The Story of how an American tennis phenomenon won the hearts of many of the greatest artists (and actors if you count Charlie Chaplin) and writers of the 1920s and the 1930s and became not merely their inspiration and but also a part of their art.
Helen Wills, August 23, 1921- National Junior Woman's Tennis Champion at the age of 15.
Cover of Vanity Fair magazine, 1932, painting of Helen Wills by Miguel Covarrubias.
Alexander Calder work titled Helen Wills, 1927.
Diego Rivera's Mural with Helen Wills as the Centerpiece.
Joseph P. Kennedy, Helen Wills' film agent in New York.
Senator James Phelan
A. P. Giannini
Suzanne Lenglen with Rene LaCoste
Helen Wills in 1932
Helen Wills 1933
Helen Wills as a blonde with long false eyelashes at the Junior League's Mardi Gras Ball in San Francisco, February 26, 1936. Seated with her is James Montgomery Flood III.
Helen Wills, the tennis phenomenon of the 1920s and the 1930s began an incredible and still unmatched winning streak in the spring of 1927. She sailed from New York to Liverpool and then took a train to London for the All-England Lawn Tennis Championships played in Wimbledon. She won in her first two warm-up tournaments that English spring of 1927 and then she won the singles title at Wimbledon--the first American-born woman to hold that title. She returned to the United States and she won every tournament she entered that year, including the Women's National Singles Tournament at Forest Hills. She continued winning in California and in 1928 she traveled to Paris and won there in the International Hard Court Championships--the first American to win that title. And she won again at Wimbledon and then again at Forest Hills. She won again and again and again. At first she won just all of the matches she played. Then she won all of the sets and, in time, she won all of the games. By the beginning of the 1930s newspapers reported not only Helen's winning scores, but the number of minutes it took her to thrash this or that opponent. She beat all comers and, before anybody ever heard of Bobby Riggs or Billie Jean King, she played and beat many of the male players, including the men ranked in the top twenty and some of the best college players in the country. She played against the men because there was no longer any excitement for crowds watching her beat the women. She just kept winning over and over and over again. At first nobody counted the matches and the sets she won. But it seems fairly certain that by the summer of 1933 Helen had won more than 180 matches in a row in women's singles -- a series of 360 sets without the loss of a single set.
At first it was exciting, the string of victories. And then it was unusual. Then it was spectacular. Then it was unreal. Then it was routine. And finally it was boring.
The sportswriters and the fans were for her at first. But then they became somewhat indifferent and finally they became hostile. At first she won for her parents and for herself and for her friends and for her countrymen. Then she won just for herself. She started out as a timid pokerfaced youngster who came swinging out of the West. She was "Little Poker Face." Then she was transformed into "The American Girl." Then she became "Queen Helen." These were terms of endearment. But then she became "The Ice Queen." And finally she was referred to as "The Killer of the Courts." She experienced what Suzanne had experienced. At first the crowds and the writers adored her and she could do no wrong in their eyes. But she found that the only thing crowds love more than a champion is an underdog. So there were few who loved her in the end, when she fell. Few who felt sorry. Few who had regrets.
In the spring of 1927, while Suzanne Lenglen’s professional tour of England fizzled, Helen's career blossomed. She won no major national titles in 1926 and she had been beaten in Cannes by Suzanne. Yet, ironically, she became the object of enthusiastic international interest. Her reputation had not suffered, as it had in 1925 when she had faced few formidableopponents. The question being asked in the spring of 1927 was, "Can she in fact be a worthy successor to Suzanne. Can she attract the crowds and the loyalty and the attention of Suzanne? Can she inspire the same controversy and the excitement that Suzanne had inspired? Can she win the way Suzanne won? Or will she be like May Sutton and Kitty McKane and Mary K. Browne and a whole host of others who had once been promising but then fell back with the pack, winning a few titles and arousing some attention before they became perennial 'contenders'?"
Helen Wills in Paris, June 28, 1926.
Wimbledon was to be the test for Helen. She had already lost there once while Suzanne had never lost in singles in the tournament. If she could win in 1927 then there was hope for her and for amateur tennis and for the associations and the clubs that sponsored and exploited the sport. If she could not win at Wimbledon, then there would be the search for another successor to Suzanne and perhaps public attention would switch to other favorites in other sports or other activities and the associations and clubs would languish.
Throughout her career, Helen sought to perpetuate the myth that she was a natural athlete, and that she did not try hard nor practice hard for matches. She wanted others to believe that tennis was a mere past time and was not of great or central importance in her life. Art was to be her career, she said over and over again. And so she wrote in her autobiography that in late 1926 she did not play tennis for several months, yet in fact she devoted full time in the fall of 1926 to tennis as well as to drawing, the two activities, she told a friend, took up all of her time. In the fall at the Berkeley Tennis Club, Helen was allowed to enter the men's doubles tournament for the club championship, the only time in the history of that club that such a thing was allowed. Helen's play was so far superior to any other woman in the club, that it was considered only fair for her to compete against the men. Helen and her partner, Ward Dawson, lost in the final to Bud Chandler and Tom Stow in a tough three set match, 3-6, 6-4, 8-6. The papers reported that it was Dawson's fault that Helen was not the men's doubles co-champion of the Berkeley Tennis Club. At one time in the third set Helen and her partner led 5-4 and had match point. But Dawson wavered badly, made several errors and the game and the match were lost.
In December of 1926 Helen dropped out of the University of California for the second time and traveled to New York with her mother to publish a book of her poems and to complete the manuscript of a book on tennis. The book of poetry entitled "The Awakening" was published by Dorrance and the tennis book was published the next year by Scribners.
1925. New York. Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman, left, Helen and her mother, Catherine Wills, Center.
Helen took a job on the art staff of the New York World. She was given a special office and did several sketches for the paper. But her period of service for the newspaper was brief because, as another journalist at the World wrote, "she found that regular office hours interfered with indoor tennis practice. It was not that she loved her art less, but that she loved her tennis more. Her sketches had little merit. Unsigned they would probably have appeared nowhere. Signed,
newspapers and magazines were glad to buy them." She also interviewed celebrities for the paper --actresses, actors, visiting royalty, traveling adventurers. "I was not impressed by the people whom I met," she wrote later, "whose time I was taking up. I would have undertaken any assignment with assurance." She returned home for several weeks in the late winter, but then set out for England and the Wimbledon tournament in the early spring.
The year 1927 marked the shift in power in men's tennis from the United States to France as French players captured both the Davis Cup and the American national singles title. But in women's tennis, the retirement of Suzanne and the rise of Helen, 1927 marked an American ascendancy.
