American girls have traditionally looked up to and emulated their favorite motion-picture stars. The film stars led lives that seemed exciting and far removed from the humdrum activities of ordinary lives, and young girls dreamed of living similar glamorous lives. Now there is a new idol...and she's Billie Jean King.
—FROM A BILLIE JEAN KING PRESS RELEASE
The added irony is that she is a more passionate person than any of the voluptuous femmes fatales who ever slinked across a silver screen and buried their heaving breasts in the wet cement at Grauman's. Passion—"the gale of life," Pope called it—is why, ultimately, it has all worked for Billie Jean. First, it is to her advantage that the female vessel holds raw emotions more preciously. But besides, men are afraid to show passion themselves, and those who do possess it are advised by their colleagues to keep it down—as they say on airplanes: for your safety and convenience. Men suffer each other only to be principled or kooky, depending on the viewpoint; but the fellas, as Billie Jean invariably refers to the other gender, permit women to retain passion—presumably because its bedroom dividends are shared and because its other excesses may be conveniently used to show women as quirky, unreliable characters in need of a shoulder to cry on.
Without her tennis, Billie Jean would still have been something; without her passion, nothing. Of course, she has a number of other things going for her: typical female guile, typical male aggressiveness, typical American get-up-and-go, typical California insouciance and real good ground strokes. The fellas simply cannot let a person run around with all those assets, plus a license for passion, and not expect her to put a dent in things. "Being a girl was not the only thing I had to fight," Billie Jean says. "I was brought up to believe in the well-rounded concept, doing lotsa things a little, but not putting yourself on the line. It took me a while before I thought one day: who is it that says we have to be well-rounded? Who decided that? The people who aren't special at anything, that's who. When at last I understood that, I could really try to be special."
Very likely Billie Jean Moffitt King will go down in history as the most significant athlete of this century. That is not said lightly. But then few athletes ever reach beyond their games to exert any dominion over the rest of society. Unfortunately, the end result of Muhammad Ali, for example, is that he is merely controversial. Arnold Palmer brought mass popularity to an upper-crust diversion, and Babe Ruth salvaged his game from scandal, but, by and large, neither has been more than a broad caricature. Jackie Robinson is the exception, a sportsman who was an important figure in the American saga, but even he did not make the imprint that the lady in glasses does.
Of course, neither would have amounted to a hill of beans had they not been escorted to the front by an idea whose time had come. Much more than Billie Jean, though, Robinson had to have doors opened for him. That was not his fault, but it was so nonetheless. And while his first years were a fire storm of historic "firsts," a political groundbreaking for 10% of the population, hers is a deeper and wider legacy: she has prominently affected the way 50% of society thinks and feels about itself in the vast area of physical exercise. Moreover, like Palmer, she has made a whole sport boom because of the singular force of her presence.
Granted, women's tennis would have gotten off the ground by now without Billie Jean; and also granted, without her the revolutionary concept that exertion by American women is acceptable in pursuits other than childbirth would have begun to gain currency. Still, the fact remains that in the modern U.S., in the modern world, the promulgation and acceptance of sharp new attitudes—what are called movements or trends—utterly depend upon the emergence of a personality to embody the philosophy; or, when was the last time you saw two minutes of an idea on the six o'clock news? Billie Jean's closest cultural kin are not athletes, but people like Ralph Nader and Martin Luther King, even Hugh Hefner and The Beatles—men whose names are instantly associated with a movement, and, notably, one that effected great change. Billie Jean is foremost now a symbol, which is why, of all the athletes of our time, she is most misunderstood, both by those who detest her and those who adore her. And, as with most symbols, the real person has been appropriated; perhaps it is time to give herself back to Billie Jean.
She jams the sports car into gear and takes off, flashing around a corner, hurrying to catch the sunset over the Pacific Ocean. "I love motion," she declares. Billie Jean offers little endorsements, value judgments, all the time. Her life is a daily shopping list of things she likes or, occasionally, doesn't. It is as if The Top 40, which her generation was raised on, also existed for all life, not just songs, and she went around regularly unveiling a new personal chart: chocolate ice cream with marshmallow topping drops to No. 4 this week, motion moves up to No. 6, shampoos rise to 16 and so on. Lost somewhere in all the hopelessly incomplete portraits of her (including her autobiography) is the large measure of girlish enthusiasm that she still displays. What fun she is!
