When her contemporaries ran out of words to describe Suzanne Lenglen they always fell back on "incomparable." On that and that alone they could all agree. Everything else about her was cause for furious debate on both sides of the Atlantic. Was she heroine or harridan? Was she courageous or corrupt? Was her infamous temperament a byproduct of genius or just the manipulation of an overweening arriviste? Did she purposely keep Queen Mary waiting at Wimbledon? Did she quit rather than lose to Molla Mallory at Forest Hills? Could she have survived a third set against Helen Wills at Cannes? Was she rich? Was she broke? Was she in love, engaged, about to be married? Was it cognac in the little silver flask from which she drank at the changeovers? And by the way, between us, exactly what did she wear beneath those silk tennis dresses of hers?
No matter where she went or what she did, controversy, scandal, gossip and rumor buzzed about Lenglen's bandeaued head like a swarm of benevolent bees, and she, who understood better than even the best sports promoters of her day the uses of fame, did nothing to quiet any of it. This delightful, outrageous and quintessentially French woman was the unrivaled queen of tennis from 1919 to 1926. In that span she won the Wimbledon singles title six times, the French title six times and the world hard-court championship four times, as well as two gold medals at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp. But most impressive of all, in those seven years she lost only one match, a highly controversial (of course) default to the U.S. champion, Mallory, in 1921. One loss in seven years. And she didn't just beat her opponents, she demolished them. They measured their successes against Lenglen in points. A game was a triumph. A set was historic. In 1925, her greatest year as a player, she won the Wimbledon singles title after losing a total of only five games to her seven opponents and the French championship after losing just four. In 1926 her fame transcended not only tennis but also all of sport. In an era of living legends like Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Jack Dempsey, Gertrude Ederle and Bill Tilden, she was the best-known athlete in the world, the one whose private life was hot news and whose personal style was a yardstick by which contemporary sophistication was measured.
In that year, she did what no other tennis player had ever done: She became a playing professional. When she announced her intention, the world was stunned.
The elaborate pretense that tennis was an amateur sport, the same charade that was doggedly maintained until 1968, already was fully institutionalized by the mid-1920s. Lenglen and other notable players of the day were rewarded for their efforts in wondrously devious ways. It was rumored, for instance, that Wimbledon officials once guaranteed Lenglen's appearance by betting her father, Charles, a considerable sum that she would not show. When of course she did, Papa Lenglen collected.
September 12, 1982
As long as an athlete toed the line as it was laid down by his national or local tennis federation, he or she was reasonably well looked after, and in the case of a star such as Lenglen, lavishly indulged.
Deviation from the rules, however, brought swift punishment. The capital crime was uncamouflaged professionalism, even straightforward teaching professionalism, and its penalty was that most terrifying fate of all, banishment. At Wimbledon it was understood that a player, even a former champion, who had become a teaching professional was no longer even entitled to sit in the friends' box with those who had not. In 1932, when Lenglen, then in retirement, returned to Wimbledon as a spectator, she and Dorothea Lambert Chambers, with 13 Wimbledon singles titles between them, were seated together, far from the center of social action. Chambers' trangression had been to become a teaching pro.
Lenglen was nothing if not daring. Her disdain for convention was a large part of her allure during the period of social tumult that followed World War I. She was continually doing in broad daylight what most people only dreamed of in the dark of night. She drank, she danced, she smoked, she swore, she wore her skirts short and her arms bare and she had lovers—lots of them. She was a Gallic elaboration on the postwar silent movie siren, The Vamp, adding to that sullen stereotype her own elements of wit and charm.
As a tennis player, Lenglen was her father's creation. As a public figure, a star, she invented herself. She would appear at a strategic moment, dressed with care and surrounded by courtiers, often handsome young tennis players, all of them chattering and laughing at what, one imagined, was something terrifically witty, utterly sophisticated, terribly chic and, above all, deliciously French. She was far from beautiful, but she was glamorous to her painted fingernails, and there were few sacrifices she was unwilling to make for her breathless audiences. Regardless of the climate, she appeared for tennis clad in fur, or fur-trimmed, coats with large collars that framed her pale, powdered face, with its gray-green eyes and dark red lips. When she posed for photographers she stood with her rackets in the crook of her left arm and her right hand on her hip, holding her coat so as to reveal the tennis costume underneath—a white silk dress, knee-length and pleated, and a brightly colored sweater which exactly matched the two yards of silk chiffon wound around her bobbed black hair, the celebrated "Lenglen bandeau" that was copied by millions of women, whether or not they had ever held a racket. Beneath the silk dress she wore silk stockings rolled just above the knee, and who knew what else. Certainly not a petticoat. Tennis had had its beautiful women before Lenglen—the French champion Marguerite Broquedis was one—but it is nevertheless safe to say that Lenglen, in the liberated style of her play—full of acrobatic, even balletic leaps and lunges—her dress and her life, introduced sex to tennis, and vice versa.
