An Exciting Letter
‘Friday I was up at Bruce’s place and met Martin Gardner and, of course I pestered him almost all nite about the Erdinase (sic) story which I’ll give you - but please don’t let any magazines have it or we would slowly have our throat slit.’
So begins a story told in a letter to Hugh Scott dated February 9th, 1953, and posted from New York. Scott was a Scotland Yard detective who served as body guard for the Royal Family and had a passion for card magic. The four-page letter to Scott is signed ‘Thomas.’ I’m guessing that this is Tommy Vanderschmidt, a keen close-upper who when not in New York was embedded with England’s finest magicians including Jack Avis, Bobby Bernard, Ted Danson, John Derris, Alex Elmsley, Arthur Holland, Al Koran and Roy Walton, a fact revealed in the 1998 edition of Come a Little Closer where Hugh Scott is added as an honorary member of the group.
Friday Night Sodality
The Bruce that Vanderschmidt referred to was Bruce Elliott, then editor of The Phoenix magazine. Vanderschmidt became a regular at what Bruce Elliott called ‘The Friday Night Sodality.’ Martin Gardner advanced the quest to discover the identity of Erdnase when he tracked down the artist M. D. Smith. Smith illustrated The Expert at the Card Table and although he didn’t remember much about the author he did agree that his name might have been Andrews.
Gardner continued his search for a card cheat called Andrews and early in 1953 he told Vanderschmidt that he thought he had found him. Vanderschmidt’s shared the news with Hugh Scott. The excitement displayed in the letter is palpable. I’ve corrected some spelling errors in the extracts reproduced here and divided them into paragraphs to make for easier reading:
‘Apparently Erdnase name was Andrews. He was born into a good family in the town of Hartford, Connecticut, - a smallish town near Boston. His brother is still living, though rather feeble, and says he was always very, very interested in magic, especially in cards, and would go as far as 20 miles to see a performing magi (fool). At 15 years, Erdnase, (who, by the way, was considered the black sheep of the family) and started in on a gambling profession.'
‘Martin found a fellow gambler - who was a great friend of Erdnase - in Chicago - these 2 worked together on the famed Mississippi paddle boats - and all over the US. The two then broke up and went their separate ways. This was about the time Erdnase wrote his famed book - in great secrecy because he had many gambler friends - and of course he would have found himself in one large gutter if any one of his notorious pals had found this out.’
‘From here he went to Oklahoma where he settled down and got married. In 1905 he murdered his wife - real nasty so Martin says. He fled to San Francisco and here he hid out in a dumpy rooming house where the cops (excuse me - officers of the law) soon found him. On trying to get him out they heard a shot. On breaking in to the small bedroom they found their Mr Andrews on the floor - along with most of his brains.’
‘Well that’s the story - but there is nothing to prove that the man was Erdnase although I, and Martin, certainly think he is. The San Fran papers splashed the story all over the front page - and gave a lot of his gambling background - but no one knew about his family - and his family had no idea where he’d gone, after he ran away at 15.’
‘The whole story is pretty long - this of course is only done by memory - but I hope you’ve found the story interesting - and maybe you also are one of the people that believe that this illustrious Mr Andrews was our book writing friend Erdnase.’
Vanderschmidt appends a PS: ‘Just remembered - The gambler pal of Erdnase name was Pratt.’
This letter was shared with me by my good friend, and superb cardician, Carlo Ramirez who obtained it in a lot of Erdnase related material that once belonged to Jack Avis and was sold at Bloomsbury Auctions in 2007. Jack Avis was a close friend of Hugh Scott which is presumably how he ended up with the letter. In an obituary Avis described Scott as a quiet man, who because of his profession as a bodyguard to the Royal Family, travelled the world and spent countless hours in hotels with a pack of cards and several classic books including that of his hero Erdnase.
Gardner published his story of the Milton Franklin Andrews five years later, co-written with John Conrad, in the January 1958 edition of True magazine under the title The Murdering Card Shark. Milbourne Christopher, writing under the pseudonym of Frank Joglar in Hugard’s Magic Monthly, called it a ‘jived up story.’ The search for the real Erdnase goes on.
Thomas Vanderschmidt was the son of the European editor of Newsweek, Fred Vanderschmidt. He worked for Time magazine in New York, which is why he could hang out at Bruce Elliott’s place. By the 70s he had become Associate Director of Sports Illustrated. Though he spent much of his time in magic in the 50s he has long since disappeared from the scene. Francis Haxton once suggested Vanderschmidt was a link between Alex Elmsley and Vernon who, along with such luminaries as Dr Jaks, Jackie Flosso, Frank Garcia, George Karger, Franklin V Taylor, Roy Benson and Bill Simon also attended the Friday Night Sodalities. What a grand time to be in New York.
In the new edition of Come a Little Closer, which John Derris edited and is available from L&L as an ebook, there is a photo of Hugh Scott performing one of his specialities, an upside down riffle shuffle. I’ve tried it. It’s not easy!
Double page spread from True magazine, January 1958. The picture is the work of noted pulp artist James R. Bingham. It’s alleged that co-author John Conrad sensationalised Gardner’s story of Milton Franklin Andrews. But who exactly was John Conrad? He seems as elusive as Erdnase.