On both sides, forebears of William Tatem Tilden II were British. His mother was Selina Hey, called Linie, one of four daughters of David and Selina Hey, who came to Philadelphia from Yorkshire in the middle of the 19th century. David Hey established a wool-importing business that soon prospered.
The Tildens, as all Tildens, hailed from Kent. It is an ancient and distinguished line; Tyldens married into William the Conquerors family not long after the Battle of Hastings; one helped finance the Mayflower; the first arrived in the colonies, with seven servants, in 1634.
Generally speaking, there were three Tilden lines in America. One branch went to Canada, and the name is well advertised there today by Tilden Rent-A-Car, Canada's largest firm of that kind. Another branch, centering on New York, produced Samuel Tilden, who won the popular vote over Rutherford B. Hayes in the 1876 presidential election but was cheated out of the office by carpetbag politics in the only certified presidential vote fraud in U.S. history. Bill Tilden came from the southern branch, which resided, for the most part, in Delaware and Maryland.
William Tatem Tilden Sr. was born in 1855 at St. George's, Del. but after his father's death moved to Philadelphia with his mother, Williamina. He enrolled at Central High and began working as an office boy, eventually landing a job with David Hey's woolen firm. Tilden Senior was an impressive young man, nice looking, ambitious and capable; indeed, it was not so much a case of his marrying the boss' daughter as of the boss making sure that one of his daughters latched onto this fine specimen. Linie Hey opened the door when young Tilden accepted her father's invitation to call, and she did not let any of her sisters claim the prize. The Tildens were married on a clear autumn Thursday, Nov. 6, 1879, and David Hey soon proudly accepted his son-in-law as a partner.
January 20, 1975
By next spring, Linie was pregnant with her first child, Elizabeth Hey. Hardly a year after that, the prospering Tilden was given his son and heir, Harry Bower, and in June 1883 a third healthy child, Williamina Tatem, named for Linie's grandmother, was born. The Tildens by then had moved into a comfortable three-story red brick end house at 5308 Germantown Avenue, a fine address on a cobble-stoned thoroughfare with a trolley-car line that carried Tilden downtown to his office. Other Philadelphians had begun to notice this clever young man. Despite his lack of college education and the onus of having the most preeminent Democratic name of the era, he began to be accepted into the best clubs and to gain some voice in Republican Party affairs. The Tildens seemed to have a full and happy life in store.
Williamina, the baby, died first, on Saturday, Nov. 29, 1884. She was buried on Monday, in the first raw winter cold, the hearse clattering out Germantown Avenue to Ivy Hill Cemetery on the edge of the city, where a family plot had been hastily purchased. The cause of death was listed as "'membranous croup," almost certainly because the Tildens did not want to admit what they surely realized, that the diphtheria epidemic had reached 5308 Germantown. In 1884, diphtheria could spread like wildfire among children, being communicated by direct contact. The fever came first, with headaches, then a sore throat that swelled as the toxins coursed through the pained little body.
Elizabeth, the oldest, fell next. Just past her fourth birthday, she died on Dec. 9 and was buried the next day, another sad procession moving to Ivy Hill. Tilden still had his son left, but Harry had become feverish, and he lived, in agony, only three more days. He was buried on Dec. 15, just short of his third birthday. This time the death notice pathetically concluded that Harry was "the only child of William T. and Linie H. Tilden."
Bill Tilden was not to be born for another nine years. But for these sad events of 1884, he almost surely would not have been born at all. And because of them, he was greatly affected. It is not an exaggeration to say that much of the way Bill Tilden was to be was determined years before his birth.
In the days immediately following the three tragedies, the Tildens carried on. But never again was there any lightness in their house. Within the year Linie Tilden was pregnant once more, with her fourth child, Herbert Marmaduke. At least Tilden Senior had replaced the son he had lost, and he adored Herbert and grew close to him. When, a full six years later, Linie realized she was having another child, she almost certainly longed for a girl to replace the two that had been taken from her. But it was a boy, born on a cold Saturday morning, Feb. 10, 1893, and she named him after her husband and called him Junior or June.
