The Riviera had a kind of Post impressionist air and light in February of 1926 when Helen Wills came to Cannes to play tennis with Suzanne Lenglen. The French franc was about 25 to the' dollar and a bottle of the wine of Provence was 10 sous. Hemingway had just left for New York to peddle The Torrents of Spring. Fitzgerald was holed up at a resort in the Pyrenees, where Zelda was taking" the cure. An adaptation of The Great Gatsby was playing on Broadway (Hemingway said he had paid to get in and would have paid to get out). Matisse was in Nice: Picasso was married to Neo-Surrealism and a ballerina named Olga Koklova. It was the last lovely time before the Western world turned sour and modern.
February in New York City was cold and rainy, and the gin at the Texas Guinan Club was made in bathtubs in Jersey City. Every American sportswriter who could spell Paris (about half of them) figured it was a whole lot better to be in Cannes than covering two-bit pugs duking it out in St. Nicholas Arena up on West 66th Street. Things were just as dull in London, Madrid and Paris itself. The cricket pitches were empty, the bullrings were shuttered, and nothing was running at Longchamp. It was time for a "ballyhoo," one of those spontaneous media circuses that erupted whenever reporters were bored and thirsty and tired of looking at their editors.
Newspapers reveled in a heyday of fad, fashion and overnight heroes, and the impending tennis match between Wills and Lenglen had everything a jaded, bloodless American city editor needed: a classic story of innocent America (in the guise of the sweet, uncomplicated, 20-year-old Wills) versus decadent Europe (the amorous, vain, hard-drinking, 26-year-old Lenglen). Even the stodgy proprietors of the London Times could see this story. Lenglen, the six-time Wimbledon champ, had lost only one match—and that by default—in seven years. Wills was an ingenue who had consolidated her dominance of American amateur tennis with three straight singles titles at Forest Hills. The two women had never played each other in singles, and as it turned out, they never would again.
The ballyhoo began on Jan. 15 when Wills stepped off the ocean liner De Grasse in the port of Le Havre. Dozens of local reporters wore waiting to pelt her with dozens of questions. The attitude of the French press was downright imperial. Americans were viewed as generally inferior and mostly laughable. Paris-Midi, in fact, had only recently described them as "degenerate and rotten, physically, intellectually and morally. They offend our eyes, our ears and our nostrils."
October 15, 1991
With their noses quivering in anticipation, the assembled bled French reporters found Wills polite, demure and possibly fragrant. Wills explained that she had come to France not so much to play tennis but to paint. The Frenchmen were charmed by this straightforward California. Wills so enthralled the prestigious Eclaireur de Nice that it pronounced her "une petite jeune fille de province"—a lovely little country girl.
Soon newspapers around the world were regaling their readers with tales of Wills and Lenglen. Daily dispatches chronicled Wills's passage through nondescript tournaments on the way to Cannes. A reporter for TIME magazine, who evidently deemed it unnecessary to actually talk to Wills, concocted a weekly diary of her travels and even dreamed up the thoughts he put in her head.
Through it all, Wills stayed cool and placid. She dressed for matches with conservative good taste, mostly in white starched cotton skirts and blouses that accentuated a certain schoolgirl sensuality. When asked a few years later to name the most beautiful sight he had ever seen, Charlie Chaplin answered, "The movement of Helen Wills playing tennis: It had grace and economy of action as well as a healthy appeal to sex." That great sensualist Ed Sullivan, a columnist for the New York Evening Mail in 1922, saw a more remote, dispassionate quality in Wills, and nicknamed her Little Poker Face.
Coverage of Lenglen was more flamboyant. La Grande Suzanne was a national treasure in France, where her name was invoked with the same fervor as Joan of Arc's. But she was no porcelain-cheeked beauty. "Her face was homely in repose," the Paris Herald's Al Laney wrote in a later book, "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...." Lenglen wore ermine and partied on champagne, she traveled by chauffeured limo and private rail car, and she knew everyone who ever wrote a memoir about the Lost Generation. She was also a bit of a mess, a baseline Zelda Fitzgerald who succumbed routinely to fits of depression and hysteria.
"Wouldn't you tell me about some of your widely discussed love affairs, Mademoiselle Lenglen?" asked one impertinent reporter.
"Oh! Mais c'est indiscret!"
"But it's also very interesting," replied the scribe.
