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He was a major player on the American landscape during the first half of the 20th Century. He ran with the powerful, the rich, the famous, and the notorious. He knew everyone who was anyone – and everybody knew Herbert Bayard Swope.
Swope was born in 1882 and grew up in New York City. He found his friends among the pool players, horse bettors, and gambling halls of Big City America. His first job was cashier at a race track.
When he got a job as a newspaper reporter, young Swope had found his calling. He reveled in the fast paced, get it first and get it right journalism characteristic of the intensely competitive newspaper business. He would be center stage and the leading actor during the Golden Age of Newspapers. In an era when newspapermen became national celebrities, Herbert Swope was a Super Star.
Intensely competitive, creative and aggressive, Swope made a name for himself as a reporter who always found a way to get the inside story. One of his legendary successes came at the signing of the Versailles Peace Treaty ending WWI.
Only a few reporters selected by lottery were chosen to cover the story and they were not permitted on the premises where the dignitaries met. Although not selected, Swope wouldn’t be denied. Along with the other dignitaries, Swope arrived in a black limousine. Dressed in diplomatic striped pants, spats, top hat and tails, he was ushered in with the other heads of state and reported the only first hand account of the ceremonies.
Swope spent much of his career at the New York World, the city’s foremost newspaper up to WW II. As a reporter and later editor, he earned several Pulitzer Prizes, the highest honor in journalism.
He became wealthy largely through investment advice from the barons of business and captains of industry who were his friends and often his gambling buddies. As newspaper man or gambler, Herbert Swope had a passion for action.
He got fired from one newspaper as a young reporter because he got in a crap game with two dollars and didn’t return to work for days. When he finally left the game, he’d won over $6,000!
As he grew wealthy, his gambling grew too. A poker player, he found himself playing for serious money with friends like oil magnate Harry Sinclair or movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn. A careful record keeper, Swope’s notes reveal that for the year 1922 he was in the black $186,758. Considering Goldwyn lost over $300,000 in two nights, Swope’s win was modest.
The biggest poker game Swope ever played in was in Palm Beach in 1923. A four man game, it included Joshua Cosden, oil baron, Florenz Ziegfield, of Follies fame, steel man J. Leonard Replogle, and Swope.
In order not to be disturbed, the game was held in Cosden’s personal railroad car and lasted two days. When it was over, Cosden had lost $443,100, Ziegfield was out $294,300, Replogle won $267,100 and Swope, the big winner, walked away with $470,300.
He loved horse races, won and lost thousands of dollars at the track. Late in life Swope was appointed to the New York Racing Commission. He did much to clean up the sport and was an early proponent of off-track betting.
Once, when he was depressed over a long losing streak at the track, Swope considered cutting back. His wife, best friend and playmate, Margaret understood that for Swope it was the thrill of the high stakes more than the winning which attracted him. Exasperated, she declared, “For God’s sake Herb, if you’re going to bet, bet big. I don’t care if we end up in the gutter. I can’t stand the thought of you placing a $5 bet! Not you.”
In addition to playing poker and betting horses, Swope’s other great passion was croquet. Of course, the game he and friends played was not the common backyard variety. It was combat croquet.
Swope was crazy for croquet for the same reason he loved poker, “The game gives release to all the evil in you,” he once explained, “It makes you want to cheat and kill… it’s a good game.”
Swope had his Long Island estate landscaped to include one of the best courses in the country, complete with obstacles, sand traps and lighting for night games. They played with no boundaries; everything outside the course was considered the rough. The mallets were made of white ash and carefully balanced.
One of Swope’s regulars, Harpo Marx, took the game so seriously he built a climate-controlled room in his house just for his mallets. Movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck was known as “the terrible tempered Mr. Bang” for his style of play. Although betting was always part of any competition, Swope limited himself to $1,000 a croquet game so the money wouldn’t be enough to get in the way of the fun.
Herbert Bayard Swope died in 1958. A confidante to every President from Woodrow Wilson to Harry Truman, he was a friend of all the leading figures of his era, industrialists, movie stars, artists, and literary figures; men of means and men of minds.
With his passing, America lost a great newspaper man and a legendary gambler. Near the end, looking back on his life of gambling, he concluded, “I think I’ve just about broken even. But I’ve had a hell of a lot of fun doing it.”