Tom Wolfe, who died two days ago, was a great squash parent. While his son Tommy played junior squash and then at Trinity, graduating in 2007, Wolfe was perfect in the gallery: impeccably dressed, of course, but also calm, courteous, never yelling. It was Tommy’s thing not his. Wolfe blended into the crowd in that inexplicable way he always did. The ultimate bystander.
In 2003 Wolfe blurbed my first book, Squash: A History of the Game—”maestros of tight rails and feathery drop shots.”
A few years later, Paul Assaiante and I were struggling with the shape of an inchoate book on mentoring young people. Assaiante left the manuscript with Wolfe after visiting him in the Hamptons. A few days later Wolfe was on the phone, calling literary agents, willing the book into existence. Wolfe wrote that he “devoured it in job lots.” That is my kind of reader.
Wolfe wrote the foreword for the book, Run to the Roar, when it came out in 2010. In it he praised, in his unique, rollicking way, the fact that squash had luckily proved to be terrible for television: “The absence of the TV eye has largely spared squash from TV sports’ three STDiseased, shanks-akimbo harlots: Cheating, Gambling and Greed.”
This was before SquashTV existed. With the SquashTV’s continued penetration of television markets around the world and online and the Supreme Court decision this week about gambling, will Wolfe’s fears soon be realized?
One final note: Tom and his wife Sheila threw an amazing launch party for the book a couple of weeks after it came out. It was held in their drawing room of their Upper East Side apartment, just next to his writing room with a circular desk. There were editors from Sports Illustrated and the Times, writers, publicists, squash influencers, Trinity administrators.
At the party Wolfe was in a white suit, dressed to the nines as always; Assaiante wore a Union Boat Club sweatshirt and sweatpants. Assaiante told the crowd a funny story about the first time he met Wolfe in New York: he happened to be in coat-and-tie and Wolfe, coming back from working out, was in sweats.
Both told each other the same thing as they shook hands: this will never happen again.
Last weekend I went to Baltimore for a special event. It was the eleventh induction ceremony of the Maryland State Squash Hall of Fame.
The hall of fame was launched twenty years ago and so is one of the oldest and most consistent district association halls of fame in the country. With the five people inducted on Saturday, they now have thirty-two members. More than a dozen past inductees were present at the ceremony, including Sandy Martin, Nancy Cushman, Doug Rice, Patrick Miller, Andrew Cordova, Lissen Tutrone, Scooter Dorney, Bobby Travers and John Voneiff.
It was an elegant night at the Maryland Club. After warming up by the fire in the enormous, welcoming fireplace near the front door, I had a look at the construction in the back. When it is finished, the club will have three brand-new hardball doubles courts—a first for a club in the U.S.
The place was packed. Abby Markoe came with a couple of SquashWise students. The Cromwell family was in full force for Patrice McConnell Cromwell’s induction: the group included Patrice’s sister Alicia McConnell (late of Colorado Springs, now of Dublin, Ireland) and David Cromwell (late of Middlebury, now world No.191).
I had the pleasure of introducing one of the inductees, my father. I reminisced about how our family just fell in love with Baltimore when we moved there in the mid-1980s and how I worked as an assistant to the old pro at the Maryland Club, the late Jimmy Taylor . I joked about how in Baltimore my dad would call my mother on a car phone (remember those) on his way home from the club to say that he was running late, that he had spent too much time talking with friends after he had played squash.
I said that running late is exactly why we play the game. This was echoed on the back of gorgeous program John Voneiff produced for the ceremony, where an unofficial mission statement of the Maryland Squash Fall of Fame was printed: “We come together to meet, to talk, to enjoy each other’s company and to compete. We come to do exactly what is best about the great games Americans play, to keep the spirit that is the competitive fire within us engaged in ways that build lasting friendships—friendships that transcend distances and generations, burning on through the years of our lives.”
Earlier this month, a winter storm hit the National Doubles.
A serious nor’easter slammed into Philadelphia on the Friday of the tournament. The wind was tremendous, the snow cascaded down when it wasn’t raining. Over a foot of snow. Trees down, power out. About twenty matches were postponed.
At the dinner dance on Saturday, we all swapped transportation tales. Shane Coleman told me about a thirteen-minute drive from Cynwyd to Germantown Cricket took him three hours. Kim Clearkin, a US Squash staffer, spent four hours driving from the Cynwyd to the tournament hotel, normally a trip that might take twenty minutes in traffic. My go-to story was about my mother-in-law and sister-in-law. They got on an Amtrak train in Boston at 9am Friday morning and arrived in Wilmington at 2:30pm on Saturday.
