No matter how little space you give some writers, they try to fill it with a world. Frank Stewart is one of these writers; marketed as a bridge columnist and allotted about 160 words a day, he presides over a cast of characters who preen, smolder, blunder, lick their wounds, and occasionally make the kind of off-tune remark that lands Stewart in trouble with the front office.
“As far as I know, I’m doing something unprecedented,” Stewart tells me. “I’m doing a bridge column that has a running story line.”
A recent episode began with the columnist being invited home to dinner by “Unlucky Louie,” one of the regulars at Stewart’s “club.” Faithful readers know Unlucky Louie as a mope with a weight problem, too many kids, and a spendthrift wife. When he plays a bridge hand something always goes wrong.
The columnist hesitated. “Has your wife’s cooking improved any?” he asked Louie. “I heard pigmies come from Africa to dip their arrows in her cooking.”
“Pat vetoed that one,” Stewart told me—speaking of Patrick Fitzmaurice, his editor at the Tribune Content Agency, which syndicates him. “We went back and forth and back and forth and finally we killed the lead. I put in some kind of vanilla—under protest. The syndicate is extremely careful about that kind of stuff. I had another one. Cy the Cynic and Wendy [Cy’s feminist bete noire] were going back and forth and I had Cy tell a blond joke. ‘What do you do when a blond throws a grenade at you? Pull the pin and throw it back.'”
Then there’s Minnie Bottoms, another regular, who wears bifocals and is always mixing up jacks and kings but somehow makes her bids. “Little old ladies are regarded in the bridge world with amusement and affection,” said Stewart. “And that’s the spirit I’ve drawn her in.”
Despite Fitzmaurice’s interventions, I can imagine unease rumbling from elements of Stewart’s readership. But Stewart says no. “Bridge is played by flesh-and-blood people,” he reasons. His readers know and enjoy his characters; they are his characters. Readers who’d object to the stereotyping apparently are reading something else.
Stewart runs daily in the Sun-Times. Ten years ago the Sun-Times and Tribune decided to save a few bucks by dropping their bridge columns. The Trib replaced Goren on Bridge with Suduko, and columnist Eric Zorn applauded. He’d never played bridge and never wished he had, Zorn said in a column, indifferent to one of life’s great pleasures because he’d never experienced it. “Bridge always seemed complicated, fussy and the cause of great, time consuming obsessions among its addicts,” he wrote, “so I stayed away from the game and, accordingly, the column with all its jargon and little drawings.”
The addicts mobilized (as Stewart had warned his editors they would). Three weeks later Goren on Bridge and Stewart’s Daily Bridge Club were back in their respective papers. Since then both papers have been in and out of bankruptcy and have laid off reporters and editors by the dozens. The Sun-Times eliminated its entire photo department. But Stewart—and “Goren”—survive.
Yet last month something ominous occurred. The New York Times, whose bridge column dated back to 1935 and had been written over the years by only three columnists, laid off the incumbent, Phillip Alder. This didn’t perturb Stewart particularly, having seen other bridge columnists—such as himself—dropped by newspapers and quickly reinstated. But the Times, facing down the usual storm, has made its decision stick.
Times public editor Margaret Sullivan laid out the situation in a blog post. She’d heard from 2,500 readers, who protested in language such as “another diminishment of daily pleasures,” and “we were disheartened, discouraged and taken aback.” But the Times‘s culture editor told Sullivan her budget had taken a 20 percent whack, and bridge was a high-maintenance feature that demanded meticulous editing by a skilled player who could spot subtle errors other editors wouldn’t have a clue about.
Does the Times‘s example start the clock ticking for everyone else?
Bridge isn’t a fancy-pants game. I picked it up in the navy and my usual partner was a mess cook. But it’s more often learned in college. Stewart started playing at the University of Alabama, where he was studying history and music in the 1960s, and it’s been his life ever since. “I agree that the following is not as great as it used to be,” he says. As he sees it, a generation of bridge players was lost in the 60s and 70s because college students then were too busy storming barricades, and another generation in the 80s “because we got into a materialistic society where people were more interested in making a living than playing games. Then the Internet came along and there were so many competing leisure activities.”
But in the end, he thinks—or at least hopes, the Internet will save bridge. It’s made it possible for bridge players on the far ends of the earth to sit down to a game together. And it’s raised the visibility of championship matches by streaming them over the ‘net. “It’s like being at a football game,” Stewart says. “It’s really something to see.”
Furthermore, I think Stewart’s been spared a couple of handicaps Phillip Alder had to put up with. The first of these you might think I’ve got backwards. Alder could be timely: he could publish a story tomorrow about a tournament that wrapped up today. The 130 American papers that carry Stewart’s columns run them three months after he turns them in.
But Stewart, untempted by topicality, is free to draw from the vast archive of old deals he inherited from his predecessor in the column, Alfred Sheinwold, and add the Dickensian touches that distinguish him. Burdened by the Times‘s understanding of itself as a newspaper of record, Alder tried to cover bridge as a news beat. This led to leads such as this:
“The trial to select the two United States women’s teams for this year’s Venice Cup world championship took place last week in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The 120-board second final was between Connie Goldberg, JoAnn Sprung, Linda Lewis and Disa Eythorsdottir, and Sylvia Moss, Joann Glasson, Lynn Deas, Beth Palmer, Janice Seamon-Molson and Tobi Sokolow.”
“In Shanghai last week, there were subsidiary events for those players not continuing in the Yeh Brothers Cup.”
As you see, Alder’s second great handicap was a knack for constructing reports that would put his mother to sleep. Meanwhile, Stewart could launch a column this way:
My car was in the shop, and Cy the Cynic gave me a ride to the club. Cy drove like he was delivering a donated organ. We skidded around corners and zipped through yellow lights.
“Slow down,” I begged.
“I’m faster than a speeding ticket,” the Cynic chortled.
Cy’s driving is mirrored in his play, where he operates on impulse . . .
(Spoiler alert.) Cy went down.