At 31, Billie Jean has been a world champion, a controversial celebrity, abused by substantial elements of the population. She has been fat, is hopelessly myopic and often suffers pain in both her knees, where the railroad tracks run alongside the dimples. Her marriage has gone through some rough patches. She has suffered hard financial losses and the cruel ridicule which attends them. She has been required to endure hate mail and some of the most private scrutiny given any public figure, male or female. And yet, she remains unfailingly enthusiastic, youthfully optimistic and still sprinkles her vocabulary with a combination of 1950s slumber-party giggle chatter and restoration Beatnik lingo.
Get a load of some of the things that Billie Jean says without blinking an eye: "No sweat; way to hustle; party pooper; vibes; Tight City; get my act together; where they're at; stay loose; dear heart; ticked off; you got to love it; the little girls' room; el chubbo; el spasto; from Shinola; no way; right on; truly beautiful." That's her current favorite, truly beautiful, with you got to love it moving up fast on the charts. Also, both Billie Jean and her husband Larry especially favor the word trip, usually with the adjective attached: the gratification trip, the Hollywood trip. "The celebrity is a hard trip to put on anybody," Larry says.
She parks the car at an overlook near the Golden Gate. Sometimes she and Larry come here and climb the rocks. It is peaceful and secluded, which is important because there are so few places left where she can go without being harassed. And with Billie Jean, it is not just goo-goo eyes and autographs. The women especially are anxious to touch her, and she does not like that; it scares and repels her. She also feels guilty about this because for so long she labored so fruitlessly for any recognition for herself and other women athletes.
To one side now, the Golden Gate hangs, a Tinkertoy from her vantage; to the other side, a blinking lighthouse; and out beyond them, the last of the day's sun, leaving in a haze that tosses up blue streaks with some gold, embroidered on the periphery by a pink glow. "Isn't this dynamite?" Billie Jean cries, and she opens her car door and gets out for a better look. She is quiet for a long time, the dusk and solitude falling about her shoulders. "When I really wanted attention, it wasn't there," she says. "When I came back after winning Wimbledon in '66, nobody cared. To be appreciated in my own country was all I wanted, and I got nothing. Sometimes I wish I could be a kid again, like Chris or Martina, and come along now and have it all organized and get recognition so easy, but then, no matter how good it gets, I've experienced the real things no one else ever will, because I had the first-time situation. I get most of my gratification now just out of seeing the changes in the sport. I don't feel like I have to be responsible like I used to. I feel like at last I can just be happy for myself."
The last of the day's light plays across her face. Close up, it is both prettier and just a bit older than you might expect, for it is lined from exposure to the sun, but it is a soft visage, and the TV makeup people have only to highlight her eyes behind the glasses; the rest needs no drugstore attention. And, of all things, her slightly outbound teeth give her face something of a sensuous cast; they keep her lips forever parted, as in the classic Hollywood prelude to a kiss. Her eyesight is 20/400, so that her glasses are part of her by now, "my trademark," and on those rare occasions when she removes them it seems as if she has somehow undressed her face. For a time she wore various tints to match her clothes, but now she uses only the clearest lenses; she says she wants to see everything as it is, without distortions.
There is only a pink glow left to welcome the stars, and Billie Jean rubs her arms for warmth. "People prejudge me so. Why? Maybe I do come on too strong. I read all these things I've said, and I start to think myself that fire must be coming out of my ears." She shrugs. "People are always telling me when they meet me: gee, you're not at all what I thought you were. I thought you'd be tough and bitter, Billie Jean. I didn't know you'd laugh so much, Billie Jean." Her press agent, Patricia Kingsley, whose main job it is to correct this image, admits that before she met Billie Jean she thought she was "a one-dimensional tough bitch."
"People are always putting their own trip on me," Billie Jean says. "Oh, well, come on." The day is gone for good now, but the little girl in the dark will not let it depart without a final encomium. "It was truly beautiful, wasn't it?" she exclaims and, happily, roars away in the new night to play a tennis match.
No one, not even her biggest boosters, has ever argued that Billie Jean is the greatest woman player who ever lived. Most don't even think she is the best of her era, although the traditional wisdom has it that if Margaret Court is tops over the long haul, Billie Jean is the one to beat in any one match—which is certainly a chestnut that Bobby Riggs will roast. In many ways, Billie Jean's prominence in the game is accounted for largely by the fact that she and women's tennis are fused together in history and the public mind. They have grown in perfect tandem. As long ago as when Eisenhower was President, Billie Jean was ranked near the top in U.S. tennis, a pudgy adolescent in a friendly uptown game; then a lean pro, the first of the women to knock about in a new play-for-pay hustle; now a stylish star in what has become, essentially, show biz.