The child grew up spoiled, in comfort that approached opulence. By today's buying power, Tilden Senior had an income in excess of $100,000, and not long after Junior was born the family moved to 5015 McKean Avenue, into a stately new red-gabled mansion named Overleigh, a dwelling so large that it now contains eight apartments. There were several servants, a governess for Junior, and just a block away was the Germantown Cricket Club, which featured a special clubhouse for children. From birth, though, Junior Tilden was catered to and protected even more than the other society boys and girls of Germantown.
Tilden Senior left the rearing of the baby strictly to his wife. A striking man with a large mustache, well dressed and with a fresh carnation in his lapel every day, he was a perfect gentleman, a successful businessman, a hearty clubman, a pillar of Philadelphia. Three times he was president of the Union League, the most prestigious Republican sanctum, and he entertained Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Taft at Overleigh.
By contrast, Linie Tilden seldom ventured far from Overleigh. Although she adored music and was an accomplished pianist, she was hardly the wispy, ethereal type, but "tr√®s formidable" says her granddaughter, Miriam Ambrose, with a smile. Linie well reflected her stern, humorless Yorkshire heritage. Overleigh seems to have been a house of little love and gaiety, but much respect and a fair amount of understanding. Always, like a grim drop cloth, the memories of 1884 overlaid everything.
One lasting, if understandable, result of the tragedy was that Linie became obsessively health-conscious. Her husband had been sufficiently involved in the upbringing of Herbert to insulate the older boy from her excessive concerns, but Junior had no such counterbalance. While there is no evidence that he suffered from anything more than the usual mild childhood diseases, his mother decided that he must be sickly and treated him so. Soon, everybody who knew him assumed that Junior Tilden was weak and different.
For one thing, he was kept out of school and tutored at home, at Linie's skirts. His earliest memory was of himself sitting reverently at her feet while she played the piano, and although he rarely spoke of his childhood when he grew older, Tilden would always volunteer how much he adored his mother, how "I worshiped her."
He never slopped honoring her. Among the vast catalog of communicable ills that Linie Tilden was worried her baby boy might someday contract were venereal diseases. From an early age, the only sex training Tilden ever received was that women could give him a disease. Even his later homosexual experiences were casual, and he was ashamed that anyone would think him capable of more fulfilling involvement. With almost no exceptions, his sexual relations, whether with males or females, were rudimentary, and, in extension, that constraint made it difficult for him to be close to people, especially his peers. Bill Tilden diverted his sex drive to the arena, to a clean, bright place.
While Herbert's role was far subordinate to the one his mother played in Tilden's childhood, the brother was major influence. He became a father substitute. It was Herbert who inspired Junior's interest in tennis and helped him to develop his game. From an early age, Tilden regretted the fact that he had no one to be an older brother or a father to. In the fiction he wrote, older brother/younger brother, father/son or older friend/younger friend relationships dominate. They form the core of the close human dealings he wrote of, whereas wives and husbands and good friends of the same age have stilted, contrived relationships. Tilden succeeded in one quest in that he became famous and was the child who brought honor to his beloved mother, who had suffered so much agony. But he could never find the son who could both love him and succeed him as a champion, as he loved Herbert and eventually surpassed him as a player.
From the beginning, June played the older-brother role. His friends were all younger, and he made them his coterie. After ice skating, he would assemble the younger children in someone's house, where they would sit by a fire and drink hot chocolate; then June would draw the curtains and recite poetry and tell ghost stories. Dracula, which he later played on Broadway, was his best role. "Oh, he'd scare hell out of us," says Frank Deacon, a younger neighbor. "June also established his own nobility. He was the king, course. Jo Dodge was the queen. I believe I was a marquis and Roy Coffin was a duke. It went all the way down to Judith Jennings, who was the court cat."
But, increasingly, tennis and music were Tilden's two major avenues of expression. Alice Tatnall Franklin, four years younger, was musically inclined, so June would invite her to his room where they could enjoy his growing gramophone-record collection, or he would go to her house and listen to her play the piano. For any of his younger friends who showed the slightest interest, he would provide tennis instruction. "He was the kindest person, always," says Josephine Walton, who also grew up in Germantown. "None of us ever had any idea that he would become this great athlete—he was so sickly—but he must have taught all of the younger children in the neighborhood to play tennis."