On May 23 Helen sailed from New York to England on the Tuscania. She began her English campaign of 1927 in the North of London Championships at Stamford Hill where she defeated Elizabeth Ryan, 6-4, 6-4, for the title. She didn't give up a single set in the competition, but, in the early rounds she often lost six to eight games per match against unspectacular competition and it was whispered that she was not in very good form and would have a lot of trouble at Wimbledon. A week later she played in the Kent Championships at Beckenham, "the real preliminary to Wimbledon." She appeared to have improved dramatically. She thrashed Billie Tapscott of South Africa in just eighteen minutes and on the following day beat Molla Mallory in twenty three minutes. She had cut ten minutes off the time in which she had beaten Molla first at Forest Hills. The initial set took ten minutes and Mallory seemed helpless before Helen's drives. British journalists observed that Helen had accomplished something that Suzanne Lenglen had never achieved, in winning so quickly. Suzanne did not rush through her matches, but often slowed down to toy with her opponents. Helen had none of that. This was a grim business which, she believed, was best finished quickly. In the final she beat Kitty McKane, now Mrs. L. A. Godfree, 6-2, 6-4. It was a great exhibition of all-court tennis by Helen.
Time, July 1, 1929.
Helen Wills with Joan Crawford
Helen Wills with Molla Mallory, 1922.
Time, July 26, 1926.
The promise of a resurgent Helen Wills was a boon to Wimbledon ticket sales. Once more there were long lines—no longer the "Lenglen Lines" but now the Helen Wills' Lines-- forming outside the facilities at 5:00 AM for tickets and Wimbledon prepared to celebrate the first of several Helen Wills Days. This was the first Wimbledon in which an electronic public address system was used to announce the score and the decision in matches, after it was determined, with due deliberation, that such announcements would not disturb the players.
She was seeded first at Wimbledon. In the second round of the tournament on June 21st, an historic event occurred. Helen dropped a set to Gwen Sterry of England the daughter of Charlotte Sterry, the 1908 champion. Helen won the match, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3. It was to be the last set that Helen lost in singles until July 8, 1933, six years later. In those six years, in fact, she did not lose a set in singles in any tournament anywhere in the world. And in those years she won the Wimbledon singles crown six times, the US title four times and the French title four times along with twelve singles victories in Wightman Cup competitions.
In the third round of the competition another historic even took place as Helen was extended in beating Eileen Bennett to 7-5, 6-3. She was not extended again in a singles competition at Wimbledon until 1933.
At Wimbledon her series of wins extended to 68 sets in a row at 6-4 or better, a record that has never been equalled.
In the finals at Wimbledon in 1927 she played against Senorita Lili de Alvarez and won 6-2, 6-4. "She was the hardest hitter I have ever met both on fore and backhand," Helen wrote later. An English journalist wrote of the Wills-Alvarez match that "this was tennis never seen on the Centre Court before. These were man-like strokes to which the perfect poise of feminine grace was added. They may not have had man-like tactics behind them; in speed and counter speed they were majestic, drawing riotous applause from an enraptured crowd." Duncan Macaulay, the referee for the tournament, wrote that the match was "a magnificent spectacle" and that it was "an encounter of great speed and beauty in which, for the spectators, the score didn't seem to matter." American journalist Al Laney remembered it, too, as an incredible confrontation. "I doubt if any match ever played by two women could equal it for sustained attack on both sides of the net and the quality of strokes employed over such a longer period."
"At the beginning of the second set," he wrote, "Lili brought out a maneuver I never was to see any other girl, with the one exception of Lenglen, attempt against Miss Wills. This was to exchange full length drives from deep court and then to draw Miss Wills forward with a short, almost insolent flick to the forehand line. With this plan, the senorita went to 4-3 after a series of unforgettable exchanges. But she was at advantage three times before she got the game, and by the end of it Miss Wills, though she had yielded, had caught on.
"Miss Wills now set out to defeat the plan by sheer speed of stroke, which made the final half-volleying coup impossible to bring off. This brought them to the crisis of the match, the eighth game. It was an extraordinary session of tremendous hitting, and the last point of it produced a rally the equal of which I have never seen again in women's tennis. Such sustained hitting and such gorgeous shots by two girls had never taken place on this court or, I imagine, anywhere else. Twenty strokes by each girl were counted, each hit to score, speed countered by more speed, until finally the senorita, perhaps in desperation, attempted once more to trap the other girl with her favorite coup and failed. The backhand half-volley curled out of the court and the score was 4-all."
At that point both players paused and used their rackets, like canes, for support. Applause resounded throughout the gallery. Wills recovered from the rally instantly. Alvarez did not. And she won only one more point as the American Girl displayed an absolutely dazzling decoupage of strokes, slicing and pounding the ball, ranging along the baseline, plunging toward the net, winning point after point after point. Alvarez, for all her talent and determination, could never take a set from the American girl. Not on this day. Not in 1928 when she met Helen again in the Wimbledon final. Not ever. As the two women left the court, at the gate Alvarez stepped aside, smiled and gestured for Helen to go ahead and said, "Queens first!"
A writer for the New York Times found that suddenly there was "praise everywhere for Miss Wills, a simple, unostentatious girl who has won by persistent development of her natural talent."
Al Laney concluded, "for speed of attack and counterattack, for quality of stroke employed over a sustained period, I am wondering if women's tennis did not here reach it highest point during my time. I have since seen flashes of perhaps similar brilliance by individual girls, but never a succession of games in which two girls played with such virtuosity of stroke at the same time." Laney wrote his evaluation in 1968, almost forty years after he watched the match.
After her singles victory, Helen teamed up with Elizabeth Ryan, Suzanne Lenglen's favorite doubles partner, to win the Wimbledon Ladies Doubles title. Suzanne watched from the gallery.
Upon returning to American Helen checked into the Forest Hills Inn to prepare for the national women's tournament. She made a brief side trip to Manchester, Massachusetts, where she played in the Essex County Club Invitational Tournament just to warm up for Forest Hills. It was not much of a warm up, though. She beat young Helen Jacobs in just 34 minutes in the final. She kept Jacobs pointless through the first five games of the match.
As she prepared for Forest Hills, Allison Danzig, writing for the New York Times watched her and reported that "a healthier and more attractive picture of American girlhood could not be imagined than Miss Wills."
