Long Island. Today those words evoke suburbia, endless miles of housing developments and shopping centers connected to New York City by an infamous expressway and a hapless commuter railroad. Once upon a time, though, Long Island was dream country. In the imaginations of millions of moviegoers, readers of fiction and sports fans in the 1920s and '30s, Long Island was Bel Air, Palm Beach and Grosse Pointe rolled into one, a semirural paradise where beautiful people of enormous wealth drove fabulous open cars along leafy lanes amid vast country estates, and where everyone, when not drinking cocktails or sailing to Europe, played polo.
At the core of the fantasy was fact. In the warmer half of the year, Long Island's North Shore, rightly known as the Gold Coast, was home to the most visible segment of America's aristocracy of wealth. Whitneys, Bostwicks, Phippses, Burdens and others owned estates there, the boundaries of which were marked by narrow tree-lined lanes. And they did play polo. The rest of the fantasy, the embellishments, the chronicling of the exotic ways of the privileged few for the consumption of the enchanted many, came from the typewriters of screenwriters, novelists and newspaper reporters.
In the person of one spectacularly gifted athlete, however, fact and fantasy came together. Tommy Hitchcock was everything a Long Island blue blood was supposed to be. He was rich by birth and richer still by marriage to a Mellon from Pittsburgh. He had been educated in the right places—St. Paul's School and Harvard—and he spoke French before he spoke English. Although Hitchcock was not handsome in the languorous fashion of the day, he was a model of physical well-being thanks to an athletic regimen that had been instilled in him virtually from birth. He had been bred to the sporting life and was at home in the out-of-doors. Dressed for polo in shining boots and white breeches, with a camel hair coat thrown over his muscular shoulders, Hitchcock appeared clothed where other men looked costumed.
Polo was Tommy Hitchcock's game, and to American sports-page readers of his time, polo was Tommy Hitchcock. From 1922 until 1939, with the exception of one year, Hitchcock was ranked at 10 goals, the highest possible assessment of a polo player's skill. For six of those years he was the only 10-goal player in the U.S. By his strength, his reckless courage in a game fraught with danger, his near miraculous abilities and his relentless determination to win, he made every team he played with look good.
November 3, 1986
"I played with him and I played against him," says James P. (Jimmy) Mills, 78, a breeder of thoroughbreds at his Hickory Tree Farm in Middleburg, Va. "There was no player like him, ever. If these Argentineans today are 10s, Tommy Hitchcock was a 12!"
Most of the best polo in Hitchcock's day was played by a small band of Long Island amateurs who were also New York "socialites," a word coined by TIME magazine in 1928. They played on the eight fields of the Meadow Brook Club in Westbury or at one of the other 10 private fields that lay within a few minutes' drive of the club. The spectators at a typical weekend match in Westbury or Jericho or Sands Point were families, neighbors, guests and friends of the players; they drew their cars around the edge of the field and watched from running boards and camp chairs. Midway in the match, between the fourth and fifth chukkers, the spectators would take to the field, tamping down divots with well-shod feet.
Nicknamed Ten-Goal Tommy by the tabloids, Hitchcock carried polo to a much larger audience. By 1930 major events such as the Westchester Cup—the U.S. versus England—and the U.S. Open drew tens of thousands to the "robin's egg blue" grandstand of Meadow Brook's International Field. Bostwick Field in Westbury, property of George H. (Pete) Bostwick, a celebrated amateur steeplechase jockey and high-goal polo player, was opened to the public in 1934. For 50 cents and the price of a short train ride, city people could sit in the sun watching horses worth thousands and men worth millions playing the 2,000-year-old game of Persian courtiers.
Hitchcock was born in 1900 into a world devoted to horses. His childhood homes—Broad Hollow Farm in West-bury in summer and Mon Repos in Aiken, S.C., in winter—were equipped with everything a horse or a horse fancier could possibly need, including regulation-sized polo fields.
Tommy was sent away to boarding school at 10, already the master of such gentlemanly pursuits as hunting, jumping and shooting. At school he played football and hockey and he rowed, but polo was his calling. From the age of 12 on he devoted all his vacations to the game. At 14 he was a prodigy playing with men twice his age. By the time he was 16, he was a top-ranked junior player. Then World War I intervened.