Yet no one felt close to June, and the feeling persisted that he was strange. And his social reputation was not enhanced by his curious neglect of hygiene, a characteristic he retained all his life. Even as a teen-ager, he often had the foulest breath, and his perennial outfit, a woven blue mackinaw with stripes at the waist, stank of perspiration. How his mother was able to ignore or accept this is impossible to fathom.
In 1908, when Junior was 15, Linie contracted Bright's disease and was confined to a wheelchair. Tilden Senior, who had invested heavily in the Pennsylvania coal fields and was being mentioned as a candidate for mayor of Philadelphia, had begun to devote even more time to his outside interests. Herbert was finishing up at Penn and about ready to bring home a bride, so Junior was finally sent to Germantown Academy, farmed out of the house. He was bivouacked a few blocks away at 519 Hansberry Avenue, where he was given the third-floor room of a small row house in which his mother's maiden sister, Aunt Betsy Hey, lived with her niece, his cousin Selena. She had taken the name Hey because she had been raised by Aunt Betsy, but actually Selena was the daughter of another sister's failed marriage to a ne'er-do-well Civil War hero.
Although 15 years or so older than Junior, Selena shared the same Feb. 10 birthdate, and so he called her "Twin," which she adored—and not only because it was considerable improvement over "Slimy," which the neighborhood kids called her. Twin was unattractive, like the aunt she lived with, and to suddenly have this lively young man, who took three stairs at a bound, dropping into her life, was a salvation. Twin and Aunt Betsy soon were spoiling Junior even more than his mother had.
In Aunt Betsy's house he was known as Billy, and he was to keep his bedroom there for the next quarter of a century. All the time he moved with kings and movie stars and ruled the world of tennis, he would come back to 519 Hansberry, place his latest trophy beside the rubber plant with the porcelain birds balanced on the branches, and entertain Twin and Aunt Betsy with tales of the world while they served him a succession of steak dinners, with ice cream.
Back in 1908, however, when Tilden first lived with the Heys, he still spent much time at Overleigh, walking over every evening to be with his mother. He graduated from Germantown in 1910, thin but not gawky, and still growing. He was the class poet and tennis captain, and although he had no interest whatsoever in commerce, he dutifully followed his father's bidding and entered the Wharton School of Business at Penn.
Tilden hated his studies and never made his mark at college. In the spring of his freshman year his life began to fall apart when his mother suffered a stroke and lay near death. At the end, May 2, 1911, he sat outside her door through the night, crying uncontrollably, by his own account "utterly in shock." Her dying plainly shattered him and he grew so jittery that Saint Vitus' dance was suspected; finally, his father had him withdraw from school for a year to rest his nerves.
When Herbert's first son, his second child, was born in 1913, he named the boy William Tatem Tilden III. It was an unusual thing for a brother to do—in effect, appropriating his brother's name. William T. Tilden III agrees that his father must have known by then that Junior would never have any children himself. The poor boy was floundering badly. He had lost the anchor of his sacred mother; he was trapped in a college discipline he could not stand; he understood, surely, that he was a homosexual. He was nearly friendless—he literally repelled some people—and he was ravaged by nervousness. He was sad, confused, lost.
The situation worsened, then collapsed in the summer of 1915, when his father fell ill with kidney trouble. He was brought back to Overleigh from the Union League, where he had taken residence after Linie died. On the morning of July 29, with his two sons at his bed, William T. Tilden Sr. died, age 60, and was buried next to his wife and his mother and his three babies in the plot he had bought at Ivy Hill.
Herbert, his father's friend and associate, was as staggered by his death as Junior had been by their mother's. Late that summer, Herbert got away to the seashore, Cape May, N.J., but he caught a cold swimming, and it turned into pneumonia. His resistance was low. Five days later, Sept. 22, 1915, Herbert died at Overleigh at the age of 29 at seven in the morning.
Two days later, Junior watched as his brother was lowered into his grave at the foot of his father's, where the soil was still turned. "The second bereavement, striking with such suddenness, has aroused profound sympathy for the family," the Inquirer wrote. Junior Tilden, 22 years old, was the family.
