One of the unspoken axioms of contract bridge is that husbands and wives should never play together, unless they have tremendous faith in their marriage or their lawyers. Anger simmers and tensions thicken; during the Depression, one Myrtle Bennett of Kansas City was so incensed by her husband’s bum bridge-playing that she grabbed a gun and shot him dead through the bathroom door. That doesn’t stop the Hiegels, however, from flying 4,149 miles to Venice to play in this fielding the inevitable questions about their featured role in John Berendt’s City of Fallen Angels, just released and on almost every lap poolside.
Chris Hiegel, blond-bobbed and wickedly funny, looks at her husband, Richard, and informs him that if he doesn’t make this particular contract—the number of tricks bid, plus the trump suit—he’ll have to and a new apartment. Then she looks at me. "It’s not just for the old," she says. "At some point you’re going to want to do something to rebuild those gray cells—especially if you drink as much as I do."
Today is the opening morning of bridge week at Hotel Cipriani. The festivities began last night with a cocktail hour and a private dinner; they will culminate four nights from now in a semiformal gala, and between now and then, there will be four straight mornings of bridge-playing and lessons, all in a tent in Casanova’s Garden. At the moment, an autumn rain is slapping hard against the roof, lending the place the requisite mysterious, and vaguely iniquitous, gloom. The air seems to vibrate with concentration. August Boehm, a former music major from Columbia University who now plays and teaches bridge professionally; (he’s the resident instructor at several clubs in New York City), surveys the scene from his command center in the middle of the room, piled high with his own books, Private Sessions and Demon Defense and Demon Doubling. I ask whether he can see people’s bridge temperaments emerging. He gives the room a slow, thoughtful look. "Not yet," he concludes. "But I know where some of the stress points are."
In the corner sits Mary Jane Pool, 81, the organizer and prime mover behind this event. Her hair is cinnamon red and cut in the shape of a dandelion, which makes her look like either Raggedy Ann or Queen Elizabeth, depending on her mood. I give her a furtive wave. She returns the gesture by discreetly opening her navy blue blazer and flashing a T-shirt: TOGETHER AT CIPRIANI IN VENICE.
Historically a city of wealth, ingenuity, and sly pleasures, Venice seems ideally suited to a high-spirited game of tournament bridge, and the Hotel Cipriani is its ideal venue. Casanova, a mirthful gambler and cardplayer himself, used to roam the very grounds where the hotel now sits, on the way to his assignations at a convent; Giuseppe Cipriani, the legendary founder of Harry’s Bar and this hotel (plus a slew of cousins), was a risk-taker and shrewd calculator in his own way, betting he could revolutionize both Venetian tourism and dining by making them less staid. "I remember one of his phrases," says Natale Rusconi, now the managing director of the hotel. "He said, ’In some restaurants, you hear the salt dropping on the salad leaves.’ He didn’t want noiseless. He wanted a relaxed atmosphere with traditional Italian cuisine. When he founded this place [in 1956], no one had the courage to serve pasta and risotto in restaurants. But he changed all that."
Rusconi first had the idea to do off-season theme weeks at Cipriani back in 1977, when he launched a series of master cooking classes with Julia Child and Simone Beck. They were such a hit that he soon added a week of botanical painting seminars, as well as opera packages with box seats at La Fenice. Then, after 9/11, his cooking classes fell apart (they’re resuming this year); Americans were reluctant to travel abroad, and the redoubtable euro started to crush the dollar. Occupancy at Cipriani fell from 85 to 72 percent.
Rusconi’s old friend Mary Jane Pool proposed that Cipriani add a bridge week every October. The two had been friends since the early seventies, when he was still the general manager of the Gritti Palace and she was the editor of House & Garden.
"She was the most flamboyant of all the journalists," Rusconi says. "She had such style. She used to travel in a very grand way."
It makes sense that Pool would be the driving force. She is very much like Casanova herself, minus the sexual depredations—intellectually precocious, spectacularly well traveled, admitted into high society wherever she goes. Like Casanova, she started humbly, coming from a pioneering family in Missouri, and, also like Casanova, she leads—and has led—an unfettered and improbable life. While most women of her generation were going to college to find husbands (if indeed they were going to college at all), she graduated from Drury, in Springfield, Missouri, and headed straight to New York City, where she threw herself into the publishing world. She never married—too confining—though she has had her share of suitors and steady swains.
The gang that shows up at bridge week consists almost entirely of Pool’s circle, whether it be from publishing, her travels, or New York’s Upper East Side. But anyone is welcome to attend, provided they can pay the fee of $3,927. Cipriani advertises the week on its Web site and its in-house literature. The players are eligible for master’s points. They may even find themselves in international bridge-playing columns this week. Susannah Gross, who writes about bridge for The Spectator, has shown up, giving the group a dash of glamour.