At 17, while still president of the sixth form (senior class) at St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., Hitchcock wangled his way into the Lafayette Escadrille, a flamboyantly romantic arm of the French Aviation Service made up of American volunteers, young men bedazzled by the possibilities for heroism in the brand-new game of aerial combat. In a war being fought by anonymous armies in muddy trenches, the only visible, nameable heroes were the fliers in their fragile single-engine craft.
Hitchcock was among the youngest of the heroes. He was already 5'10", his full adult height. His torso was long and his legs short and strong, the perfect build for many sports, but especially for polo—the legs for welding rider to horse, the torso for leaning far out of the saddle to hit the ball, forehand or back, near side or off side, hook or slice, all the while traveling at speeds up to 35 mph.
During his three months at the French front, Hitchcock was credited with two "kills"—German planes shot down. Then he was shot down, behind enemy lines. Wounded, he was captured and held by the Germans for six months before he escaped by jumping from a train that was transporting prisoners from one facility to another. After eight days of hunger and cold, hiding by day and traveling by night, he reached the safety of the Swiss border, 100 miles away.
When the war ended, Hitchcock, 18 and a hero, entered Harvard; the next year he began to play polo again and in 1921 he was selected to the first postwar international team. The Westchester Cup, lost to the English in 1914, was to be contested for the first time since the war, and Hitchcock was assigned the number 2 position. (On polo's four-man teams, numbers 1 and 2 are forwards, the high scorers; number 3 is a pivot man, the playmaker; the back is in charge of defense.) Of the number 2 position Hitchcock later wrote, "The two should be the most active and aggressive man on the side, should have his nose in every play and be continually forcing the attack." That was Tommy Hitchcock all over.
The Westchester Cup matches took place in June at London's Hurlingham polo ground with everybody, including King George V and Winston Churchill, watching. The Americans won in two straight games, and Hitchcock, the youngest member of the squad, was a sensation. In the first game he scored five goals, more than the entire English team. Alongside its account of the game, The New York Times ran a separate story headlined, "Hitchcock, a War Hero, Was Captured by Germans After Airplane Fall, But Escaped."
The Golden Age of Sport was under way. Babe Ruth was in his second year with the Yankees, Jack Dempsey had been world champion for two years, Gene Tunney was still a preliminary fighter, Bill Tilden had won Wimbledon the year before, and Bobby Jones was two years away from his first U.S. Open championship. With the first game of the 1921 Westchester Cup, T. Hitchcock Jr. assumed his place at the center of the spectacle.
A close and fascinated observer of Hitchcock and his milieu was F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald modeled two characters on Hitchcock—Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby and Tommy Barban, a wealthy soldier-adventurer in Tender Is The Night. Of Barban, Fitzgerald wrote, "Courage was his game and his companions were always a little afraid of him."
Courage was a theme running through Hitchcock lore, too, and if his friends were not afraid, they were at least wary. Mills was a Long Island neighbor of Hitchcock's in the '30s. Both worked on Wall Street then, Hitchcock for Lehman Brothers in investment banking and Mills for C.D. Barney, a brokerage house. Hitchcock frequently commuted from his home in Sands Point to a pier in the East River at the lower end of Manhattan by seaplane, which he piloted. Mills recalls flying to work with Hitchcock one day when the weather was marginal: "We were coming down the East River toward the Queensboro Bridge. The clouds were low, so instead of going over the bridge where the clouds were, Tommy decided to go under. That was bad enough, but as we're going under, what do we see coming in the opposite direction but a battleship of some kind. I won't tell you what I almost did. Tommy was a very bold person, very brave."
Some people called Hitchcock's boldness on the polo field courage; others said it was recklessness. Polo magazine deplored the effect of Hitchcock's style on younger players: "...many of them copied their games after his unthinkingly, not realizing that finesse was a cornerstone of his game as well as power, that team play was still most important." All agreed, however, that Hitchcock played harder and hit the ball farther than anyone. In fact, his play revolutionized the American game. Only the Argentines, who began making inroads in polo in the '20s and who dominate the game today, played in the same hell-for-leather style. Josè Reynal, a famous Argentine 10-goal player of the '30s, recalled watching Hitchcock hit a ball 170 yards. Having overridden the ball at midfield, Hitchcock checked his mount, turned and, as Reynal bore down on him, managed to get off a quick shot. "I sat helpless and watched the ball climb into the wind," said Reynal. "It wavered to right and left but held a generally true line. Finally it came to earth and rolled between the posts. It didn't seem possible."