Tilden fell deeper into mourning. He left Penn a semester short of graduation and seems, for some time, to have done nothing more than sit in his room at Aunt Betsy's and listen to his records. Apparently Selena Hey dared advise her cousin but twice in her life, and this was the first occasion. She told him that he could not go on drifting, that he must look beyond 519 Hansberry Avenue or he would be caught in the same trap as she, living out all his days as a companion to an old woman. Maybe he would have overcome the inertia himself in due time. Maybe he needed Twin to prod him. Whatever, he took her advice, and early in 1916 he set out on his mission. Junior gave his life over to tennis. He was then ranked 70th in the country, and that summer he was defeated in straight sets in the first round at Forest Hills. Only four years later, Big Bill Tilden was champion of the world.
It was another two decades before Twin ventured to again give her cousin advice. This time, late in the 1930s, he came to visit her in Yorkshire when he was touring as a pro. Painfully, as politely as she could, Twin warned him that his homosexuality was becoming more apparent, that he must be more guarded. Furious, Tilden shot to his feet, glared at Twin, and stormed out of the house, never to say another word to her as long as she lived.
But, on his own terms, he was at last beginning to look in a few corners for some understanding of his homosexuality. "Women are a lot of bitches," he told Gloria Butler, a young friend he had known for years. "When someone is a genius, when they have a great task in life, they cannot afford to be depleted by a woman. Women wear down a man. They have no right to make a man of genius share their petty demands."
Another time, riding on a train with a young pro, Tilden suddenly felt compelled to bring up the subject, and, almost stridently, delivered this message: "Those of us who have my way of thinking, well, we look upon ourselves as the chosen few. I think it's my responsibility to convert young boys. We are the exceptional ones that God has smiled upon."
That was a rare, inexplicable revelation. Most often, though, he studiously avoided the subject in tennis company. How incredibly difficult it must have been for him: a lifetime in the midst of the most completely secure heterosexual community. There are relatively few homosexuals in big-time male sports. And, more than most, athletes are antipathetic to homosexuality, seeming to both despise it and fear it with a vengeance that must have placed Tilden on trial with himself almost every day of his life. Even when he came to some grips with his own status, he seems to have looked upon other homosexuals and more common homosexual practices as "perverted." Once, when a flagrant adult homosexual managed to get into the locker room and introduce himself, coyly, to Tilden, Big Bill felt either so threatened or so ashamed that he flew into a rage, and nearly threw the interloper out bodily.
And yet, the farther he fell from the spotlight, the more effeminate became his actions, the more bold his liaisons. By the time he moved to Los Angeles in 1939 the word had preceded him, and the greatest name in the history of tennis could not find a teaching job at a club. He gravitated, then, to the Hollywood community, where he had old ties. Clifton Webb rented Constance Bennett's estate one summer and brought Big Bill over to his court to coach the likes of Garbo, Katharine Hepburn and his old pal Tallulah.
Joseph and Lenore Cotten permitted Tilden to use their court to teach, and so did Charlie Chaplin, whom Tilden had first met in 1923. Soon, Big Bill was co-star of The Big Tea (where tea really was the beverage served), which Chaplin held every Sunday at the court on his Summit Drive estate. Chaplin and Tilden would often entertain the guests after matches, swapping stories and opinions. It was a bizarre scene. Tilden protégés, such as Arthur Anderson, Noel Brown and Gussie Moran, would be in attendance, along with tennis pros and a number of movie stars: Garbo, Tallulah, Errol Flynn, Joseph Cotten, Spencer Tracy, Montgomery Clift, Olivia deHavilland. As well, there would be various Chaplin children, his wife and his young paramour, Joan Barry.
Despite the fact that Tilden was locked out of club coaching and no longer a drawing card, these days brought bursts of happiness. With his favorite protégé of all, Arthur Anderson, and the youth's mother, Marrion Anderson, Tilden had found his first family situation since 1908; he was back in the company of actors, whom he idolized; and he was once again attempting to write plays, and to appear in them. For the war effort he put a little tennis troupe together—featuring Big Bill in comic drag in one sequence—which played hospitals and bases.
In Los Angeles he fell into an amiable routine. Breakfast early (and always out) around Hollywood and Vine, usually with young Anderson. For the rest of the day, playing or coaching at the movie stars' estates, tooling around in a '42 Packard Clipper that looked and smelled like a traveling gymnasium. Many nights he would go over to the Little Bridge Club on Sunset or another women's club on La Brea, where he could play bridge with old ladies who didn't know Big Bill Tilden from Hirohito.
