Many years ago, Sella Hatfield, one of three sisters who owned Portland Meadows, and Gladys McKee, secretary-treasurer of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, were having a quiet drink in the Bull & Bear at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The Bull & Bear is a spiffy room, which besides hotel clientele draws an upscale crowd from all over the East Side of Manhattan. Ralph Kiner, the Hall of Fame home run hitter and later a broadcaster for the Mets, used to drink there. There's one bartender at the Bull & Bear who serves such a wicked manhattan, both in strength and volume, that it's guaranteed to knock you into the middle of next week. Drink a second one and have someone call you a cab.
A few months later, there was a monthly meeting of the TRA scheduled for the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach. Hatfield and McKee were both supposed to be there, but a few days before the meeting, McKee was told to stay home. There was a move afoot, ramrodded by the New York Racing Association, to oust Cliff Wickman as head of the TRA's track security arm. The meeting would be a donnybrook, Wickman had many friends in many places, and I was drafted to take the minutes instead of McKee. Go figure. I don't think that anybody at the TRA knew that I had actually taken a high school course in Gregg about a quarter of a century before.
The day before I flew to Florida, Gladys handed me a small gift-wrapped package and said to give it to Sella Hatfield with her compliments. I hadn't heard about the sloe gin fizz that couldn't stay on the table.
At the Fontainebleau, Hatfield was also a no-show. So I tossed the mysterious gift into my suitcase and would give it back to Gladys upon my return to New York in a few days. The meeting was fiery indeed, and at one point the targeted Wickman was asked to leave the room and wait out in the hall, while executives from about 50 race tracks settled his fate. "All Wickman's agents do is arrest guys for stealing hubcaps in our parking lots," I remember one NYRA official saying, but Cliff deflected the purge and saved his job.
A day later, I was in front of the Fontainebleau, en route to the airport and waiting for valet to pull my rental car around. My suitcase was there, but suddenly it wasn't there. "That was your bag?" somebody said. "We put it in that woman's trunk who drove away."
It could have been worse. The precious minutes from the pivotal meeting could also have been in the bag, but for some reason I had them under my arm.
When I returned to the office, I told the boss, J.B. Faulconer, about the muckup at the Fontainebleau. He seemed more interested in Gladys' package than the minutes.
"Did you give Sella Hatfield her new panties?" he said. I was the only one in the office who didn't know about the panties.
"Panties? What panties?" I said. These were two very grown men talking.
"Gladys sent you with the package, that was Sella's panties," said Faulconer, who went on to tell me about the sloe gin fizz at the Waldorf.
"I guess you didn't notice," I said. "Sella wasn't there. Those panties were in the suitcase."
"Get on the phone and tell Dianne about this right away," Faulconer said, referring to my wife at the time. "If they find your suitcase and send it to your house. . . Dianne's going to open that package, thinking you got her a gift, and find these panties. By the way, do you ever buy Dianne panties?"
I made the requisite phone call. The Fontainebleau never did find the suitcase. I think Gladys bought Sella another pair of panties and mailed them to Portland. People began keeping their distance whenever Gladys ordered sloe gin fizzes. The Fontainebleau hemmed and hawed about reimbursing me. I did not include the panties in my claim. At one point, on the phone, the hotel's security chief asked me to describe the person who had handled my bag. They had the man's name from the start, but still wanted a description to match the name, I suppose.
"He was about 5-foot tall, spoke little English, was wearing black pants and a white t-shirt," I said. "That should be a big help. There are only 49 other guys in front of your hotel who look like that."