Queen of the Court
The Many Lives of Tennis Legend Alice Marbleby Madeleine Blais
From the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Madeleine Blais, the dramatic and colorful story of legendary tennis star and international celebrity, Alice Marble
From the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Madeleine Blais, the dramatic and colorful story of legendary tennis star and international celebrity, Alice Marble
In August 1939, Alice Marble graced the cover of Life magazine, photographed by the famed Alfred Eisenstaedt. She was a glamorous worldwide celebrity, having that year won singles, women’s doubles, and mixed doubles tennis titles at both Wimbledon and the US Open, then an unprecedented feat. Yet today one of America’s greatest female athletes and most charismatic characters is largely forgotten. Queen of the Court places her back on center stage.
Born in 1913, Marble grew up in San Francisco; her favorite sport, baseball. Given a tennis racket at age 13, she took to the sport immediately, rising to the top with a powerful, aggressive serve-and-volley style unseen in women’s tennis. A champion at the height of her fame in the late 1930s, she also designed a clothing line in the off-season and sang as a performer in the Sert Room of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York to rave reviews. World War II derailed her amateur tennis career, but her life off the court was, if anything, even more eventful. She wrote a series of short books about famous women. She turned professional and joined a pro tour during the War, entertaining and inspiring soldiers and civilians alike. Ever glamorous and connected, she had a part in the 1952 Tracy and Hepburn movie Pat and Mike, and she played tennis with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, and her great friends, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. However, perhaps her greatest legacy lies in her successful efforts, working largely alone, to persuade the all-white US Lawn Tennis Association to change its policy and allow African American star Althea Gibson to compete for the US championship in 1950, thereby breaking tennis’s color barrier.
In two memoirs, Marble also showed herself to be an at-times unreliable narrator of her own life, which Madeleine Blais navigates skillfully, especially Marble’s dramatic claims of having been a spy during World War II. In Queen of the Court, the author of the bestselling In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle recaptures a glittering life story.
“An enthralling biography of pioneering tennis player Alice Marble . . . Blais’s handling of Marble’s spurious claim to have served as a spy during WWII showcases the author’s dogged research and empathetic analysis, pointing out travel records that contradict Marble’s story and suggesting that it may have stemmed from the former champion’s yearning to hold the public’s attention as her star power declined. This will likely stand as the definitive account of Marble’s life.”—Publishers Weekly (starred and boxed review)
“Extensively researched and beautifully written . . . The author’s journalistic strength shines throughout, especially navigating conflicting and inconsistent aspects of Marble’s life detailed in her memoirs (was she a WWII spy? married?). The appendix includes Marble’s most lasting and radical legacy: her courageous 1950 editorial in American Lawn Tennis advocating for Gibson to play in the U.S. National Championships, which helped to break the sport’s color barrier. Essential addition to tennis and sports history collections.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Illuminates the icon’s life in this biography that details not only her rise in the sport of tennis but also her work as a writer, fashion maven, and civil rights activist . . . This book reminds readers that this sometimes forgotten figure earned her place in the chronicled events of tennis as well as in the annals of women’s history overall. An informative and intriguing story of the life of a formidable woman. An essential read for anyone who loves learning about the women whom history threatens to forget or erase.”—Library Journal
“An adept biographer chronicles the life of a resilient Renaissance woman and tennis champion who should not be forgotten . . . The high level of detailed research and compelling writing show why tennis player Hazel Wightman described Marble as ‘the first girl who became sensational.’ An engagingly thorough biography of a dazzling woman.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Madeleine Blais, one of my favorite all-time writers, has brought Alice Marble back to life in all of her splendid contradictions, breaking through the mythology to restore the too-often overlooked tennis great to her rightful place in the history of women in sports.”—David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Path Lit By Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe
“Alice Marble was a dazzling beauty who played like a man, a clothing designer who won Wimbledon in shorts, a writer, singer, and Hollywood hobnobber, an activist whose words broke the color barrier in tennis. Her personal life was full of mystery and myth . . . and she wanted it that way. This extraordinarily researched book chases down every strand of Marble’s tangled life. Alice would have loved it, resented it, disputed it, refuted it . . . and that only makes her more fascinating.”—Mary Carillo, sportscaster/commentator on NBC Sports and HBO Sports
