For Iron Curtain poets and old hippies lost in a dead time, for misbegotten talents and esthetes weary of the world, the Chelsea Hotel in New York has long been an eminent stop on the international bohemian railroad. It is a place with an air of faded elegance, a place that has seen much light and much shadow. Thomas Wolfe loosed his mad river of genius there, Brendan Behan's whiskied braying shook its halls and it was there that Dylan Thomas ended his death march. It is also the retreat of Torben Ulrich. He is an amateur tennis player, which means he belongs anywhere but in the Chelsea Hotel.
Torben Ulrich, the bearded eternal transient, age 41 and from Copenhagen, has never really belonged anywhere, and won't until he ends up at some lonely Himalayan outpost reaching for enlightenment from a mysterious old Tibetan. He is simply an anomaly in world tennis, a man far removed from the Hilton-by-the-pool indolence, or the striped tents scented with gin and tonic and thick with private-school inflection. "Ulrich," says Gene Scott, long a player on the circuit, "is the game's one great blithe spirit. What is normal for everybody else is not for Torben. He sees everything from upside down."
Such a viewing angle is also helpful for any appreciation of Ulrich, especially when he suddenly materializes on the small, desolate fronts of winter tennis. The visual patterns seldom change during a year in these towns, and when Ulrich reaches a place such as Salisbury, Md. or Macon, Ga. he is the center of attention. It is almost as if the town, pained by its narrow conventions, has launched a campaign to "Make an Anarchist Feel at Home." It is also obvious he is one with the sideshow mutation, and the faces seem to say: great, but make sure you take him with you when you leave.
"Hey," says a man in Salisbury, "ya hear about Ulrich in Macon last year?"
April 7, 1969
"No, what happened in Ma...."
"He went to a Holy Roller meetin', you know, a revival."
"Is that right?"
"Yeah," says the man. "He was dyin' to see one of 'em, and you know what happened?"
"No, what hap...."
"He gets there," says the man, "and inside, the preacher, he's carryin' on somethin' awful. Sayin' all this stuff about the fires of hell, and askin' what they'd do if the good Lord himself walked in, just upped and walked right in on all them sinners. You know what! Here comes Torben down the aisle. The women turn around, the preacher looks, his eyes poppin'. Know what happened? Five of them women just upped and fainted right on the spot, and the preacher, he's up there hollerin': Oh, Lawd, oh, Laaawd, they're sinners no more."
"Hell, it wasn't five women, it was three," says a friend of the storyteller. "Besides," he adds, "that weren't nothin' to what he done here last year."
"What's that?" he was asked.
"Well," says the friend, "you know they won't let him drive here. They won't give him a courteous car like the rest of 'em git."
"Why? Was he drinkin' and drivin'?"
"No," says the friend, "he don't drink. He don't need to drink. It was just that he was a little mixed up, that's all. The cops caught him drivin' on the sidewalk at 3 in the mornin', and so this year they say, real nicelike: 'Look, we don't mind him drivin' on the sidewalk, but he was even goin' the wrong way.' "
Wrong way or right way, he is a sort of gargoyle in a pretty game played and watched by pretty people. As tennis now slowly and desperately tries to lure the masses, Ulrich is invaluable. He is not among the circuit's giants, but he is its most fascinating, most captivating figure. Win or lose, he provokes reaction and constant comment, the one indispensable vitamin for all sports.
"Tennis is often a faceless operation," says Scott. "Torben brings something extra to it, something that it all too often lacks. It's the sudden, weird things that he does. For instance, there was this recent time in Richmond. There was this girl who was wearing a very short miniskirt. The whole house, including the players, could not keep their eyes off of her. Now, Torben is getting ready to serve when he suddenly freezes in midair, then walks over to the stands. Everybody is wondering where he's going. He stops behind the girl and quickly drops a ball down her back. I know of no other player who has ever coped with a distraction in such a gentle, colorful way. He simply rocked the house."