It vividly reminded me of another epic storm to hit the East Coast on the Friday of a national championship—the 1960 men’s National Singles in Rochester.
Just like this year, a storm swept in on Friday morning. It dumped over twenty inches of snow on upstate New York. The Thruway was shut down. Buses, trucks, cars: all were stranded. For Rochester it was a major storm in the worst winter it has ever had—the city received a record 161.7 inches of snow that winter.
The transportation mishegoss that day in 1960 was even more remarkable than what we saw in Philadelphia earlier this month. Dick Rothschild and Billy Tully were hit from behind by a skidding truck, sent into a gully and waited five hours before a tow truck dragged them back onto the road.
A group of New Yorkers had their flight to Buffalo diverted to Pittsburgh. There they split up. Two (Ned Bigelow and Jack Tappin for those scoring at home) got the last seats on a train heading to Rochester. Joe & Fran Hahn got on a flight to Erie, PA, then another to Buffalo and then a train to Rochester. Stew Brauns and John & Phoebe Weeks flew on an empty plane to Buffalo and then took a train to Rochester, arriving twenty-four hours late. And Treddy Ketcham and Paul Steele chartered a helicopter in Pittsburgh which was canceled when the helicopter was called to rescue stranded motorists.
Two other New Yorkers (Pete Truesdale and Reg Johnson) slept on the cold floor of a gas station. Another player left his luggage, including his squash clothes, on a stranded bus and walked for miles in the blizzard to the nearest town.
A group of Detroiters (Rick Austin and John & Alice Greene) driving via Canada had to bivouac in their car on the side of the road for the night, running the engine for ten minutes every half hour to keep warm.
A trio of Philadelphians (Carter Fergusson, Jimmy Whitmoyer and Howard Davis) took a flight at dawn on Friday. The plane circled Rochester and then Buffalo for three hours before returning to Philadelphia. They then took a train to New York and then an overnight train to Rochester.
Part of the Buffalo contingent, only ninety minutes away, traveled five hours by car, while another group took the New York Thruway and never made it. One Philadelphian, Ned Madeira, struggled into the Genesee Valley Country Club Sunday morning.
Frank Smith, the head pro at the club, received thirty-two long-distance phone calls on Friday evening. “They were,” wrote Bob Lehman, “mostly to advise ‘where I now am’ whether stuck in car, at wrong airport or waiting for train, and to complain about the scarcity of dog sleds.” The next morning Smith rented a bulldozer to clear access to the Rochester Medical School’s courts where the National Team matches were to be played.
Only seven men ended up not making their first match on Saturday (Steele—that helicopter never materialized; Dave Johnson, Henry Foster, Bill Danforth, H. Sloane, C. Murphy and F. Borden) and defaulting in the main draw and three in the 40+ draw (M. Zimmerman, Mike Solin and, again, the helicoptering Treddy Ketcham). Amazingly, there were apparently no defaults among the thirteen teams in the five-man National Teams.
The other thing of interest, lost in the storm, was that the matches were for the first time in National Singles history broadcast on television. Once Brauns arrived he led the commentary. The broadcast was on closed-circuit television just within the club—Smith felt that the gallery was too small for the expected crowds. Everyone in the gallery was wearing coat-and-tie, including the cameraman. Time for a SquashTV dress code?
I just received a copy of a new history of the sport of sticke by Nigel a Brassard. It is a delightful game and delightfully obscure: there are just two playable courts in the world.
Basically an indoor version of tennis, sticke was invented in England in the 1870s. It spread around the world (courts in Bermuda, Canada, India, Ireland and South Africa) and at one point there were courts at famous places (Queens Club in London; Buckingham Palace). About thirty-one covered courts were built, largely at English country estates and the last new court appeared in 1922.
Then a decline. Courts were demolished burnt or converted—in 1938 Buckingham Palace’s court became a squash court and a swimming pool. (It was there in 1948 that the Duke of Edinburgh had a game of squash while Queen Elizabeth was in labor delivering their son Charles.)
Today there are two surviving courts. Less than two years ago the author (he wrote this as a masters dissertation) kindly took me out on one of the two extant courts, Hartham Park in rural Wiltshire, England. It was a magical morning.
Whenever someone complains that squash is inaccessible, arcane and unknown— no one has ever heard of it—you can say that it is hugely popular compared with another racquet sport called sticke.
Last year I did a lot of research for the essay “The History of Squash in 10 1/2 Chapters” and a history timeline, both of which are at the World Squash Federation’s website: http://www.worldsquash.org.
