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Through the Looking Glass With Alice Marble

By Joel Drucker

This September marks the golden anniversary of one of the most incredible stories in tennis history: the birth of the women’s professional tennis tour, that pivotal autumn of 1970 when World Tennis magazine founder-publisher Gladys Heldman and nine gutsy female tennis players kicked off the Virginia Slims Circuit—the series of tournaments that in less than three years led to the creation of the WTA.

Like all stories, there’s always a backstory, of influential ancestors who subtly shaped more widely known events. Key notables in the ascent of women’s professional tennis include Suzanne Lenglen, the crossover icon of the ’20s, as well as Althea Gibson, the great Black champion who boldly integrated the sport in the ’50s.

Then there’s Alice Marble, a charismatic champion from the ’30s. Marble’s achievements both on and off the court made her a legend. And as this piece by Racquet contributor Joel Drucker reveals, she knew exactly how to burnish it.

In the 1998 HBO movie The Rat Pack, the actress Ava Gardner, a Frank Sinatra ex-wife, still smitten but embittered, offers him a blunt character assessment. “I love it when you sing,” says Gardner. “You’re honest when you sing. You are an angel when you sing. Why don’t you just sing?”   

Substitute “play tennis” for “sing” and you come face-to-face with Alice Marble, the great tennis player who lived from 1913 to 1990. A charismatic world No. 1, gutsy social activist, and inventive prose stylist, Marble opted instead to leave the world a far less credible legacy. Marble’s beguiling story was first told by her nearly 30 years ago and is now revealed in skillful depth by Robert Weintraub in an illuminating biography released this month that offers this Agatha Christie-inspired title: The Divine Miss Marble: A Life of Tennis, Fame, and Mystery.

In crisp tennis whites, Marble grandly performed, and was justifiably celebrated on bright, sunny days. But lurking beyond the intersection of truth and myth, enter racquet noir, Marble’s saga draped in the kind of shadows that swiftly turn eager biographers into jaded detectives. “I am merely the latest in a long line of Alice Marble admirers,” writes Weintraub. “It was always easy to appreciate her at an inch-deep level, but as I learned more about her, going further and further down the rabbit hole (how appropriate my subject’s name was ‘Alice’), the mysteries of her life only deepened.” 

The crafting of the Marble narrative begins at her finish. Conjure the last 25 years of Marble’s 77-year life. Once a San Francisco prodigy and the tennis toast not only of Hollywood, but of the world, Marble spent these final years in the Palm Springs area, the dry and austere Southern California desert a fitting venue for parched days and lonely nights. There’d been a house fire that affected her one remaining lung, gum disease, colon cancer, liver cancer, and, perhaps most painful of all, the recognition that her time had long passed. “You used to be big,” the writer tells aging actress Norma Desmond in the 1950 gothic film classic Sunset Boulevard. “I am big,” she replies, “it’s the pictures that got small.” But at least Desmond had massive funds to cocoon her. Writes Weintraub, “Alice’s can-do attitude and open, if at times sardonic, approach to life, were vital traits, for she scraped through the 1970s by the skin of her teeth.” 

Marble’s path to greatness was textbook American dream. Child of a blue-collar family, Marble learned tennis on the public courts of San Francisco and refined her innovative net-rushing arsenal under the micromanagement of another superb player and trailblazing coach, Eleanor “Teach” Tennant (whose other charges included Bobby Riggs and Maureen Connolly). In 1934, already in the top 10, Marble was struck with tuberculosis. A doctor declared her tennis career over. She’d overcome that and, by the late ’30s, returned in glorious fashion. Marble won four U.S. singles titles from 1936 to 1940 and in 1939 was on top of the world when she won the singles, doubles, and mixed at Wimbledon. At the end of 1940, Marble signed a contract to play pro tennis for $25,000, the equivalent today of roughly $450,000.

Beyond her playing exploits, there came a stint as a New York supper-club singer, a mentor-prodigy relationship with the young Billie Jean King, and work as a writer on the iconic Wonder Woman comic-book series, Marble crafting the prose to honor such notables as the saintly Joan of Arc, legendary nurse Florence Nightingale, and social activist Susan B. Anthony. 

Marble’s writing skills also helped her make a major statement on behalf of a young Black tennis player, Althea Gibson. The July 1950 issue of American Lawn Tennis, then the sport’s premier publication, featured a column by Marble titled “A Vital Issue.” At a time when segregation heavily ruled tennis, Marble made the case that Gibson should be allowed to play in the U.S. Championships (what’s now the US Open). “If tennis is a sport for ladies and gentlemen,” wrote Marble, “it’s also time we acted a little more like gentlepeople and less like sanctimonious hypocrites…. If she is refused a chance to succeed or to fail, then there is an ineradicable mark against a game to which I have devoted most of my life…. I’ve never met Miss Gibson but, to me, she is a fellow human being to whom equal privileges ought to be extended.” 