Certainly, people do not come to see Billie Jean play tennis anymore so much as they come to inspect a phenomenon. At the Virginia Slims tournament in San Francisco this year, the public-address announcer introduced Billie Jean's opponent by cataloguing all her usual accomplishments and titles, and then he brought The Attraction on, his voice suddenly more resonant, trilling, like a nominator at a political convention: "And now, her opponent. Ladies and gentlemen, the working symbol for equal rights in America...Mrs.!...Billie!...Jean!...Kinggg!!!!" And she ran onto the court to a wild standing ovation.
She has cut back her tournament appearances this year and is playing only a few select ones, plus World Team Tennis. "All this tennis has become so trivial," she says. "I don't mean the playing—although I can't get psyched up anymore—but I mean all the rest, the disputes and hassles. I'm just not in the mood to fight anymore. A lot of people want me to go into politics, but after tennis, I don't have the heart for that. You know, too, the way I am, if I did go into politics I'd want to be President of the United States, and...here we go again."
It was difficult to tell quite how much she was putting herself on, threatening or trying one on for size.
World Team Tennis is the enterprise for which she reserves her greatest ardor. In return, the league has strapped Billie Jean to its back like an astronaut's life pack, shifting her from Philadelphia, where she was player-coach of the Freedoms, to the New York Sets, where she is expected to attract barrels of Big Apple publicity, thereby forcing the breath of life back into WTT's limp body.
Her husband has been a founder and club owner in WTT, and is even now league president, but those positions seem genuinely incidental to Billie Jean; she believes, with an evangelical fervor, that WTT is some kind of athletic Populism, destined to charm the masses in ways traditional tennis cannot. Billie Jean, who is absolutely bananas about music, thinks tennis has as much an artistic function as an athletic one, and WTT—an original and a hybrid—seems best able to hold all the elements of popular culture that she would like tennis to be. This is in the forefront of her mind now because she is indulging herself in something of a revisionist stage.
"When I first started out in tennis, I would rather play artistically than win," she says. "You get more satisfaction that way, but of course, when you lose, however artistically, you don't get the privilege of going out there and performing the next night, too. That was the hardest thing in tennis for this little girl to learn."
In the final dash to the top of tennis, it was not really that her game improved markedly so much as it was that she finally came to grips with who she was and that she could win. After that, there was nothing much to it, really, because everything was already in place. The hardest thing for this little girl to learn was that she had to be true to herself, to follow those passions. She was not well-rounded; she was this athlete with a zeal for achievement in a society that had no truck with women like that.
Her family—"straight out of Archie Bunker," according to Larry—was solid, traditional Protestant middle class, fired by hard work and a fear of God. Even now, her parents would like to see her abandon all this gallivanting around the world and settle down and have some kids. Growing up in Long Beach, Calif., Billie Jean deviated little from the values of her happy home. Her father, a fireman, was also a devoted sports fan, and so the daughter's participation in sports was not considered aberrant any more than her deep religious conviction. After all, going back at least as far as Jo March, little girls have been tolerated as tomboys.
Billie Jean's minister was the pole-vaulting parson, the Rev. Bob Richards. One day, when she was 13 or 14, he asked the little girl, idly, in a throwaway pastoral way, "What are you going to do with your life?"
She flabbergasted him by shooting back: "Reverend, I'm going to be the best tennis player in the world."
And yet, within another year or two, Billie Jean had learned that that was not an acceptable projection; she had learned to shade her dreams. Around this time, when she was 15, she wrote a high school theme, taking as a subject her first imagined trip to Wimbledon (which she correctly envisioned to be in 1961). The composition began: "Thump, thump, thump beat my heart. This can't be true. Here I am in New York City at 5 p.m. leaving by plane for Wimbledon, England. I still can't believe it. Here I am, 18 years of age and in one week I will be participating in what is considered to be the Tennis Championships of the World."
