The Forgotten Glory of Bobby Sweeny

Robert John Vincent Sweeny, Jr. was born July 25, 1911 in Pasadena, California to lace-curtain Irish Catholic parents. His grandfather, Charles Sweeny, made a fortune mining near Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and founded the American Smelting Corporation with members of the Guggenheim family. Bobby’s father graduated from Notre Dame and Harvard Law School. His mother, Theresa Hanaway, was from a prosperous Scranton, Pennsylvania, family who sent her on trips to Europe. She studied voice at the Boston Conservatory of Music.

The elder Robert Sweeny had a successful Los Angeles law practice, but by 1916, when he was 32, he wanted to pursue the commercial and financial opportunities New York offered. The Sweeny family enjoyed the fruits of Robert’s work and inherited money. According to the 1920 Census, Bobby, and his brother and only sibling, Charles (older by two years), lived with their parents and four servants on East 69th Street in Manhattan. His childhood social circle included Woolworth and E.F. Hutton heiress Barbara Hutton, who was 16 months younger. She later would feature in a significant chapter of Bobby’s life.

The Sweeny boys were close and would remain so as adults. They learned at a young age their family’s wealth and privilege came with a tradition of military service. Before earning the family fortune, grandfather Charles Sweeny ran away from home at age 15 to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War and, when his father caught him and brought him home, ran away again and enlisted under the name of McNulty. He served until Appomattox.

One uncle, Joseph Sarsfield Sweeny, was killed in action at Verdun in the waning days of World War I. Another uncle, also named Charles Sweeny, left home at age 16 to fight in the Spanish-American War, was expelled from West Point, joined the French Foreign Legion at the outbreak of World War I (attaining the rank of colonel), was badly wounded at Champagne, and transferred to the American Expeditionary Forces when the United States entered the war in 1917.

Le Touquet, France Richard Phelps/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Every summer, the Sweeny clan sailed to Le Havre to vacation at Le Touquet on the northeast coast of France. Just across the channel from England, Le Touquet in the 1920s was a getaway for British royalty and the likes of Noel Coward and P.G. Wodehouse. Bobby had his first golf lesson at age 11 at the Le Touquet Golf Club. He and Charles spent most of their days there and developed into exceptional junior players. Bobby grew acquainted with Edward, Prince of Wales, who later became a friend and golf companion. In September, after touring the Continent (with stops in London, Biarritz and Monte Carlo), the brothers sailed back for the start of the academic year at Canterbury, a Catholic boarding school in New Milford, Connecticut. There, in addition to golf, Bobby played baseball, football, and hockey.

Edward, Prince of Wales, on a golf course in Le Touquet in 1923 Topical Press Agency, Getty Images

Sweeny’s father joined the Federated Trust and Finance Corporation of London, and by the late 1920s the family established a foothold in England with a home in Wimbledon. The family regularly crossed the Atlantic between New York and Southampton. Charles was accepted at Yale but opted instead for Wadham College at Oxford. Bobby was not as good a student, but with extensive tutoring passed the entrance exam to follow his brother to Wadham.

Brother Charles wrote in a self-published autobiography, “You might get the idea that life at Oxford in the Thirties was less dedicated to the academic life than to social and sporting activities – and you would be right.” Bobby was as exceptionally suited to both as he was indifferent to his studies. He was one of the few students at Wadham who owned a car. The school was surrounded by a wall, and the only entrance was sealed at night. Bobby defeated this restriction by parking along the wall, climbing on the car’s roof, clambering over the wall, and heading into town to continue his evening.

He approached his adult height of 6-foot-3, which he used to his advantage with a powerful, fluid golf swing that Arnold Palmer later would write was “as smooth as a Rolls Royce engine.” The Sweeny brothers dominated the intercollegiate golf scene, earning status as Oxford Blues. That position allowed them to play weekends and holidays at the best clubs in Greater London, giving Bobby the opportunity to receive tutelage from top pros and to play against high-level amateurs. Bobby also excelled at tennis.

Louis B. Mayer, 1932 Getty Images

Both Sweeny brothers were blessed with debonair good looks. In 1932, they were summoned to the Ritz Hotel in London by a talent agent for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. There, they were introduced to studio magnate Louis B. Mayer, who – apparently based on their appearance alone, as they did not have any acting experience – offered $30,000 apiece for one year to appear in three films, to gauge whether they had potential.