She cut her way through the competition at Forest Hills without much trouble. She beat Betty Nuthall in the finals, taking the first set from the newest British hope in just 12 minutes. The Times described the match as "a savage struggle" The "furious tempo" of the play made men's tennis "seem tame by comparison." Helen's attack was one of "such withering accuracy as to make a mockery of her opponents efforts to hold her off." And Danzig said she provided "the greatest exhibition of destructive hitting power that has been put on ...in the forty year history of the tournament."
In the Wightman Cup matches Wills also won two of her matches and then won in the doubles with Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman. Writers resorted to jumbles of superlatives to praise her and describe her game because they had never seen anything quite like it before.
And at the end of the summer of 1927 Helena Huntington Smith, in an article entitled "Another Glorified American Girl," which was published in The New Yorker, tried to account for the sudden public obsession with Helen. Smith found the reasons for Helen's enormous popularity to be elusive.
Smith pointed out that if the selection of Miss America were put to a popular vote, "the real Miss America would probably turn out to be Miss Helen Wills." And, Smith found, Helen "grows increasingly qualified to adorn the roto pages herself." A New York editorial writer, she said, observed that "all the males of America from six to sixty are a little in love with her."
Although statistics were lacking, Smith wrote, the editor was probably right. What was remarkable about such sentiment was that Helen was no "siren of the stage," not one of Ziegfeld's "hothouse orchids," but rather she was a "lady athlete. She is most closely identified with a class notoriously short on sex appeal."
So why the all the excitement over a lady athlete? Because, Smith reported, "she has mastered the trade of amateur tennis with superb skill, seems to have a huge time at the business of living, and is prettier every time she is snapped by photographers. "Each year she is more gracious, more stylishly dressed, easier to gaze upon, "Smith found. "Annually the reporters rush to their offices and pound out a lyrical column or so about 'Our Helen.'"
And always they ended up writing pretty much the same thing about her. They assured their readers week after week that she was, indeed, still modest and that she had not lost her perspective and that she was always the favorite passenger on the ship or train she traveled on and she danced divinely. But they seldom went beyond that because Helen often didn't talk much. She was, for reporters anxious for copy, often troublingly silent.
There were several reasons for Helen's silence at press conferences -- the rigors of her sport and training and the fact that she didn't socialize much because of tennis. But also, Smith pointed out, "Helen finds it difficult to say what she thinks, so much so that her friends have sometimes wondered whether she thinks at all. Undoubtedly she does."
Until the summer of 1927 the press also emphasized what a normal American girl she was. They wrote that she was "a nice wholesome girl, with all that this implies of personality and family background. She came from a home similar to thousands of other American homes. She was What America Needed; the antithesis of the gaudy, gin-drinking John Held, Jr., flapper. She neither smoked, drank, nor used cosmetics."
Outwardly, Smith found, she was both sophisticated and calm. Yet some of the schoogirlishness" still lingered. The articles she wrote, for example, "are naive enough to demonstrate that she really wrote them herself." And as to her art, Smith wrote, "her sketches are, as yet, pretty bad."
Smith found that Helen had flowered into a lovely woman. Yet she remained calm and imperturbable and poker faced. It was said, Smith found, that Helen still represented "the normal American girl. But it is doubtful whether the normal type has ever been so sound in body and so untroubled in soul." Even the French surgeon who had operated on her in 1926 burst out that "she is a model for all young women."
"It is, we maintain, a little hard to see what is meant by the repeated declarations of her normalcy," Smith wrote. "She is still wearing her hair down her back at an age when modern young ladies are supposed to be overcome by alcohol at night clubs." More than anything else Helen was "wholesome, magnificently so. And applied to her, this much abused word loses its sting."
Smith had heard one young man sigh after gazing at Helen, "It would do you a lot of good to see a girl like that once a week." It was a sentiment shared widely in a nation looking for comfortable symbols of normalcy in an age of dramatic and often confusing change.
And Helen had become a comforting stable symbol, a sort of sweet old-fashioned girl who had made the transition to the New Era almost painlessly. And in that respect, Helen Wills represented what Henry Ford represented and what Charles Lindbergh would come to represent. She had successfully bridged the gap between yesterday and tomorrow, between the past and the future. She had done it almost effortlessly and with singular grace. While she embodied all of the traditional virtues and values of America, she at the same time was something entirely new. She was no petite and helpless little Lillian Gish or Mary Pickford, rather she was a big, powerful, hard hitting and beautiful athlete, a gorgeous Amazon, a woman of independent means who, somehow, was not threatening to American males. She could do almost anything she chose to do. But she chose to live in a traditional mold. She represented a New Woman who was a stark contrast to the Flapper or the Vamp. And she outlasted the Flapper and the Vamp and various other brief incarnations of so-called modernity. In celebrating Helen Wills Americans celebrated tomorrow -- a tomorrow of American ascendancy, of aesthetic beauty, of intelligence, of modesty, of energy, of romance and of optimism. In Helen Wills millions of Americans saw a future that was attractive and irresistible and that worked. If the American Girl was the American Future, then one could face the confusing changes of the present with confidence and even, perhaps, with a smile. If the American Girl was the future, then you could bet on the future.
Two years later, Annie Laurie of the San Francisco Examiner found that Helen was not only the rage of America but she was also "the rage of England, they are crazy about her in France and she just steps along through life as if she were just an ordinary everyday girl looking for a new hat in Paris and a new sport dress in London and going to see the Coliseum in Rome and then coming home to marry a plain American and settle down somewhere in a bungalow and have the Junior League in for tea." She was truly the American Girl.
Laurie compared Helen to Charles Lindbergh and said that "if we aren't careful we will get a reputation for geniuses with common sense as well as genius, what with Lindbergh and Helen Wills."
Following her 1927 Wimbledon comeback and her return to America, suddenly reporters were writing less about how wholesome she was. Rather they wrote about what she was wearing. Her outfits were described in detail. She now wore "just a discreet touch of lipstick" and she danced in fashionable clubs. And so, encouraged by such praise, Helen sought to move up a notch in celebrityhood, but she did so cautiously, as cautiously as she did when she prowled along the baseline dispatching challengers. For several years Helen had, like millions of other young women, been enthralled by motion pictures and the stars of the silent screen. She pinned up pictures of the stars, cut out from magazines and newspapers, on he walls of her room. Now, she had heard the applause in tournament after tournament and took the journalistic praise seriously. She had become a popular national icon. And if the public loved her, she believed, and if the press loved her, then they would love her even more in the movies.
