story by Lee Siegel
photos by Jeffrey Asher
My enthusiasm for croquet began some fifty years ago, when I was nine or ten years old. I had ridden my bike over to Robbie Freeman’s house to see a copy of Swedish Sunbather magazine that he had swiped from his uncle. It was the raciest thing that we, as kids in the puritanical America of the 1950s, could get our little hands and big imaginations on. A group of stark-naked and blithely smiling Scandinavian men, women and even a couple of children were playing croquet and, according to the magazine, “having fun in the sun!” I gazed adoringly at the blond Swedish girl who, with a mallet swung back between her bare legs, was about to send a ball through a wicket. “Everyone loves a good game of croquet!” the caption read: “It’s fun! It’s healthy! And it’s easy to play!”
Robbie wanted to know if I had ever seen a naked girl, “a real naked girl.”
“No,” I confessed, “But I have seen a real game of croquet.” He wasn’t impressed that I had spent a weekend with my parents at Darryl Zanuck’s house in Palm Springs, where the game was played by such famed afficionados as Tyrone Power, Harpo Marx and Louis Jordan. As Zanuck’s doctor, my father was on hand to give his patient the vitamin B-12 injection that would invigorate the movie mogul’s performance on the court. Kids were not allowed to play the game; we were not even supposed to talk during a match of the game that was so much more than a game. It was solemn business and serious combat. Darryl Zanuck played real croquet.
Like millions of American families in the fifties and sixties, we had a Milton Bradley croquet set and played the game on an occasional Saturday or Sunday in our backyard—not real croquet, mind you, but the garden variety as dabbled in by amateurs and kids. Garden croquet, I have come to appreciate, is to real croquet what checkers is to chess. Real croquet requires the complex stratagems and patience of chess, the geometrical calculations and eye-hand coordination of billiards, the competitiveness and aggression of ice hockey and the finesse and sangfroid of bullfighting.
I began to understand the differences between garden croquet and the real thing years ago when I was a student at Oxford University. In celebration of the first sunny day of the year, a group of students at my college had planned a croquet party in University Parks on the west bank of the Cherwell. The game was just an excuse to be outside, drinking Pimm’s cups and eating cucumber sandwiches and strawberries with clotted cream. “Croquet is one of the few games one can effectively play while drinking and smoking,” Dudley Higginbottom, the organizer of the afternoon, had proclaimed. “The most difficult part of the game for me is deciding what to drink: Pimm’s, champagne or gin and tonic.”