“As the nation’s current-day fascination with women’s sports builds by the year, best-selling author Madeleine Blais takes us back to another place and time, to the thrilling and wonderfully entertaining life of 1930s tennis legend Alice Marble. Never heard of her? Blais takes care of that, bringing this enchanting icon of the twentieth century to life in riveting and rich detail in her meticulously researched new book, Queen of the Court.”—Christine Brennan, USA Today columnist; CNN, ABC News and PBS NewsHour commentator; author of the best-selling Inside Edge
“Alice Marble took up tennis on public park courts in California and became an international champion, known in her time as ‘the girl who has everything,’ and ‘the first woman who plays tennis like a man.’ Hers was a charm school-era life of sporting success, stardust celebrity, public conscience, private discontent, and lonely prevarication. The great victory of Madeleine Blais’s careful, moving biography is her sensitive understanding of a formidable competitor whose greatest rival was herself.”—Nicholas Dawidoff, author of The Catcher Was A Spy and The Other Side of Prospect
Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction
“Beautifully written . . . a celebration of girls and athletics.”—USA Today
“Joyful . . . The reader gets a real sense of these girls and their dreams.”—New York Times Book Review
“Tender and upbeat . . . Wonderfully wry . . . A delight to read.”—Philadelphia Inquirer
“Flows like a novel . . . These basketball players show us what women can do when they work together as a team.”—Atlanta Constitution
“Engrossing . . . Better than the best pep talk, this book will kindle your pride in your own unique, feminine strength.”—New Woman
“[An] evocative memoir . . . Blais comes to her subject with two major advantages: She’s a deft and witty Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and her husband’s parents were well-connected powerhouses . . . To the New Owners sparkles when Blais focuses on her family’s frequently funny experiences . . . Blais pointedly showcases the simpler, more modest and, alas, rapidly disappearing old Vineyard she loves. Unfortunately, the changes she mourns are happening everywhere. Which makes records like this all the more valuable.”—Washington Post
“For anyone who has ever been curious about life on the Vineyard, or fantasized about settling in, Blais offers a diverting portrait . . . Blais has stitched together [the memoir] from the writings and stories of others, as well as her own wistful, often wry observations . . . Throughout, Blais exhibits a veteran reporter’s instinct for even-handedness.”—Boston Globe
“A bittersweet ode to a Martha’s Vineyard home . . . The chapter on formidable Vineyard doyenne and Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham is the most charming in the book, positively luminous with nostalgic affection. And the broader canvas of Vineyard life—the shops, the storms, the wry local humor—is painted with exactly the kind of skill and evocation readers would expect from the author of the bestselling In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle.”—Christian Science Monitor
“Blais writes with eye, mind, and heart in equal measure. I laughed aloud, teared up at least once a chapter, and sighed with recognition throughout. Coming to the end was as bittersweet as Labor Day.”—George Howe Colt, author of The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home
“Madeleine Blais knows the secret of a superb memoir: a wry sense of humor and an honest sense of gratitude leaven the inevitable pain of To the New Owners. Anyone who has lived in a house and had to leave it will laugh and be moved by this brilliantly written book.”—Anita Shreve, author of The Stars Are Fire
Excerpted from Queen of the Court © 2023 by Madeleine Blais. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
Alice Marble passed in front of the grandstand, a short-sleeved blue cardigan resting on her shoulders. At five feet seven inches, her face filled with a kind of prairie openness, Marble appeared statuesque and accessible at the same time. There were seats on either side of the umpire’s chair for spare rackets and towels, where she and her opponent, Britain’s favored native daughter Kay Stammers, could rest for a few seconds during game changeovers. Good manners reigned, with gently spoken commands of “more balls, please” on the court, and praise, from announcers and spectators alike, intoned ever so softly: “Lovely shot, lovely shot, lovely shot.”
On July 8, 1939, the women’s singles final championship was contested at Wimbledon in the London suburbs.
Spectators stood in line all night to guarantee a place in the stands, a degree of ardor Marble had never witnessed in the United States. Rain had fallen on and off, and the air smelled of grass and diesel. “Lorry-loads of roses and geraniums” enlivened the grounds. If Marble looked toward the press box, she could see a cluster of reporters, most of whom had ranked her as the favorite to win the tournament but also as tennis’s number-one eyeful. The crowd was on edge, less about the matches (the entire Wimbledon fortnight was considered a soggy letdown that season, and the men’s singles final had been so lackluster that fans filed out before the finish in disgust) than about Germany. Hitler’s forces had just seized Bulgaria. Poland could not be far behind.
