A Full House


Much of what they heard sounded like the dialogue at a game in the cellar of a fraternity house. When, for instance, Raoul Fleischmann drew the perfect poker hand, there was a good deal of merriment over calling him Royal Flushman all evening.

My father, given some indifferent wine on a rainy night, remarked, “Oh well, any port in a storm,” a remark so well received that he looked forward to bad weather and wine so that he might repeat the performance.

Although the two lowest cards in the deck get you off to a bad start in a stud game, George Kaufman would always take them so he could remark as he folded that he had been “trey-deuced.”

A frequent kibitzer at these games was a wide-eyed, sweet-faced, priggish little boy, myself, whose principal function was to act as straight man in a small vaudeville routine of my father’s. It would begin by his remarking to me as I wandered around the table that he had recently been to the zoo. Obediently I would ask if he had seen any beasts that particularly interested him. Yes, he would reply, there had been a pair of fascinating oxlike animals, and when he stood between their cages he had been reminded of a cigar. Prompted by a piping “Which cigar?” he would say, “Between the Yaks.”

There were group rituals, such as intoning “As the girl said to the sailor” in chorus after some remark deemed appropriate to the tag, which was left over from an A.E.F. story not suitable for reprinting in whole or part; rising and singing “He remains a god-damn fool,” to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “He Remains an Englishman,” after bad poker plays; addressing Toohey as Our Founder, alter which Toohey always rose and bowed; and a whole clutch of other cries, songs, and clubby “inside” things.

The usual pattern of the game itself was three rounds of draw followed by a round of stud, no wild cards and no seven-card games. It was, in fact, very much like a game on Main Street, except that one cannot imagine Harpo Marx in Gopher Prairie, and there were more ladies on the edge of the game, or in it, than there were likely to have been in Minnesota.

The country-born club members weren’t too happy about women in the game, but Viola Toohey was accounted a good player, as was Margaret Swope. Ross’s wife, Jane Grant, occasionally took a hand to hold the franchise for woman’s rights. My mother, Ruth Hale, another feminist leader, claimed she could play as well as the men if she wanted to play a game as dull as poker.

Helen Hayes, Ina Claire, Lynn Fontanne, Margalo Gillmore, and other great ladies of the theater watched almost every Saturday night after their performances, but the only G. L. of the T. who ever played was Alice Brady, who had the whole club to her apartment and by cheerfully inept play lost a great deal of money, distressing the more gallant of her guests. The worriers were later cheered to discover that Miss Brady had just signed a Hollywood contract for more money than was earned by a whole table of editors, writers, and press agents.

Dorothy Parker was often present, never played, said little, and missed nothing.

It’s perhaps a little unfair to leave the impression that nothing but cracker-barrel japery was ever heard around the poker board. After all, with so many black-belt wits in the game, so many who could splinter a plank with the edge of a phrase, there were bound to be some wonderful falls taken at one time or another. It is simply that the general feeling was one of unbuttoned relaxation, very different from the Mermaid Tavern competitions of the Round Table downstairs. The Thanatopsis Club was perhaps the one place where all the erstwhile smalltown boys who had to slick their hair down and talk fancy most of the time could get off the treadmill of sophistication for a few hours.

A question asked every Saturday night was “What are we playing for?” Almost every night the announced stakes were a little steeper as the country moved into the great boom, as the talents of the players began to be more richly rewarded in the outside world, as some of the already well-to-do players like Swope, Fleischmann, and Gerald Brooks wanted more action.

Our house on Eighty-fifth Street became ours because my father had a good streak at the Thanatopsis in 1921, picking up $1,000 over the course of several sessions. For this sum and his signature on four, count ’em, four mortgages, we were able to move into the house. If any fact were needed to show you the faraway and long-ago quality of New York in those days, it is that such a sum could make you the proprietor of a four-story brownstone.

Boom psychology was everywhere, as the twenties roared to a close, and the Thanatopsis said good-bye to the Algonquin—where they used to bypass room service and bring in bags of delicatessen—and moved to a room above the Colony Restaurant, where a touch of a button brought a soft-footed servitor with a menu and a wine list. The soft-footed servitors didn’t hear much laughter, however, as the game kept getting bigger, and relaxation was chased up the wall by anxiety.