His spare time was spent with his new family, the Andersons. Both are still living in the Los Angeles area. Arthur Anderson, an engineer with an explosives firm, is a tall, gaunt man, utterly humorless and uncompromising on the subject of Tilden. His mother, once similarly unyielding in his behalf, now sees Big Bill in broader perspective, freckles and all.
Arthur Anderson first met Big Bill around 1940, when he was teaching at a fading luxury hotel named the Chateau Elysees, up in the Hollywood Hills. Anderson lived close by and would come over to watch, and Tilden, always on the lookout for young boys, noticed him, and, impressed by his intense demeanor, volunteered to give him free lessons. The friendship grew. Marrion Anderson was an outspoken woman, a bookkeeper who knew nothing of tennis, but she saw that Tilden was a kind man, and good for her boy. Her husband had been an alcoholic who abandoned the family, so Tilden, with his violent obsession against liquor, was an ideal companion.
For a time he even moved in with the Andersons, strewing his dirty clothes all over his quarters and dollar bills about the house when Mrs. Anderson would not accept formal rental payment. But there was never a trace of romance, or even any consideration of a marriage of convenience; and, as always with his protégés, Tilden made no advances to Arthur. "You know, Marrion," he said many times, "Arthur's the only real son I ever had." And to Arthur: "You and your mother are the only close family I ever had."
It is a baffling inconsistency that Tilden never paid any real attention to his namesake, the only son of his beloved brother Herbert. At best, Tilden was perfunctory in the relationship. Although he had seemed close and friendly to Herbert's widow, Hazel Macintosh (he gave her away when she remarried), he came, for some reason, to tie his remaining family, and even the whole East Coast, like a tin can to the tail of the USLTA, with which he had carried on a prolonged feud. He pawned a few trophies, but willed the rest, as well as his manuscripts and other possessions, to Arthur Anderson, and he gave both Andersons harsh, explicit orders never to let the USLTA or his family get their hands on anything of his. A couple of trophies are on display at Marrion Anderson's, a couple more at her son's house, but most are hidden away in a warehouse. Marrion Anderson has a steamer trunk full of Tilden's trophies that she never has opened.
When the war ended, Tilden was instrumental in organizing the Professional Tennis Players Association, and although he was 53 by then, he regularly got as far as the quarterfinals in pro tournaments and once nearly beat Bobby Riggs, then the world champion. He still went first class, with the best suite and a ball boy, and he still drew a lion's share of the attention. Once settled in his suite, he would call up the press—"Big Bill is here"—and they came to see him. Even then, open tennis seemed just around the corner and, anyway, the prize money for Tilden's pros in 1947 was certain to be doubled.
Then, shortly before 10 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 23, 1946, Beverly Hills police officers saw a 1942 Packard Clipper being driven erratically on Sunset Boulevard. When they flagged the car down at the intersection of Rexford, a 14-year-old boy got out of the driver's seat. Bill Tilden, sitting next to him, had just taken the boy to see The Jolson Story at the Pantages Theatre. At the station house, Big Bill readily admitted indiscretions with the boy on this evening and one previous.
Richard Maddox, 36, who had represented a lot of picture people, took the case, reluctantly. "The toughest cases I've ever had," he says, "are where a dog or a child are the victims." Nor was his defense helped by the fact that Tilden took a negligent, even condescending, attitude toward the whole affair. These little nuisances had popped up before, he told Maddox, and nothing had ever come of them. "But this time you've been indicted," the lawyer told him. Tilden would not believe they would do anything to Big Bill. Two weeks before the trial, he wrote his sister-in-law, Hazel Macintosh, assuring her that there was no need whatsoever for the family to worry.
Many friends of Tilden, even knowing that he was a homosexual, convinced themselves that it was a frame-up; many believe it to this day. But there is no evidence to support that claim, although as Tilden headed for trial certain cards were stacked against him. By coincidence, A. A. Scott, the judge assigned the case in Superior Court, happened to be the son of a famous trial lawyer named Joe Scott who had recently represented Joan Barry in her paternity suit against Charlie Chaplin, Tilden's best-known friend and an increasingly suspect Communist fellow traveler. It took little imagination on the part of the public to visualize the orgies that must have gone on on Summit Drive, with the Communist sympathizer ravaging all the teen-age girls, and the degenerate tennis player all the boys. Maddox sought help from Chaplin, but Chaplin's only advice was that Tilden should jump bail and leave the country.