When Lenglen went onto the court, however, the glamour show was over. Her smiling mask was set aside and the tense, drawn and at times haggard face of a driven, sleepless, unrelenting perfectionist was revealed, a face that looked decades older than the lithe, graceful body below it. Lenglen's face was not her fortune, but it told the story of her brief but brilliant life.
By the time she turned 15, Suzanne Lenglen was already established in continental tennis circles as an amazing prodigy. Her teacher, guide, business agent and hard-driving taskmaster was her beloved Papa, Charles Lenglen, a retired businessman of moderate means who moved his family—wife Anais and small daughter—from Compi√®gne in the north of France, where Suzanne was born on May 24, 1899, to Nice on the Riviera. Within three months of being given a tennis racket, Suzanne, then 11, played before her first gallery.
By special dispensation, she was allowed to play Thursdays and Sundays at the Nice Tennis Club. Charles, who served as club secretary, arranged matches for her with winter visitors, many of whom happened also to be among the world's most talented players. She was an appealing little girl, small for her age, with long dark curls down her back. She was not pretty even then, but the vivacity that was the foundation of her charm throughout her life emanates from the old photographs.
Charles spent many hours each day at the Nice club studying the better players. He later wrote in an American newspaper: "The play of the English ladies consisted mostly of long rapid drives placed accurately along the lines and impressed me by its great regularity and calm, reasoned placing." But it was the superior play of the men that impressed him even more. He wrote: "Why then, I asked myself, should not women accept the masculine method. Is there any good reason why they do not do so, or is it merely a matter of custom and precedent?"
Thus Suzanne became the first woman player to train with men. Ted Tinling, who in his youth lived for several years on the Riviera, reports in his memoir, Love and Faults, that "Voulez-vous jouer avec ma fille?" became a familiar phrase at the courts along the C√¥te d'Azur. As time passed, however, and Suzanne's successes mounted, the number of notable players not only willing but also eager to play with Charles Lenglen's little girl grew rapidly.
In May 1914, while she was still 14, Suzanne won the world hard-court championship in Paris. In the light of that success it was thought she might make her Wimbledon debut that summer, but Charles was far too clever to risk his rising star on a foreign surface (grass) in a foreign country. So Suzanne didn't enter Wimbledon in 1914 and, as it turned out, in 1915, '16, '17 and '18 as well, because the tournament was not held during World War I. But in 1919, with Europe at peace again, Lenglen was 20 years old and ready.
Until 1922 Wimbledon was a tournament to decide who would challenge the defending champion. Lenglen won that honor in 1919, losing only 17 games and no sets in the process. The defender that year was Chambers, 40, the greatest player of her day and the ladies' singles title-holder for the previous seven years.
The two, separated by two decades and a chasm of experience, went at it for three sets—Chambers, the proper Edwardian in her ankle-length tennis costume, and Lenglen, the child-woman at the dawn of an era, short-skirted, brazenly bare-armed, consuming cognac-soaked sugar lumps tossed to her from the grandstand by her father. As King George V and Queen Mary looked on, Lenglen won 10-8, 4-6, 9-7 in a tremendous upset. The new queen of tennis was crowned and the tone of her long reign set when, after the match, she received congratulations while in her bath.
For the rest of her life, Lenglen maintained that the Chambers match had been her most difficult and most rewarding. But Mrs. Chambers viewed it as tragic for the Frenchwoman. Years later she confided in Tinling her belief that the match had given Lenglen "a taste of invincibility and a subsequent compulsion for it," which eventually caused her great unhappiness.
From then on Lenglen had everything—fame, adulation and all the trappings, if not the substance, of wealth. The city of Nice provided the Lenglens a large, comfortable house, the Villa Ariem, just across the street from the entrance to the tennis club. Her clothes were designed by Patou, the celebrated Parisian couturier. Her friends were beautiful or rich or titled or all three; her lovers were legion if not always suitable. Before she was 22 she had already broken off an affair with the French tennis player Pierre Albarran, a married man. Her mother, a dumpy little woman whom Suzanne sometimes called "ma poule" was her daughter's sympathetic chaperon. Tinling, who as a youth of 14 and 15 had umpired many of Lenglen's matches on the Riviera, recalls Anais and Charles Lenglen seated below him, wrapped in rugs against the chill, arguing loudly and reproving their daughter for her slightest errors.
