Italian, 20th Century
A Polo Players Dream
I have christened this 1983 painting A Polo Players Dream. At first it appears to be a jolly, colorful painting of a paddock filled with ponies, polo players and well dressed girls. But look a little more closely and you will notice that some of the girls are wearing see-through clothes and others are wearing nothing at all. This painting belonged to Harry Cushing IV and I purchased it from one of his relatives. Cushing by his own admission was from a young age “strongly drawn to feminine beauty … and aware of the allure of the opposite sex.” The artist Piero Verbinschak an Italian architect and painter of Yugoslavian origin, a friend of Cushing and described by him as being “known all over Italy for his good looks, good humor and success with women.” Cushing wrote in his autobiography, Vanderbilt Scion – Memoirs of a Modern Knight-Erront - that there are a number of appealing aspects of polo of which the most important “is the fact that there are always beautiful smartly dressed women around a polo team. Now, that is partly because of the excitement of the game itself, of course. Partly it is also due to the superb athletic qualities of the men who play polo, which makes them very attractive to women. And finally, there is money. If you have a team and you are playing big time polo, it costs a minimum of a million dollars a year. And anything that costs a million dollars to play, in my experience, is irresistibly appealing to women.” This painting is a glorious erotic manifestation of Cushing’s twin loves – polo and beautiful women.
The Cushing family came from the English village of Hingham in Norfolk and had settled “as first-class citizens” in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the late 17th Century. Harry Cushing IV was born in Manhattan in 1924 the son of Harry Cooke Cushing III, a financial adviser and his mother was the former Cathleen Vanderbilt, a descendant of Cornelius (“Commodore”) Vanderbilt – the railroad magnate. His aunt was socialite and early designer of fashionable blue jeans – Gloria Vanderbilt. Cushing recounts that as a child “I saw a luxury as sumptuous as that of the courts of eighteenth-century France; I was at home in the marble palaces of Newport and the townhouses of New York depicted so memorably by Henry James and Edith Wharton; and I entered the world of society during the post-Prohibition flowering of glamorous nightclubs.” He began his education at Buckley School in New York, then Foy School in Southboro before finishing at Avon Old Forms which was where he first started playing polo. In spite of being “terrified of horses,” he was aware that many of his family had been very good polo players (his great aunt was married to Harry Payne Whitney – the ten-goal player and Captain of the undefeated American polo team). Cushing was fortunate that at Avon he “had a first rate polo coach named Bernie Hammons … who suggested that I give polo a try.” In a very short time Cushing became a self-confessed “polomaniac” – which he defined as “something that happens quite readily. Once you get the bug, it’s almost impossible to cure, and it spreads exponentially.” Cushing’s first big games were at the Squadron A Armory on New York’s 94th Street when against the odds the “wild-card” Avon team got through to the final of the Interscholastic Tournament. Avon lost by one goal to the favorites, Lawrenceville School – whose team included Bill Ylvisaker – who went on to become a Chairman of the USPA.
Another highlight of his early polo career was when he played at West Point against an Army team that included George Patton. After the game Patton said to Cushing “For a young kid, you play pretty good polo. What I like about you is that you don’t let me scare you.” Cushing later captained the 1940-41 Avon team which won most of their matches including defeating a Yale freshman team. Apart from Patton, Cushing also played polo with Darryl Zanuck (who he unwisely knocked off his horse), Jack Warner – one of the founders of Warner Films and Porfrio Rubirosa – they were drinking together the night that Rubirosa was to be killed in a car crash and before they were due to play together the next day. Cushing attended Cornell briefly before joining the US Army in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. During World War II he was a cryptographer at the Pentagon and in the South Pacific. His New York Times obituary labelled him as a “Polo Player and Investor.” Polo, by Cushing’s admission was the most difficult and challenging sport and was one of the driving forces of his life.
He was an active amateur player in the period after the Second World War and reached a 5 goal handicap (one of the highest handicaps of any European player at that time) and played until the 1970s. He believed that he could have gone further in polo if he had less respect for his horses, as he believed that it is very hard to be a great polo player if you really love horses. Cushing wrote “I played polo; the ‘sport of Kings’ … it brought me into contact with rugged and affluent sportsmen from every continent.” Cushing thought that “polo is ideally suited for present or future madmen. After all. who else would get a twelve hundred pound animal and go galloping down a field, hitting a small ball and hoping someone doesn’t knock him over before they send it past a post. But it’s a way of life.” Cushing confessed that it was his interest in movie making that introduced him to great actors, directors and to “actresses memorable beyond words … the most passionate of women … and who were fine for brief romances.” He met and in some instances was romantically involved with a number of them, including Joan Crawford, Marilyn Monroe, Gloria Swanson and Irene Papas, as well as his brief marriages to Georgette Windsor and Rosalba Neri.