Maddox did have a plan. First, he wanted a jury trial to get the case away from Scott and a stern moralist named William Ritzi, the prosecutor. He was certain that the boy's wealthy parents would never let him take the stand and face cross-examination. The boy, whom Tilden had met at the L.A. Tennis Club, came from a broken home, and seemed to have had a rather dissolute, promiscuous sex life before Tilden took him riding. Without the boy's testimony, Maddox knew the state's case wouldn't wash. Besides, both the social worker and the psychiatrist who investigated the case urged that Tilden be treated, not incarcerated. The psychiatrist wrote: "In my opinion, whilst he appears outwardly cool, he is basically a neurotic and in some ways quite juvenile. This man should be regarded as one who is mentally ill."
But Tilden would have none of Maddox' advice. Arrogant and uncompromising as ever, even in these straits, he was sure he could beat the rap. And to give him the best of it, he was also as loyal as ever, and did not want to do anything that would risk hurting the boy. He informed Maddox that he would plead guilty. The lawyer says, "I told him point-blank, 'Bill, they're going to hang you. They're going to chew headlines.' But he wouldn't believe me. He didn't think they would dare touch him."
At the trial, Tilden, the unrelenting man of honor, may have damaged himself even more by lying, doggedly and pitifully. By now the court knew very well (if it could not prove it) that he had a long history of such behavior. Scott, who still views homosexuality as something Tilden "got mixed up in," as if it were like joining a dope ring, was anxious to see him confess all and renounce the devil. "I am just wondering, Mr. Tilden," he asked, "have you ever given any thought, over the years that you have been engaged in athletics, to the harm that you could do if you were ever caught doing something like this?"
Tilden: "Sir, I don't think I have thought of that because I have never been involved in anything of the kind."
Scott: "You mean by that you were never caught."
Tilden: "I mean I was not involved in it, sir...."
The judge, simmering at this affront to the court's intelligence, allowed a bit more discussion, then glared down at Tilden and, without warning, loosed this thunderbolt: "All right, the court at this time is going to sentence you to the county jail for a period of one year...." Tilden gagged, stupefied. "I am going to recommend that this time be served at the road camp, and on your release from jail...you are not to be found in the company of juveniles...."
Big Bill slumped in his chair, aghast. "He was absolutely in shock," Maddox says. But Scott poured it on, speaking past the poor crumpled figure into the newspapers: "And I hope, Mr. Tilden, that this will serve as an object lesson to those parents who are concerned about the type of individuals that their youngsters are going around with. There is too much of this going on all the time in Los Angeles and elsewhere, and we've got to stop it."
Maddox tried to rise at this point: "If the court please, is there an opportunity for a stay of execution to permit this defendant..."
"No," Scott called down. "Put the sentence into effect immediately."
Big Bill was so stunned that Maddox had to help lift him up and support him as he led him away to the custody of sheriff's deputies.
After a week in the county jail, Tilden, No. 9413, was sent to the Castaic Honor Farm, a few miles north of Los Angeles, where he was a storekeeper and trusty until Judge Scott relented and granted him an early release after 7½ months. But his probation became a purgatory; since he could not be alone with minors, Tilden lost much of what little coaching work he could obtain. He moved to smaller, cheaper apartments and became even more careless in his personal habits.
Some of his Hollywood benefactors abandoned Tilden, but the Cottens remained loyal, as did Chaplin. So did the Andersons, his family. "I want you to know, Marrion, that you're the one who must decide whether I ever see you and Art again," he told her after his arrest, but they did not desert him. In fact, Arthur was with Tilden, alone in his apartment, in complete violation of his probation, when the police showed up on Jan. 28, 1949, with another warrant for Big Bill's arrest.
He had been identified as the man in a 1942 Packard Clipper who had picked up a teen-age hitchhiker at 8 a.m. that day on Wilshire Boulevard and immediately began making improper advances. By now, pathetically, Tilden was reduced to cruising, trolling the areas around high schools and Y's. "I can't help myself," he told Scott, and he begged the judge not to make him live in the twilight of probation; give him his sentence and let him square the account inside so that he could teach his young friends again.
