Winner of Wimbledon’s triple crown in 1939, American Alice Marble was the tennis world’s original Glamazon. Living a life as big as her game, the 18-time Grand Slam champ shagged balls with Joe DiMaggio, survived a Nazi bullet, and fought racism on tour. Writer Margaret McArthur (a.k.a. “Alice Marble” at GTT) tells her extraordinary story.
Alice Marble: American Twist
Seventy years ago Alice Marble, the glamor girl from San Francisco, won her first singles title at Wimbledon. She picked up the Doubles and Mixed Doubles prizes, too, becoming the first woman to win the SW19 trifecta.
Alice’s groundstrokes were erratic, her forehand a sometime thing. She had health issues. So how did she do it? She finished the points fast.
She’d learned the perils of long rallies six years earlier, in 1933, at a tournament in Easthampton, New York. Because of rain delays earlier in the week, the finals and semifinals of both singles and doubles were held on the same day. The temperature hovered around 100 degrees. Marble made it to the finals of both events before collapsing from sunstroke and dehydration after playing a total of 108 games. (For perspective, last year’s Federer vs. Nadal final wrapped up in 62.)
Alice learned her lesson – no more grinding it out from the backcourt. She became the first female all-court serve and volley specialist, ferociously competitive, fleet of foot and possessing a specialty serve so vicious that opponents quailed.
The serve: The American Twist – a dipping, kicking, top-spinning fake-out that curves one way into the service box, sticks to the court on the bounce and breaks high and wide in the opposite direction. Hard to master and a bitch to return, it’s been a favorite of Hall of Fame servers spanning from Don Budge to Pete Sampras.
Marble was the first woman to serve the American Twist in competition, the first woman to wear shorts in competition and the first player to take vocal lessons to enlarge her lung capacity — she sang to great acclaim in the off season at tony joints like the Café at the Waldorf-Astoria. She was the first and perhaps only tennis player to host a football radio show, at WNEW in New York City, where she showed a chick could pick winners as well as any man.
She aced, in the thirties and forties, all the Tennis Glamazon stuff at which Maria Sharapova and the Williams sisters excel today. She hung with Hollywood – there’s a photo where her blonde loveliness is only slightly outshone by Carole Lombard’s. She did print ads for Jockey with Big Bill Tilden. She gave free tennis and fitness clinics for kids. She designed her own line of tennis wear.
The Golden Girl of Golden Gate Park
Marble was born in 1913 to a poor widow, the youngest of eight siblings and the only girl. She grew up by the public tennis courts near Golden Gate Bridge, a tomboy trying to best the athletic feats of her competitive brothers. She was the team mascot and ball girl for the minor league San Francisco Seals – its star, Joe DiMaggio recalled that at thirteen, “she had a pretty good arm.” She thought tennis was a sport for sissies and didn’t pick up a racquet until she was fifteen, when her brothers explained that there was no future in pro ball for a girl, and she should take up something more ladylike – like tennis.
She began to watch other players on the public courts, and without her knowledge, her brothers signed her up for a tournament. She lost. She hated losing. She had no money for lessons. She hated losing. She played with borrowed equipment. She hated losing. She wasn’t yet in love with the game, but she’d found an outlet for her competitive streak. And she hated losing.
That year she was raped by a stranger in Golden Gate Park.
Her commitment to practice caught the eye of Eleanor “Teach” Tennant, arguably the greatest tennis coach of her time. (Her other pupils, Gene Mako, Don Budge and Bobby Riggs would be half the reason for Marble’s iron grip on Mixed Doubles Titles.) Alice couldn’t afford to pay her, so Tennant provided tennis lessons in exchange for secretarial work. She remained Marble’s coach and friend for the rest of her life.
Tennant knew she didn’t have one of those triple-named queens of the court on her hands – champs like Helen Wills Moody or Margaret Osborne DuPont. She had a scrapper with speed, serve, volley and an overhead Don Budge said she smashed “better than the best men.”
Alice also had so many health problems that Tennant spent as much time being a nurse as being a coach.
The Easthampton incident in 1933 should have ended Marble’s career. In 1934 she traveled with an American team to a French event, only to faint during the first set. Diagnosed with pleurisy – an inflammation of the lungs that makes breathing excruciating – she spent eight months in a sanatorium, bored senseless, body atrophied. Tennant had to teach her how to walk again. Her energy had disappeared; she despaired of ever competing again, and sought a second opinion. Her blood-iron level had almost flat lined. Anemia treatments and continued strength training, to say nothing of the vocal lessons, brought her up from the wheelchair.