America's first glimpse of Lenglen came in August 1921. Against Charles's wishes, Suzanne agreed to play a series of exhibitions in the U.S. for the benefit of "the [war] devastated villages of France." Once in New York, she further agreed to play in the U.S. women's championship, being held that year for the first time at Forest Hills after 34 years in Philadelphia. Charles, back home in Nice too ill to travel, told his friends that Suzanne had made the biggest mistake of her life.
Everything went wrong from the start. First she caught a bad cold and had to postpone her departure twice. Then, aboard the liner France, she declined to use the deck tennis court that had been set up for her and issued a news bulletin declaring that "the fox-trot and the shimmy were excellent training for tennis." In New York her reception by the press was effusive (MLLE. LENGLEN'S PETIT FEET AMAZE ON ARRIVAL), but she soon learned that her fate in the draw at Forest Hills was to play No. 5-ranked Eleanor Goss in the first round and, probably, the five-time U.S. champion, Mallory, in the second. The seeding of players according to ability to prevent just such an undesirable pairing had not yet been instituted. Even worse, on the day of Lenglen's scheduled first-round match, Goss defaulted and Lenglen, who had had one day's rest and one day's practice, was ordered to play Mallory instead so as not to disappoint the crowd that had gathered at Forest Hills Stadium to see her.
New surface, new ball, new climate and, for her first opponent, the best female player in America. All this without Papa by her side. Lenglen's nerves showed signs of fraying even before her match began. Once it was under way, her strokes lacked power and she coughed intermittently. Mallory, for her part, was at the top of her form. Allison Danzig, who was then a reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle and later became the tennis writer for The New York Times for 45 years, recalls, "Molla had a hell of a forehand. She didn't have a backhand. She had the weakest service I have ever seen. But what a forehand!"
Mallory put her forehand to good use in the first set, winning it 6-2 while Lenglen coughed more frequently. Lenglen had beaten Mallory badly in France the previous year. Now Mallory, backed enthusiastically by her good friend Bill Tilden, who disliked Lenglen intensely because her fame overshadowed his, was about to take her revenge. With the score 0-15 in the first game of the second set, Lenglen, serving, double-faulted and then forfeited the match, saying she was too ill to continue. Holding a towel to her mouth as some spectators booed, she was led sobbing from the court. "Cough and Quit" became Lenglen's middle name in America, and that view of her prevailed until she returned to the U.S. as a pro in 1926 and set the record straight.
On later occasions Lenglen withdrew from tournaments for reasons of strategy or ill health or both, but she never again lost a match and she never again ignored her father's advice.
A spectator at the Lenglen-Mallory match that day was 15-year-old Helen Wills from Berkeley, Calif., who was in New York to play in the National Junior championships. As Lenglen's successor, Helen Wills Moody was to win eight Wimbledon singles titles. In her book, Fifteen-Thirty, which was published in 1937, Moody recalled her first sighting of Lenglen on the clubhouse veranda at Forest Hills: "She wore a yellow organdie dress, a large hat and a white lapin coat described as ermine by the newspapers. The fur coat on a hot day made me ask why. I was told that she had a cold.... I was impressed, and later even more so when she came out to practice with six racquets."
In December 1925 Wills (she did not marry Frederick Moody until 1929) was a 20-year-old who had won the American championship three times and stood at the brink of what was to become a great career. Lenglen at that time was 26 and at the peak of her powers. She had won Wimbledon, the unofficial world championship, for the sixth time, and the most enjoyable season of her tennis year was about to begin—the "spring circuit" on the Riviera, a series of weekly tournaments from Christmas to Easter. Her midday matches would be a fixture in the daily round of pleasure-seeking and hostesses would schedule their parties to avoid conflict with them. She was La Belle Lenglen, queen of the Cote d'Azur. Sportswriter Al Laney, in his book Covering the Court, described her in her prime: "She was far from beautiful. In fact, her face was homely in repose, with a long, crooked nose, irregular teeth, sallow complexion, and eyes that were so neutral that their color could hardly be determined. It was a face on which hardly anything was right. And yet, in a drawing room this homely girl could dominate everything, taking the attention away from dozens of women far prettier...."