Helen believed she had at last transcended tennis. She now appeared to believe fully the stories that were written about her. She seemed to believe she could do anything. It was a wonderful youthful naive belief. It was the belief usually harbored by the incurably romantic, the hopelessly innocent, or the children of the very wealthy. Anything could be had for a price. The price was either money or energy or both. Helen believed the price was energy. The world lay before her to be discovered and won. She now put new energy and effort into becoming a film star. And she called upon her patron and principal aristocratic guardian, James Phelan, to help her.
Helen met Phelan in 1923 soon after winning her first national title. Phelan was born in San Francisco in 1861, the heir to a large fortune. His father had organized the First National Bank of San Francisco, invested heavily in local real estate, and put up the Phelan Building in the heart of the city. James Phelan inherited the valuable property. Phelan received a PhD degree from Santa Clara University and studied law at the University of California. He was first elected mayor of San Francisco in 1897 and then reelected twice. He was elected to the US Senate in 1914 but then was defeated in his bid for reelection in 1920. He owned a large estate, Villa Montalvo, south of San Francisco in Saratoga, where he entertained friends and visiting
Phelan enjoyed the company of poets and writers and subsidized the work of many of them. He wrote and published his own poetry and that of other local poets. He was a bachelor. And from the moment he first saw Helen, Phelan was utterly enthralled by the young American girl. For nearly a decade he lavished attention, favors and gifts upon her and carried on what can best be termed a passionate platonic relationship. She was never fully aware of the depth of his devotion, but gladly accepted his attention and his favors his advice and his money until his death in 1930, seven months after her marriage to someone else.
Helen had visited Montalvo on numerous occasions as a guest and as a guest of honor at celebrations and dinners She played tennis on the courts there. Helen told friends after one visit that she found the air and the grounds and the total environment of Montalvo romantic and inspiring. She met famous people there, was celebrated there by the wealthy and the notable. She recalled one evening in 1929, one magic evening, dining with Ramon Novarro, who sang to her.
In the spring of 1929 she was the guest of honor at the Blossom Festival in neighboring Saratoga where Phelan described her accomplishments to the large gathering, "Not so many years ago in a city a few miles to the north, a baby girl was born. She grew up and went to school like other little girls and learned to play tennis. Then, while still a high school student, she won the championship of California. Not satisfied, she became national champion, and finally the woman tennis champion of the world. The girl is Miss Helen Wills. She represents California and the West and the fine spirit of achievement."
Phelan wrote poems celebrating Helen and encouraged others to do the same. At his request, Edwin Markham wrote his poem, "Helen." In a collection of poems entitled "A Day in the Hills," Phelan published one of his own compositions entitled "To Helen Wills," which expressed his own feelings about the American Girl:
Delightful child, who from the Berkeley nest
Took flight -- a fledgling native to the skies
Thou dar'st the sun -- and undimmed are thine eyes-
To hold aloft the banner of the West
No strangers thou and Phoebus meeting there
In Heaven's firmament among the stars.
Did not they Sun-born state by God-right share
Elysian fields divine where nothing mars
The calm procession of ethereal days
So sprung the motherland for filial praise:
Fair goddess come, Minerva-like, a Greek,
Arched brows austere and lips impeccable,
Straight-nosed of mein not menacing nor meek;
And daughter counterpart delectable.
The Gods are good, the Gods propitiate;
Tho' favored, yet thou hast not won by favor,
Tho' magical, thy talisman is labor,
Nor conquest greater than they promise great!
As pounds the ocean on the shining shore,
And peaks spring skyward to a loftier height,
The generations building up their store
Increase they glory and preserve they might.
The lists of life are open. Helen first
Of hosts triumphant, children of the Sun,
Olympic Champion crowned: Exultant burst
The cry of world devoted, "Helen won!"
Historic bygones! Now ascendant Art!
Inspired Scions, shall ye do your part?
Phelan carried on an extensive correspondence with Helen and encouraged her to express herself in writing and in art as well as in sport. He recommended books to her, mailed them to her, introduced her to artists and writers and escorted her to the theater and to the opera in San Francisco. In 1926 he traveled to France to see her and boosted her among the wealthy and the influential in California as the epitome of the California Girl.
In the spring of 1930, only a few months after her marriage, [Helen married Fred Moody, a San Francisco stock broker and scion of a wealthy and well connected family. They divorced in 1937.] Helen went to France to compete. Phelan continued to correspond with her. In Paris she received a final letter form him --he was very ill.
His letter stated his final advice to her. "You have the vantage ground of your position and you will be heard and given audience where others will struggle and even fail," he wrote. "Your artistic star is in the ascendent! Take advantage of the moment!...by coming out with a slender book of poetry! Don't please give up the idea. The few lines of yours I have seen -- too few -- indicate to me that you can do it. In idle hours write a verse; or charge yourself with the duty of one poem a week; you will be surprised by your prolific pen and what is behind it! Mail them to me as you write them and I will keep them safe for you during your travels and distractions--will you?" Then he closed with a poem from his favorite poet, Oliver Saint John Gogarty, entitled "Good-by." No lines copied by Phelan ever better described his feelings for Helen.
"If you saw your face as I
Saw it when you said Good-by:
With the hair about it lit
Where the sun had Titianed it;
And the eyes that glowed and shone
With that inner sun,
Chalices that held a wine
From the wild immortal vine
Glowing in the double cup
That a mortal hand holds up;
You would know, for you have wit,
Why I lingered saying it."
Only years later would Helen indicate privately to a friend her warm affection for Phelan and her regret that such a great age difference separated them. Phelan had always represented to her something that might have been but was impossible to attain.
Helen and French tennis great, Rene Lacoste
Helen Wills with her husband Fred Moody in 1930. He became known to the press as "Mr. Moody Wills."
film director Henry King
Phelan, naturally, thought it was only natural and acceptable that she should go into films or should attempt to become a stage actress. He believed her potential was unlimited. And she suggested in turn that she had frequent offers to make films and that she had always been interested, but had at the same time grave uncertainties about her acting ability. And, she said, she was concerned about the propriety of it all --going into the movies when she was being celebrated as the idol of American youth might not be the right thing to do. Clarence Wills, her father, had always disapproved of the subject whenever it was brought up and dismissed it out of hand.
Helen worried about negative publicity. And she eventually asked Phelan to arrange a private screen test for her. And she asked that no news on the test be released, so if it was not good, she would not be asked about it by reporters.
She indicated that if Phelan helped her get the test and she passed it she could present her father with a fait accompli and he would have to let her become a film star.