The story goes on. Boarding the plane, she meets Ramsey Earnhart, then one of Southern California's brightest prospects, whom she had a crush on. Darlene Hard, then a top U.S. player, greets little B.J. at the airport in London and drives her to the hotel. Darlene, Billie Jean advises us, "owned a red '50 Chevy convertible, slightly lowered, with twin pipes." Then the tournament begins, and Billie Jean reaches the quarterfinals against "none other than Darlene Hard" who beats her 10-8 in the third set. There, abruptly, the 1961 fantasy ends, but the 15-year-old appended an epilogue, which takes place in 1988, when she would be 45 years old: "Here I am at home 27 years later, sitting at home with my four wonderful children (At times they're wonderful). After the summer of '61 I entered Pomona College, in California, spending five years and graduating with a Masters Degree. I married Ramsey Earnhart—remember that boy I met on the way to the plane that day? Even though I never did achieve my ambition in tennis, I'm so glad I went ahead and received a higher education than high school instead of turning out to be a tennis bum."
And, in substance, Billie Jean lived out the first of her well-rounded declarations. She "messed around" in college, married a handsome young man, and turned tennis into a respectable, part-time pursuit, like a bridge club or stamp collecting, so that she could finish her higher education and help support Larry while he worked for his degree and their future. That just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. About then, Margaret Smith also packed it all in and went back to Perth to run a boutique.
It seems simply impossible now to contemplate how anything could have swayed Billie Jean from her destiny, to imagine how she, of all persons, would casually put it all aside when she was so very close to her goal of preeminence. She shrugs. "I know," she says. "It just shows you how totally conditioned I was. I wanted to live exactly like everybody else." She began dedicating herself to tennis only after Larry encouraged her to do so. Somehow, coming from him, that made it all right. Larry was sort of society's agent. She married him because it was the right thing to do, and so if he said it was O.K. to play tennis, well then, that was a proper enough endorsement. Her first full-time year, 1966, she won Wimbledon at last, and, along with the player, the person that is Billie Jean also began to flower.
Her presence is felt almost immediately when she enters the courts to practice, and not only because she is likely to have brought along a radio to provide some truly beautiful background music. Suddenly, the courts are alive with a bonhomie, a fresh give-and-take, and she is the cynosure.
Part of this response is because she is by now very nearly an institution. The younger kids may play and practice against her, dress with her, laugh with her, but they never forget that she is not really of them, that she is, in a very large sense, responsible for much of what they have. It is a little bit as if Dr. Naismith popped over to the gym now and then for a game of one-on-one with the boys. Kristien Kemmer Shaw, who is 22, one of the better younger tour players, says, "I'd seen Billie Jean play since I was 10. I actually had come to believe that she has a certain destiny. Since I think this way about her, well, you can understand: it got to the point where I did not want to beat her."
Kristien is one of a number of younger players who, through the years, have come in for special coaching attention from Billie Jean. Her critics suggest cynically that there is something Machiavellian in ker kindness, that Billie Jean realizes that the kids she helps will find it that much more difficult to beat her. Her admirers see quite the opposite, an altruistic devotion to women's tennis and to people. Shortly after Kristien Shaw joined the tour, she grew sick and confused and one night she just took off. "Billie Jean was the only one who cared enough to find out where I was and to contact me," Kristien says. "To play well, I had to get out from under her wing, but you couldn't find a better friend, a better person than Billie Jean King."
The fact is that Billie Jean reigns over just about everyone she encounters, not just impressionable kids. Julie Heldman is her contemporary, and even more than her intellectual match, a Stanford graduate, clever, mature and barbed. She and Billie Jean are not close, but wary and somewhat suspicious. Says Julie: "One of the reasons I've never gotten close to Billie Jean is that I've never felt strong enough to survive against that overwhelming personality of hers. People talk about me being the smart one." She shakes her head and smiles sardonically. "Let me tell you, Billie Jean's the smartest one, the cleverest one you'll ever see. She was the one who was able to channel everything into winning, into being the most consummate tennis player."
And just as she can direct herself so intensely, it is probably herself, more than others, whom Billie Jean manipulates. A British political writer who has studied Billie Jean swears that she and Henry Kissinger are the only successful tri-personalities in the world: there is a private Kissinger and King, a public one of each, too, and a third overseer ego that dispassionately watches over the other two personalities and guides them in their conduct. Make no mistake, this broad can be an artful con when she wants to.
Yet there are also great natural contradictions within her. She is, for example, genuinely shy—and who would guess that? She stares self-consciously at her feet whenever she generates applause. She hates parties and shrinks from strangers. But then, she is an unregenerate ham, who gracefully relinquishes, over her dead body, any unwitting spotlight or microphone that falls into her possession. Loyal and devoted, she has, on a few occasions, cruelly patronized her husband and a best friend, her former secretary, Marilyn Barnett, with public putdowns.