When it was learned that month that Wills was coming to France in the expectation of playing Lenglen, it was thought to be a bold, impertinent but very exciting challenge to Lenglen's total domination of the game. From the moment Wills and her mother landed at Le Havre in mid-January, a fever of anticipation took hold in the sporting press. Tennis regulars such as John Tunis of The Boston Globe and Wallis Myers of London's Daily Telegraph, writers who often played in the same weekly Riviera tournaments they reported, were joined by an international press corps large enough to cover a medium-sized war. Grantland Rice arrived. So did James Thurber. So did the eminent Spanish novelist Blasco Iba√±ez, who had never so much as seen a tennis match.
The longer the meeting of Lenglen and Wills was postponed—one would enter a tournament, the other would withdraw—the larger became the army of journalists camped out from San Remo to Cannes. Bookmakers who had at first made Lenglen a 1-10 favorite, dropped their odds to 1-4 when Suzanne appeared to be ducking the confrontation for fear of losing. In the midst of growing hysteria, only Wills remained calm. She recalls today, at her home in Carmel, Calif., her first glimpse of Lenglen at Villa Ariem. "It's like a picture in my mind," she says. "She lived across the street, or very near, to the tennis courts. My mother and I went to the courts by taxi and when I got out, I saw her in an upstairs window. It was a wide French window, and she waved to me. She wore a bright yellow sweater. I can still see the palm trees around her house. It's like a postcard in my mind."
Ultimately, the day arrived. Feb. 16, 1926, the singles final of the Carlton Club tournament in Cannes. Lenglen, always tightly strung at the best of times, was "empty, exhausted and frightened," according to her friend Florence Gould, wife of Frank Jay Gould, son of financier Jay Gould. With nothing to gain and her near-perfect seven-year record at stake, Lenglen was about to risk all over the challenge of a "little country girl," as a Nice newspaper referred to Wills.
Lenglen's lifelong friend, the French playboy Coco Gentien, would later write in his memoirs of Lenglen's apprehension about the match, brought on by the pressure to win: "For Suzanne every day was a torture.... She hardly ate or slept. A few friends and I never left her side. Every day she seemed thinner. Her small face was drawn, and all you could see were two big eyes filled with dread."
Lenglen won the first set 6-3, but she was clearly not herself. Papa Lenglen was ill again, but Anais was present to shout to her daughter when things were going badly, "Oh, you're playing miserably, my dear!" To which her daughter sharply replied, "Merde, Maman!" Between games Lenglen resorted to her restorative silver flask, and dramatically underlined her exhaustion by placing one hand on her hip, the other over her eyes.
In the second set Wills warmed to the contest. "A thing that surprised me," she wrote in Fifteen-Thirty, "was that I found her balls not unusually difficult to hit, nor did they carry as much speed as the balls of several other of the leading women players whom I had met in matches. But her balls kept coming back, coming back, and each time to a spot on the court which was a little more difficult to get to."
Lenglen lost a long game at 3—all, but then, heartened by a bad call that went in her favor, evened the score 4-4. In the 12th game, at 40-15, match point, there was another long rally, and Wills sent a hard, fast forehand to Lenglen's forehand corner. A voice called "Out!" Lenglen trotted to the net smiling, her hand outstretched. Spectators poured onto the court. Baskets of flowers appeared as if out of the air. In the midst of this pandemonium a linesman, Lord Charles Hope, almost unnoticed, approached the umpire's chair to say that the ball had been good, that he had not called it out.
The umpire, one Commander George Hillyard, changed the score to 40-30. In a few minutes the court was cleared and the players returned to their positions, one drained, the other revivified. Lenglen lost the next three points and the game to make the score 6—all, but 10 minutes later she was again at match point—7-6, 40-15. At that crucial moment she double-faulted, she who was said to have double-faulted only six times in seven years! The game went to deuce. But then, from deep within her well of experience, Lenglen drew two winners in a row and the match was hers, for the second time.
Lenglen sank onto a bench, exhausted, and later, when she was led by friends to a small office near the dressing rooms, she collapsed onto a desk that was covered with neat stacks of bank notes, the proceeds from the sale of tickets. Hysterical now, she began to tear them into little pieces.
As Tunis wrote in the Globe of Lenglen's having to replay match point: "Without a word, without a murmur, without any protest visible or otherwise, she returned to her task.... There was the real champion of champions."
Unwittingly, Tunis was writing Lenglen's epitaph. To the world at large the Wills match was Lenglen's greatest triumph, but a few observers, like Tunis, looking past the bouquets to the shattered figure and then over to her taller opponent in the sun visor standing unnoticed and unperturbed amid the confusion, sensed the truth, that at long last Suzanne's successor had appeared. Lenglen surely knew it, too.