Suzanne Lenglen had also wanted to star in films. And she had dreamed of performing on the silver screen as a dramatic and romantic artiste. But those who seemed to take her wishes seriously, individuals like William Pickens and C. C. Pyle, realized that the only thing Suzanne could do in the movies that would hold the attention of an audience, was to play tennis. As an object of romantic interest, she was unconvincing and sometimes pathetic. The only movies she could possibly star in had to be tennis movies. Yet playing tennis was precisely what Suzanne wanted to escape from in making movies. Her only real film success came in her real-life role in the films of her 1926 match with Helen at Cannes. Helen believed she would have more success.
The effort to make it in the movies revealed another side of Helen Wills-- she could be a cold, calculating, business-minded young woman, starkly different from the publicly acclaimed shy and self-effacing "American Girl." But that side of her she wisely and carefully concealed from the public.
Phelan sought the best agent and director in helping Helen get started in the movies. And at the same time reporters were told that Helen was not interested at all in the movies, but rather was pursuing her art and her writing. It was deft management by Phelan for a woman he adored.
The first problem involved with Helen becoming a movie star was her amateur status. Helen could write a tennis book and she could draw sketches of other tennis players and publish them during a match she was participating in. But if she made movies and was paid for it, she would, most likely, compromise her amateur status. She could never touch a tennis racket in a movie. The USLTA [U.S. Lawn Tennis Association] and the other national associations were simply scared to death of a star becoming financially independent of them--especially a major star like Helen--and so watched to make sure that tennis in no way could be used by a player to raise money independently.
Helen Wills, 1927, at Senator Phelan's estate in Saratoga, CA.
Senator James Phelan with his rubber duck at the swimming pool of his estate in Saratoga, CA.
Suzanne learned that nobody wanted to see her act. Bill Tilden harbored the illusion all his life that his thespian talents were beyond normal. They weren't. Those who watched him act in several New York productions insisted that his amateur status had not been compromised by his performance.
Helen Wills standing with Suzanne Lenglen, Cannes, February 1926.
Phelan initially asked Helen to stop off in Los Angeles for the test but she did not like the idea, saying she would be too tired after traveling from New York and her chances of passing the test would be reduced. Also, her wardrobe would need pressing and she would be happier if there were no wrinkles in the test, so to speak. And she was afraid her journey to Los Angeles would attract attention from reporters. Phelan contacted Joe Schenck of United Artists in New York and tried to convince him to put Helen in a film immediately. But Schenck refused without a screen test first.
Phelan then asked his close friend, A. H. Giannini, president of the Bowery and East River National Bank, to make all the arrangements in New York for a screen test for Helen. Giannini arranged for the test to be made at the Famous Players Studio in Long Island City. Before the test was made he secured an agent for Helen, Joseph Kennedy, who was president of the Film Booking Offices. Giannini reported back to Phelan that Kennedy was a good reliable Irishman who was a Harvard graduate and a former pitcher of the Harvard baseball team. Moreover, he was married to the daughter of the former Mayor Fitzgerald of Boston. "I am explaining this in detail," Giannini wrote, "because I want you to know that I did not shift her over to an irresponsible person."
Then Giannini asked his close personal friend, director Henry King, to direct the screen test. Giannini reported that King usually received from $75,000 to $100,000 per picture and that he had agreed to do the Wills screen test for no fee at all. King was largely responsible for the success of Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess and Vilma Banky, Giannini said.
King spent three hours with Helen on the morning of September 30, 1927, and used up 700 feet of film in making the test. "This was an expensive test and will cost several hundreds of dollars," Giannini reported. "However , it was all gratis. Both Mr. Kennedy and Mr. King feel that they are obligated to me and very gladly offered their services. We will know in a day or two the result of the tests."
In the meantime, Helen spoke with Kennedy and gave him story ideas for the films in which she wanted to star. She found him unexcited by the prospect.
When the test was evaluated, "the consensus of opinion was that, being an athletic girl, her limbs were too developed and her body lacked the petiteness so necessary for film success. Her face photographed all right, but her feet were indicative of sturdy underpinning rather than feminine charm," Giannini reported.
"This is only the opinion of two or three and I have known girls to achieve stardom with seven or eight so-called experts reporting unfavorably," Giannini wrote. Kennedy said he thought the screen test "could have been worse." He told Helen she was just to heavy for the movies and that she might take care of that shortcoming by dieting. Helen expressed eagerness to shed several pounds. But he was still unenthusiastic. He said it would be difficult to find a story for her since she was "a certain type" and the type of story that could be assigned to her would be very limited. He said he did not want to see her cast in a movie in which she did not belong.
After a couple of days Helen got the idea. She was not going to become a film star. After she drew that conclusion, she left New York abruptly, without saying either goodbye or thank you to Giannini, Kennedy or King. Giannini, in particular, was disappointed by her behavior since he had spent a considerable amount of money in order to make her stay in New York as pleasant as possible.
He concluded from the experience that "she is a cold-blooded business woman and with a good knowledge of bookkeeping, and knows where she stands commercially every minute of the day. I would say that she will know how to take care of herself in a business deal in any ompany and I would even hazard the guess that she is adept in extracting service and attentions from others and yielding very little gratitude," alluding to her relationship with Phelan.
"I am dealing with stars all day long and she is no different from the rest," he wrote. "Portia would have to reconstruct her speech on the quality of mercy. She put the giving and receiving of mercy on a 50:50 basis. Helen's geometrical ratio on giving and receiving is about 2:98."
The American Girl was also a sharp businesswoman.
The next year, however, Helen received an offer to make a film from an unexpected source --Arthur Brisbane of the New York Evening Journal. Brisbane was working on the Herbert Hoover presidential campaign and wanted to make a special newsreel that would appeal to the young American men and women to vote for the Republican candidate for president. Brisbane told Hoover that he thought it would be effective "to make some good talking films with the Movietone, presenting some of your most popular supporters to the gigantic movie picture audience, the other side, of course, having the same privilege." And he believed that "a short talk to young men and women by Helen Wills, who is chairman of the Sports Division of the Women's Hoover Committee, showing her in her in tennis costume, racket in hand, would be very effective. I have suggested that to my brother-in- law(Courtland Smith of Fox) who has a good deal to do with the Movietone. I should be glad to write a short speech for the young lady."
In late August Brisbane reminded Hoover how important the vote of women might be in the election of 1928. He said that Hoover's appeal to end poverty in American in his nomination acceptance speech would appeal not only to the poor --"often weak and ungrateful"-- but also to all "that have any idealism, women especially." And for that reason he wanted Helen Wills to make a speech on film.