Despite her nearly compulsive call for change within tennis, Larry swears she is basically conservative. So as not to use inflammatory words, she never refers to herself as a "feminist" or "women's libber," preferring the broader "equal opportunist" or "EO," but then, not long ago she tastelessly boasted, "Christ, I'm blacker than Arthur Ashe." At the same time that she was staying up to six o'clock in the morning during a recent tournament so she could read the philosophy of Angela Davis, she was spending other parts of the day doing commercial voiceovers and preparing to fly off to do another commercial for one of her many products. She was also reading a biography of Leonardo da Vinci and she has just finished the collected works of Somerset Maugham and Herman Hesse; she grabs the sports pages first and knows all the standings.
"For a time, I think I was as close to Billie Jean as anyone ever was," says Kristien Shaw, "but as soon as I got to the point where I could read her too well, she tried to dissociate the relationship. She doesn't want to risk appearing weak in front of anybody. She told me once that if you want to be the best, you must never let anyone, anyone, know what you really feel. You see, she told me, they can't hurt you if they don't know."
With abandon and not a little bit of pride, she chucked a stone far out into the water off Cape Eleuthera, a Bahamian resort she plays out of and escapes to. Of course, she was getting generally worked up because dinner time was drawing nigh. Food and clothes are the two things that Billie Jean battles regularly, but with little success. Basically, the problem is that she has a taste for food.
All right, food. The one thing it may do is make her fat. Worse, and more immediately, the other thing it does is make her a bore. Food obsesses her, particularly when she closes in on anything edible. She knows things like exactly how many calories an average peanut has, and exactly how much of her body content is fat (13%). Although she really hasn't been fat since 1968, when she went on a crash diet, she calls herself, helplessly, "a sugarholic," and the rotund specters of the Ghost of Fat Past and the Ghost of Fat Future hover over her like chubby storm clouds. In Billie Jean's warm world of gaiety and hope, obesity is always there, fouling it all up. Some heavy tourists from Michigan walked by her on the beach, toting a Detroit Lions picnic cooler full of wondrous unknown goodies. "That's America," Billie Jean grouched, dead serious, in abject despair.
At 5'4" she weighs about 135 pounds, solid and well-placed if not curvy, the only hefty bag left being what Vogue calls cellulite, what Miss America judges call fanny overhang and what Billie Jean calls waffles. The proprietress herself likes to good-naturedly direct attention to her most lackluster reality. When she was taping an interview for a pilot of her new syndicated TV show, the sound man had affixed a tiny microphone in the middle of her chest between blouse and sweater. When he reached up under the sweater to undo it, Billie Jean cautioned him, "Watch what you grab. The way I am you couldn't tell me from the microphone." But hers is, at least, a dandy shape, vocationally speaking, like for reaching for backhands. Besides, the tennis boom seems to have enhanced the popularity of flat-chestedness, so that, in effect, Billie Jean has made her body fashionable. Grace Kelly was the last one who managed to work that dodge.
The bald fact is that Billie Jean King, athlete, ex-el chubbo, bespectacled, flat, waffled, stubby, has become something of a sex symbol. Movie stars have asked her out. There are stage-door Johnnies at tournaments. While Playboy has not invited her to pose in the raw, it did feature her in March as The Interview, firing such titillating questions at her as has she seen a dirty movie (yes, Deep Throat, but Larry got tired of it midway, so they left). Not long ago Esquire ran a long lecherous article by novelist Dan Wakefield, which was little more than an extended mash note.
Some of the interest in her most private life is more than genially searching; it borders on raw inquisition. Alone, perhaps, of any public figure, she has been asked point-blank if she is a Lesbian. She denies it. But most of the interest in the sex lives of Billie Jean and the other women players seems to be benign, of the healthy boys-will-be-boys variety previously devoted to movie queens.
Billie Jean cackles when the matter of her being a sex symbol is raised. "Hysterical! Hysterical! Me, with these little short legs!" But she is practical enough to realize that a guy who buys a ticket to look at the girls has bought a ticket as sure as the guy who buys a ticket to look at the girls' forehands. Notwithstanding the fact that Johnny Miller's face, George Foreman's musculature and Joe Namath's libido have been written about ad nauseam, a great many loony women throw a fit any time any article about a female athlete makes any reference to the bodily form that her dear soul travels in. Mere mention of the word "breast" in a sports article will turn legions of these honeys into Pavlov's bitches; 85,712, in fact, picked up their poison pens three paragraphs ago to write indignant letters to the editor.
