Who remembers Francis X. Shields? For tennis buffs, the record book offers ample reason to do so: He was a finalist at Forest Hills in 1930 when he was 21, a Wimbledon finalist in 1931 and the No. 1-ranked player in the U.S. in 1933. He was also a strong Davis Cup player for many years and a Cup team captain. Completely self-taught, Shields was a powerful, commanding presence on court. Yet none of this begins to describe the man or the mark he left on the world before he died in 1975.
Frank Shields was always at play, on or off the tennis court, in Hollywood (where he made movies), in business (where he sold insurance) and in every bar—neighborhood or exclusive—that pleased him. Having fun was the key to living well—and for Shields that started with getting smashed. Shields was, in a word, Gatsby. And now one of his sons, William X. Shields, has told his story in Bigger than Life (Freundlich Books, $17.95).
Francis X. was born in the Bronx into a middle-class, devoutly religious Irish family. He was enrolled in many schools, but he never made it through—he left the University of Pittsburgh after just one day. During the years he played top-rank tennis, the important U.S. events were held at the country's wealthiest clubs. Shields—handsome, flamboyant, ingenuous—was an instant smash hit in this milieu and remained a favorite of the country-club set all his life. M-G-M brought him to Hollywood, and he was quickly the center of attraction in the tennis and social circles that included Charlie Chaplin, the Barrymores, Jack Warner, Gary Cooper and, especially, kindred soul Errol Flynn. He married three of society's beautiful women. (The most evocative and touching part of the book is the preface by his third wife, Katharine Mortimer Blaine.)
Shields's was a life that delineated one aspect of America through three decades. It would be a pity if it all came down to the footnote, as it does occasionally, that Francis X. was the grandfather of Brooke Shields.