Life of Ely Culbertson

by Albert H. Morehead

Ely Culbertson’s father, Almon Elias Culbertson, was a member of an old American family that came from Scotland to the New World before the Revolutionary War and settled in the region around Titusville and Oil City in western Pennsylvania, where many of them still live. Almon Culbertson was educated as a petroleum engineer and in 1880 went to the Caucasus region of Russia, where he met and married Xenia Rogoznaya, daughter of a Cossack ataman, or chief. Ely Culbertson, the fourth child of this marriage (two of the first three died in infancy), was born July 22, 1891. He was born in Romania, near the Ploesti oil fields, where his father was then working; but he was registered with the American consul as a native American citizen, and reference books that say he was naturalized are incorrect. Culbertson was always very proud of his American citizenship and membership in the Sons of the American Revolution.

Ely’s upbringing and early schooling were in Russian style. As a youth he was sent to a private preparatory school in Vladikavkaz (now Dzaudzhikau), the principal city of the region, and later in Rostov and present Krasnodar. In Krasnodar, at the age of 16, he fell in love with a girl named Nadya, after whom he later named his daughter. Though of a noble family, she was participating in the revolutionary uprisings of 1907 and led Ely into them. She was killed and he was imprisoned, sentenced to death, and saved only by his American citizenship. His father sent him to the United States, to study at Yale. Steeped in revolutionary dialectics, Ely found Yale unpalatable. He spent all his money, lived for a time on the Bowery, crossed the United States as a hobo, went to Mexico to take part in an abortive revolution there, was imprisoned and deported, went to Spain and was again imprisoned and deported as a revolutionist, and finally reestablished himself in his family’s good graces and entered college in Paris.

While he was studying in Paris, World War I broke out. When the United States entered the war, Ely tried to join the Army as an interpreter but was rejected — his English was not good enough. For a year or two after the war he lived in Paris, but his Father — who had amassed a large fortune in Russia — had lost everything in the revolution and in 1921 Ely, with his father and his younger brother Alexander (Sasha Culbertson, who became a noted violinist), settled in New York. His older brother, Eugene, remained in Europe; his mother had died.

Ely supported his family for some years on bridge winnings. In the Knickerbocker Whist Club, then the seat of New York’s best players, his radical bridge theories were scoffed at but he won consistently. At the Knickerbocker he met Josephine Murphy Dillon, a young widow, who was already a fine enough player to play on even terms with the best men, the only woman of her time who could do that. They were married in 1923, and as Josephine Culbertson she became as famous in bridge as her husband.

Mrs. Culbertson, an early convert to Ely’s radical ideas, persuaded him to take up teaching and writing bridge instead of pursuing his determination to return to political science as soon as he could make a living at it. She was the most successful bridge teacher of that period, but Ely’s approach was too theoretical to appeal to the average pupil. He did win the support of several important bridge teachers, who later proved to be the cadre of his nationwide teachers’ organization. Otherwise, he looked to his winnings at money bridge for his livelihood.

In 1926, Harold Vanderbilt introduced the new game of contract bridge. By 1928 the game had acquired some popularity, and Culbertson became convinced it would supplant auction bridge. He also saw, in a change of games, a unique opportunity to challenge the principal experts of auction bridge — Milton C. Work, Wilbur Whitehead, Sidney Lenz, and others — whose preeminence in the old game was unchallengeable.

According to Culbertson’s theories of mass organization, he first needed a following of group leaders, teachers and expert players spotted throughout the country, whom the casual players would follow. He needed a medium by which to reach these group leaders, and in October, 1929, he founded The Bridge World. He and Josephine had only $3,000 at the time, and by the time the first issue was printed they had only $60 left. Often Culbertson had to play high-stake bridge all night on Friday to meet Saturday’s payroll. When he had a good session he would pass through the office with a broad smile and give all the girls a raise; one of his secretaries, Miss Viola Purdue, was thus raised from $18 to $45 a week, a dollar a time. When he had a bad night, nobody got paid.

The Bridge World did not exactly prosper in its first year, but it stayed alive while Ely wrote his first book, the Contract Bridge Blue Book, to publicize its appearance. He issued an insulting challenge to the best English team, on behalf of his Bridge World team (Ely, Josephine, Theodore Lightner and Waldemar von Zedtwitz), which had that year won the two principal team-of-four tournaments. The challenge was accepted and the match was played in London simultaneously with the publication of the Blue Book. The book was a great success and Culbertson had a large income from its sales by the time he returned.

Beaten on the sales front by Culbertson, the principal auction bridge experts united in 1931 to present a system called the Official System. Culbertson promptly challenged the leading expert of the Official System group, Sidney Lenz, to a match of 150 rubbers. Following his previous method, he made his repeated challenges more and more insulting to force an acceptance. The Culbertson-Lenz match, played in the winter of 1931-32, remains the outstanding event in the history of contract bridge. It was front-page news all over the United States, and the Culbertsons’ victory, by 8,980 points, established the Culbertson System as the most popular in the world.

