By his own definition, James Henry Van Alen, a millionaire sportsman of 69 who looks like a cherub, is "a busy little body." He has been called "the first gentleman of Old Guard society in America" and "Newport's last grand homme," and, given his money and position, Van Alen could have been just another social gadabout, but he is driven by an almost manic spirit of noblesse oblige. In his efforts to make the world a better place than he found it, Van Alen has espoused the cause of Santa Claus, put up the money to rescue the journals of James Boswell from Malahide Castle in Ireland, edited the North American Review, rejuvenated the Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Club in New York, saved the landmark Newport Casino, collected the greater bustard and other rare Iberian birds for the American Museum of Natural History and promoted the reformation of scoring in tennis with such fervor that he was recently given a new sobriquet, "the Rolls-Royce radical."
Of all his interests, Van Alen is most intense about tennis. A tournament player in his younger days, he says, "I don't want you to think I'm a nut, but tennis established me on my own." As far as Van Alen is concerned, millions upon millions of people should be playing tennis regularly, but in his opinion the sport will never achieve the great popularity it deserves as long as matches drag on and the scoring is obscured with terms such as "love" and "deuce," pseudoarchaic words imposed on tennis, Van Alen says, by the English in 1873.
In line with this Van Alen, who turns out verse on any subject that engages him, has written a poem, The Facts of Love, which goes in part:
The French think English crazy
For the way they score at tennis—
To claim that 'love' means nothing
To a Frenchman makes no sennis.
"Love all" the English umpire cries,
And means a double zero;
What more's required to prove
The English thinking's out of gear-o?
August 27, 1972
It's true that 'l'oeuf' means 'egg' in French,
And sounds like "love" in English;
But Frenchmen claim a moron should
Be able to distinguish;
For love is love the world around
And zero's always zero,
And they who claim they mean the same
Must be a trifle queer-o.
To reform tennis Van Alen has thought up the Van Alen Simplified Scoring System, known as VASSS. In VASSS zero replaces the term love, and deuce and advantage are eliminated entirely. Briefly put, individual games are simply scored one, two, three instead of 15, 30, 40, and the game goes to the first player who wins four points. Should players be tied 6-6 in games, they then play a nine-point sudden death with the set going to the player who first scores five points. By using VASSS, no match can last longer than about an hour and 10 minutes or, as Van Alen puts it, "Just about as long as I care to watch people play tennis."
As the result of devising VASSS, Van Alen is convinced that his name will go down in history. "Pasteur pasteurized milk, I will VASSSify tennis," he says. His Humber touring car has Rhode Island plates that proclaim VASSS, and for a brief while he even considered changing the name of his Newport cottage, Avalon, one of four residences he maintains in the U.S. and Europe, to YASSSalon, but thought better of it. When Van Alen can't use VASSS to, excuse the word, advantage, he goes around marking everything with his family initials, an intertwined VA. Thus the towels in Van Alen's bathroom look as though they had been stolen from the Veterans Administration, and the VA that he attached to the hood of his Rolls-Royce, in place of the figure of the lady, made his Rolls dealer apoplectic. The dealer complained that Van Alen was making the Rolls look like a Volkswagen. In his spare time, Van Alen designs jewelry with a VA motif for his wife Candy, who says, "I love to have Jimmy doodle in gold or diamonds or whatever."
Tennis is not the only sport that Van Alen would reform. Indeed, he has so many ideas about other sports that he is thinking of going into business as VASSS Inc., Spectator Sports Specialist. "I'm going to look at any game from the point of view of the spectator," he says. "People want blood! Out at Forest Hills, people get blood with sudden death. If I go to a baseball game I want to see runs made, hits made, action! They've lowered the mound. That's not enough! I'd like to sec ball games won 28-27!" To accomplish this Van Alen would move the pitcher's rubber back five feet—"The pitcher in baseball was supposed to put the ball into play, not end it with a strikeout"—and have the ball slightly softened. Van Alen has little regard for home runs. I [e finds no excitement in the ball soaring over the fence, but doubles and triples are the very Stuff of blood to him. To make sure that batters hit slews of doubles and triples with the softened ball. Van Alen would do away with the center-fielder and the shortstop.
Yacht racing is another sport Van Alen deems in need of reform, particularly the America's Cup which, he says, is "deader than Admiral Nelson's left aim." Van Alen's low opinion of the cup races stirs up Newport, especially when he endorses Ring Lardner's idea of taking the yachts to the Niagara River and starting the race 100 yards above the falls. As Van Alen sees it, no foreign yacht ever has a chance because of the U.S. edge in hull design and sail-making. To make the cup truly a test of seamanship, he proposes competing crews swap boats after each race.