About a year before the match in Cannes, a crass but inventive American sports promoter named Charles C. (Cash and Carry) Pyle, who had dollar signs spinning where his eyes should have been, stepped onto Lenglen's stage. Pyle, who has been described as "P.T. Barnum with a short attention span," knew nothing whatever about tennis, but he knew box office when he saw it. He had already made his reputation by signing the University of Illinois' Red Grange to a professional football contract. Now Pyle wanted a class act. Pyle offered Lenglen $50,000 on the spot and possibly more later, depending on the gate, for a four-month tour of the U.S. For months, Papa Lenglen and Suzanne vigorously denied rumors that she was to be paid, but the facts were that Charles's health was poor and her funds were running low. If ever there was a time to cash in on Suzanne's celebrity, this was it, while she remained unbeaten and her fame undiminished. Still, becoming a professional was a daring idea. Perhaps Suzanne felt that her status made her unique, that the tennis establishment, which had deferred to her for so many years, would not dare to ostracize her now. Or perhaps the unfortunate events at Wimbledon in 1926 made up her mind for her.
There, because of a scheduling change about which Lenglen claimed not to have been informed, Queen Mary, who had come one afternoon especially to see Lenglen play, sat gazing from the Royal Box at an empty court for half an hour. Overnight, British fans and the press, insulted in behalf of their queen, were transformed from Lenglen's adoring subjects into raving chauvinists ready to take up arms against her in defense of crown and country. She played one more match at Wimbledon, a mixed doubles with Jean Borotra, and then withdrew from the tournament.
On Aug. 2, 1926, Pyle held a press conference in Paris to announce that Lenglen had signed with him. He did not mention money; he knew enough to leave that to the imagination of the reporters. Predictably, a New York newspaper headline read: SUZANNE LENGLEN BECOMES A PROFESSIONAL; IS COMING HERE NEXT MONTH FOR $200,000 TOUR.
There was a furor. The French federation, for which Lenglen had earned hundreds of thousands of francs, called her action deplorable, refused her permission to play exhibitions at its member clubs and asked the Nice Tennis Club to expel her, which it did not do. The All England Club, however, revoked her honorary membership.
On Aug. 10 Suzanne was interviewed by Thomas Topping of the Associated Press, who observed that she looked five years younger, carefree and happy. "Some seem to believe I am tied up hands and feet by becoming a professional," she told him. "To me it is an escape from bondage and slavery. No one can order me about any longer to play tournaments for the benefit of club owners. I got great fun out of tennis for a few years after the war, but lately it had become too exacting.... I have done my bit to build up the tennis of France and of the world. It's about time tennis did something for me."
The most urgent question on both sides of the Atlantic was whom would she play in both singles and mixed doubles. There were few women who could give her a game, and none of those was a professional. An amateur would automatically lose his or her amateur status by competing against her. Lenglen's first choice for a mixed doubles partner was her current lover, an Italian Davis Cupper named Placido Gaslini. But Gaslini's father, a Milanese banker, would not permit it. In Gaslini's place, Paul Feret, the fourth-ranked French player, was picked and accepted. Feret at the time was disconsolate over the death of his 19-year-old wife and ready for a change of surroundings. (When Feret returned to France after the tour, he applied for reinstatement as an amateur, pleading tennis' version of temporary insanity. The federation accepted his plea, accompanied by a check representing his professional earnings, and anointed him an amateur again.)
When Lenglen and Feret sailed for New York on the liner Paris they had no idea who their opponents might be, but en route, when the Paris' sister ship, the France, was sighted steaming in the opposite direction, they got their first news. Aboard the France were the Four Musketeers: Borotra, René Lacoste, Henri Cochet and Toto Brugnon. During a ship-to-ship radio conversation Lenglen learned that Pyle had signed a former U.S. champion, Mary K. Browne, to be her singles opponent. Although 35 and past her playing prime, Browne was well known, having won the American women's title in 1912, '13 and '14.
But Pyle had saved his real stunner for the landing of the Paris in New York. When the liner docked on Sept. 30 he announced to a glittering assemblage in the ship's ballroom that he had acquired the services of "the greatest male tennis player in the world...Vincent Richards is now a professional!"
Richards was then 23 and about to be awarded the No. 1 U.S. ranking, dislodging Bill Tilden from that spot for the first time in six years. His decision to turn professional at the very peak of his amateur career was almost as startling as Lenglen's.
