Seeing Red and Faking Death

Like many gambling legends, it’s not important whether there is any truth to the story. What’s more important is whether people believe them. My favorites are the ones that have a story arc and a tidy resolution. This one was found in one of the casino at Monte Carlo’s early promotional pamphlets printed around 1880.

Monte Carlo casino front

A modestly affluent young couple decided to take their honeymoon in Monte Carlo. It was an attractive honeymoon destination because of the world-class entertainment along with fine food offered at a reasonable price.

Concert on the Terrace

The husband set aside 3,000 francs for gambling. He sat down at a roulette table and began testing his luck. Immediately, his money started to dwindle. Inexperienced at roulette, his stack dwindled to just 160 francs, but he wasn’t terribly upset. He hadn’t come to Monte Carlo with the expectation of winning big.

gamblers in monte carlo

At the suggestion of another gambler who noticed the young husband’s inexperience, he began playing the colors rather than the numbers. He played red and won. Letting his bet ride, he won again. He hit a streak of fourteen straight wins on red and amassed 112,000 francs. After a loss, he changed to black and began another run until he had acquired 260,000 francs.

His young wife, who was standing behind him, wanted him to collect his winnings and stop, but by this point he was so focused on the game he didn’t notice her. He was a high roller now, betting the maximum of 12,000 francs per spin. When he hit an unlucky streak and lost three times in a row, his wife became desperate. He wouldn’t listen to her, and she feared their new wealth would evaporate as fast as they had earned it. She pretended to faint, and collapsed to the ground. It did no good. Her husband didn’t notice. He had just lost two more hands and he was sweating, mesmerized by the ball racing around its track.

Roulette Cartoon

A gentleman tapped him on the shoulder and said, “I think your wife is ill. Perhaps dying.”

He dismissed the man and continued to play despite the fact that a group of men were carrying his fallen wife out of the casino. Finally, he won again, and was momentarily relieved. He searched for his wife to reassure her that he was back on the right track, but she was gone. He pulled his wager from the table and considered the situation. He had a decision to make. He now had 210,000 francs, and he felt guilty for falling below the 260,000 francs he had once reached. If he could get back to that point…

He fought off the gambling high and pulled his money together. He rushed back to the hotel where the men had taken his wife. He found her apparently unconscious on the bed. He put his bag of money atop a chest of drawers and leaned over to check on his wife. Immediately, she sprang up and grabbed the bag of money. She threw the bag into the drawer, locked it, and put the key in her pocket. She then rang the bell for the porter and prepared to check out of the hotel. Finally understanding his wife’s prudence, the husband agreed to leave Monte Carlo, and within an hour they were on a train with their new riches, ready to begin their life as a married couple.

Last Train

Thoughts Inspired by a Helen Frankenthaler Painting

I saw one of Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings a while back,  and while I was captured by the painting itself, it was its history that inspired this contemplation.   There’s a lot of yellow paint draped over a large, untreated canvas, the inconsistency of the texture causing the paint to bleed in volatile ways.  A subtle blue perimeter and a column of orange covered the side and bottom edges.  The painting is dated ’67-’76.  Apparently it hung in her studio, unreleased to the world, for ten years because she never felt like it was complete.  Finally, in 1976 she added an imperfect rectangle of red at the top of the ten-foot canvass.  This, she felt, completed her work.  At first glance, it seems curious that something so small and peripheral could give her such a feeling of fulfillment and completion with regards to the painting, but if you step back ten feet from the artwork, blot out the red portion with your hand, you immediately recognize its significance and see how something so small and seemingly unrelated to the core of the painting can play such a vital role in pulling all the shades together and giving the painting meaning.

It reminds me of the little stories we like to tell over and over as if they’ve gone into syndication.  There’s usually nothing too sexy about these stories, but we love to tell them much more than people like to listen to them.  What makes these stories especially interesting (and sometimes irritating) is the way people try to find any opening to insert them into conversation.  For example, I have a friend who’s a tennis coach who loves to tell the story of the day he accidentally explained something backwards to one of his students and how that student completely bought into it and said it was the best advice they’d ever received.  If that coach and I were talking about education in an America, he’d tell the story.  If we talked about politicians who flip-flopped, he’d tell the story.  If we talked about women, he’d tell the story.  Now that I reflect back, I realize there was a reason he told the story.  Our interactions with others and the way we perceive them are the nuts and bolts of our lives.  Moments that may seem insignificant are often the ones that provide the most clarity and insight into a person’s life.  It’s easy to dismiss these side stories as peripheral and meaningless, but what is in between the lines or what peeks over the top of the canvass are often more significant than what is easier to see.  What is also true is that these stories are often allegorical.  There is a reason we speak in allegory.  It’s the reason we have religion.  It penetrates a person’s essence in a way that mundane facts and details cannot.  It’s the red rectangle that punctuates the story of our life.