For a supposed radical in sports, Van Alen has impeccable credentials. He was captain of the lawn tennis team at Cambridge, a well-known amateur player in the 1920s, thrice U.S. court tennis champion in the '30s, and nowadays holds the presidencies of both the Newport Casino and the National Lawn Tennis Hall of Fame as well as membership in such plush clubs as Piping Rock, Racquet and Tennis, River, Knickerbocker and Spouting Rock in this country and Buck's and the Bath in England. Knowing everyone in the Establishment, he has the contacts and the time and energy to do "my yammering, squawking and shouting" about VASSS practically nonstop. If Van Alen can't corner a sympathetic audience in person to extol the merits of VASSS he relies on the telephone, and he calls with such frequency that the numbers and letters have disappeared from the dial faces of the phones in his Fifth Avenue apartment.
On occasion Van Alen will even take to his car and hunt for someone to talk to about VASSS. A couple of years ago he stopped at the home of a sportswriter on his day off. The writer was not there, but his wife was. "That's all light, I'll wait," Van Alen announced cheerfully, and he thereupon sat himself down at the piano for three hours, playing and singing songs of his own composition. All his life Van Alen has reveled in poet and song. One of his earliest recollections is standing at attention with his father's letter opener for a sword and reciting How Well I Remember the Days of '61. Van Alen has a great interest in the Civil War; his great grandfather and namesake. Brigadier General James Henry Van Alen, raised and equipped the Third New York Volunteer Cavalry and served on the staff of Fighting Joe Hooker. "Fighting Joe Hooker, His name more than described certain interests," Van Alen mused recently before plunging into his own poem Pickett's Charge. His favorite poem by another author is Clement C. Moore's A Visit from St. Nicholas. As a boy Van Alen always thought that the poem ended too soon, and moreover, he worried that Father, who is standing by the open window as the poem closes, would catch cold, and to rectify this he has written additional verses in which Father climbs back into bed and pulls "the covers right up to my head.... My heart full and happy, my cap pulled on tight, I settled myself for the rest of the night."
Every Christmas Van Alen dresses up in a velvet Victorian suit to read A Visit from St. Nicholas to youngsters at Clement Moore's old home in Newport. As president of the House of Santa Claus Society, Van Alen has hopes of buying the Moore place and setting it aside as a Museum of Santa Clausiana replete with stalls for Donder and Blitzen and the rest of the reindeer. This Christmas Eve he would like to read A Visit from St. Nicholas in the White House. The idea is not farfetched. An ardent Republican, Van Alen composed and sang the song Good Evening, Mr. President at Eisenhower's first inaugural ball. It begins:
The country, Mr. President, is sure that you will keep
Our people freedom minded, and not governmental sheep.
'Bang!' goes inflation; corruption's on the run.
Before you've really started, the whole free world is shouting,
Ever on the go, Van Alen is the last man to shirk a challenge. "If you don't risk in depth, you can never reach in height," he says. Even so, he occasionally comes a cropper. Back in the 1950s Van Alen decided to bring to the U.S. the European robin, a bird he fell in love with as a child after reading The Death and Burial of Cock Robin and The Bolus in the Wood. He imported three robins from Belgium and put them in a specially constructed "Robin Room" in the basement of his house in Washington, where he was then serving as an Eisenhower appointee on the Selective Service Commission. Van Alen built the Robin Room "so I could have little ones," but no little ones were forthcoming, since all three turned out to be males. A year later, Van Alen took the robins to Newport and released them. "It was autumn," he recalls. "I said, 'Goodby, little robins.' 'Goodby,' they said." As much as Van Alen loves robins, it is doubtful he will ever try the experiment again, since federal authorities have warned him that introduction of exotic birds is prohibited by law.
Born in Newport, Van Alen is of old New York stock with Astor and Vanderbilt blood in his veins. Raised in both the U.S. and England, he spent a good part of his childhood alone, tended by Servants. At Rushton Hall, his grandfather's 4,000-acre estate in Northamptonshire, a groom in top hat, cutaway and butcher boots was assigned to take Master James, wearing white breeches and a white cockade in his hat, pony riding every day. Since Van Alen's mother was fearful that the pony might run away with her son, the groom was instructed to go alongside with a lead. "I would say, 'Trot, George, trot!' " says Van Alen. "He would say, 'Yes, Master James.' I had no idea the man was being degraded." Inasmuch as Master James spoke with an American accent in Britain and a British accent here, he found himself challenged to lights until his father's valet, John Dono, taught him to defend himself. As a result, whenever Master James met a new youngster, he would shoot out a clenched list beneath the boy's nose and shout fiercely, "Smell this!" Van Alen's combative nature occasionally surges to the fore even now. Several years ago, while serving as a linesman in a match at Newport, Van Alen jumped to his feet after Pancho Gonzales angrily hit a ball over the Casino roof while playing VASSS tennis. Van Alen went straight up to Gonzales and told him in no uncertain words that such behavior would not be tolerated. Gonzales backed off, muttering.
