Preakness and people-watching

Back in the day, big-name celebrities were spotted at Pimlico

May 14, 2010|By Jacques Kelly

I've stood in the infield at Pimlico on Preakness Day and I've spent the afternoon in the clubhouse. Both have their places. Each is utterly remarkable.

Reading The Baltimore Sun's accounts of the great race in years gone by reminds me that the past is often prologue. In the 1940s, when the infield was merely an oval of grass and held no boozy revelers, there were "sweltering, elbowing crowds" at the track and the betting ring became "stifling with heat, a virtual Turkish bath." The word "grotesque" was also used — to describe some women's hats worn in 1947. Then as now, there were long lines for liquid "refreshment."

The attire might be Christian Dior or no attire, half-naked and slathered in mud. The Preakness beckons them all. Consider the first Preakness after the end of World War II:

"All records for Pimlico race track were broken yesterday afternoon when 42,370 turf enthusiasts from all sections of the country, including notables of the armed forces, stage and screen, diplomacy, national and State politics, and society, saw the fleet-footed Assault gallop home to win the historic Preakness," wrote The Sun's George C. Dorsch on May 12, 1946.

It was a day when the crowd ranged from Hollywood glamour queen Dorothy Lamour to "seamen third class and buck privates."

The food at the clubhouse included "indigenous Maryland delicacies": crab cakes and salad, shad roe, ham, turkey and chicken ala king. (As one who had occasionally dined at racetrack clubhouses in the 1950s, the service there was on a par with, if not superior to, Baltimore's best restaurants and all its private clubs.)

The Preakness and Pimlico were also a superb place for Baltimore's greatest people-watching. Soprano and famed opera singer Rosa Ponselle loved the races and often arrived attired in her sables. She also brought along her friend and fellow diva, Lucrezia Bori, who appeared in many 1920s productions of "La Boheme" at the Metropolitan Opera. It must have been quite a sight to observe these divas, the great Normas and Mimis of their time, enjoying a day at old Hilltop.

I don't automatically think of Baltimore as a celebrity town, but all bets are off when it comes to the Preakness. In the Pimlico Clubhouse, near Rosa and her party, were Basil Rathbone, considered by many to be the greatest Sherlock Holmes on film. A few seats away was Don Ameche, who portrayed Alexander Graham Bell in a Fox film. And let's not forget the sarong girl, Lamour, who was second only to Rosa for more Preakness celebrity appearances. In 1957, Vice President and future President Richard M. Nixon and his wife, Pat, took in the race.

In 1953, much of the Eisenhower Cabinet motored up Park Heights Avenue as luncheon guests of Gov. and Mrs. Theodore R. McKeldin: the secretaries of the Treasury, commerce and interior and the postmaster general, too. One of the biggest Cold War personages, Wisconsin's Republican Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, posted at Pimlico, as did the legendary speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, and Virginia Sen. Harry F. Byrd.

There were other curious tables: "J. Edgar Hoover, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and his assistant, Clyde Tolson, made a bachelor twosome," The Sun noted.

Among the diplomats were the ambassadors from France and Costa Rica, as well as Harry Guggenheim, a former U.S. ambassador to Cuba, who owned a horse called Dark Star. Breckenridge Long, ambassador to Italy, was in the party of the commander of the Atlantic fleet and sat alongside the chairman of the New York Racing Commission.

The newspaper flatly stated that Mrs. Spalding Lowe Jenkins reigned as the best dressed. I wish I had known her, but I did know several of the women frequently mentioned in society accounts: Eleanor Miles, Margaret Perin and Ruth Schmidt. My life was richer for their acquaintance.

Public consumption of alcohol? Think about this: "The grandstand boxes took on an alfresco air as many boxholders and their guests ate lunch prepared in their own kitchen and carried to the track in hampers. There was an occasional pop of a cork, a champagne signal." The year was 1946.

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