A Nonfiction Conversation

It’s a fact that many published authors live in Marin County—however, evenings like this are rare. The date is early June; the setting is in the hills above Kentfield. One participant is Inverness’s David Sheff, author of Beautiful Boy, the New York Times best seller that was Entertainment Weekly’s number one nonfiction book for 2008.

Sitting across from Sheff is Kentfield’s Gary M. Pomerantz, author of several widely acclaimed nonfiction books including Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn; Wilt, 1962; and Nine Minutes, Twenty Seconds. At present, Pomerantz is a visiting lecturer in the Department of Communication at Stanford University.

The occasion is the launch of Pomerantz’s latest book, The Devils’ Tickets: A Night of Bridge, a Fatal Hand, and a New American Age. And Sheff, due to his many interviews of prominent people (John Lennon and Yoko Ono among them), was recently named by Time Magazine as one of the world’s most influential 100 people. Sheff’s interview of Pomerantz, as it applies to the craft of writing nonfiction, went like this:

David Sheff: Over the years, at our occasional lunches we have shared ideas about topics for books and Gary’s concepts have always whetted my appetite. But three years ago, when he said he was doing a book about the game of bridge, my first thought was: “Bridge? Gary, what are you thinking?” Gary, what were you thinking?

Gary Pomerantz: The idea for The Devil’s Tickets came to me from a conversation between my literary agent and Warren Buffett, an inveterate bridge player. Buffet said that bridge was all the rage in the late 1920s and early ’30s; it was young and sexy. Hollywood moguls, Bess Truman, even Babe Ruth played it. Buffett also mentioned something about a bridge table murder. I looked into that killing and the murder trial that followed as well as the bridge craze that swept the nation. Over time, the story deepened, a best-case scenario for nonfiction. The story became like quicksand. Over the past 3½ years, as I consumed it, it consumed me.

DS: Can you convince us that bridge is hip?

GP: Bridge is absorbing; you have to study it. It’s a partnership game and isn’t life meant to be lived in partnership? You can spend years learning bridge and never perfect the game. Like life, bridge can stir up devilish passions And don’t forget, the 20’s were a disaster-haunted time. Three weeks after the story’s killing occurred, the stock market crashed. Nonfiction needs tension lines and in this book one tension line is the murder that occurred on September 29, 1929. This story also has courtroom drama, sex and sexism, infidelity, showmanship and a cast of eccentrics and rogues plus several strong, impressive women.

DS: In great nonfiction, characters are always the galvanizing forces. Who are some notables in this story?

GP: In addition to the intriguing couple that imploded at the bridge table, Jack and Myrtle Bennett, you have Ely Culbertson, a Russian boulevardier living in New York who uses brilliance and a bit of madness to transform bridge into a cultural movement that would make him rich and famous. And there’s James A. Reed, the most famous man in Kansas City, who smokes cigars with H.L. Mencken, is a friend of Clarence Darrow, twice runs for president, and is Myrtle’s one-man legal dream team. During the trial Reed waxes on about the sanctity of womanhood while secretly carrying on an extramarital affair with his next-door-neighbor, a millionaire businesswoman named Nell Donnelly who is pregnant with his child. Characters like this are why I will never write fiction.

DS: Regarding the research, which is also critical to nonfiction, did you learn to play bridge?

GP: I did, although not as well as I would like. By the way, research is my favorite part – there’s no fun in the writing. I also found my way to Kansas City and walked room to room through the apartment where the bridge table killing took place. Then – and I’m NOT proud to say this – I searched Marin County gun shops until I found a gun like the murder weapon, a .32 Colt automatic. After that, for the first time in my life, I went to an indoor shooting range and fired off two shots. I needed to describe the physical sensations of the shooting. While there, I took off my ear protection, handed the gun to the owner and had him fire two shots more. Those shots sent a shrill siren deep into my inner ear, and I heard only that siren for several minutes. That’s when I thought, “No wonder why one witness testified he never heard the third and fourth shots!”

DS: Finally, where did your title come from?

GP: The Puritans called playing cards “the Devil’s tickets” because cards were believed to be satanic seeds of corruption, vice and laziness. And they hadn’t even met Myrtle Bennett.

DS: What’s next?

GP: My book tour: New York, Toronto, Atlanta, Kansas City and back home to the Bay Area.