Ulrich's personal style diverts one from the fact that he has often been among the early victims in tournaments, but just as frequently he somehow manages to become a plausible, if not genuine, threat in the big events. Last year at Forest Hills he lost to John Newcombe in the fourth round, but only after leading two sets to love. He did have a stroke of bad luck that day, though. On one vital point a butterfly flew into his face and forced him to volley weakly. "Did the butterfly bother you?" he was asked. Torben thought for a long moment, and then in a soft, distant voice he quoted the ancient Taoist Chuang-tzu: "Was I then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly dreaming I am a man?"
So there he was once more at Salisbury last month in the National Indoor, a splendid bet not to survive the early rounds. He came to the little town on the Eastern Shore with only one victory in 1968, that being an amusing caper called the Montana (Switzerland) International. "Did I win that?" he asked, when the press reminded him of it. Torben went on to reach the semifinals in the National, where he was beaten by the Egyptian El Shafei, whose father lost to Ulrich in the 1948 Davis Cup. Unquestionably, his performance and presence rescued the tournament, which was badly marred by the sudden withdrawal of Arthur Ashe. He certainly did much to mollify an agitated press.
A game of manners and gentility, tennis is often both graceless and styleless. Its high priests, with exceptions, are ceremonious bureaucrats, forever dispensing the worst sort of nonsense. Its players, who demand behavior from an audience, are pompous, rude and often seem on the surface too much like Robert Cohn in The Sun Also Rises. At Salisbury, for instance, the players were in good form; the whining was constant, but a Briton named Bobby Wilson was the most inspired. After having been routinely described as "balding and paunchy"—which he was—Wilson flew up to the press box eager for combat and reform. America's press, he lamented, had too much bloody freedom.
Wilson succeeded only in baiting the press for Ulrich, who had just advanced to the semifinals. Anxiously, the reporters waited for him, but he was quite late in coming to the press trailer next to the dressing room. "He'll be here in a second," said a press aide. Then, trying to lighten the heavy air, he added: "He's taking his hair down." Nobody laughed, and soon Torben entered the trailer, like some tired old monk bringing up the end of a procession. His hair, which he wears in a ponytail on the court, was down. His beard was moist from sweat. His voice, as it always is, was saintly, confessional in tone. He knelt down.
"Sit on the chair, Torben," a reporter suggested.
"No, noooo," said Torben. "I want to be on your level."
"You're not down far enough," someone said.
"How old are you, really?" he was asked. "Forty-one?"
"How old is old?" Torben said. "What is age? Am I 41, or am I 21? Who knows?"
"You're playing well now," a reporter said. "Do you think you will win tomorrow?"
"No, noooo," said Torben. "I will not win. What is winning?"
Granted, the questions and comments were hardly quaking, but he did erase the hostility in the room. He was disarming, charming and—as always—confusing. It was also clear that the result is of little importance to him. Twice during his career he has walked off the court in the middle of a match. Last August in Boston he quit in protest over "inhumane" scheduling, and once long ago in San Francisco he stopped playing when his opponent refused to cease lobbing on every return. "I had asked him nicely several times to stop it," says Torben, "but he told me to mind my own business. So I finally just walked off the court. But I was wrong. The late Sidney Bechet [the storied clarinetist who once ruled jazz in Europe] called me to his room the next day. He was my friend, and he told me that I had behaved badly. He told me that I had to learn patience, that I should have responded to the challenge of the lob, that I should not have embarrassed the other man that way. He was, of course, so right."
Whether it is because of his attitude toward winning or losing ("It is merely an announcement"), or because of his benign manner, Ulrich is also extremely popular among the players on the circuit, all of whom are as different and as alike as parts in a puzzle. They come to this floating fairyland of world tennis with their Down Under twangs, samba chatter and old-school-tie sophistication, they come like kids skipping toward the carrousel on a Sunday afternoon. It is the sound of the calliope that draws them, the promise of a happy time, another life where the nights are lit with Chinese lanterns and filled with thin, wistful music, where the whirl never stops and there is no need to plant your feet and turn to that which the standstill world deems, with reverence, honest toil.