But in 1936 the big wigs at the National Tennis Association still feared for her health and banned her from playing in the U.S. Championships. So she set up a two-hour, hot-weather exhibition and invited them to observe. After seeing her form, they let her play at Forest Hills. Good call: she beat Helen Jacobs for the Ladies Championship and took the Mixed Doubles with Gene Mako.
Alice Marble won 18 Major titles between 1936 and 1940, including one Wimbledon and four U.S. Championships singles titles. She set records in 1939 when she became the first woman to sweep the singles, doubles and mixed events at both Wimbledon and the US Championships in the same year. (Only one other woman has equaled this accomplishment – Billie Jean King in 1967.)
But as great as Marble’s on-court achievements are, her life is too big to fit inside the record books or a display case at the Tennis Hall of Fame. Her life demands the Big Screen and Hitchcock’s iconic black-and-white, her story filmed “Notorious” style with Ingrid Bergman as the blonde.
Marble turned pro in 1940, giving up amateur glory on the lawns of Forest Hills and Wimbledon. “What’s left for me?” she said, “I’m champion and may as well make the most of it.” Big Bill Tilden and Don Budge toured with her that year in an event sponsored by L.B. Ikczly, the owner of Wilson. Her win-loss record was 72-3.
Marble was making money, winning big, studying at Columbia and NYU, singing in nightclubs and giving fitness lectures to Women’s Groups. In 1942 she fell in love with an Army intelligence captain, Joseph Crowley, and married him. (Alice had led a lusty love life that leaned to Xtreme Doubles, Ladies and Mixed.) Pregnancy did nothing but make her golden glow more radiant.
In 1944 she survived a car crash. The baby died. A few days later her husband’s plane was shot down over Germany. He died.
Alice took an overdose of sleeping pills because she wanted to die. She lived. “Teach” Tennant found her in time.
Allied Intelligence recruited her to worm the secrets of Nazi bank transfers from a Swiss banker who’d been one of her lovers. They set up a series of exhibition matches in Switzerland, trusting that the banker would attempt a hook-up with Alice. In her autobiography, Courting Danger, she wrote: “When I agreed to use tennis as a cover for an assignment that had little chance of succeeding, I had nothing to lose but my life, and at the time I didn’t care about living.” Like Ingrid Bergman in this courtside version of “Notorious”, Alice Marble seduced for her country. She charmed the wire transfer numbers from the banker (Claude Rains, of course). The Nazis discovered the Allied plot and shot Alice in the back, leaving her for dead on a country road. Her keepers found her and got her out.
She lived. She wrote: “On a dark mountain road I found I did care. When my life was in danger I did what I’ve always done: I fought.”
A Challenge in Black and White
After the war DC Comics hired her to be editorial director of its “Wonder Woman” franchise. She did a little coaching – a young Billie Jean King was one of her students. And Marble fought maybe the most important battle of her life, against racism in tennis.
In 1950, Althea Gibson was barred from entering a tournament because she was black. That same year – when institutional racism was the American Way – Alice Marble wrote an article in the July edition of American Lawn Tennis Magazine. The money quotes:
“Miss Gibson is over a very cunningly wrought barrel, and I can only hope to loosen some of its staves with one lone opinion. If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentle-people and less like sanctimonious hypocrites.” “If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only fair they meet that challenge on the courts.”
Then she served an ace straight down the T. If Gibson didn’t get her chance, Marble said, “there is an ineradicable mark against a game to which I have devoted most of my life, and I would be bitterly ashamed.”
Althea Gibson played the U.S. Championships that year.
In 1964, along with her buddy and mixed doubles partner, Don Budge, Alice Marble was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame. She died in Palm Springs in 1990.
Margaret McArthur cooks, writes and pulls weeds near Chicago. She fell in love with tennis the year John McEnroe joined the tour. Her food writing can be found at www.margaretmcarthur.com.
For more about Alice Marble and other tennis greats, the Tennis Hall of Fame’s website is a terrific resource: www.tennisfame.com. Alice Marble’s autobiography (with Dan Leatherman) is available at Amazon: Courting Danger: My Adventures in World-Class Tennis, Golden-Age Hollywood, and High-Stakes Spying
Want more to read? Click here for GTT’s interview with author Jon Wertheim on his new book Strokes of Genius and here for the amazing true story of the world’s most dashing tennis player Gottfried von Cramm.