As Weintraub writes, “It was an extraordinary gesture—as though Babe Ruth had penned a column for The Sporting News in the 1930s demanding that Major League Baseball allow Black players to break the color line.” Marble’s letter wasn’t just eloquent. It was successful. Gibson played the tournament that year and eventually became No. 1 in the world.

All in all, Marble’s career both inside and outside the lines had been distinct and impressive.

But it wasn’t enough.

So it was that Marble set out to create something that would be mind-blowing. As another San Francisco product, the Jefferson Airplane, sang, “Go ask Alice/When she’s 10 feet tall.”

alicemarble3

In 1991, the year after Marble’s death, her memoir, Courting Danger, was released. Marble’s tennis journey was as honest as Sinatra on stage, for it is impossible to dispute such moments as a Wimbledon final. Beyond the lines, she wove a tale that included childhood encounters with famous athletes, front-and-center attendance at the premiere of Gone With the Wind alongside her famed friends Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, marriage to a man who died during World War II, and, most spectacularly, a wartime spy mission to Switzerland that involved reconnecting with a former lover who consorted with Nazis. “Like most people, I was astounded when I read her book,” Weintraub told me. But unlike most people—that is, any—he took hour after hour to find the truth. “We had our doubts,” said Weintraub, “but figured that even if 75 percent of what she said was true, that would be pretty good.”

A tragic reason tennis books rarely surface is due to the sport’s inability to connect with American culture. Be it perceived as the province of aloof patricians, over-the-top parents, or bratty egomaniacs, tennis scarcely clicks into the American sports saga with the pastoral glow of baseball, the urban bounce of basketball, the corporate sobriety of football, or even the participatory fervor of golf.

In 1939, on America’s quintessential holiday, July 4, in front of a packed Yankee Stadium, baseball legend Lou Gehrig announced his retirement due to ALS, the crippling illness that less than two years later would end his life at the age of 37. “For the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break,” said Gehrig. “Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” And so cried America.

Gehrig would be celebrated soon after his death in The Pride of the Yankees, a movie starring the Brad Pitt of his time, Gary Cooper. His legacy has been repeatedly burnished for decades at various moments throughout the history of baseball and America. Recall the 2014 “Ice Bucket Challenge,” intended to raise awareness of ALS and once again summon the Gehrig legend. As recently as this May, a New Yorker article waxed at length about the way Gehrig and his teammate Babe Ruth greatly shaped the landscape of celebrity. Make your name in baseball and the pictures will never get smaller.

The same week of Gehrig’s speech, Marble won all three titles at Wimbledon. Though she’d earn her share of publicity in the short term, including gracing the cover of Life later that summer, it was always going to be impossible for a tennis player, particularly a woman, to capture the American imagination for anything longer than the occasional flicker.

Marble was well aware that there was no flock of storytellers working on her behalf. Team? To hell with that. True to the spirit of an individual sport like tennis, Marble had done it herself. “History will be kind to me,” said Winston Churchill, “for I shall write it.”

Tennis’ small spot on the cultural radar screen aided the cause of Courting Danger. The credibility of Marble’s claims was mentioned in reviews, but more in the manner of a perfunctory slap on the wrist than a grand crime. Citing Marble’s spy caper, Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley wrote that “this part of the story contains elements that some readers are likely to find dubious, if not incredible, but it’s an entertaining story all the same.” In The Bud Collins History of Tennis, the entry on Marble addresses her spy claims with two words: “Who knows?” In contrast, imagine the public furor that would have erupted had Marble’s peer and fellow San Franciscan, baseball great Joe DiMaggio, asserted that he’d had such an adventure.

Bruce Schoenfeld’s book The Match revealed that the author was unable to obtain any confirmation from the U.S. State Department of Marble’s participation as an intelligence agent. Schoenfeld also spoke with a highly credible source and close Marble friend, Judge Robert Kelleher, a former Davis Cup captain and USTA president, who told Schoenfeld that “It was terribly meaningful for her to have been accepted as having served her country as a spy, and I suspect she believes that she did…. But I think you’ll search in vain for any evidence.” But by the time The Match was published in 2004, a passing mention of the Marble myth was a mere pebble in the stream.