Be a respectable player, and the trip never ends. Get knocked off in too many first rounds, and suddenly there is a man with a badge on his lapel tapping you on the shoulder, or a mailbox without any invitations. The one pressure is to stay respectable. In such a life one fights, envies and hates behind a painted smile. Yet no one, neither the eager, insensitive kid nor the veteran, sunbaked and conditioned to competition, his ears up for footsteps, eyes out for a teaching job, ever talks of Ulrich with rancor. You might mutter at the sight of your name opposite his in the draw and damn "the old man's stamina and touch," or the spin that stops a ball dead, makes it break right or left, or sends it shooting low and deep off the canvas or grass, but you cannot dislike him. And, too, there is always the wish that people did not know Torben was 41, that he did not have flecks of gray in his beard and mane and that the crowd did not have to be with him on every shot, on every call.
"Over the years," says one young player, "it seems he has never lost the key. When it looks like he is ready to come apart, he comes up with that one big match. He remains respectable."
What keeps an aging athlete, a man with so many other interests, forever on this circuit that never seems to have a beginning or end? Why doesn't he grow weary of this repetitive panorama of changing vistas? Money? He does not care for or need money. His mother died a few years ago, and he inherited a small fortune which gives him about 3,000 kroner ($228) a month. He also writes a jazz column for a Copenhagen daily paper. His expenses are meager, mainly because he lives (with his wife and son) in a house owned by his father-in-law, and the only money he spends is on jazz records.
Can it be, then, that he has always been and is bored, that the travel, the social spin of tinkling glasses, Caribbean breezes and the faces of pretty women shaded by parasols become some sort of narcotic? By nature, Ulrich could never be drawn to this side of tennis. When off the court, he is like a shadow moving across a prairie. He moves quickly, silently and always by himself, usually to some dark, uncharted jazz club or back to his room where he listens to his records. He is rarely sleeping before 4 a.m., and he is seldom awake by 4 in the afternoon—unless he decides to rise early and embark on one of his 12-mile "purification" runs in a nearby park. It is, it would seem, an unexciting life, but the swing of tennis is not always constant, not endlessly pulsating for the others, either.
The circuit at times can be quite empty. There is the loneliness of missing connections in Omaha, arriving late and unmet in the stark strangeness of Salisbury, and then the search for the security of bed and board in a stranger's home through the 1 a.m. celluloid sound of a sleepy voice on the other end of a dime phone call. Or there are the weird, polite introductions to the girls that go with the party, the ones who look and talk and act so much the same that you sometimes find yourself continuing from the middle of a conversation begun three weeks, three tournaments, three girls and 2,000 miles away. And she looks at you blankly, and smiles:
"Oh, you just left Omaha, didn't you?"
"Yes, I was in Omaha."
"I've never been to Omaha."
"That was my first time in Omaha."
"I bet it's cold in Omaha."
"No, Omaha's not too cold."
Omaha or the Montana (Switzerland) International, it is all the same to Ulrich. The peripheral things do not move him. He continues to play because the game, like jazz, has become an extension of himself, a thing vital to the understanding of his self. Then there is the feel of the game that he is always so conscious of: the sweet percussion of ball and gut, the beautiful flow and pattern when a point is played out to the full. That feel is certainly evident when you watch him. He plays a game within a game according to rules he alone understands, to a tune he alone is hearing. It is a muted, delicate kind of style, with odd angles and spins that seem to dull his opponent's pace, with a blueprint that is designed around whomever he is playing. He becomes a part of the game, not a disruptive part, but a part almost like the ball, moving as gracefully, as predictably as the movements of a piece of music. At times, when he is right, you wish that the game was being played in the dark with a luminous ball and rackets just so you could watch the beautiful light patterns.