"Well, probably," said Lenglen, "but really what can I tell you? I have been reported engaged 24 times, at a conservative estimate. In the case of 20 of them, I never had the pleasure of seeing my announced fiancè."
On court, in her scandalously short skirts and jeweled bandeau, Lenglen was a zigzag of wicked zest, a demon who never gave in. Hemingway thought enough of her to say of a male character in The Sun Also Rises: "He loved to win at tennis. He probably loved to win as much as Lenglen, for instance." Lenglen treated Wills dismissively, calling her a "sweet child." She watched the young American play doubles in Nice but left midway through the match and said, clucking, "Isn't that comical."
Reporters on the trail of Wills and Lenglen filed scoop after dubious scoop. They turned up gambling lings and secret trusts. They speculated on Wills's bruised knee and Lenglen's ailing psyche. And they never worried about running out of facts. James Thurber, writing for the Riviera edition of the Chicago Tribune, may have actually seen Wills, but it cannot be determined with certainty from tinstones he wrote about her. His accounts were largely translations of those in the journal Eclaireur de Nice, embellished by his own imagination.
Thurber's wife, Althea, compiled the Tribune's Riviera social notes. When she ran short of copy. Thurber dreamed up more for her: "The Hon. Mr. Stephen H.L. Atterbury Chargè-d' Affaires of the American Legation in Peru, and Mrs. Atterbury the former Princess Ti Ling of Thibet, are motoring to Monte Carlo from Aix-en-Provence, where they have been visiting Mr. Atterbury's father, Rear Admiral A. Watson Atterbury, U.S.N., retired. Mr. Stephen Atterbury is the breeder of the famous Schnauzer-Pincher, Champion Adelbert von Weigengrosse of Tamerlane, said to be valued at $15,000."
The sportswriting that came out of the Riviera during a ballyhoo was no less fanciful than Thurber's social musings. Paul Gallico, who ballyhooed for the New York Daily News, later mused: "I find my pen was dipped into the sheerest heliotrope hysteria. My bill for purple ink must have been appalling." Among the purplest was that which flowed from the pen of Grantland Rice, on assignment for Collier's magazine. With a tendency to idolize, romanticize and sentimentalize his athletic subjects, Rice was the Louisa May Alcott of sportswriting.
Rice and his fellow Americans were mostly homers. The exception was Heywood Broun, a beefy, Brooklyn-born columnist for the New York World. Lenglen was Broun's kind of woman: She smoked, she drank, she kept her training to a minimum, she was a nervous wreck. "She moves through one of the most exacting of all strenuous games and remains in appearance morbid," he wrote. "Suzanne is the finest of all champions...for she wins and wins and still avoids the reproach of being an ideal or a good example to anyone."
Alter weeks of conveniently avoiding one other—some accused Lenglen of ducking the challenge—Wills and Lenglen finally met on Feb. 16 in the singles final of the Carlton Club tournament in Cannes. Touts made Lenglen a 3-1 favorite. Main thought Wills would be lucky to win two games. The match was played in brilliant sunshine at the luxurious, palm-shaded Carlton Hotel. John Tunis of the New York Evening Post was unimpressed, calling the six clay courts a "tawdry little excuse for a tennis club."
As match time approached, carpenters pounded at the makeshift bleachers while a crowd of some 6,000 pounded at the gate. Sausaged into the stands were Grand Duke Cyril of Russia. King Gustav of Sweden, the Duke of Sutherland, the Rajah and Ranee of Pudukota and others too important to mention. The rest of Riviera society scrambled to gain a view: Scions of white-gloved families clung to fences and climbed eucalyptus trees; they perched on branches like marmosets, and mocked the gendarmes climbing after them: heiresses in full finery clustered thick on nearby roofs, chattering throughout the afternoon.
To reach the press gate, Laney of the Paris Herald formed a flying wedge of photographers and reporters. Inside, he found a scat near Vicente Blasco Ibà‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±ez, the Spanish novelist, who was getting 40,000 francs from a South American newspaper for his work, though he had never even seen a tennis match. "I understand psychology," Blasco Ibà‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±ez explained. To his left was former editor of The Masses Max Eastman, recently returned from the Soviet Union. Around them a jumble of journalists pecked away at weighty typewriters balanced in their laps.