A skilled storyteller, a zealous fan of the screen, a California dreamer and achiever in her own right, Marble was likely familiar with the films of the director John Ford. There’s a good chance she saw one of Ford’s later efforts, the 1962 release The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Starring an actor Marble had socialized with, Jimmy Stewart, the film nears its close with a reporter saying, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

For nearly 30 years, we have occupied Alice’s Wonderland. “Olivia Cooke to Play Tennis Star Turned Spy in WWII Drama ‘Courting Danger’” read a 2017 headline in The Hollywood Reporter. From encyclopedia.com: “Early in 1945, Marble was recruited as a spy by the Allies.” From brittanica.com: “Marble agreed to participate in an espionage plot for the U.S. Army Intelligence.”

Acceptance of the Marble myth fueled interest from the book world. Given how few narrative nonfiction tennis books are published each year, that’s a darn good business development effort on Marble’s part. She’d left a trail of tantalizing bread crumbs. It fell to Weintraub to pick them up.

Alas, Weintraub learned that a vast many were bogus. Did Marble indeed meet athletic legends Babe Ruth and Babe Didrikson on the same San Francisco summer day she competed in a baseball-throwing contest? Weintraub’s research shows that neither was there. Attendance at the Gone With the Wind premiere, which took place at the height of Marble’s fame, the same year she won Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships? Not likely. Writes Weintraub, “It is highly unusual that the presence of a persona of Alice’s magnitude would go completely unremarked upon during the most closely covered public event of the era.”

World War II greatly widens the Marble credibility gap. Alice’s beloved husband, Joe Crowley? In one paragraph, Weintraub cites five venues he explored that had no record of Crowley even existing. And the spy venture? Weintraub conducted a thorough examination of Marble’s travel schedule during that time, military and intelligence records, the identify of her former lover, as well as coverage in dozens of articles devoted to her travels into Switzerland to fulfill her mission. The latter was particularly important, as Marble had cited the hide-in-plain-sight dimension to her European trek. Once again, the research revealed nothing. “But if the reason for her recruitment was, in part, her celebrity,” writes Weintraub, “then where are the flashing bulbs and shouted questions that were meant to obscure her clandestine activity?”

It is such a sad story. Within the pages of this book, it’s repeatedly clear how much Weintraub wishes Marble’s grand tales would pan out; it’s equally clear that this amazing athlete was quite human, thoughtful, and worthy of the skilled biographer’s alpha and omega, inquiry and empathy. But the evidence just wasn’t there. “My first inclination was to call BS on everything,” he said. “This was not the book I intended to write.” But then, as Weintraub channeled his inner Raymond Chandler, his compassion and interest won out as he engrossed himself in Marble’s story and even the story of her story. “She was an extraordinary woman,” said Weintraub. “I’m glad I had the opportunity to write about her in such detail.”

Head back again to that small home Marble occupied in the desert. It was the ’70s, then the ’80s. Tennis was at last booming, players like her former protégée Billie Jean King earning big money and international headlines. Once or maybe a twice year the traveling tennis circus would come to the Palm Springs area, and there’d even be a moment or two when the contemporary greats would give a nod to Alice. Then the circus would leave and she would go home.

By day and by night, under the sun and the moon, Marble would ponder the fate of her prewar tennis peers. There was a pair of Helens who’d come prior to her, each from just east of San Francisco in Berkeley. Helen Wills had retired and lived her life in Garbo-like reclusion. Helen Jacobs had gone on to become a commander in the U.S. Navy intelligence. On the men’s side, Ellsworth Vines had left tennis for golf. The man Marble had won Wimbledon with, Bobby Riggs, had willed himself back into relevance, albeit in rather silly fashion, with his “Battle of the Sexes” matches against Margaret Court and King. And then, perhaps most cautionary, there was the greatest player of them all, Bill Tilden. It’s reasonable to assume that Marble was familiar with Frank Deford’s 1976 book on Tilden, Big Bill Tilden: The Triumphs and Tragedy, which included these poignant words: “For all his intelligence, tennis was the only venture that Bill Tilden could ever succeed at, until the day he died in his cramped apartment near Hollywood and Vine, where he lived out his tragedy, a penniless ex-con, scorned or forgotten, alone as always, and desperately in need of love from a world that had tolerated him only for its amusement.”

That wasn’t going to happen to this Wonder Woman.

Joel Drucker is a frequent contributor to Racquet and is a historian-at-large for the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

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Our solitary pursuits issue, conceived and executed during quarantine. Andrea Petkovic on holiday, selfies from Stefanos Tsitsipas a.k.a. Steve the Hawk and Serena and Venus singing karaoke on the lower East Side.

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