Charles – the more practical brother – was engaged to be married and knew he had no future in Hollywood beyond getting $30,000 he did not need. Bobby, however, was eager to try his luck. He took the offer to his father. Several years earlier, Robert Sweeny determined his stock was overvalued. He sold most of his holdings before the 1929 crash. Bobby was well aware his comfortable lifestyle was possible only because of his father’s astute judgment. Many of his friends were not so fortunate. When his father stated in no uncertain terms that Bobby would complete his degree, get a real job, and dispense with the foolish notion that he was an actor, the young man declined Mayer’s offer.

Lord and Lady Mountbatton, 1922

Sweeny did not need Hollywood to improve his social status. Despite being American, he blended effortlessly into the highest echelon of British society. He was in demand at debutante balls where the English aristocracy introduced their marriageable daughters to London society. Sweeny, with thick, curly dark hair, had mature charm to match his good looks. Men and women enjoyed his company. He easily made friends with royalty, with whom he attended parties, drank at upscale clubs and spent weekends at country estates. There have been reports of a liaison with Lady Edwina Mountbatten, who was 10 years his senior. His friends included film stars David Niven and Merle Oberon. He gambled at Monte Carlo and skied and tobogganed at St. Moritz. He became one of the few non-British members of the ultra-exclusive White’s Club in London.

After barely graduating from Oxford, Bobby joined his father and brother at Federated Trust and returned to New York, but his real occupation was amateur golfer. With his height and smooth tempo (it is said he was as good a dancer as golfer), Sweeny was exceptionally long off the tee. However, turning pro was never an option.

For Bobby Sweeny, life as a professional golfer would have been a step down from the status to which he had become accustomed.

“He told me his family would have been horrified if he had become a professional golfer,” said his daughter, Sharon Coaten. In the 1930s, top golf pros like Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen were not college-educated. The purses they played for were meager, and the tournaments often were contested on second-rate courses. For example, the Texas Open was held at a public course near San Antonio, where players teed off of rubber mats like those at driving ranges. When not playing tournaments or exhibitions, pros were required to supplement their income by serving as club professionals, giving lessons to members. At those clubs, pros were looked at as part of the hired help. For Bobby Sweeny, life as a professional golfer would have been a step down from the status to which he had become accustomed.

By the time he came of age as a golfer, pros almost invariably won the world’s two most important tournaments – the U.S. Open and the Open Championship. However, the U.S. and British amateur championships were followed more closely in the press than run-of-the-mill pro tournaments. In 1930, when Bobby Jones won the U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur, and the British Open and Amateur championships in the same year, his feat was regarded as golf’s Grand Slam and earned him a ticker-tape parade down Broadway. Thus, at the time, only amateurs were able to compete in all four of golf’s major tournaments.

As the 1930s proceeded, Sweeny regularly crossed the Atlantic and the English Channel in pursuit of competition. By 1935, he was spending so much time in Europe that an article previewing the upcoming U.S. Amateur described him as one of “five invaders from foreign shores” who would be playing.

Winning the British Amateur became his paramount goal. He played in that tournament for the first time in 1929, and made a splash at Muirfield in 1932 when he soundly defeated 1923 champion and English icon Roger Wethered in an early-round match. In 1935, he lost a close match in the semifinals to American Lawson Little. By then, Sweeny also was twice a semifinalist at the French Amateur.

1937 Amateur Championship USGA Archive

The 1937 British Amateur was played at Royal St. George’s, a links course at Sandwich on England’s southeast coast. Sweeny had not played much recent golf before arriving in early May to prepare. Two weeks of preparation nearly was wasted when he played poorly in his first-round match; he won only because his opponent played worse. After that, Sweeny caught fire and breezed through the next rounds.

In the semifinal, he faced Charles Stowe, a former coal miner from the Midlands. By then, Sweeny was widely popular in Britain – but, understandably, the gallery was behind Stowe, whose background was as humble as his foe’s was privileged. Nonetheless, Sweeny easily dispatched Stowe, ending the match after 31 of the scheduled 36 holes.

In the final, with actress and friend Merle Oberon following him in the gallery, Sweeny again had to play the role of the heavy. His opponent was 50-year-old Lionel Munn, who had won the Irish Amateur championship three times, but never the British. Although from Ireland, Munn had lived near Sandwich and was a sentimental favorite. Both played well in the morning round, after which Sweeny led by one hole. In the afternoon, Munn showed his age and he tired. Sweeny pulled away and ended the match by sinking a long putt on the 34th hole. He was the British Amateur champion.

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