Laney sat behind Tom Topping, a tenacious legman for the Associated Press. Topping would hand his longhand scribbling to Laney, who corrected the copy and passed it to a man standing behind the bleachers, who then passed the page over the fence to a runner, who rushed it off to a wire service for transmission to America. "You know where this wench [Wills] comes from?" Topping asked Laney. "Berkeley, California. You know what time it is in Berkeley. California? Three o'clock in the morning. Some of the a.m.'s are holding for this [story], and the guy who gels there first gets his stuff in the paper."
Lenglen won the first set 6-3, hut seemed slightly off her game, perhaps sluggish from lack of sleep after a long night of arguing with her overbearing lather, who opposed her playing in the match. Or she may have been raided by the incantations of Spectators who shouted, shrieked and whistled during every rally. The London Daily Mail noted: "Miss Wills took no refreshments during the match, but Mile. Lenglen drank several glasses of water." Actually, Lenglen was quaffing chilled cognac, a fact not lost on the TIME reporter, who wrote. "As her cells look up the liquor, courage spouted through her veins, empurpled her falcon face. And her strength and spring seemed to return. Her cat cunning footwork began to work again."
Weary, perhaps, of rewriting the local papers. Thurber chose to cast the encounter in the shape of a Henry James novel, with Wills as a wispy Daisy Miller. "[Your story] betrayed no knowledge whatever of tennis," Tunis later told Thurber, "but a considerable grasp of women."
The playing styles of the two competitors wore as contrasting as their personalities. The sturdy and athletic Wills was an aggressive, hard-serving player; Lenglen's stylish strokes were the epitome of tennis elegance. The best reportage of the clash itself was by Laney. In his account, he remarked on the reluctance of Wills to backhand balls down the line to Lenglen's forehand. Lenglen's soft, sharply angled returns dragged Wills up to the net, leaving most of the court open.
In the second set, Wills began to anticipate her opponent's shrewdly placed shots. She look three of the first lour games. But her composure evaporated after one of Lenglen's shots that had clearly landed out was called in. Lenglen evened the set at 4-4. At double match point in the 12th game. Wills pasted a crosscourt forehand to Lenglen's forehand corner. "Out!" someone shouted. Lenglen skipped to the net and shook the hand of her rival. She was mobbed by hundreds of fans and showered with carnations, orchids and American beauty roses.
But the out call had been made by a wishful spectator; the linesman had ruled the ball in and informed the umpire, who ordered play to resume. Lenglen came unraveled, dropping the next three points and the game. Six-all. But Lenglen was nothing if not resilient. Within 13 minutes she was again serving at match point: 7-6, 40-15. But she double-faulted, then lost the next point. Deuce. Finally, Lenglen blasted two winners in a row to win 8-6. .Again the crowd pressed in to congratulate her. Standing within that wall of people. Lenglen sobbed convulsively. Later in the afternoon she met Wills again, this time in the doubles final (once again, the French woman was victorious). At the end of play, Lenglen collapsed.
News of the match swamped the front pages. SUZANNE WEEPS, WIN'S AND FAINTS, screamed the London Daily Herald. "One of the most grotesque and thrilling and momentous games on record." crowed Thurber. The London Morning Past likened Lenglen's play to "the rhythmic silence of Bernhardt or an arabesque of Karsavina" and suggested that each of her conquests should be celebrated in verse "like the victorious swordplay of Cyrano de Bergerac."
But the unexpectedly close contest chastened the editor of L'Echo des Sports, who wrote, "We had grown to consider the French champion as a class apart; that short of accident her position could not be threatened by any rivals. Yesterday's match proves that Suzanne is not in a class of her own above all others: that her defeat can be classed among the possible if not the normal eventualities."
The San Francisco Chronicle took the loss personally; Wills was, alter all, a local girl. "We" were far from being beaten, the paper editorialized, while blaming the defeat on "an unfair line call." Wills deserved a rematch, the Chronicle said: "It is up to the French girl to give her a chance." Wills never got one. Appendicitis caused her to default during the French championships in June of '26, and by the time she was able to return to the circuit, Lenglen had turned pro.
The London Evening Nexus put the match in proper perspective: "It seemed as if the earth itself would pause in its rotation, as if all the international excitement would end in an appeal to the League of Nations. Anything might have happened, including a war between the United States and France." But with the match at last over, the Evening News declared, "the universe can now go on as before."