The United States Lawn Tennis Association took its revenge on Richards just as the French federation did on Lenglen. Both were stripped of their No. 1 rankings and thereafter dealt with as nonpersons.
Pyle filled out his troupe with two Californians: Howard Kinsey of San Francisco, who was ranked No. 6 in the U.S., and Harvey Snodgrass, a Southern Californian who had been ranked No. 6 in 1924 and subsequently had become a teaching pro in Los Angeles.
Again Charles was too ill to travel, but for company Suzanne had her mother, a personal maid, Helene, an Irish masseur named William T. O'Brien and Ann Kinsolving, 19, a cub reporter for the Baltimore News, now Mrs. John Nicholas Brown of Newport and Providence.
"When Suzanne was introduced to me, she stared at my fur-lined cloak as though she were studying its texture," Ann Kinsolving Brown told Italian journalist Gianni Clerici. "I seemed to pass her test, and she quietly said to me, 'You're the person I'm looking for. I need someone who understands me and will know how to speak about me.' " So Kin-solving signed on as tennis' first personal press agent, for $6,000.
Opening night, Oct. 9, 1926, at Madison Square Garden, was preceded by intense publicity. Lenglen's name was everywhere, endorsing French perfume, French girdles and French gowns. She was reported seen in the audience of a Broadway musical, at a Mary Pickford movie and at a World Series game at Yankee Stadium.
Just as Pyle had planned, the hype produced an opening night crowd of 13,000 well-heeled New Yorkers attired in black tie and evening gowns, including Governor Al Smith, Mayor Jimmy Walker, golfers Walter Hagen and Glenna Collett, assorted Astors, Pells and Vanderbilts, even Bill Tilden, who was introduced in the manner of a former champion at a prize fight. It was probably, though not provably, the largest crowd ever to watch tennis in the U.S. up to that time and the first to attend a professional tennis exhibition anywhere.
The preliminary, so to speak, was Richards vs. Feret. Richards won 6-3, 6-4. Then Lenglen entered the arena as a spotlight played on her and the band struck up the Marseillaise. While the crowd did not sit on its hands, neither did it give her a standing ovation. After all, New York's last sight of Lenglen had been of a coughing, sobbing quitter being led off the court at Forest Hills. But this night, as she beat Browne 6-1, 6-1 in 39 minutes, Lenglen won them over.
The second night at the Garden, 6,000 fans watched Lenglen beat Browne 6-2, 6-2, and Ring Lardner wrote, "It is obvious to everyone, even the experts, that Miss Wills would never beat Miss Lenglen if they were ever to meet in years to come."
Late that night the troupe, 14 people in all, including two baseball clowns, Al Schacht and Nick Altrock, who enlivened the intervals between matches with their buffoonery, set off for Toronto by train. In the baggage car was a 2,000-pound collapsible tennis court made of cork and rubber and covered with green painted canvas, which would be laid down in arenas, armories and auditoriums in 40 cities in the next four months.
As long as the tour remained in the Northeast, the audiences, which ranged from 8,000 in Cleveland to 1,500 in Buffalo, were made up, for the most part, of those who had at least a nodding acquaintance with tennis.
"It was a strenuous tour," says Ann Kinsolving Brown. "We always traveled by train, often at night. There were no proper sleeping cars in the European style, only Pullman berths, each separated from the next by tightly drawn curtains. There was only one real compartment at the end of the carriage with proper washing facilities. This was reserved for Suzanne. She suffered from insomnia. One night she decided to switch all the pairs of shoes that had been put outside the couchettes for cleaning. Next morning there was pandemonium."
In Toronto, Lenglen's visit was a social extravaganza. Her every waking moment was taken up with wining, dining and tea dancing. Her skin was compared in print to Eleanora Duse's, her mouth to Pola Negri's, her personality to Sarah Bernhardt's, her artistry to Fritz Kreisler's, her greatness to—get this—Edmund Burke's!
In Baltimore 5,000 people were at the Fifth Regiment Armory to watch Lenglen wipe the floor with Browne, 6-0, 6-0. Billy Jacobs, now 71, who was the head ball boy for the matches, recalls, "It was very cold. In those days they didn't have too much in the way of proper heat, and she came out on the court with a white fur coat and she asked me to help her off with it.... It was a nice crowd. Any people who were interested in tennis at the time would be very happy to brave any bad weather to see it." However, Felix Morley, writing in the Baltimore Sun, saw things in a different light: "There is nothing monotonous about Suzanne but there will soon be distinct monotony to her massacres of Mary Browne.... Suzanne is far too good for her, or any other woman player."
