Bridge Week at the Cipirani, Venice
Published: May 2009
By Jennifer Senior
For one particular group of sporting bons vivants, the words Venice and bridge go together ever so naturally—though, as <em>Jennifer Senior</em> discovers, not for the reason you’d think
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.
More rain, day two. Augie boehm, wearing a needlepoint belt adorned with card iconography (kings and queens, hearts and clubs), is standing at the front of the room, as he does for the first 45 minutes of every morning, running through hands from the day before and fielding the occasional question. Raffaela Schirmer, the highly cultured widow of the classical music publisher, wants to know whether a certain play would be wrongheaded; Augie tells her no.
Melissa Hubner, Augie’s new bride (and maker of his marvelous belt), describes a killer play she’d made the day before. I naïvely ask if it was luck. "Luck?" she asks, removing her red sunglasses. "Hell, no. A zillion dollars’ worth of lessons, marrying your instructor—that’s not luck. That’s a lot to do for bridge."
The players resume their playing. The Hiegel table instantly falls quiet. A notably hard gust of rain lures Richard out of his brown study. "I didn’t know it rained like this in Venice," he says, staring out of the tent. "I thought everything was gentle. Gentle rain, gentle sunshine."
If you’re going to be trapped in Venice in the rain, though, you could do far worse than to stay at the Cipriani. The place is a rare combination of sprawling and manageable, relaxed and luxe; over the last half-century, everyone from Richard Nixon to Jennifer Lopez has contrived to swing through. It sits on the Giudecca island, across the lagoon from Piazza San Marco, and nearly all of the rooms face the water in some way (room No. 401, the favorite of the Duke and Duchess of Bedford, might possibly have the most exquisite view, a 360-degree wraparound—at $1,550 per night). Its grounds are fun to wander, even in the rain and the chill, encompassing a private vineyard, granaries, and several first-class restaurants (including Cip’s Club, which sits flush against the water). The gym and spa are state-of-the-art. On an especially nasty day, I opt for a treatment in which I’m slathered in oil, wrapped in towels, and propped aloft on a "zero gravity" bed. Perhaps most unusually, the hotel boasts the only Olympic pool in Venice; it also happens to be heated, meaning one can swim in it, as I did, no matter how uncooperative the elements.
Rusconi, an elegant man of 80 and a third-generation hotelier (during World War II, his father was arrested by the SS for harboring an antifascist poet in his hotel), joins us for dinner, regaling us with stories about famous clients, long deceased. "Diana Vreeland," he says at one point, referring to the fabled editor of Vogue, "got very angry when she wasn’t admitted into the dining room of the Grand Hotel in Rome."
What was the problem?
"Her dining companion, a young male model. He wasn’t dressed formally enough. His shirt had ruffles of some kind. A fluffy situation."
And Venice, it goes without saying, beguiles no matter what time of year and no matter how alta the acqua. The added benefit of seeing the city with this crowd, though, is that Bob Guthrie, the head of Save Venice, dedicates one of the afternoons to giving the group a tour of the structures and paintings his organization has helped to restore. The day he takes us around, it’s pouring rain, naturally, but he breezes right along, reeling off facts and figures. We wind things up at the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli; the group spent around $3 million to desalinate its limestone walls. Pool instructs us all to take one final step back and admire it, then breaks into applause. It’s harder for the rest of us to do the same—we are holding umbrellas. But not her. She has spent the entire afternoon in a chic navy blue hooded slicker. Never once has she reached for her umbrella, no matter how hard the rain.
Thursday night, our final evening. We have our gala dinner at I Granai della Repubblica, a warm and soaring space with mirrors and candles marching along the walls—a Venetian version of Hogwarts. At each of our place settings, a Carnivale mask awaits; the bouquets are rose and anthurium, a native Hawaiian plant that looks, appropriately enough, like a cluster of aces.
After a four-course meal, Augie stands up and announces the winners of the tournament: the Guthries. Rusconi’s son presents them with a vase of Murano glass. They accept it graciously, happily, though one imagines that their house must already be cluttered with dozens. Then a traditional quartet of Venetian musicians, all dressed as gondoliers, serenade individual members of the group—particularly Augie and Melissa, who’ve just been blessed in a wedding ceremony by a prominent local priest. We finish up the evening at the bar adjoining Fortuny restaurant, with Augie at the piano, singing a medley of bridge-themed parodies from Bridge to Broadway, which he produced and directed two years ago at the summer nationals of the American Contract Bridge League. (The finest number: "Overbidder," sung to the tune of "Old Man River.")
As we leave, I chat with the Hiegels. Though they finished second, they seem in fine spirits. "We were just in the museum—which was it?" Chris asks.
"Ca’ Rezzonico," Richard says.
"Yes, yes. And there was a painting of a very voluptuous woman about to drive a spike through—"
"—a man’s ear," Richard finishes.
"Yes. A man’s ear," Chris says. "I told Richard, ’You miss that convention’"—a move during the auction phase of a hand—"’again, and I’m going to do that to you.’" She gives him a playful shove.
Who was the man in the painting? I ask.
Richard shrugs. "I don’t know," he says. "I guess someone who played bad bridge."
HOTEL CIPRIANI, 10 Giudecca, Venice; 800/237-1236 or 39-041/520-7744; www.hotelcipriani.com; doubles from $745.
Jennifer Senior is a contributing editor for New York magazine. She prefers blackjack to bridge.
Visit the American Contract Bridge League’s Web site (www.acbl.com) for information about the North American Bridge Championships, which continue this month in Dallas and travel to Chicago and Honolulu in July and November, respectively. Beginners are welcome. For international tournament listings, check out the World Bridge Federation’s search engine (www.worldbridge.org) or Great Bridge Links (www.greatbridgelinks.com).
Australian artist Jenny Phillips teaches (likely subject: autumnal fruits). October 8–13; $4,228 per person.
Two separate classes: Raymond Blanc, from Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Oxford (October 15–18), and Ezio and Renata Santin, from Antica Osteria del Ponte, Italy (October 17–20). Renato Piccolotto, executive chef of the Hotel Cipriani, will demonstrate his specialties. $5,000, double, for one class; $6,312 for both classes.
Three-day package includes luxury accommodations; two box seats at La Fenice; a gourmet dinner for two. April 21–October 13; $2,500, double.