After leaving the army Cushing moved to Hollywood and became involved in the film industry “at its zenith before … the accountants supplanted the directors and studio owners.” Very soon after arriving Cushing was advised that if he wanted to see more of Georgette Windsor – a sensational brunette whose one aim in life was to become a movie actress – he would be more attractive to her if he became a film producer and told people that he was enormously rich. His friend the lawyer-agent-manager Oscar Cummins arranged, unbeknownst to Cushing, for a headline to appear in a newspaper that “East Coast Multimillionaire Socialite Comes to Hollywood to do Pictures.” Cushing was immediately bombarded with calls from directors, scriptwriters, agents and starlets. Soon after he married Georgette Windsor in Las Vegas.
Feeling that the Hollywood cinematic climate had deteriorated, Cushing decided to leave Hollywood and join the more exciting Italian film industry where Fellini, de Sica and Rossellini were beginning to make their mark. He was convinced that Rome would be “where on comparatively little money he could live the way that a Vanderbilt was used to living.” Georgette did not want to leave California and therefore she and Harry chose to go their separate ways. Later Cushing wrote that he chose “to live and work in Europe for thirty years because only in that way could I afford to play polo regularly, and even to have my own team.” He played polo all over the world including in Egypt with their Royal family, in Jordan with King Hussein, France, India, Pakistan, Malta, Spain, Argentina and Kenya. Cushing recounts that by the 1960s he was keen to upgrade the standard of play at the Rome polo club as he “periodically deplored the lack of competition in Italy” and confesses that he was one of the first to give money to the skilled Argentines (“masterless samurai” as he called them) to play polo in Europe. He was later to regret this as he believed that the professionalization of polo changed the whole character of the game for the worse and made even club polo prohibitively expensive. Cushing was what used to be called a “sportsman,” that being “a very rich fellow who didn’t work but rather played, and at times athletically.” On one occasion he invited three different girls to his lavish Rome digs. They all arrived at the same time and rather than stay to sort matters out. Harry immediately flew to New York for a holiday. Mel Welles the American film actor and director explained in an interview in Tales from Nigel à Brassard is an investment banker who has worked in London, Sydney and New York. Nigel played polo at Cirencester Park and was patron of the Courtenay and Band of Gypsies teams and captained the Buck’s Club polo team. He devised and promoted the first all-professional high goal British polo tournament: The British Polo Championship. He also set up the successful Country House Polo. He has written a number of articles about polo and is the author of A Glorious Victory ~ A Glorious Defeat (about the 921 Westchester Cup matches), A Posthumous Life: Keats in Rome and Tommy Hitchcock: A Tribute. He contributed various chapters to Profiles in Polo and wrote the foreword to The Evolution of Polo. Nigel has an extensive collection of polo books and polo paintings, sculptures and memorabilia. In particular, he collects items related to the Anglo-American Westchester Cup matches. He is an Ambassador of FIP (International Federation of Polo), a board member of Cirencester Park Polo Club and on the Finance and Grants Committee of the Hurlingham Polo Association the Cult Film Trenches why he had cast the Italian actress Rosalba Neri as the lead in what was to become the 1971 classic B movie cult horror film Lady Frankenstein (sub-titled Only the monster she made could satisfy her strange desires!) and why Harry Cushing’s name appeared in the credits as a Producer. Apparently Harry had met and fallen for Rosalba Neri – “a very intelligent, very striking, very strange” and hauntingly beautiful Italian film star. Welles says that Cushing “was always looking for something to do, to get Rosalba to love him back, which she did not.” Cushing approached Welles with a script for a film called Lady Dracula and offered to put up the money if Welles would cast Rosalba as the lead. Welles started work but soon realized that Cushing did not own the rights to the script and so he decided to commission Eddie di Lorenzo to write a similar script which they called Lady Frankenstein. In 1972 Cushing was credited as Executive Producer for L:Amate de / demonio (The Devil’s Lover), described as “a creepy tale about a sorrowful night passed in a nightmarish castle. Many horror elements are mixed with an erotic atmosphere.” The film starred Rosalba Neri and was directed and written by Paolo Lombardo. The ploy was clearly a success as Rosalba eventually agreed to marry Cushing in a hastily arranged ceremony in Baltimore and just as hastily ended by Rosalba in Haiti less than a month later. Cushing says in his book that he had not seen Rosalba since the fourth day of their marriage in 1972 but Getty Images does have a photograph in their photo library of Harry and Rosalba sitting in their swimming costumes back to back under a sun umbrella in Porto Ercole in August 1973.