Browne, who died in 1971, once told a reporter, "Time after time I have run games up to 4-0, but try as I would, I never could get the set over. She would just run me ragged while I was accumulating that lead and then, when I no longer had the stamina for court covering, her deadly accuracy in placing the ball finally began to tell and the points began to mount up for her."
Meanwhile, Lenglen was charming the socks off the press wherever she went. Her interviews were frequently conducted over breakfast in her hotel suite, where her costume ranged from black silk pajamas to a white satin negligee.
In private, among the other members of the troupe, however, she was less than sunny. Snodgrass, who's now 86 and lives in Sun City, Ariz., says, "She was really a contradiction. Her game was grace and speed, soft shots, well-placed; she was a very well-conditioned athlete. But she was always upset, flaring mad. Sometimes it was hard to understand how the two could be connected. She had the worst temper I've ever seen. She was always threatening to bolt and go home. Off the court the other players on the tour didn't want to have anything to do with her."
But Lenglen, with her retinue, did not lack for company. "She took her meals in her bedroom, as she found American food inedible," says Ann Kinsolving Brown. "She drank French wines and made great salads, with beetroot, green peppers and Gruyere cheese. At breakfast, late in the morning, her bed became the center of a sort of royal levee. She would be massaged by O'Brien in front of anybody. Her telephone was by her bed. Once she answered a friend's call, 'I'm in the hands of an Irishman.' "
As always, she was unpredictable. One time, in the middle of a match, she told Pyle that she was not feeling well. She had had her period, she said. She wanted a break. Pyle replied that all the women he'd ever known complained when they didn't have their periods. Lenglen's response was to burst out laughing and carry on with the match.
In Philadelphia, Lenglen told a reporter, "I'm so happy. It is fun being a pro—no worry, no terrorizing fright because I might lose a game, no harrowing criticism. Oh, it's much better!" Yet privately she flared with anger when the detested Tilden showed up for the matches at the Sesqui Auditorium in Philadelphia, where the court was laid over a hockey rink and the temperatures were polar. "Ce pédéraste comes especially to see me in this igloo!" she growled to Kinsolving.
As the troupe headed farther west, public apathy grew and ticket sales declined. Los Angeles, a tennis hotbed, was supposed to have been the last stop on a triumphant tour, but as gate receipts dwindled, Pyle kept signing up more cities. In spite of the disappointing returns on his investment, he treated the Lenglen entourage to a 10-day holiday at the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego in December. Suzanne was photographed shaking hands with Jockey Tod Sloan at the nearby Caliente race track and doing calisthenics on the beach at Coronado, clad in "a black wool tank suit of meager proportions." Carefully excluded from the photographs but often included in Suzanne's excursions around San Diego was a tall, tanned and very rich California playboy, one Baldwin M. Baldwin, known as the Sheik. Grandson of E.J. (Lucky) Baldwin, who had made an enormous fortune during the California gold rush and who later owned the tract in Arcadia, Calif. where the Santa Anita race track now stands, young Baldwin became her constant companion, as constant, that is, as his position of husband, father and scion allowed. Two years later there was open talk of divorce and marriage, but in 1926 the Sheik was a somewhat shadowy figure. He joined the tour in its last weeks, and occasionally was referred to in newspaper accounts as Lenglen's business manager.
On Dec. 28 at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, before a knowledgeable crowd of 7,000, the Pyle troupe went through its paces again. Much fuss had been made in the preceding weeks over Browne's great improvement. Browne was a Southern Californian, and hopes ran high that she would win her first match from Lenglen on home ground. Alas, Magnificent Mary reverted to form and lost 6-0, 6-1.
By late fall 1926, Pyle had started paying more attention to his pro football investments—he started the American Football League that year—and following the L.A. engagement, he handed the management of the troupe to Richards, who led the players east through Texas to New Orleans, Miami and Havana, then north to Newark, Hartford and, finally, in February, to Providence and an audience of approximately 2,500.
Pyle, rejoining the players in New York when the tour had ended, boasted to the press, "Mile. Lenglen had played to capacity or near-capacity throngs in every city she visited" and "the venture has been a financial success far beyond our expectations." But the amateur tennis establishment knew better and it rejoiced.
It would be gratifyingly tidy but historically inaccurate to say that Lenglen's professional tour was a courageous act of pioneering that led by a direct route to today's tennis-playing millionaires, but the open-tennis revolution was so long in coming that the Lenglen tour seems to have no connection with it.