Ulrich thinks of tennis, and most all other things, in the "unlanguage" of music, and he has spent a lifetime trying to see the world and everything in it without distortion. "What is speed?" he says. "Is speed fast or slow? Speed, I sometimes think, is relative to observation. If I am concentrating properly, really seeing, a big serve will be coming at me in slow motion. It is like that with music, too. I don't know what music is anymore. Everything is theater, the dance, traveling, electronic music, athletics. I cannot separate things and say 'this is relative to tennis while that is relative to music' When I board a plane and listen to the sound of the engines and the wind and the pilot's voice, it is certainly an intense sound, and since all sound can be music, then this is part of the music. But, you see, it is also part of the tennis because I am leaving one tournament and going to another."
With that farawayness in his eyes he stares for a long time, and then continues: "Some years ago a distributor of French steel rackets wanted me to endorse and use his product. I tried it and did not like it for one overriding reason, even though I sometimes use one now. The sound of the ball on the strings confused me. It was not the sound that I associated with hitting a tennis ball with a racket. It was something different, and I could not accept it. I could not adjust to having this new sound become a part of my tennis. One of the reasons I did not enjoy playing in Philadelphia [at the Spectrum] had to do with sound. Because of the size of the arena and several other things, the spectators were deprived of the dramatic sound of tennis. There was a constant buzzing of the people, and there was an air-circulation system which combined with the very soft court surface to muffle the sound of tennis. I'm sure the spectators lost something. They could not get involved personally with a match because they couldn't hear it as well as they should have. It was like watching people make love through a glass but not being able to hear the sound. One must hear the sound of an activity.
"All movement or activity in a certain place can only be best, or ideal, if it is in harmony with the tonic of that place. [The tonic is the keynote sound of the chord.] The tonic changes. It is different if you listen for it in a crowded arena than it is at seaside, for instance. I try to relate that to all the places I am. There is a specific tonic for each place. The tonic for New York is one thing, and it is still another thing for Salisbury. Here in the semifinals I couldn't find my song today. I couldn't relate all my moves to the basic sound of the place. If I had had time before the match today, I might have warmed up in my room skipping rope to some rhythm and blues.
"There is not necessarily more depth to me in music than in tennis or anything. I simply try to do everything as well as I can. Everything is a fitting part of everything else I do. Now you can say that each person needs one area which has more depth for him than any other, but it needn't be anything as intellectual as music. One can find depth in raising cattle or potatoes. But to me nothing is more important than anything else, but nothing is less important, either. All things are a part of everything else.
"When I listen to music, I try to just enjoy it and let the music take over completely. The music will take care of itself and consume my concentration. It takes over and directs me. It is the music which is doing the directing, not me. This happens in tennis, too. The match completely takes me over. If I am in my groove, the ball will take care of itself, and my movements and thoughts and concentration will be determined and conducted by the ball, not by me. The same is true of music. It is the thing—music, ball—which is the doer, not the person."
Words do not often come so easily to Ulrich. Talking is painful, and writing is a hellish exercise. Once long ago, when he was working in a Copenhagen advertising agency as a copywriter, he failed miserably, mainly because he was impossibly slow and because he had what amounted to a mania for accuracy; before he purchased a typewriter he would write in longhand and count every character to make it all fit. Since then, he has been successful writing jazz critiques, which are quite esoteric, and occasionally he covers certain events, like the Yippie Spring Festival of the Pig last year at Grand Central in New York City; it got out of hand, and Ulrich was promptly dispatched through a glass door. He has also written a surrealistic book, which remains unpublished. One paragraph begins: "A humid day towards the end of May 1950 sitting in the tepid shallow cool of my laziness I am painfully aware in my body sits a force with an intense urge to sing happy little songs...."
