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The Good Colonel
THE late Frank Crowninshield, an ornament to society and a ranking wit, advised millionaires from the West, eager to break into the Social Register, and marry off their daughters, to go to Palm Beach, which "was not exclusive, but merry, sumptuous and expensive" and where there was "a chance to meet many men in the gambling rooms."
Women, too, could be met at the famous Beach Club, which did not hold with the tradition that they brought bad luck and which allowed ladies to enter if they were escorted. It is true that the West had had its great lady gamblers, like Madame Kitty the Schemer, Colorado Charlie Utter's mistress, Minnie, and the redoubtable Poker Alice Tubbs. In the East, though fast-stepping American gals might accompany their sporting men to gambling palaces, it was only to watch their boy friends, spread their laps and cross their ankles, a position supposed to brin; luck. The Beach Club was the first place where respectable American women were accepted as gamblers.
Palm Beach's reputation as the stamping ground of society's gamblers was due in part to the idiosyncrasy of Standard Oil millionaire and Florida hotel builder Henry Morrison Flagler, and in part to the well-known probity of Colonel Edward Riley Bradley. Whenever and wherever Flagler built a hotel it was his practice to erect a house of prayer and a house of chance. The building of the Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine in 1888 was duly accompanied by the building of the Memorial Presbyterian Church and the Bacchus Club. The Royal Poinciana, the largest wooden building in the world, covering thirty-two acres and having seven miles of corridors, went up in 1894, along with the Royal Poinciana Chapel and the Beach Club. Flagler asked Bradley to run the Beach Club, and this man, who never lost his pride in being a professional gambler, became the second most important figure in the social history of Palm Beach.
Edward Bradley was the child of industrious Irish immigrants in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. His father was a steelworker, and when the boy turned thirteen he went into the mills also. A year was all young Edward could take, so he ran away, washing dishes here and there clear out to Arizona, which was something of a frontier in the 1870s. Then began the adventures he yearned for, a time as a cowboy, a miner, and a government scout in campaigns against the Apaches. In later years he claimed that he had taken part in the capture of Geronimo.
When the Indians were peaceful, Bradley indulged in local sports and his chief loves gambling and the horses. He found such pleasure in the former that he turned to it professionally. At a time in his life when he was asked by a senate investigating committee what occupation he followed for a livelihood, Bradley sat up straight and proud. "I am a gambler," he said.
After he stopped chasing Indians, Bradley moved to Arkansas, where his real career began. His first venture was booking horses in Little Rock and Hot Springs and in Memphis, Tennessee. When luck was against him be washed dishes to survive. Sharp horse sense, good fortune, and reckless play against his book eventually made Ed Bradley a success. He moved on to bigger tracks in the East and Midwest.
As his bank balance grew, Bradley invested in horses and other enterprises. During the 1880s he owned a hotel on Chicago's South Side and in 1890 moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where he established a racing stable, Idle Hour Farm, and its horses won the Kentucky Derby four times during the colonel's lifetime.
Bradley stopped taking book on horses when he went into owning and operating gambling casinos, including houses on Long Island, in Rockaway and Long Branch. When he moved to Florida with his brother, the two of them ran the Bacchus Club and later the Palm Beach Club for Flagler.
Bradley and the Beach Club were immense drawing cards. Wrote Karl K. Kitchen in the World: "The real reason for the popularity of Palm Beach is not its climate or its hotels; it is Bradley's."
The club, a simple white frame house at the corner of Lake Worth and what was then Main Street, had originally opened in 1898, for gentlemen only, "To run such games of amusement as the management and members may from time to time agree upon," the charter solemnly stated. Hazard (actually chuck-a-luck) and roulette were the only games then agreed upon as socially acceptable. Bradley added his own set of rules: only gentlemen who could hold their liquor, who wore evening clothes, and who seemed to be at least twenty-five years old could risk their money in his rooms. Natives as well as women were taboo at the tables.
At the end of the first year the Beach Club wound up in the red and Bradley did some hard thinking. He decided to allow women to gamble in spite of Flagler's opposition to the idea, and the Beach Club thrived_ from then on.
Gossip reported that Flagler grew strait-laced about gambling and offered Bradley the tidy sum of $350,000 to close down the casino and take his tables and games elsewhere, even supposedly declaring that he would close down the hotels in Palm Beach if Bradley stayed open. When Bradley refused, it was said that bitter feeling grew up between the two men and that Flagler eased his anger about the Beach Club by occasionally hiring leatherlunged and silver-tongued preachers to castigate gambling from the pulpit of the Royal Poinciana Chapel.
As Palm Beach became more popular, the railroad ran more trains there and Bradley relaxed another of his rules. Gentlemen who were catching the 3:30 A.M. train north-and only theycould ignore the dinner-jacket regulation.