Culbertson reached the peak of his success in the winter of 1932-33. His books — the Blue Book, now joined by the Summary and the Self-Teacher — were selling at the rate of 500,000 copies a year. The Culbertson National Studios, the teachers’ organization, had nearly 6,000 members. The Bridge World flourished and its subsidiary, Bridge World Accessories, was the biggest seller of bridge supplies in the country. Newspapers carrying Culbertson’s daily bridge articles had a combined circulation of nearly 10,000,000. There were endorsements, lectures, magazine articles, booklets, radio and motion pictures, and every other medium from which income could be derived. Culbertson’s office had ninety employees to handle the business and answer fan mail.

Culbertson promptly became bored with too much success. He looked for new worlds to conquer and found the necessary challenge in plastic playing cards. The Kem Playing Card Company, founded in January 1934 and operated on a shoestring for three years, was sold in April, 1937, for cash and continuing royalties that eventually exceeded a million dollars. During this period there were two new books, the Red Book on Play in 1934, and the Gold Book, or Contract Bridge Complete, in 1936, combining bidding and play.

Meanwhile the European crisis had arisen and Culbertson returned to his first love, political science. Early in 1938, Ely and Josephine Culbertson were divorced. They had two children, Joyce Nadya, born 1928, and Bruce Ely, born 1929, both of whom survive him. Ely and Josephine Culbertson, after their divorce, continued their business arrangement (in which they had been full partners for years), and an amazed world could see little difference in their relationship: they even lived in the same house, but they owned the house as partners and of course they occupied separate apartments. Culbertson spent most of his time in studying and writing about international affairs. In a series of articles (which bored most Bridge World readers) he predicted the Munich appeasement, the start of World War II within a few hours, the eventual German invasion of Russia, and the later cold war with communism.

During the 1930’s, the Culbertsons had lived in a most elaborate way. Their country place at Ridgefield, Conn., had a 45-room main house, seven cottages, miles of paved and lighted roads, a lake and a heated, glassed-in pool. In New York they had a mansion in one of the most exclusive East Side blocks. They had a Rolls Royce and a Duesenberg. They made an annual trip to Europe. Ely was always broke. Now he retrenched. He sold the Ridgefield estate and lived in a small New York apartment. He still liked to make a public display in the finest restaurants, night clubs, and hotels, but mostly he holed up in his apartment and wrote books on world peace.

From this developed a peace plan based on an international organization that would control heavy weapons; a quota of armed forces for each major power, so balanced that none could safely attack any other; and an international police force recruited from the smaller nations. His governing bodies proved to be the model for the General Assembly and Security Council of the United Nations. At one time sixteen Senators and twenty Representatives introduced resolutions in Congress endorsing his plan. After the United Nations was formed, Culbertson devoted most of his effort to eliminating aspects of it that interfered with its effectiveness, and at his death he was chairman of the Citizens’ Committee for United Nations Reform.

Thus preoccupied with world affairs, Culbertson neglected work on bridge and Charles Goren’s books and newspaper articles came to exceed his in circulation. The point count method became popular and Culbertson was forced to drop his political work for nearly two years while he revised his books on a point-count basis. He succeeded in introducing several improvements in the methods that had been in use; the most important of them were a more accurate count of points in the raising hand and a simpler standard for opening two-bids. He then turned to the job of bringing his autobiography up to date from the years 1938 to 1954, and had completed a draft at the time of his death.

In 1947, Culbertson remarried. His second wife, nearly thirty-five years younger than he, was Miss Dorothy Baehne of New York City. She was closely associated with him in his work and writing on world peace. They settled in Brattleboro, Vt., where they bought an 18-acre estate with two houses. Their first child, Peter, born in 1948, was killed by an accidental fall on the Brattleboro estate; their second child, Alexander, born in 1952, survives his father. This marriage also ended in divorce, in 1955, but again the divorced couple remained on terms of close friendship and Dorothy Culbertson rented the second house on the Brattleboro estate, which she was occupying at the time of Ely Culbertson’s death.

The cause of Culbertson’s death has been misrepresented in some rumors and should be cleared up here: He did not die of cancer or a heart attack, and the “lung ailment” mentioned in many newspapers was not tuberculosis. Since 1941, when he had pneumonia and a lung abscess, Culbertson had suffered from a progressive lung congestion that made it difficult for him to get enough oxygen. After a serious illness during the Spring and Summer of 1955, he seemed to have recovered fully in November; but toward the middle of December he caught cold and this common cold was sufficient to aggravate his lung congestion fatally.