By this time, the public had lost interest and the judge was lenient. On Feb. 10, Tilden's 56th birthday, Scott returned him to Castaic, but only for violation of probation, for being alone with Arthur. The grave new charge, which could have been prosecuted as a felony, was forgotten. Tilden was given a year, but they let him out a couple of months early, for Christmas. There was no one to meet him when he was released in Los Angeles on Dec. 18, 1949. It was just days before the Associated Press half-century poll voted him the greatest athlete in his sport by a larger margin than any athlete in any other sport. J. F. Grover, the jailer, said, "Well, here's Big Bill Tilden again."
"Yeah, here's Tilden again," he said, and he walked out of jail and into the rain.
His opportunities were now even more diminished. Friends who had been willing to accept the first arrest would not forgive him the second. He went back to Forest Hills and realized, as he approached old friends, that they would literally turn their backs on him and pretend he did riot exist. "Oh God, you could see them snub him," says two-time U.S. champion Sarah Palfrey Danzig. "He was so kind, so good. He deserved better from us all." In Philadelphia, his alumni files at Penn were purged, his pictures stripped from the walls at Germantown Cricket Club. No one rallied to his side. "They didn't, they didn't," Carl Fischer, an early protégé and old friend, says. "Myself included."
One of the few who did make a special effort was Gloria Butler. She went to Los Angeles where she found Tilden teaching on a public court near Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Tilden saw her across the way and stopped his lesson, but he just stood stock-still as she drew closer, closer. By now, he had been rejected so many times that he did not have the nerve to approach old friends. Even when Miss Butler reached him, he only stood and looked at her, tears forming in his eyes. At last, she understood, and called his name and fell against him, and only then did he put his arms around her, but he was shaking so that he could hardly hold her. "It's all right, Bill," she said. "It's all right, it's all right."
Miss Butler helped him locate a better apartment in the hills just above Hollywood, taking another flat below him for herself. She stayed for the next six months or so, observing the agony he was suffering. Nights he would be painfully restless. Sometimes she could hear him pacing the floor, and so she would go to his apartment and cook for him, play cards with him, read the bad plays he was still trying to write and take him out for a drive. Anything to comfort him.
In the daytime he could still be happy playing tennis. He would drop by the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where an old friend, Frank Feltrop, was the pro. He'd ask Feltrop if there was anybody looking for a fourth for doubles. No money, just a game, just a chance to play. Did anybody want to play tennis with Big Bill Tilden? Sometimes Feltrop would not let him on the courts till he got cleaned up; sometimes he even had to give Tilden a clean shirt or shorts.
In 1953, Feltrop, who is now pro at the Deep Canyon Club in Palm Desert, Calif., got a sponsor to put up $10,000, big money for the pros then, to hold what he christened the National Professional Hardcourt Championships at the Beverly Wilshire. Feltrop brought Tilden in as something of a co-promoter. Big Bill not only induced people like Vinnie Richards to come out and enter the event, he sold boxes to all his Hollywood contacts. He was alive again, involved, full of enthusiasm, and, above all, ready once more to stand in the spotlight. Though Tilden had turned 60, Feltrop monkeyed with the draw a little so that the old man had a good chance to win one or two matches.
Then, just days before the tournament was to begin, Feltrop was summoned to the hotel manager's office and shown a stack of mail from women's groups and indignant citizens. The manager said he was sorry, but he had a hotel to run; the Beverly Wilshire could not be identified with any degenerate ex-con. "My God," says Feltrop, "that was the saddest thing I ever had to do in my life. They didn't even want him to set foot in the place again, but I couldn't tell him that, I just couldn't. I just told him they wouldn't let him play in the tournament. And he was heartbroken. Right there I think he knew he didn't have a hell of a lot to live for anymore. He said, 'But, Frank, Vinnie's coming out, all the old gang.'
" 'I'm sorry, Bill, I'm sorry. I can't do anything.'
" 'I'll sue you then, I'll sue the hotel,' he said all of a sudden. Oh, he still had a crust on him, an unbelievable hide. I just said, 'Come on, Bill, it's your arm that's been hurting, isn't it? You can't play with that arm, can you?' And then he nodded and said yes, he would say his arm was hurting, and after that, he just turned and walked away. He must have been down to 150 and he was all bent over then, so his bald spot in back was showing. Jesus, it was awful. The poor old son of a bitch."