In February 1927, Lenglen went back to France with her mother. They returned to America only once after that, in December 1928, when they went to visit Baldwin's mother, Mrs. Anita Baldwin, in Arcadia, Calif. Baldwin was still wed, but rumors of his imminent marriage to Lenglen persisted.
The social call turned into a donny-brook, however. On Jan. 15 the following four-tiered headline appeared in The Los Angeles Times: LENGLEN LEAVES HOSTESS' HOME; BOTH DENY ROW; TENNIS PLAYER'S WHEREABOUTS UNKNOWN—HAD TICKETS FOR EAST; MRS. ANITA BALDWIN IN COLLAPSE, REPORT SON, FRENCH WOMAN'S MANAGER, ALSO QUITS CALIFORNIA HOUSE.
Back to Europe Suzanne went, this time for good, with the Sheik in tow. As the party left New York, Baldwin's lawyer announced to the press that he would seek a divorce for his client in Paris.
The divorce never came about, nor did the marriage, but the affair lasted four more years. By 1930 Lenglen was at work selling sports clothes in a Parisian dress house, which was distinguished by a vest-pocket tennis court on the premises. Some society page observers exulted in print over what they saw as Lenglen's descent from queen to shopgirl, although no one seemed sure whether financial need was involved. In fact, it probably was. The family had lost the use of the villa in Nice, and Charles Lenglen had succumbed at last to failing health, in 1929, dying at age 70.
When the French tennis federation reinstated Feret in 1933, it was expected that Lenglen, who had also applied to regain her amateur, status, would be next, but that never happened. Her movements were still news, though, and her public appearances in informal tennis matches always attracted attention.
Five-time U.S. champion Helen Jacobs recalled in her book. Gallery of Champions, a practice match she played with Lenglen in 1933 during the French championships at Roland Garros Stadium: "Jean Borotra was playing on the stadium court and the stands were filled to capacity. The court to which Suzanne and I walked was behind the stadium, but visible from its rim. A spectator must have passed the word that 'Lenglen was playing,' for in a matter of minutes we were being followed by a procession of people far more eager to watch Suzanne than any of the tournament aspirants."
From 1933 until her sudden death at the age of 39, in 1938, Lenglen was director of a government-backed tennis school in Paris, apparently having given up hope of being readmitted as an amateur.
The one event in her life that she could not stage-manage was her death, of pernicious anemia. On June 29 she was given a transfusion and on July 4 she was dead. The disease by then was no longer considered incurable, but Lenglen's health had never been robust.
Her funeral at Notre Dame de l'Assomption in Paris befitted that of a national heroine. Her old friend King Gustav V of Sweden sent an emissary, as did Premier Edouard Daladier of France. Borotra and Brugnon represented the Musketeers, and floral displays from tennis clubs filled three automobiles in the procession to the cemetery in suburban Sain-Ouen. Suzanne was buried in the family plot, alongside her beloved Papa.
At Wimbledon, Moody, who had just won her eighth singles title, said Lenglen was "the greatest woman player who ever lived." So, at one time or another, did every other prominent player who had ever been her opponent, including Mallory, Chambers and Browne.
But of them all, the one who knew her best was Elizabeth Ryan. Ryan was one of the last players to beat Lenglen at singles, when she was 14. She also gave Suzanne one of her few tough matches at Wimbledon, a three-setter in 1924, after which Lenglen withdrew from the tournament. For six years Ryan was Lenglen's doubles partner, at Wimbledon and elsewhere. As a team they were never beaten.
Ryan died in 1979 at the age of 87, 24 hours before Billie Jean King finally broke her longstanding record of 19 Wimbledon titles. In 1941, when Ryan was a teaching pro at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu, sports-writer Bob Considine sought her out there and asked her the old question—who was the best?
"Why, Suzanne, of course," Ryan replied. "She owned every kind of shot, plus a genius for knowing how and when to use them. She never gave an opponent the same kind of shot to hit twice in a row. She'd make you run miles...her game was all placement and deception and steadiness. I had the best drop shot anybody ever had, but she could not only get up to it but was so fast that often she could score a placement off of it. She had a stride a foot and a half longer than any known woman who ever ran, but all those crazy leaps she used to take were done after she hit the ball. Sure, she was a poser, a ham in the theatrical sense. She had been spoiled by tremendous adulation from the time she was a kid.... But she was the greatest woman player of them all. Never doubt that."
Adapted in part from material that will appear in "Suzanne Lenglen: Prima Donna of Tennis," a book by Gianni Clerici.