In 1912 Bradley's moved to a new location, again a simple white frame house. The octagonal gambling room was a replica of the Poinciana ballroom, but done in Bradley's racing colors, emerald green and white. The Beach Club was not as sumptuous as Canfield's Saratoga Club House, but the food was every bit as good and the housemen as scrupulously honest. Bradley paid handsomely to keep them that way. He never stinted to get the best (his top chefs drew down $25,000 a year and made Florida lobster and turtle soup their great specialties).
Cashiers, dealers, and croupiers lived in a building called "The Barracks" and were not allowed to mix, even in off-duty hours, with the clientele. If they had wives, they had to leave them at home during the season, but high salaries compensated them. Some of the housemen got as high as fifty dollars a day plus living quarters and food. Salaries were paid the last day of the season and were invariably swelled by a 10-per-cent bonus. So satisfactory were the arrangements that a quarter century was the average his people stayed with the colonel.
In 1923 chemin de fer was added to roulette and hazard. Bradley never kept books on the club's take, but it is certain that several million dollars passed back and forth across his tables during each three-month season, more than three million the first year of chemin de fer. After that not even Monte Carlo allowed such astronomic stakes. Big money men like John Studebaker, Harry F. Sinclair, J. Leonard Replogle, Joshua Cosden, Harry Payne Whitney, and George Loft won or lost thousands during sessions of play. Studebaker thought nothing of dropping $200,000 in an evening on roulette. Even when they played poker privately among themselves, these men loved to play high and one blue chip could cost $10,000. Josh Cosden, a streetcar conductor in Baltimore before he made a fortune in Oklahoma oil and, with his wife, became high society, often outfoxed his cronies, Whitney and Replogle, in immensely steep poker games. In one pot he raked in $875,000. The lassies who gambled at the Beach Club were no pikers either. On occasions they would risk $25,000 or $50,000 on one card.
There never was a holdup at the club, and if there had been it is probable that Bradley's eighteen-man Pinkerton force would have repulsed it easily from their guard posts along the top of a sturdy white trellis. Nor did reformers cause Bradley to close his doors from 1898, when they opened, till 1946, when he died. Bradley was a man of influence and importance in the community, owning two newspapers, the Palm Beach Times, acquired for a bad debt, the Palm Beach Post at a bankruptcy sale. The editors reflected their boss's attitudes and. ran mild, chatty copy, biased only to the extent of shying away from stories that might encourage reform.
Bradley, whose heart was as big as his pocketbook, gave generously not only to his own Roman Catholic Church but to all denominations. After the 1928 hurricane he financed the rebuilding of all churches in the area despite the fact that he had been attacked from the pulpit of one of them. His pet way of disposing of his money-which he said he did not want to take to his grave was the Orphans' Day race meeting at Idle Hour, which netted $40,000, distributed equally among all the nearby orphanages. He also supplied the orphans with holiday dinners. Nevertheless in March 1915 he and his brother John were arrested for promoting gambling. The grand jury dismissed the case and for years after the state closed its eyes to the gambling in Palm Beach. In March 1937 Florida Governor Cone, off on one of the periodical antigambling campaigns, ordered gambling stopped, but Bradley paid no mind and local and state authorities, recognizing his sovereignty, did not enforce the mandate as far as he was concerned.
The pattern of Bradley's life was as fixed as the stars in their courses. From January 1 to March 31 he was at the club every day from early evening till dawn; in April he roamed the thousand acres of Idle Hour. After the Derby he took his stable to Belmont Park, Saratoga, and Maryland. Bradley was back at Idle Hour in November and stayed till time to leave for Palm Beach again.
He was a lusty man, though punctilious in his manners, who loved the companionship of good gamblers and devoted followers of the horse. His famous breakfasts were served in the kitchen next to his stables at Saratoga so that guests could watch the stable hands give the horses a morning workout. The Yankee Bradley outdid the Southern horse owners with his fried chicken, corn bread, and watermelon preserves, and the breakfasts often lasted right up to race time in the afternoon.
Bradley was a confirmed churchman who encouraged his staff to go to church wherever he was. In Palm Beach he usually headed the procession of those of his employees who were Catholics to St. Edwards, which he had built only a few minutes' walk from the club. At Idle Hour he had a private chapel where he and his employees worshiped.
When Bradley died, his will provided for the demolition of the Beach Club and the jettisoning of his gambling paraphernalia far out in the ocean. The land was deeded to the city for a public park. Idle Hour Farm was sold to Greentree Stud, Inc., for a reputed $2,500,000, and T. S. Bohne, Bradley's former secretary, filed suit unsuccessfully against the sale, claiming that the price was too low and unfair.
Newspapers from coast to coast ran columns of obituaries for the man himself, and there were sermons preached in many churches solemnly extolling his benevolence, charity, and devoutness. Said ex-Ambassador Kennedy afterward about Palm Beach: "When Bradley went, this place lost its zipperoo."