Billie Jean herself not only thinks that sex is a dandy thing to have lurking around sports, but she also employs sex as sort of the ultimate gauge of equality between women's and men's athletics. This may be described as the Get-It Quotient, which she expounded on not long ago while enjoying a training meal of French toast. "There's a lot of ugly fellas among the male athletes," she said, "but just because they're athletes they get it all the time, don't they? Now, never mind prize money and publicity and all that. When we reach the point where all the women athletes are getting it, too, regardless of their looks, just like the fellas, then we've really arrived."
It was past four o'clock, and this was her first taste of food all day. She can set her mind to many things. And in a genuine way, she is a beauty, for her stockiness disappears when she shifts into action on the court, the waffles trumped by the total grace and fluidity of her form.
Billie Jean adores jewelry, but she has no abiding interest in clothes; she hates to shop and dresses in pretty much the same civilian outfits again and again—pants and blouse, maybe a sweater, that kind of thing. She wears them well, mercifully applying a different standard from the one that determines what she wears on the court.
As a backlash from those days when tennis was all white all the damn time, Billie Jean has it engraved on her brain that color is good; therefore more color becomes more good and lotsa color best of all. Here is one of her typical tennis outfits, one that made a young woman reporter wonder who was "sabotaging" Billie Jean: pale purple warm-up sweater, pink and pea-green dress, with a bluish swath cut between those colors across the bosom and speckled with rhinestones; dark blue panties with matching wrist bands; striped blue-and-white shoes and no ankle socks, but with those tacky little pompons sticking out at the heels. Truly.
Mr. Billie Jean King, which is how he signs autographs, is younger and better looking than the little woman, and in many ways more of an enigma. Unflappable, pragmatic, analytical, as pale of emotion as of face—many in tennis merely classify him as a dead fish and are done with it—Larry is the emotional mirror image of his wife. And yet he has undeniably been vital to her development. Behind every great woman....
Female athletes have discovered that most of them were close to their fathers. Billie Jean was even named for hers. She was to be Michelle Louise—MICHELLE LOUISE BEATS HOBBY RIGGS!; like that any better?—but Bill Moffitt was away in the war, so his wife gave him the honor. It was natural progression for Billie Jean to transfer the dependent affection from father to husband. Of all the misconceptions about Billie Jean, the single most erroneous one is that she is somehow against men. Indeed, she prefers the company of men to many types of women (housewives, for example, whom she feels lost with) and has often selected men instead of women to fill jobs where she thought the fellas were better qualified. Musing late one night, she admitted that the main reason she had to seclude herself before the Riggs match was to try to get comfortable with the idea of beating a man. "That's still not easy for me to do," she said. In the final analysis, she thinks she might not have been able to defeat Riggs, the man, except for the fact that he became so distasteful a person that "what he stood for" at last overshadowed who he was.
And so, if Larry gave her the man she very much needed when she left home, she has provided him with capital and entrée, things that a poor, ambitious boy could only dream of. If anything, Larry handles the difficult role of being married to a famous woman almost too well. It never seems to be a case of him competing against her, but rather of him trying to do too much with her—which is why they have been extended financially.
The Kings' marriage is best described by Billie Jean as two circles that intersect occasionally. This arrangement absolutely fascinates people, and in the worst way, and while it upsets Billie Jean that others should be so grubby in their curiosity, Larry seems unmoved by the speculation. Despite the sweet adolescent countenance, placid speech, a no-drink, no-smoke regimen, he is a tough, stubborn kid, still only 30, who came from an indigent, broken home and who possessed an unbridled ambition long before Billie Jean was introduced to him in the college library at L.A. State. If other people want to nose around his marriage, that's their hang-up, not his.
There was a time, up till a year or so ago, when the marriage was dissolving, when the two circles were only smoke rings. For a while Larry made no bones, even in front of his wife, about going around with another player, the Australian Janet Young. Billie Jean retreated further into seclusion, protected by her secretary, Marilyn Barnett, who began as her hairdresser, then became her friend and confidante, and ultimately, many felt, her Haldeman as well.
Of course, the madness of the Riggs episode may have demanded sanctuary and change. The competition itself had the consistency of cotton candy and just as marvelously sweet a taste, but it was, as a personal experience, searing. When the cauldron finally cooled, Billie Jean and Larry seemed to discover each other again. Now they are always on the phone and coo a lot when they are together. As much as this revelation might confound some people and disappoint others, the fact is that the reason they stay together is simply that they are very much in love.