At the time, I came across a fleeting mention of an article on squash in The Boy’s Own Paper. After much sleuthing, I tracked down the article. Boy’s Own Paper was a major British literary magazine aimed at teenage boys. The article “Squash Racquets” was published on 9 June 1894 and is one of the earliest mentions of the game in print.
The author was Somerville Gibney. He and his brother Gerald had attended Harrow from 1865 to 1867 (in Head Master’s House). Their father was a reverend in Lincoln in the East Midlands and a founder of the Lincoln College of Art (he died in 1875 when he fell through a skylight at the school into the model room).
Somerville Gibney was a popular playwright and novelist: he produced shows for the West End and the Spectator said of his 1891 novel, The Trial of Parson Finch: “It is certainly a well-told, healthy, and by no means uninteresting story.”
Gibney’s article on squash had a proselytizing streak, as it mostly was about persuading readers to build their own courts. He runs through the squash customs at Harrow, the rules and the required equipment (a new racquet for ten shillings, a second-hand one for five shillings; and new balls for four pence, although Gibney sometimes would go back to Harrow and buy eight or ten used balls from students for six pence).
He said that when he and his brother were at Harrow, “we were both devoted to squash” so when they returned to Lincoln they created a court in a high-roofed loft over a disused stables. Their father cut a wall out, put a door on the spiral staircase that led to the loft and added, ironically, a skylight. The floor was plaster, uneven and at least a hundred years old; the side walls were rough and an oak beam ran over the court. Both the brothers and their father played many games there for years to come.
Gibney’s experience was commonplace: squash in the late nineteenth century, was unstandardized, inexpensive and makeshift. And fun.
Squash, Gibney declared, is “a capital game, which, without requiring any large expenditure of pocket-money or amount of apparatus, can be played almost anywhere where there are walls. Give a Harrow boy a wall—if a blank one so much the better—and two others or even one other, at right angles to it, with a clear space between, and the probability is it won’t be long before he is busy at squash.”
Last month I had the huge pleasure of attending the Qatar Classic. It was an amazing event, one of the best run and best promoted pro tournaments I’ve ever worked at.
In some ways it was just another event for me—watching and talking with the same players, eating meals with the same media folks—but there was often a slight difference. I noticed there wasn’t any alcohol on-site, something totally unusual in the West.
Directly next to the main entrance into the stadium, with its built-in glass court and permanent seating, was a large room. Throughout the event, I’d see pairs of shoes left near the door to the room. Sometimes just three or four pairs, sometimes a couple of dozen. Sandals, sneakers, dress shoes, flip-flops. It was the designated prayer room. Those shoes were a powerful symbol for me.
Everyone was very friendly in Qatar and would ask if this was my first time in Doha. I always had to say that no, technically, it was not, that I had come to Doha two years earlier but only saw the airport.
On assignment for Town & Country, I participated in one of those odd junket for journalists that you hear about. My editor asked me on a Friday if I wanted to go on a trip on the following Monday.
It was almost literally a whirlwind: I got to JFK airport that Monday afternoon and flew on Qatar Airways to Doha; spent six hours in the airport; and then flew back to the States, landing on a Wednesday morning. Here’s the result:
I don’t say in the article, but I was supposed to interview Stewart Boswell during my six-hour sojourn. After a lot of emailing, we thought he might come to the airport so I could interview him in person about Aspire Academy, the boarding school in Doha where he’s developing future champions. But there was a security issue that day and the airport was closed to all people who weren’t flying: I couldn’t get out of the security zone and he couldn’t get in it.
So one day at the Qatar Classic last month, I went out to Aspire and finally got that interview, with Boswell and his fellow coaches Jonathan Kemp and Geoff Hunt.
Last month Paul Monaghan, Jr. died. He was eighty-nine years old.
Squash, as we know it, would not exist without Monaghan. A squash-playing architect, he literally opened up the game. In 1968 he installed the world’s first entirely full-length glass wall—it was the back wall on the first back court at the Ringe Courts at Penn. It was a revolutionary move: for the first time you could see what was going on. All the innovations in the past fifty years—like the portable glass court in front of the Great Pyramids or in Grand Central—can be traced to that moment.
Not content with one revolution, Monaghan also pioneered the commercial squash club. In 1973 he opened the first public, pay-to-play club in the U.S., Berwyn Squash & Fitness. He added two more clubs, building the first squash club empire in the country. The last time I saw Monaghan was four years ago at the U.S. Open when we celebrated Berwyn’s fortieth anniversary.
At Monaghan’s funeral service, we sang the hymn “On Eagle’s Wings” which includes the line:
And He will raise you up on eagles’ wings
Bear you on the breath of dawn
Make you to shine like the sun
And hold you in the palm of His hand.