One more place was closed to him. He went back up into the hills, to Chaplin's court. Chaplin had left the country and had been barred reentry, but Tilden still had use of the court, although he also had fewer and fewer students. In May he wrote Richards: "Vinnie, could you please send me a couple of dozen balls and a racket or two? If I had them I could get some lessons to give. I need the money badly." Richards immediately prepared a packet to send. On June 2, Tilden went to see a pupil, Herbert Brenner, with a deal. Brenner was away from his office, so Tilden left him a note, offering 40 hours of instruction for $200—a cut-rate five bucks an hour—if Brenner would pay in advance, now. He wrote: "I am in real need of money at this moment—therefore this offer."
What Tilden needed money so urgently for was a trip he had planned—first to Texas for some exhibitions, then up to Cleveland for the U.S. Professional Championships at Lakewood Park. He was 60 now, and the two jail stretches had not been good for his health. He couldn't shake a cold. At times when he was playing he would be wracked so hard with coughs that he would have to lean against the canvas for support. But Big Bill Tilden was getting ready for the U.S. Pro Championships, and there was no time or money for a doctor.
A few days before he was to leave for Cleveland, Tilden picked up Anderson at UCLA. There, he met two of Anderson's college teammates, a couple of top Canadian players named Don Fontana and Bob Bedard. Tilden invited them to play at Chaplin's and when he got up there he suddenly announced that they were going to have a Davis Cup match—Canada vs. the U.S. Fontana and Bedard looked tentatively at each other, and then at the gaunt old man with the long legs and the dirty old white sweater. Tilden was exhilarated. He conducted a draw, and when play began he would make announcements, such as "Advantage, United States" and "Canada leads four games to three, first set." It was a beautiful, eerie absurdity, the four of them, alone on the abandoned estate, playing out this fantasy all afternoon. "Bob and I won both singles," Fontana says, "and then the doubles, too. Tilden was beside himself when he and Anderson lost that, because it gave Canada the match. We were just playing to get good practice, but he was like a tiger, and he agonized when they lost. It was all very real to him." Big Bill had to get ready for the U.S. Pro Championships. When Herbert Brenner came through with the $200, the trip was on for Saturday.
The night before, Friday, June 5, the Andersons invited Tilden over for a going-away dinner. He and Arthur had played several sets earlier that day, and Tilden picked up a couple of lessons as well before he went back to his apartment on Argyle Avenue, just up from Hollywood and Vine, to change. "Bill had a habit," Anderson says, "of getting all dressed to go out, coat and tie, everything, everything but his shoes, and then lying down on the bed to read until it was exactly the time to leave. He was always very punctual. Then he would sit up, pat his hair down in back, put on his shoes and get up and go out."
When Tilden did not arrive exactly on time for dinner, the Andersons called, and when there was no answer, Arthur drove to the apartment. The landlady, Mrs. John Bray, let him in. Big Bill lay dead across the bed. Next to the bed, his bags were packed. He was ready to play in the U.S. Pro Championships in Cleveland.
"Just a case of a chap 60 years old who outlived his heart," the coroner said. Besides his trophies, he left practically nothing: $142.11 in cash and $140 in American Express traveler's checks—and $200 of this had to be returned to Brenner. Tilden was due a $6 refund from the Automobile Club of America. That and what else there was went to Arthur Anderson, "my logical successor in tennis."
A memorial service at the Pierce Mortuary a few days later drew a spotty crowd. Tilden was dressed in a new white sweater with figures of red deer running across the chest that Joseph Cotten had bought for him. Big Bill was cremated because it was cheaper to get him across state lines that way, and shipped back to Philadelphia. For $115 a small stone was bought. It reads: WILLIAM T. TILDEN 2ND 1893-1953. It is the only monument of any kind anywhere in the world—at Forest Hills, Wimbledon, Germantown, anywhere—that pays tribute to the greatest tennis player who ever lived.
On a warm June afternoon, while the U.S. Professional Championships were taking place in Cleveland, a handful of relatives and friends in Philadelphia watched as Bill Tilden was lowered into the ground at Ivy Hill, 70 years after his older brothers and sisters were put there, 40 years after the rest of his family. He was placed by the side of his brother Herbert and at the feet of his mother, so at last he could be her child again, for good, at peace.