“The modern miracle — the woman who can play on even terms with the best men” was the second woman elected to the Bridge Hall of Fame.
Josephine Culbertson (1899–1956) was the first woman to achieve championship caliber and, as such, helped to pave the way for Helen Sobel, Sally Young and others.
As a member of The Bridge World team, with Waldemar von Zedtwitz as her partner and later Michael Gottlieb and Albert Morehead, she won national and international championships including the Schwab Cup in 1933 and 1934,
With husband Ely, she played many high-stakes set games, won international matches in England and France, and achieved national fame in the Culbertson-Lenz match.
Ely Culbertson, in his autobiography the Strange Lives of One Man, described his meeting Jo at the Knickerbocker Whist club in New York . “I couldn’t help noticing,” he wrote, “that she stood out among the many attractive women present as if she were alone.
“Not that there was anything immediately arresting about her. But the ensemble of her gestures, speech and features, like the ensemble of her clothes, indefinably suggested a distinct and yet restrained personality.
“She was extraordinarily young for a bridge teacher and for her reputation as America’s greatest woman player — not over 22. She was decidedly attractive, at times beautiful; tall, slender, with large Irish eyes, a slightly retroussé nose and a most winning smile.
“I was particularly impressed with her hands — long, narrow, alive with suppressed feeling. Her gestures were smoothly slow, controlled by thought rather than impulse.”
After the two had played bridge together for the first time, Ely Culbertson wrote that Jo had “a man’s mind — and something else more precious; something so rare that only one in a thousand women is endowed with it: charm. It emanated in tranquil waves from the attitudes of her heart, that angle of her thoughts, her pregnant silences, the dignity of her movements, the shyness of her voice, the structure of her smile.”
Culbertson, in a later chapter quotes an old Western gambler who had just played the couple. “Mrs. Culbertson,” the gambler said, “I apologize for thinking that women are not as good players as men. You and your husband have not only given me the licking of my life, but you yourself are the finest bridge player I have ever seen.”
Years later, Alphonse Moyse Jr., who succeeded Ely Culbertson as editor and publisher of The Bridge World, wrote Jo’s obituary and recalled her early years in bridge:
“Jo Culbertson carved a unique niche for herself among men who theretofore had not taken kindly to the idea of playing with women. . .
“She endeared herself by neither demanding nor expecting gallantry: she met these men on even terms, fought them fiercely at the card table and won her full share of victories.
“It was like that throughout her bridge career. And, of course, since she despised coyness and all feminine subterfuges, she gained the deep respect and affection of every partner and every opponent.”
Moyse concluded: “I knew Jo Culberston for 23 years. I was with her through good times and sad times.
“Not once in those 23 years did I see or hear of any act of hers that was mean or small or unkind.
“I can still hear her lovely laughter.”