Looking back on his childhood, Van Alen finds his upbringing of immense value. "Having been brought up in the servant's hall, I know the servant's mind." he says. "I know all the waiters and the people who play in bands. When-ever I arrive at a parts and Meyer Davis' band sees me, they stop and play My Shining Hour. My theme song, a wonderful song. The words are right, and the melody has that warmth."
After attending preparatory school in England, Van Alen was supposed to go to Eton, his father's public school, but the start of World War I caught Van Alen in the U.S. and he was sent off to St. George's in Newport and then to the Lake Placid School. Summers were spent at Newport, where he took up lawn tennis under the tutelage of Craig Biddle, the father of a friend. When Van Alen proved adept, Biddle suggested that he enter the juniors at Forest Hills. However, Van Alen's father refused to let him go. "What!" he exclaimed. "Send James down to a place like that to play scallawags!"
In 1920 Van Alen went to England where he enrolled at Christ College, Cambridge. Not knowing any of the other students, he discovered, to his pleasure and surprise, that tennis opened the way for him. "This game was my passport," Van Alen says. "Tennis made a life for me. James Van Alen—my name was on boards. I became captain of the Cambridge lawn tennis team. I became a personality." The student magazine, The Crania, described Van Alen as "a considerable personage who shines in any society...if America has any more James Henry's, let's have 'em.' "
With his stylish placement game Van Alen captained an Oxford-Cambridge team that beat Harvard and Yale at Eastbourne. This was at the height of what Van Alen calls "my great period, my lawn tennis period." He went to Wimbledon and the south of France where he once was to play doubles with King Gustav of Sweden, "but then," he says, "I fell off a battleship—a British battleship, where there are no problems with getting brandy." In between tennis seasons Van Alen indulged in shooting and stalking, both still passions. (Van Alen's wife Candy, who is fond of traveling, says, "I know I can get him to go if there's something to shoot.")
Returning to the U.S. he and his younger brother Sam almost beat Bill Tilden and Frank Hunter at Newport, losing the third set 7-5. "No dinner parties were on time that night," Van Alen says. When he realized he was not going to be the greatest tennis player in the world, he gave up competing in the sport, and when he married his first wife, Eleanor Langley, he even stopped going to Newport because she hated it. His wife's family were very horsey, and with his usual zest Van Alen rode to hounds and played polo. But horses could never take the place of racket sports. Under the guidance of World Champion Pierre Etchebaster, the court tennis professional at the Racquet and Tennis Club, he took up the intricacies of that sport. He won the U.S. championship in 1933, 1938 and 1940. "Jimmy had beautiful classic strokes." says Allison Danzig, who covered court tennis for The New York Times. "I wouldn't say he was the best amateur who ever lived in this country, but he was a very smart player who got the most out of his abilities." In 1954 Van Alen persuaded clubs in Philadelphia, New York and Boston to let Princeton. Yale and Harvard students practice the game so they could compete against an Oxford-Cambridge combine for a cup Van Alen found in a secondhand shop in London. The matches are now held every two years with Van Alen usually on hand to present the trophy.
When not off sporting somewhere, Van Alen, his wife and their two sons lived mainly on Long Island, where he busied himself with the North American Review and a chain of weekly newspapers. Sensing war was coming, he joined the Navy in 1939 and was commissioned a lieutenant in the reserve. called to duty in 1941, he was first put in charge of the Navy's New York publicity office, where he was responsible for getting William H. White of The Reader's Digest to write the bestseller They Were Expendable. Later Van Alen served in England, where he came up with the idea of preloading ships for the Normandy invasion. After Normandy he ran a novel rest and rehabilitation camp in which he personally led the men on a mile run at six every morning. Throughout the war Van Alen carried on with his customary flair. When an enterprising fellow officer found himself suddenly billed ¬£50,000 for the construction of a sailors' club in London, Van Alen used his Old Boy friendships with the British to see to it that the bill was charged off against Lend Lease.
Returning home, Van Alen found his marriage had gone sour, and he and his wife were divorced. In 1948 he married again, this time to the front page headline in The New York World-Telegram CANDY VANDERLIP TIPTOEING TO ALTAR WITH JIMMY VAN ALEN A LA HUSH HUSH. Unlike the first Mrs. Van Alen, Candy liked Newport and got along famously with her husband's mother, Mrs. Louis Bruguiére, who ran Wakehurst, the last "proper" house in Newport, staffed by 23 servants who piled up freshly cut flowers grown on the grounds in the ballroom lit by 146 candles.
