want him to have it because it's so delicately balanced it will make a crack player out of him—finest wood from the Himalayas and absolutely without price. Only for Godsakes, under no circumstances is he to throw it or lay it down hard or do anything like that. It's perfectly balanced, you understand.
"Well, of course, it's a breakaway mallet and along about the third swing, the thing falls into splints. Of course the boob is white-faced and I'm having a stroke. I fall to the ground and wail, 'Oh, my God, it's irreplaceable. The mallet's irreplaceable.' "
And with that—unsmiling, cigar clenched between his teeth—the old No. 1 rose abruptly, snatched his sawed-off polo mallet off the coat tree and strode out the door to face the more pressing problems of Sheree North's cleavage in The Lieutenant Wore Skirts and the grosses on The View from Pompey's Head, each of which, in its own way, is as complicated as croquet.
START AND FINISH