Billie Jean found another rock on the beach and flung this one angrily into the waves. "Dammit," she said, "what do people want? I just love Larry. I've gotten to the point where I can't say anything else." She looked up tenderly and shook her head a little, imploring. "I still think it is the most marvelous thing that he came into my life in any way."
Their relationship has apparently been strengthened further by shared adversity in their business ventures. Larry was studying to be a biochemist when he met Billie Jean, switched to law, in part at her urging, but is now foremost a promoter, plotting, roaming all the while. The lasting vision of Larry is of him standing in a World Team Tennis ticket booth, trying also to sell lifetime subscriptions to womenSports, as a friend walks by and calls to him: "How's the condos going, Larry?"
Billie Jean views her husband's commercial eclecticism with the same sweeping enthusiasm she gives to colors. "It's too bad we weren't born with silver spoons in our mouths," she says, "because there's 25 things we'd like to do right now if we had the money. Larry loves to solve problems, you know. I mean, Larry likes problems. He's not happy unless he's risking everything. He's got to be at the edge all the time. He loves to gamble. I have no need to gamble. What I have to do is hit backhands down the line."
If, indeed, Larry likes problems, he has been in seventh heaven lately. TennisAmerica, the Kings' tennis instruction outfit, which Billie Jean admits "has been mismanaged," had assets of $17,000, liabilities of $400,000 and a few months ago filed for bankruptcy. womenSports, which they founded last year, nearly went under before Larry found a last-ditch angel. He says of World Team Tennis that "I got my money up front," but he and Billie Jean are tied to it emotionally, if not financially, and he has had to spend much of his time lately chasing down the mean streets of the recession for the venture capital WTT needs to survive.
Billie Jean has numerous endorsement connections and she makes an additional $50,000 a year for representing Cape Eleuthera. She is so deep in affiliations that during one stretch of two weeks in New York she gave four fancy press conferences at '21'. Her press agent also handles the likes of Robert Redford and Racquel Welch. Billie Jean has a two-year contract at an annual $125,000 from ABC, plus she is trying to package her own TV show. And, of course, tennis. She makes something like $150,000 from the New York Sets and the odd $100,000 or so from old-hat tournament prize money. And yet, she has only been in the big bucks for a very few years, and the travails of TennisAmerica and womenSports have drained her resources. The unkindest remark going around the tennis community is that Billie Jean may not only be the Jackie Robinson of women's sports, but the Joe Louis as well.
Nonetheless, she has never been stronger. For a time this winter Billie Jean spoke very casually—manfully, one could say—that she would probably have to abandon her plan of selective play and enter every possible tournament, just to win enough prize money to keep the wolf from the magazine door. Last January, when the situation was most desperate, Billie Jean, out of shape and playing in Chris Evert's home state, went out and slaughtered her in a Virginia Slims final. "I probably played so well because I had to, for the money," she said. "Out of frustration comes creativity. Right?"
The magazine is the major part of King Enterprises, which employs about 25 persons and is located in San Mateo, a San Francisco runway suburb, where Billie Jean and Larry also display their first hint of domesticity: an actual apartment to live together in and Lucy, a mongrel puppy that Billie Jean's brother, Randy Moffitt, the San Francisco Giant pitcher, gave her. But then, she is still spread around. Cape Eleuthera is her official residence. For much business New York is headquarters. And, like Peter Pan, her shadow is yet elsewhere, being tailored in Beverly Hills, where her press agent, Patricia Kingsley, elegant and professional, offers to trade new lamps for old. "Pat Kingsley is the first touch of class Billie Jean's ever had around her," an old friend and associate says. "Previously, it was all a pickup game, everybody playing skins and shirts. Everything you'd accomplish with Billie Jean herself, they managed to unravel."
The public attitude toward Billie Jean may be softening, anyway, especially as she places more distance between herself and the Riggs imbroglio. It is Larry's theory, and a sound one, that although Billie Jean was nearly silent before that confrontation, many men concluded that she must somehow be the flip side of Bobby Riggs, that everything common and ridiculous he trumpeted about women, she believed about men. And then, of course, when she did beat Riggs, many men, and not a few women, traumatized, punished her.