Hitchcock introduced one aggressive tactic into the game that was eventually outlawed. He would race directly at his opposite number from an extreme angle, as if he intended to barge straight through man and horse. At the last second he would pull up short, but by that time his opponent, with survival uppermost in his mind, had altered his route—which, of course, was the whole idea. Now the practice is considered a "foul of intimidation" and it incurs a penalty shot.
Hitchcock's father, Thomas Sr., a 10-goal player himself in the earliest years of the American game, was a true horseman and the most successful gentleman trainer of steeplechase horses in the country. Tommy's mother, too, was a fine horsewoman, mistress of the Aiken drag hunt (a hunt in which an animal's scent is dragged over a predetermined course to attract the hounds) and patron of junior polo in Aiken and on Long Island. In spite of this background, Tommy himself was not known as a horseman. He was above all an athlete and a games player. To him a horse was a machine. To win the game it was important to have the best machine, but if a machine broke down, another was always available to take its place.
A story is still told about the day Hitchcock tried a new pony on Cochrane Field at Meadow Brook. The horse wanted to go one way, Hitchcock the other, and Hitchcock jerked the horse's head so hard to one side that he broke the animal's back. If true, the story tells something not only about Hitchcock and horses, but also about the strength of his shoulders and arms.
Hitchcock was rough, but high-goal polo is a contact sport. Falls, concussions and broken bones are not unusual, and strength and nervelessness are great advantages. "Riding off" one's opponent, for instance, means using the half-ton weight of one's galloping horse plus one's own shoulders to bull an opposing player and his horse out of the play. The late William Jackson, a Wall Street lawyer and investment banker, wrote a tribute to Hitchcock called "Memories of a Hero." In it Jackson recalled being ridden off by Hitchcock so hard that his horse fell to its knees. Just as Jackson, too, began to fall, Hitchcock reached across with his left hand (the hand holding the reins), jerked Jackson back into the saddle and "still had time to hit a near-side backhand at the last split second a long way in the opposite direction."
"He didn't have a nerve in his body," says Mills, who was an 8-goaler in the '30s but is now best known for having syndicated his 2-year-old thoroughbred, Devil's Bag, for an extraordinary $36 million in 1984. "It was just part of his physical makeup. He had great anticipatory powers. If there was a split second between you and the shot, he'd beat you to it, and he could hit the ball a country mile. Pat Roark [a famous British 9-goaler] was my favorite to play with because he'd touch the ball and put it right on your mallet. With Tommy Hitchcock you had to chase it when it came down out of the clouds."
In 1930, when 45,000 people showed up for the first game of the Westchester Cup, Ten-Goal Tommy was at the top of his game. His celebrity was also at its peak. His wedding in 1928 to Margaret Mellon Laughlin, a handsome young widow from Pittsburgh, had been covered as if he were a movie star. When Hitchcock arrived at a public event he was besieged. Tommy's eldest daughter, Louise Hitchcock Stephaich, still remembers "crowds pushing and people applauding" when the family arrived for a match. "There was a sort of godlike worship for Dad," she says. "Mummy said it was kind of unhealthy."
Symbolic of the popular turn the sport took in the '30s were the series of East-West All-Star matches. For many years players in western outposts such as California and Texas had been growing in numbers and in skill. Two Texas cowboys, Cecil Smith and Rube Williams, were ranked at 9 and 7 goals respectively, while Californians Elmer Boeseke and Eric Pedley were both at 8. Most of these men had played on U.S. international teams alongside their Eastern peers, but pitting the regions against each other was a new idea.
Better polo had been played than the first East-West encounter in 1933, but probably none so brutal. The underdog West team was made up of cowboys Smith and Williams, Boeseke, a rancher, and Aidan Roark, a movie company executive. The Easterners—Hitchcock, Michael Phipps, Winston Guest and his brother Raymond Guest—were 100% New York Social Register.