In order to give equal time to the other side, he suggested that Rosamond Pinchot, "daughter of the well-known radical, Amos Pinchot, who played the part of the nun in 'The Miracle,' should also make a speech telling why she is for Governor Al Smith."
The remarkable thing about Brisbane's proposal was that Helen was the only woman he considered approaching to make the campaign film. Helen agreed to make the film and Brisbane wrote a brief speech for her. Then he advised her to "speak very slowly and earnestly, looking straight into the eyes of the audience. And remember," he told her, "this speech earnestly delivered means many votes."
Wearing her tennis costume and holding two rackets in her left arm, Helen appeared on camera and said that she was putting aside her rackets to devote two months to campaigning for Hoover. She said she had been "aroused to active campaign work by Hoover's statements concerning the youth of the nation." She suggested that "All youth can admire Herbert Hoover because of his sincerity, intelligence and great industry. His achievements, in the past, have been marked with success because of his ability for organization and his wonderful powers of perseverance. His life is a story to fire the imagination and admiration of every young person in the country."
She concluded, earnestly, "May youth everywhere, by voting for Hoover, show that its ideals are of the highest and that it has the earnest desire to be of service."
With the exception of the films of the match in Cannes in 1926, the Hoover campaign film of 1928 was a close as Helen ever got to becoming a movie star.
Rumors surfaced in 1930 that she was going to star in a film but they were rumors only. And in 1931 Helen said that the only thing that would lure her away from amateur tennis was the offer of "a lot of money to sign a movie contract."
Again in 1937 Helen did some screen tests for Twentieth Century Fox. The success of Sonja Henie's "One in a Million" was so pronounced that other sports figures were suddenly being sought for the movies. But again nothing came of Helen's screen test.
Although she did not make money in the movies, Helen continued to earn an income by writing newspaper stories. She signed a long-term contract with the Newspaper Enterprise Association in 1927 to write a series of articles on issues of interest to young womanhood, including articles on sports, beauty, clothes, interior design, exercise, popular books, writers and movie stars. Ironically, even though Helen failed to stir the interest of movie makers enough to get a part in a commercial motion picture, she did inspire of some of the best known painters and sculptures of the 1920s and the 1930s who found her to be the perfect subject for their work. Alexander Calder created a small wire sculpture of her in action wearing her visor and swinging her tennis racquet. Antonio Covarrubias painted a famous caricature of her at play in 1927.
Alexander Calder, 1927.
Today his painting is held by the Humanities Center of the University of Texas. Augustus John painted her portrait in the late 1920s and signed his work, "in affectionate homage." Childe Hassam also painted a portrait of Helen which was eventually acquired by the Louvre. And local artists like Louise Janine and Haig Patigian found her to be inspiring, even if the patronage of Senator Phelan stirred their enthusiasm. The noted sculptor C. S. Jagger observed in 1931 that she was "the perfect type of womanly beauty immortalized by Greek sculpture. Watching her on the tennis courts," he said, "I have appreciated that she is the nearest living approximation of the old Greek ideal of perfection. She has a supple figure, long legs and a small head, and even her features are the classic features of the ancient Venuses. The only difference is that the old masters generally chose slightly more matronly outlines."
Etching, Helen Wills, by Childe Hassam, 1928.
Etching, Helen Wills, by Childe Hassam, 1928.
Patigian, who created a bust entitled "Helen of California" under the sponsorship of Phelan, said that he chose Helen as a subject before he was contacted by the Senator, "because of her beauty of face and form combined with intelligence. She is a singularly excellent representative not only of the Greek classic mold of feature and nobility of head, but a splendid type of California beauty and brains." He suggested that she was the perfect representative of modern womanhood and a distinctive product of the state. "For some time I have had it in mind to model in clay such a type of womanhood," he said, "and in Miss Wills I found the ideal. The features that have been admired by thousands at tennis matches and in student assemblages are entitled to be reproduced in sculpture and to bear the title I have chosen."
Haig Patigian, "Helen of California," 1927
Helen of California, 1927
Haig Patigian with his sculpture "Helen of California," (1927.
Patigian, who knew of Helen's failed screen test, described her beauty as different from the popular Hollywood kind. "Hers is the sort of beauty that does not enter into beauty contests," he said. Rather she was beautiful in the classic sense. "She is an athletic woman of intellect and of physical vigor and her beauty is more than 'candy box prettiness' -- for it rises from within."
Helen sat for several sessions for Patigian. One of his works in white marble was donated to the Palace of the Legion of Honor collection. Two other copies were made in bronze. One went to the San Jose Tennis Club and the other was kept by Phelan.
Four years after Charlie Chaplin described Helen Wills playing tennis as the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, sculptor Bryant Baker, who won $100,000 for his Pioneer Woman statue [the prize was offered by an Oklahoma oil tycoon for a statue honoring American women of the 'Old West.'] ,[ described Helen as "a perfectly beautiful woman." He suggested that she was the "ideal American beauty" and said she was the most beautiful woman "in 2800 years." She was more beautiful, he said, than either Katherine Hepburn or Mae West. "Miss Hepburn's face is too peaked and Miss West has too many curves. The American girl doesn't really want curves -- she likes an attractive athletic thinness."
Bryant Baker, Pioneer Woman, 1930.
Charlie Chaplin with Mary Pickford, 1927
Charlie Chaplin, 1920.
But by far the most controversial and celebrated portrait ever done of Helen was done by the renowned Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera.
Rivera had been approached by an American artist, Ralph Stackpole, with an invitation from the President of the San Francisco Art Commission, to paint a wall in the California School of Fine Arts at the end of the 1920s. At the time Rivera was so involved in his own work in Mexico that he could not accept the offer. Then Stackpole secured a second commission for Rivera to do a mural in the new San Francisco Stock Exchange Club. Architect, Timothy Pflueger offered $2500 to Rivera along with $1500 from the Art Commission -- the most Rivera had ever been offered for a single work.
Rivera initially had trouble getting a visa to come to America because of his radical political affiliations. But in November of 1930, thanks to the intercession of Albert Bindera, a prominent San Francisco art patron and collector, he finally secured his visa and arrived in San Francisco
shortly after that with his wife Frida, who had long dreamed of visiting the "City of the World," as she referred to San Francisco.