His growing disenchantment with words can be identified with that which seems to be at the core of the whole hippie movement, the word revolution. One must feel, must touch his inner self and listen to the sound of life. Look for the emotional experience, let it happen and, as with a Harold Pinter play, do not relate until it is over. Because of his word revolt, Ulrich is often impenetrable. He is there, and then suddenly he is gone, like the snow in a Japanese nature poem:
On the plum blossoms / Thick fell the snow / I wished to gather some, to show you, but it melted in my hands.
Most of all he talks with questions, all of which seem bound remotely to some of the basic koans of Zen: What is Mu? What is the sound of one hand clapping? What is your face before your parents' birth?
Zen, which is highly complex and elusive, has no hard definition, but you might say it is a way of liberation, a way that demands persistent questioning of your impressions, thoughts and theories. Only the experience counts, and only when one has freed himself from his self, from the idea of "I," and conquered all desires can he achieve real happiness. The koan's object is to liberate the mind, to force the student away from all that "fits over experience like a strait-jacket." Mu, which means no or not, is the one great barrier to enlightenment. The interrogation of oneself is intense, and then after many years one might have a flash of understanding, might perceive (the masters say) that Mu is the expression of the living Buddha nature, or: "All is one, one is none, none is all." Then the master, wary of false discovery, will say: "Cut Mu into three parts. Show me Mu on a mountain."
The pursuit is endless, and it is clear that Ulrich began the chase early in life. He attended a suburban public school in Copenhagen, but scholastic achievement was of no import to him. His marks were not good, he ignored the conventions of the school and he often drifted in thought far from classroom work. To many Danes, a practical people, he is no different today. His disregard for the hard realities of life is perplexing, and his disinterest in money is foreign. Torben's wife usually gives him the day's ration of pocket money, but he seldom uses it. He is simply content walking around, hanging around, seeing his friends, playing or just sitting and pondering. He is, the Danes are certain, very odd. Look at the incident, they say, when the Danish policeman stopped Torben while he was driving late one night. The cop, sniffing for the presence of alcohol, stuck his nose into the car. He then suddenly leaped away. The gentle monk had bitten his nose.
Existence, though, has not always been so uneventful, or euphoric, for Ulrich. His mother, to whom he was especially close, was part Jewish, and during the Nazi occupation of Denmark she and Torben, then 15, were forced to flee across the sound to Sweden in a fishing boat. The Germans discovered them, shot at the boat and captured all aboard. Torben and his mother were sent to a Danish concentration camp. "But," says Torben, "my blood wasn't fine enough. I wasn't enough of a Jew for them, so I was released after two weeks." The real reason, it appears, for his sudden release is probably because of Denmark itself, the one country that largely circumvented the Jewish genocide. All the Danes claimed to be Jews.
The Danish campaign had been so successful that not even Torben's teacher believed that he had been in a concentration camp. He returned to the school for one day. The teacher started hearing the day's lessons and called on young Ulrich. He said that unfortunately he was not prepared properly because he had been detained by the Germans. Thinking that he was being made to seem like a fool, the teacher boxed Torben on the ear. "I took my books and left and I did not return," says Torben. Later he escaped to Sweden where—in a private school—he developed a sharp interest in philosophy and tennis. Then, with the war over, he returned to Denmark. He never did finish high school. His mind had advanced to new frontiers, had begun its search for that song he is always listening for, a song that, like a passing train, is there and then is gone.
The search for himself, through tennis on courts from Rangoon to Salisbury, through jazz in clubs from Paris to Macao, may never end. Nor will he ever be spent like a musician nodding on his horn in the half-light of a dark basement. Pursued forever by his own mind, he is still serene, content with his aloneness. He is never bored; often he just experiments with his muscle movements, taking, say, 40 minutes to walk up stairs, or 25 minutes to open a door. "It is like slow motion," he says, "I gain knowledge of my body structure, a map of my muscles." Is he, as some think, a put-on? As he sits in the Chelsea, the Tibetan Book of the Dead open on the bed, one wonders, and then the thought somehow quickly fades. He is not a hippie of the contrived strain or, indeed, even a clever vagrant. He is an original—the sound of one hand clapping.