Monaghan did shine like the sun and all of us in the game of squash are thankful.
Last week I went to the memorial service for A. Carter Fergusson. It was also a service for his wife Dudy.
They were always together. Carter was the Cal Ripkin of squash, playing in the National Singles an unprecedented sixty-two straight years; and Dudy was the most loyal spouse in squash history, as she came to fifty-five straight National Singles. She missed a few in the early years, not from disinterest but from parenting.
The best story, one repeated by Ben Heckscher in his eulogy at the service, was about the 1952 National Singles. It was at Yale’s Payne Whitney in New Haven. Carter beat a British doctor in the first round in three; then J. Wyer from New York 16-13 in the fifth. In the quarterfinals on Saturday evening, he outlasted Henri Salaun, the great champion, 15-9 in the fifth—a fantastic result.
He was awakened early Sunday morning by a phone call (Carter told me about trundling down a drafty cold hallway to a phone) from Dudy. She had just given birth to their daughter Margie. In a classic line, Carter asked Dudy, “Well, can I stay for the lunch?”
He then went out and played in the semis. He lost in four to Harry Conlon, the eventual winner. (I suspect he had trouble concentrating.) He stayed for lunch and then took the train back to Philadelphia.
Carter was a great player. A few weeks ago I saw his trophy cabinet. Three times he won the Woodruff-Nee at the University Club of Washington (and was runner-up twice). He had a number of Lockett Cup trophies from winning that tri-city event. He lost in the finals of the 1948 Gold Racquets to Diehl Mateer and in the finals of the 1959 Harry Cowles to Henri Salaun. In 1951 he won the club championship at Merion Cricket—the hardest club championship in the country—and lost in the finals there in 1950, 1954 and 1957. He lost in the finals of the national 40+ in 1965 to Vic Seixas (his wife Dolly Ann was at the service).
The U.S. Open starts this week and Carter even had a trophy from winning the consolation draw in 1959. Any thoughts to reviving a consolation draw? Wouldn’t that be neat.
One trophy was missing. Carter played in sixty-two straight National Singles. In 1948 in his very first year at the Nationals, he won a national title when he lead the Philadelphia team to victory in the five-man tournament. Oh, if it always was so easy. The following year, the Philly team lost in the finals (Carter had the trophy). And then sixty more years of never winning a second national title. I assumed that would be the most prized possession of all, but it wasn’t.
It was perseverance, resilience, grit that brought Carter Fergusson every winter back to the tournament, year after year after year, not some trophy. And it was something else. It was the people. It was his love of the squash community. It was his friends.
“Well, can I stay for the lunch?”
Rex Pennington died last weekend. He was ninety-four.
Rex was a classic squash friend. He born in 1923. First played squash in 1931, at age eight. He got very good. Champion of Rhodes University. As a Rhodes Scholar, he was the champion of Oxford and captained the Blues for two seasons. He was elected to the Jesters Club in 1948, the first South African to be honored that way, and Rex helped found the South African branch a decade later. Later the champion of Western Province.
He and his wife Sarah were a fascinating couple. They had lived for a couple of years in the early 1950s in Oklahoma City. Rex taught at Casady School. They were incredibly hospitable. The first time I met Rex, it was at a small airfield outside Johannesburg. I had called him the day before, asking if I could stay with him for a few days (I was twenty) and that it looked like I had miraculously hitched a ride on a private airplane from Natal to Joburg. We landed at sunset and there, on the tarmac, was Rex.
The next day we played squash. He was sixty-six at the time and he beat me, rather easily. This was May 1989. I had barely played any softball, but still, I was twenty, fit and fresh from a season on the varsity of a top-ten U.S. collegiate program. It just proved, early on to me, how much more of a challenge softball was.
Rex was good, nonetheless—he got to the semis of the 1997 World Masters 65+ division, at the age of seventy-four.
He was a giant in South Africa. He was headmaster of Michaelhouse, one of the country’s leading boarding schools, from 1969 to 1977. Then in the early 1980s he was the founding head of the first private school in Soweto, Pace. Naturally, he installed squash courts, the first in the township.
Over the years, we spent many delightful evenings together thereafter, at his home in Melville, his farm in the Eastern Transvaal, in New York. He was always generous and kind. When I was staying with him in 2007 and needed a lift to Pretoria, an hour away. No problem. We had a delightful hour chatting, he dropped me off with a wave and headed home. That is how a squash friend is, even at the age of eighty-four.
Sarah and their son Steuart wrote this poem for his seventieth birthday:
ODE TO A FAMOUS JESTER – REX PENNINGTON
When you warm up I tremble a little