The local response to the commissioning of Rivera was not ecstatic. Rivera was described in the local press as a "famous revolutionist and communist" who had been hired to paint murals in the city. And it was alleged that his radical political sympathies made him eminently the wrong
person to paint the Stock Exchange Club, the social hub of capitalism in San Francisco. And there was also the problem of local artists who had been slighted. "Rivera for Mexico City: San Francisco's Best for San Francisco" became their protest cry. The president of the local Art Commission was accused of having committed a "frank betrayal" of the trust of local artists.
From the moment of his arrival Rivera was a front page item in the local papers. He was welcomed at posh receptions and parties and Ralph Stackpole's studio was put at his disposal.
The wall he was to paint flanked the interior staircase connecting two stories of the Luncheon Club of the Stock Exchange and was thirty feet high.
As he planned the mural, Rivera met the woman who was to become the central figure of his work. He was introduced to Helen Wills at one of the receptions and was instantly enthralled by her. He made an appointment for her to come to the studio so he could sketch her. Then he made daily trips to the California Club where she practiced. Edith Cross remembered seeing him waddle out to the umpire's chair, crawl up rather awkwardly, and then sketch Helen at play. He did this not just once, but several times, she remembered. And Fred Moody remembered him "sort of hanging around all the time." And he recalled, "You know he was a short, ugly little guy." Fred didn't mind the intrusion. Rivera wasn't as bad as the reporters, after all. When he finally began the painting, Rivera made a frontal portrait of Helen the huge central figure of the mural. He explained his decision to the local press, "I found in Mrs. Moody all that was beautiful in California womanhood. She represents my ideal of the perfect type.
Therefore I wished to paint her."
William Grestle, a local art patron and a friend of Rivera explained, "The beauty of Helen Wills interested Rivera at once. He saw her play, made some sketches of her in action and was struck by her personality even more than by her great fame as a sportswoman. He asked her to pose and made a heroic size sketch, as he did of all the figures in the mural. This is the sketch that was recently purchased by Lord and Lady Hastings and is now at the Palace of the Legion
Much to the surprise of both Helen and Rivera, objections were raised when the face of Helen became recognizable on the stock exchange mural. No doubt, some of the objections were based upon simple envy. When Rivera said that Helen was a representative woman, others thought they had a better claim to that title. Still others demanded that the head be made "typical of the finest California womanhood but not a portrait of any one individual." One member of the art commission objected to the use of Helen because, as he put it, "suppose she should turn professional." Some members of the stock exchange also objected on the grounds that they did not like the idea that "a tennis player was the model for 'California.'"
Rivera decided to compromise to some degree. He altered a few of the features of the central female figure and "generalized" them. But still, even when generalized, it looked like Helen. And the huge nude figure flying on the ceiling, entitled "Helen flying," also bears an nmistakable resemblance to her.
The finished mural had California symbolized by a large female figure -- a woman with tanned skin and "opulent curves," as Rivera described her, "modelled after the rolling hills of the landscape, with one hand opening the subsoil to the labor of miners and the other offering the ripe fruits of the earth."
When he was finished Rivera told local reporters of Helen, "She was my inspiration, but not the actual model. The figure represents my idea of the idealized type of California womanhood--a type perfectly exemplified by Mrs. Moody."
But in his autobiography, Rivera wrote that "in the central portion of the mural I painted a colossal figure of a woman representing California. The almost classically beautiful tennis champion, Helen Wills Moody, served as my model. In portraying her, I made no attempt to formalize her features but left them recognizably hers. Soon a cry was heard: California is an abstraction and should not be an identifiable likeness to anybody. To this I replied that
California is known abroad mainly because of Helen Wills Moody; that she seemed to represent California better than anyone I knew -- she was intelligent, energetic, and beautiful; and that, finally I thought her the best model, I had the right to use her. While the protest spent itself, I painted around her figure the rich and varied resources of the state; on her left, the lush griculture, its workers and heroes; on her right, industry, its buildings and machines, and representative working men and women. As a symbol of the future, I showed a young California boy facing the sky with a model airplane in his hands.
"On the ceiling above the wall, I painted a female nude in billowing clouds, symbolizing fertility of the earth as well as the natural interconnection of agriculture and industry."
Rivera's sketch for the design of the ceiling of the SF Stock Exchange Club
Rivera sketch for the face of Helen Wills on the ceiling of the SF Stock Exchange Club
A sidelight of the Rivera interest in Wills was the hiring of the muralist to work in Detroit. And Helen was indirectly responsible for that controversial work. Dr. William J. Valentiner came to Detroit from New York in 1921 to become director of the city's art museum. And in 1928, on her way home from winning the tennis titles of France, England and the United States, Helen stopped in Detroit to play an exhibition tennis match. Following the match Helen visited to Detroit Art Institute with her mother. There she met Valentiner, who gave her a personal tour of the museum. Valentiner also immediately developed what author Robert Lacey termed "a strange infatuation" for Helen. In June the next year, Valentiner wrote in his diary, "I am suddenly more interested in tennis than in art." And he rationalized his obsession in writing, "In some way the best types of well proportioned American women, in their nconscious proximity to nature and art, may well come closer to the Greek ideal than their European ounterparts." The next year he traveled to San Francisco, "in pursuit of his infatuation" and there he found Helen posing for Rivera. Helen introduced Valentiner to Rivera. Later that year, back in Detroit, Valentiner convinced the city's Arts Commission to hire Rivera to paint a mural and Edsel Ford put up $10,000 of his own money to help pay for the project. Rivera arrived in Detroit in the spring of 1932 to begin his controversial Detroit industry fresco.
Helen's popularity with artists like Rivera and Hassam and Patigian and Johns was paralleled by the adoration of the large segment of the American public for her in the late 1920s. Each day she received stacks of mail from young women asking her advice on how to dress, what sports to play, how to train, what schools to attend and so on. And even close friends like Phelan had friends in turn who asked him to solicit advice from Helen for their own daughters about sports and training and proper behavior. Helen tried to answer most of those inquiries.
And she became the object of romantic infatuation for tens of thousands of young men, as journalist Helena Huntington Smith found. Many of those young men were not happy simply with seeing her once, but became obsessed. In Berkeley a persistent young man was arrested for hanging around the Wills house in 1928, knocking on the door and personally delivering his letters to Helen. And in the early 1930s in London Fred Moody remembered another young man from a good family who wrote Helen a score of romantic notes that, as Fred remembered, "were really disgusting," and who attended all of her matches and sat at courtside and tried to get her attention. Finally, Fred said, he took the young man's letters to Scotland Yard and they took care of the situation. "But it really frightened Helen, what he was writing to her and so on."