Early on in his second life in Newport, Van Alen was asked to take the presidency of the lavish Newport Casino, a private club founded by James Gordon Bennett in 1880 and designed by Stanford White in Victorian Chinese style. The Casino had seen better days before World War I, when it annually held the U.S. national lawn tennis championships, later removed to Forest Hills. At great personal expense Van Alen set about refurbishing the Casino and in 1954 he was able to get the USLTA to authorize the establishment of the Hall of Fame there.
Under Van Alen's direction, the Newport invitational tournament took on added gloss. His mother would attend, seated either in a peacock wicker chair or in the back of her chauffeured Rolls parked within a few feet of the grass courts. It took several years for the germinal seeds of VASSS to sprout within Van Alen's brain. He first had a clue that all was not well when he realized that a number of people who had been buying boxes for years hadn't the foggiest idea of what was going on in a match because they did not understand the scoring and were too timid to ask. Then matches had a way of dragging on interminably. In 1957 the idea for changing the scoring hit Van Alen when there was a marathon singles final between Ham Richardson and Straight Clark. A dull match to begin with, it lasted 3½ hours, and as a result no one ever got to sec the exciting doubles final between Lew Hoad-Ken Rosewall and Mervyn Rose-Rex Hartwig, who were forced to play on a side court.
VASSS offers various alternatives. Instead of playing games to make a set, one system allows players to compete in a 31-point set, something like table tennis, and as far as Van Alen is concerned, it makes handicapping simple and practicable and permits round-robin medal play that is ideal for club weekend tournaments. Above all, VASSS controls the number of points in a set and thus limits the length of a match, enabling players, spectators and TV programmers to plan an accurate time schedule. Van Alen is convinced that once big-time tennis fully adopts VASSS, the sport will become more popular than ever because matches will be able to start and finish at the time announced. Above all, Van Alen believes VASSS will allow fellow senior citizens to play a match to a conclusion without suffering undue fatigue.
Van Alen also feels strongly about the big serve. He is against it on the grounds that it makes matches dull with its weak return and smashing volley. To minimize the importance of the power serve, Van Alen advocates drawing a server's line three feet behind the baseline or eliminating the second serve. This idea has not gone down as well as his concept of sudden-death play in a set. Even there, he finds that the pros have altered sudden death from nine to 12 points. "The other players have gone along with Rod Laver and 12-point sudden death," says Van Alen. "A 12-point sudden death favors Laver in the percentages, but all the other players have jumped up and down like a lot of little monkeys shouting, 'Woo, woo!' "
This week the women on the Virginia Slims tour are using VASSS—the real VASSS—at their Newport tournament, and while Van Alen waits impatiently for the rest of the tennis world to fall in line he has embarked on an even more ambitious program—saving all the U.S., including tennis players. A newly dedicated member of the Committee to Unite for America, he has been instrumental in getting out buttons and bumper stickers that proclaim, "For America." Van Alen wants to organize the "sound-thinking majority to rebuild patriotism and armaments" because, in his opinion, "The chips are down, our backs are to the wall, the fight is for survival. Time is short. Dr. Edward Teller told a meeting of the committee that the Russians will be able to overwhelm us in just two years unless we build up our strength and, moreover, we are threatened by dissidents with unkempt locks and shoddy habits who foment strikes and campus disorders. We've got to get back to the good old days."
Several months ago Van Alen tried to do his best by his old service, the Navy, in his For America campaign. He went to Washington to call upon John Chafee, a Rhode Islander who was then Secretary of the Navy. As Chafee and a Navy captain and commander listened, Van Alen offered his program to get sailors into fighting trim. As part of the program, he recommended the installation of chinning bars aboard ships at sea so sailors could strengthen their grips. "Nobody cares about good strong hands," Van Alen told them. The captain and the commander pointed out, with deferential hems and haws, that Van Alen's program would cost considerable money and time to get it underway, and it really wouldn't be worthwhile. "But this will be for the officers, too," Van Alen replied. And no sooner had he said that than he realized he had lost his audience, such as it was.
No matter whether he is saving the U.S. or tennis, Van Alen refreshes his morale with purely personal projects. At present he is trying to find a publisher to bring out his odes to Scotland, Songs of Heather, Fur and leather, illustrated, at his commission, by Lionel Edwards, the late British sporting artist. It has, Van Alen says, some memorable poems, such as Little Hans, the Partridge Hound. Uncharacteristically, Van Alen refuses to recite it. "Whenever I read this, I burst into tears," Van Alen says. But then, smiling cheerfully, he leans close and asks, "But what's a tear or two?"