Scouring the nooks and crannies of the golf world, this month we happen upon a writer whose name is as intriguing as his writing. Royal Cortissoz (1869-1948) trained as an architect and spent several years working at the prestigious firm of McKim, Mead, and White in New York. He went on to become an art critic for the New York Herald-Tribune, writing for the paper for more than fifty years. A prolific author, Cortissoz (pronounced Kor-teé-zus) published many books on art, and artists, including John La Farge, George Frederick Watts, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The well-known critic appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1930.
Royal Cortissoz, Time Magazine, March 10, 1930
Appropriately enough, given his first name, he played the Royal & Ancient game, chasing the white ball around the well-regarded Garden City Golf Club on Long Island. Time described him as a “small, chunky, lively gentleman with iron-grey hair” and mentioned that he was both a book collector and “addicted to golf.” Perhaps not the most proficient golfer in the world, he called the Emmet-Travis designed Garden City a, “bleakly hard course, meant for supergolfers.”
Cortissoz made two contributions to the library of golf: Nine Holes of Golf and the Ekwanok Country Club. Nine Holes was published in 1922 by Charles Scribner’s Sons (D & J C21850) and is a collection of nine essays that first appeared in the New York Tribune. He sings the praises of courses in New Jersey and New York, including Piping Rock, Baltusrol, the National Golf Links of America, Maidstone, and Glens Falls. The book takes a philosophical approach to the game: “In tennis you are confined to one spot and exhaust yourself in acrobatic exercise like a squirrel in a cage . . . In golf you do not loaf, not by any means, but you invite your soul . . . It is one of those pursuits in which the goal lies perpetually just over the brow of the hill, from which place it also perpetually recedes.”
The art-critic-cum-golfer knew how to write; describing a hole-in-one that he saw J. H. Whigham make at Piping Rock, he wrote, “Jim pitched a consummate ball, clean as an orchid. It landed perhaps six feet from the pin, and then, like a startled mouse, ran into the cup.” I would use one word to sum up the essays after reading Nine Holes: satisfying. Although less than one-hundred pages, less was indeed more for Royal.
Although he never had a formal education, Cortissoz had quite a solid background in Greek mythology and used it in his writings about golf: “To go after a score might seem, superficially, to ally the golfer with Jason and the Argonauts, in quest of the Golden Fleece. Actually he is more like Sisyphus, rolling a stone up-hill, only to have it roll down again.”
As a critic Cortissoz took some controversial positions. He was not a fan of Picasso, Matisse, or Van Gogh and felt that modernism was a negative development on the arts. The reason he was featured in the national weekly news magazine was for his stinging critique of “sterile modernism.” He regularly lectured about art at the top universities in the United States and was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Cortissoz achieved something your author has always aspired to: he was a trustee of the American Academy in Rome.
His second work Ekwanok Country Club (D & J C21880) delves into its subject briefly and primarily through photographs. The twenty-two-page hardcover book was privately printed in 1937 and features interesting black and white photographs of the historic Vermont golf course interspersed with quotations from famous people who played there including Grantland Rice, O. B. Keeler, Francis Ouimet and Jerry Travers. Robert Todd Lincoln was a member and one-time president of Ekwanok and is pictured in the book.
Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert teeing off at Ekwanok, from the Cortissoz history
The obscure Cortissoz has indeed not been forgotten. Although his name probably doesn’t jump to the front of mind his words are read by millions of people every year. He wrote the inscription engraved into the wall behind the sixteenth president in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D. C.:
— John Sabino