Helen Wills posing for portrait by Leopold Seyffert.
Helen Wills Moody by Leopold Seyffert
Artist Joseph Cummings Chase with his portrait of Helen Wills, 1928.
Other young men who went on to distinguished careers in journalism or the arts were also deeply impressed and inspired by Helen. Poet John Berrryman insisted in his later years that he had once been a ball boy for Helen Wills at Forest Hills and he challenged his friends to top that.
One of the young men most infatuated by Helen was Jonathan Daniels, who went on to become an accomplished historian and journalist. Daniels met her in Paris in the spring of 1930 while he was there writing on a Guggenheim Fellowship and she was playing in the International Hard Court Championships. They met at a dinner given by the American Ambassador, Walter Edge. Helen was invited "because she was an American luminary in Paris," Daniels recalled. "I was a friend of a friend of the wife of the ambassador. I know of no other reason why an obscure writer would have been asked." Following the dinner Daniels escorted Helen to the opera.
"I think at the time we were both lonely people. My first wife had died a few months before and I am under the impression that Helen had been divorced for about the same period."[strangely, Helen was newly married at this time, to Fred Moody, who was in California].
"I remember a long walk we took along the bank of the Seine, stopping at the little book stalls along the way. She asked me to come see her play at Wimbledon, but my $2500 Guggenheim grant could not stand the expense."
Helen Wills shopping in book stalls along the Seine with a friend, May 20, 1929.
"In those days, in Paris, I was always ready to meet any new flame. It was a happy interlude with Helen. I think of us as walking along the Seine in a sort of hand-in-hand laughing relationship. Yet, by the book stalls and the river, we were sometimes very serious young people, too. I don't think either of us expected anything lasting to come of it. I had a book to write and she had worlds to conquer on the court. Of those days with Helen Wills I can say I don't regret one hour and sometimes I think that the times dallied there have served me best across the years."
Jonathan Daniels, 1921
In 1931 he saw her in New York when he was writing for Fortune magazine and she was still a tennis champion. "On this occasion she and I dined together at '21.'"
"Obviously, I found her good company," Daniels told me. "Also, I am sure I was impressed by her status in sports -- though in those days I was, as I am now, more of a cafe and books man than a sports enthusiast. She was a very beautiful woman. But my feeling long after the time was that she was a Galatea and I was just not the Pygmalion to bring her out of the marble. I don't think any man ever did."
She was in Europe alone for the first time in 1930. And she wrote to a friend, "When one travels alone, one discovers how much one loves the people who are important in one's life. It is perhaps good for a young person to travel alone so that he can discover this. I have made a number of discoveries about myself on this journey that are new to me and which would never have come to my attention had I been along with someone. In fact, I don't believe that I have
known myself very much until now."
Marjorie Morrill Painter gave me another perspective on Helen. She traveled with Helen and Edith Cross to the Hague and Berlin in 1929. Morrill was ranked sixth in the U.S. at the time. "You couldn't have asked for a more thoughtful and considerate person than Helen was at the time," she told me. "She always took the trouble to introduce us to some young men, who would wine and dine us; she helped us plan our sightseeing. She was at the time the center of attraction everywhere she went -- all sorts of young men paid homage to her, and with all that adulation she never let it turn her head. Photographers found her in out of the way places and she was always polite to them -- always. I remember in Berlin, I was relegated to answer the telephone as I could speak German quite well at the time. Numerous bouquets of flowers arrived and many callers who wished to take her out to dinner. She was a very shy person at heart, and though very friendly and fun when no one was around, seemed to put up a very different front when in public.
"Of course, her tennis came first. She kept very strict training, always in bed by 10, but did enjoy very much the attention of the men. I really don't think she allowed herself to get overly friendly with anyone. But, as I say, in private, she told us many amusing stories of her
experiences with men."
Helen's male tennis partners also came to adore here. Frank Hunter was on the Olympic Tennis Team in 1924 and he played doubles with Helen many times in the years after 1924. "In 1928 in Paris I played the mixed doubles tournament with Helen. We lost a close final round match to Cochet and Eileen Bennett after which I was very upset, naturally, taking all the blame. So Helen took me aside and said, 'Frank, don't let it bother you. That was just the experience we needed. If you're not already committed, I'd love to play Wimbledon with you next year, and believe me, we'll win it! I was thrilled beyond words to accept, and you know the result. We played it, and won the event quite easily. Do you wonder that Helen has always been and always
will be just tops in my affections."
Wilmer Allison, a top American player in the early 1930s, recalled spending an afternoon with Helen near Wimbledon crawling around in a strawberry field "picking those big delicious English strawberries" and then eating them. "She was always a delight -- a pure delight," he told me. "And don't let anyone try to tell you that she wasn't the greatest woman tennis player who ever lived. I watched her and I watched the women who came after her and I can tell you there was never anyone quite like Helen."
Don Budge, too, was in her thrall. "I met Helen Wills at the Berkeley Tennis Club during one of the California State Championships about 1932," he told me. " I was thrilled to meet such a great champion and such a fine lady. And I thought that if ever I became a champion I'd want to behave just like her. Helen Wills influenced me greatly. Whenever I learned that she would be practicing at the Berkeley Club I would ride up there on my bicycle and watch her hit topspin shots off both forehand and backhand, keeping them low over the net."
At the Essex County Club in Manchester by the Sea in Massachusetts, a young boy named Ben Bradlee, who was born in August, 1921, and whose great uncle was Edward Crowninshield, the brother of Frank Crowninshield, the founder and editor of Vanity Fair magazine, met Helen in the early 1930s. "We were asked by our great uncles to put up Helen Wills. I was a pretty fair player for my age and weight, and I was a ballboy in one of the matches. I remember being allowed to rally with her for a couple of minutes before one match. An old photographer for the Boston Globe, with one of those cameras that you used to look down into, even took a picture of it. She had in fact given me a racket -- a Gold Star, I remember -- the handle of which she autographed. I played with it, and then after the head started to warp, kept it on. I don't remember ever sleeping with it, but probably I did. I was thrilled. Helen was certainly one of the first women athletes to capture the imagination of this country at a time when there weren't many women competing."
Ben Bradlee with Katherine Graham
Helen Wills at Forest Hills, 1922, at the age of 16, after being defeated by defending US Champion Molla Bjursted Mallory, a Norwegian immigrant. Mallory never defeated Helen Again. In 1923 Helen took her title at Forest Hills.
Helen Wills at Forest Hills in 1922.
Helen Wills 1929
Helen Wills, 1929