Baba Blackshirt

On the face of it, it’s the trophy presentation at the 1929 Pacific Coast Open Championship, with the sweaty but pleased San Carlos Cardinals accepting accolades while a woman smiles under a cloche hat. Oh, but the history in this photo.

On the left, polo coat open and eyes on the prize, stands George Gordon Moore, the San Carlos patron, a man whose 20,000 acre estate outside Carmel gave the team its name. Born in Canada, Moore made a bundle in railroads, mining, and munitions on the eve of World War I. In 1912, he hosted a dinner in London at the Ritz where the flower arrangements alone cost $2,000.

After buying his California ranch in 1923, he built a polo field, and a stable in the shape of a horseshoe. He stocked the surrounding forests with wild Russian boar for the hunting pleasure of his guests; he stocked his 37-room “La Casa Grande” with champagne, bourbon, and starlets, up to and including an entire chorus line. It has been said that Moore, with his wealth and desire to impress, was the inspiration for Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Next, looking directly at the camera, is W. Averill Harriman; he inherited $100 million from his father, a railroad baron, and had one of the best strings of ponies in polo. After Yale and a successful business career, he served as U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Governor of New York, and U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union and Great Britain. In polo, he was on the winning U.S. Open teams in 1925 and ’27. Playing against Argentina in the Cup of the Americas in 1928, he scored 12 goals in three games, two more than teammate Tommy Hitchcock.

On the other side of the trophy, Tommy Hitchcock is all buttoned up. In his day, he was simply the best, and his presence on the San Carlos team speaks volumes about the patron’s desire to win. Of him, one writer said, “No one who has not seen a ten-goal player play fifteen-goal polo can imagine the stark power of this youth.” In a literary coincidence, Hitchcock was most probably the model for polo-playing Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby.

All the way to the right is William “Willie” Tevis, a Californian who had played on teams with Moore before. Tevis, whose grandfather was a founder of the Pony Express, lived for horses; his ranch had 18 stables, with stalls for 8 horses in each.

And then, at the center: Lady Alexandra Metcalfe, daughter of Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India. I don’t know what she was doing in California at this time — she had been in Cowdray Park for polo earlier in the year — but she seems to have turned up everywhere in the world at least once.

Known as “Baba” to her father’s Indian servants, and to her friends ever after, she was a remarkable woman. She was said to be lovely, if somewhat imperious like her father. Although romanced by royals, she married Edward Dudley “Fruity” Metcalfe, the best friend of Edward VIII, the king who left his throne and became the Duke of Windsor so that he could marry Wallis Warfield Simpson, a twice-divorced American. Not one to desert a friend, Fruity served as the Duke’s Best Man at his wedding in exile. (In 1940, Fruity was rewarded for his loyalty by being abandoned when the Duke and Duchess fled Paris, and left to find his own way home as the German army advanced.)

Baba’s claim to popular fame, however, was as an unapologetic serial adulterer. She was rumored to have had affairs with Douglas Fairbanks, Jock Whitney, a line of wealthy and influential Englishman including England’s domestic Fascist Oswald Mosley, her late sister’s husband, and an imported Fascist, Benito Grandi, Mussolini’s ambassador to England, which for a time earned her the nickname “Baba Blackshirt.” Nor did it help that she once had tea with Joseph Goebbels, Reichsminister of Propaganda for Adolph Hitler.

But then, later in life she had tea with the Dalai Lama. For 40 years, she worked unpaid for the Save the Children Fund. She made regular visits to Tibet, to Saigon during the Vietnam war, and spent her 80th birthday in Cambodia, looking at thousands of skulls left by the Khymer Rouge.

One week before her death in 1995, she lunched in London with the woman who was to write her obituary for The Independent. Sarah Bradford wrote, “with the temperature near the nineties, Baba was as cool, beautiful and immaculately dressed as ever. The term grande dame might have been invented for her.”

One wonders what thoughts prompted her smile on the day of the Pacific Coast Open, as the photographer tripped the shutter.


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