The person is at last being distilled from that bizarre episode. Those who come to her matches now appear almost overwhelmingly to be in attendance for the purpose of paying homage to her—men and women alike. It is even sometimes rather condescending and embarrassing, as if the opponent were an interloper, intruding on the jovial intimacy of Billie Jean and the crowd. In many ways, her greater problem now involves not so much those who detest her, but those who expect too much of her.
Her dealings with organized femininity are most painfully ambivalent of all, for so many of its members assume a proprietary role with her and do not consider her own feelings—which are not necessarily straight party line, anyhow. Billie Jean slayed the Riggs dragon, didst she not? Billie Jean had an abortion and told the world. She's a member of The National Organization of Women. She's a wife on her own terms, a champion breadwinner. She started a modern woman's magazine. She signs petitions with Gloria Steinem and Margaret Mead. Yeah, sister!
"Women's lib can be so negative, so defensive, so narrow-minded," Billie Jean says in some exasperation. "They think their thing is the only thing in the world for everybody. I have to do things my own way. That's what I think equal opportunity is all about. But take the last town I played in NOW calls me up and asks for 10 press tickets. Ten, and, of course, they're not even press. O.K., I said I'd arrange for one press credential, so two of them came and started making a fuss. Help us, they said. Look, I said, I'm just here as an entertainer. They always push me, they push. They don't know where to stop; they go over the brink. So often I have to tell them, as nicely as I can, 'Don't you see that what you're doing is abusing me? Don't you see that you're doing to me precisely what you say you don't want to be done to anyone?' "
But perhaps young girls are the most difficult for her to deal with. They besiege her and womenSports with letters, crying for advice and succor. And what can she tell them? How can she help? They write her, she says, "as if I have a magic wand." If only Billie Jean can come to their school, then they will get a basketball team, like the boys, or a track team, or more sports equipment, or uniforms, or attention, whatever. Just give us a day, Billie Jean, or an hour, and you can set it all right for us. We know you can. Please. She tries to reply, as kindly but firmly as she can, that she is not magic, and that they must try to do these things for themselves. "You know," she says, "I've never really cared what someone does. I just like people who try, people who are emotional, perfectionist. I just like to see people who are good at something work their bahoolas off."
Perhaps it is this in Billie Jean that speaks most to the young girls—and, ironically, it is an element that has nothing to do with sex. It is not their fault, but almost all famous women in this country have become celebrities simply because they are women—whether it be for their beauty, for whom they chanced to marry or that they speak for women. Appalling as it might sound, most especially for these particular principals, Cybill Shepherd, Pat Nixon and Betty Friedan are in the same bag in that it is their womanhood that accounts for their prominence. Those female celebrities who have made it on their own hook—a politician like Ella Grasso, say, or a novelist like Joyce Carol Oates—apparently seem too remote, too old, too intellectual to relate to the rank and file of younger women. What few peer models they have had previously have almost exclusively been male-selected, milk-bathed movie stars, so exquisite of face and figure as to serve more as objects of jealousy than of identification. But Billie Jean is something American girls have never experienced, a young woman who is accessible enough, imperfect in the right ways and accomplished. She appears to them not so much as an emerging woman but as an emerging person.
When SPORTS ILLUSTRATED researched a series of articles on women's sports three years ago, many of the young girls interviewed were hard put just to name a few female athletes. Several months ago, Seventeen polled its readers and found that Billie Jean King, who grew up, despite herself, to become a tennis bum, was the most admired woman in all the world. Thirty-seven percent of the respondents listed her first—think about that. Golda Meir finished second.
Ray Robinson, Seventeen's managing editor, says his staff was stunned. "This was a tremendous departure from past surveys," he says. "There is something going on out there with young girls. There are new heroines, but not the high lamas of feminism. It seems to be important to the girls that Billie Jean did it all on her own, just her and that damn tennis racket."
There was another sunset by the sea, this one in the peaceful beauty of Cape Eleuthera, where the palms stood in silhouette around the cove, sentinels against the twilight. "You know," Billie Jean said, digging in the sand with her toes, "I always had a great sense of destiny. Would you believe that? I remember once when I was five or six, I told my mother that I was going to be great. I remember, we were just standing there together in the kitchen. She smiled down at me and said something like oh, that's fine, dear, and then went right on with what she was doing." Billie Jean smiled at the recollection.
"Come on," she said then, tossing her hair against the first cool evening breeze, "I want to go back to my room and take a hot shower and then just jump into bed and get all toasty warm, from the footsies on up, between the sheets. I love that. You got to love it." And a yummy dinner would follow.