The West won the first game of the best-of-three series 15-11. Smith's horse fell on him, knocking him out for half an hour, and Williams collided with a goalpost and was hit in the ribs by a swinging mallet, a blow that grounded him for 15 minutes. In the best tradition of high-goal guts polo, all the injured continued to play.
The East won the second game 12-8. Boeseke broke his foot, Williams broke his leg—an injury that seriously damaged his polo career—and Hitchcock, in ajar-ring collision with Boeseke, was thrown and lay on the ground unconscious for 20 minutes.
For the third and deciding game, Williams was replaced by Eric Pedley, who was flown in from California; Hitchcock was still dazed from what turned out to be a serious concussion; and Boeseke played with his broken foot stuffed into a tennis sneaker. Nevertheless, the sixth and seventh periods of the last game were, said TIME magazine, "two of the most savage chukkers ever played. East and West locked in a mutual flailing strangle." The West prevailed again, 12-6, winning the series. Humorist Will Rogers, a California polo enthusiast, gloated in print: "The East never thought the West could muster up four guys with white pants, much less some mallets...the hillbillies beat the dudes and look the polo championship right out of the drawing room and into the bunkhouse...."
As a result of those first East-West matches Smith and Boeseke were raised to 10 goals and Hitchcock had company on the top rung of the game. In 1934, however, Hitchcock suffered another concussion. His play fell off that season, and at the end of the year his handicap was lowered for the first time to a 9. At 34 Hitchcock was past his peak, said the smart money.
Smart money never learns. In the U.S. Open of 1935, Hitchcock made a spectacular comeback. Playing for John Hay (Jock) Whitney's Greentree team, he had two of the best games of his life in the semifinal and final rounds, and at the end of the season he was raised again to a 10. "No one in the polo world today can challenge Hitchcock's supremacy," wrote one New York newspaper. "His play during the past season was nearly faultless."
Hitchcock kept his 10 until his retirement from the game in 1939. Of his last international series, the Westchester Cup, TIME said, "...after a quarter century of competitive polo [he] proved last week that he is still the best player in the world. Spectators, gasping at his fearless riding, peerless tactics, magnificent driving and accurate shotmaking, realized why he has been rated at 10 goals for 17 years—greatest feat in the annals of polo."
No hullabaloo attended Hitchcock's retirement. He merely stopped playing. The Golden Age of Sport had finally come to an end. Of all its heroes, only Hitchcock had played right through the '30s, still at the top of his game.
When the U.S. went to war again in 1941, Hitchcock left his partnership in Lehman Brothers and joined Air Intelligence with the rank of major. He wanted to fly, but 41 was too old, he was told. J. Averell Clark. Hitchcock's nephew and a highly decorated World War II pilot, remembers Hitchcock's frustration. His attitude, says Clark, was, "What's the use of wearing a brown suit if you don't have anyone to pop at?"
Hitchcock spent most of the war in desk jobs in London and Washington. He was a prime mover in developing the P-51 B, known as the Mustang, into the Allies' most effective fighter-bomber. In 1944, when Mustangs began crashing mysteriously, failing to come out of their bombing dives, Hitchcock's job was to find out why. His group of engineers arrived at a theory to explain the malfunction; Hitchcock elected to test the theory himself. On April 12, 1944, at the age of 44, Tommy Hitchcock died when the Mustang he was flying crashed near Salisbury, England. In its obituary, The New York Times wrote, "He was intelligent, personable, humorous, of superb physical equipment, and wholly devoid of pretense.... The best of America was in his veins—not the nonsense of any social class but the country's intellect and character."
Hitchcock's life was one of action from beginning to end. Had fate allowed him to reach a contemplative old age he might have written about polo as Bobby Jones wrote about golf. As it is, the only written record that remains of Hitchcock's approach to the game he ruled for two decades is a list of instructions he drew up in 1930 when he was captain of a U.S. polo squad about to meet the English for the Westchester Cup. Instruction No. 1 could have been a credo: "Try as hard as you can all the time. Do not let up for one second, and do not stop until the referee blows his whistle."