Cushing decided to retire from polo when he was in his fifties as he felt it was better “to quit before starting to look ridiculous.” He gave up formal competitive polo but continued to stick and ball most mornings. He found it difficult to adjust to a life without polo as he ““till needed to express my exuberance, and I suppose trimming it to sociable proportions was one of the hardest transitions to make when I gave up the rough-and-tumble of the game.” He compared his life without polo as being “like Don Quixote without windmills.” Reflecting on how polo had changed from “the preserve of the wealthy classes” he took particular issue with what he perceived polo became in the 1970s with the image of polo created by the fashion designer Ralph Lauren “which implied youth, wealth and good breeding – sensual and appealing, to be sure, but put to little use except to hold a pose for the camera on exotic locations.” He believed that “what used to be the Sport of Kings had become the Sport of Upwardly Mobile Yuppies.” Cushing thought polo “the most fiercely competitive of sports, the most physically demanding and the most difficult to play. It is a game that has been adopted by gentlemen, but it is the least gentlemanly of games: a vehement outlet for tightly controlled fury, combative to the point of injury and death … given the total number of players in the world, more people are killed each year playing polo than in any other sport, including bullfighting.” Cushing likens playing polo to seeing service in an army where “the known danger of the game allows men to bond with each other, to understand that they are mutually dependent, to be engaged with each other in a life-or-death fashion that is seldom sustainable in ordinary life.” Cushing continues by writing that “in terms of social behavior during the game, everything is allowed: hostility, deceit, and a raw unbridled determination to win at all costs. For that reason I consider polo to be the most warlike game still in existence. It is a game of radical conflict, with no holds barred.” He also advises that “it is a game where you have to be aggressive, after all; if you’re not aggressive – play croquet.” Clearly he put these views into practice and Al Bianco the former Chairman of the Meadowbrook Club and friend of Cushing said that Harry “could hit a good long ball, and he was very, very aggressive and very self-assured on the polo field.”
After thirty years of living in Rome Cushing felt that life in Italy had changed, “I witnessed both the birth and death of Rome’s evanescent Dolce Vita and the dawning of the Italian Miracle.” But “without the lure of affordable polo, life as an expatriate lost much of its appeal” and so he returned to live in America and spent the last years of his life living in an apartment at 150 East 69th Street on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Cushing had a deep reverence for his family history and in his New York apartment he kept a number of portraits of his ancestors including Commodore Vanderbilt and his son William H. Vanderbilt, who had doubled the family fortune in less than ten years after the Commodore’s death. He acknowledged that “the Vanderbilts, in spite of their intense pride in the family name, took little interest in one another’s activities (except occasionally as rivals), and did not stick together in the family business. While the Rockefellers got richer, the Vanderbilt’s got poorer because there was no co-operation between them, and within a surprisingly few generations they lost much of their money and influence.” Cushing was always conscious that his Vanderbilt heritage set him slightly apart from his contemporaries and gave him the secret weapon of “a deep-rooted sense of assurance.” He also knew that it gave him an entree into what might have otherwise been inaccessible places, he met Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Tito, Howard Hughes, Charlie Chaplin, Cubby Broccoli and Orson Welles. It would provide some security as “a potential adversary would think twice before tangling with a Vanderbilt.” Cushing was also aware that as a Vanderbilt he would be treated with a certain deference which meant he was always able to get the best table at The Stork Club, The Latin Quarter, El Morocco, The “21” Club and Copacabana.
Cushing belonged to the Brook Club and the Racquet & Tennis Club in New York and White’s in London. Cushing said “I have always loved women, and I have always been in love with love itself.” He married four times – first Georgette Windsor, and then Ruth Dunbar Swift (mother of Harry Cooke Cushing V), next Rosalba Neri and finally Laura Alvarez, all ended in divorce. He lived “a comfortable life as a man of independent means without any sharply defined employment.” Cushing died on 24th October 2000 as a result of heart failure. After his death the Polo Club of Rome instituted an annual tournament in his honor. Cushing remembered fondly his visits to Argentina and repeats the saying that “when polo players die they don’t go to heaven, they go to Argentina.” In 1967 Cushing had commissioned the British artist Thomas La Fontaine to paint a portrait of him which shows him sitting tranquilly on one of his polo ponies. Perhaps Cushing’s wistful expression in the painting is because he is thinking about the Polo Player’s Dream and the after-life in Argentina.