Providing a dose of dignity and celebrity, the seventy-two-year-old queen mother perched in the royal box, “a large enclosure, seating fifty persons, with armchairs in the front row.” Alice Marble and her opponent stood side by side and performed, in unison, a bow, in the style of a page boy, in the queen’s direction. Among her guests were Joseph Kennedy Sr., the ambassador from the United States to the Court of St. James’s, bespectacled, with a ready grin and a bouncing gait, and his wife, Rose, the youthful dark-haired mother of nine.
Marble’s measured manner as she traveled to Centre Court contrasted with her headlong dash as a child toward the public courts at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, not far from her house. After playing for hours, she would return to her home “at the center of two very high hills” in the Sunset District. Sixty steps took her from the bottom of the yard to the lofty elevation of the front door. How often she had bounded up and down, two steps at a time, especially when she had forgotten something—her baseball mitt, her beanie, her kid brother, Tim, at one point almost a permanent appendage.
Now at the height of her powers as one of the most decorated athletes of her day, Alice Marble carried herself like a movie star: gorgeous outfits, a love of the spotlight, a side job as a torch singer. More than one person has observed that she was the human equivalent of Seabiscuit, the racehorse that won the hearts of so many Americans in the same era. Her ups and downs during the Great Depression fed the public’s need for color in a world that was all too black and white. Newspapers in the most remote sections of the country ran wire-service stories extolling her accomplishments. In both 1939 and 1940, the Associated Press named her female athlete of the year.
She was called “the girl who has everything” in a book by Charlotte Himber, Famous in Their Twenties: “If the tennis champion had never played a game in her life Alice Marble would nevertheless have been included in one of those lists that organizations draw up annually of famous people. First of all, she is good to look at, with her golden crown of hair cut in the latest vagabond style, her large green-tinted eyes with the slightly overhanging lids, her pert nose, and her husky, endearing voice. She speaks like a delighted child breaking often into a wide, warm smile that makes one cheek dimple. She has a crisp, tingling quality.” Magazines predicted a glorious future in film: “A Tennis Tumble Bug Becomes a Hollywood Oomph Girl.” In the bloated language of a promotional brochure for a tour, she was hailed as a combination of “Joan D’Arc, Victoria Regina and Helen of Troy.”
An early avatar of the pressures and rewards attached to the public woman, she was a female with the gall and ability to make a name for herself, such that she could ride the gale force of her celebrity even after her athletic star faded into various new roles: pundit, fashion maven, book author, columnist, and sought-after public speaker. If Marble felt any misgivings or bitterness about having donated some essential component of her selfhood to her admirers as a form of entertainment, she rarely expressed it.
Born in 1913 on an isolated farm, Marble spent her early years on the frontier before moving to San Francisco, a city then in rapid transition. Her young womanhood in her twenties reflected America between the wars and the extremes of wealth in that time. Tennis offered her temporary membership in the upper class via transcontinental rail travel, ocean crossings, big band dinner dances, and impeccable service at grand hotels. After the Second World War put an end to her tennis career, she enjoyed a freedom of expression and movement not experienced by many women before her time. Marble had her share of secrets, including the exact details about her relationship with her mentor and coach, Eleanor “Teach” Tennant, whose hold over her protégée verged on a kind of ownership. Questions abound about her friendship with the patron who saw to it that Marble would never sink into poverty for as long as he lived and beyond. Details of her biography spin out in unexpected directions. Two major events, a romance and a heroic mission, may have been fantasies. Smaller, less consequential contradictions weave in and out. She liked to embellish, and the question is not so much in what ways she gilded the lily but why.
The brilliance of Marble’s tennis at her peak has never been in doubt. Martina Navratilova called her “a pioneer” and “the first woman to serve and volley well.” Althea Gibson said, “She was my idol.” In her 1990 obituary, the New York Times quoted Jack Kramer, the United States champion in 1946 and 1947, winner of men’s singles at Wimbledon in 1947, known above all for establishing the open era in American tennis for men: “She was the lady who most changed the style of play for women. She introduced the aggressive and athletic style that has led down to the female stars of today like Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf.”
Billie Jean King, Marble’s most famous pupil, admired her on many levels, calling her, in the same obituary, a “picture of unrestrained athleticism. She is remembered as one of the greatest women to play the game because of her pioneering style in power tennis. I also admired her tremendously because she always helped others.”
Marble changed the game of women’s tennis, turning it from a baseline-clinging endeavor into an all-court spectacle, but perhaps her greatest contribution was as a leader in civil rights. Marble influenced the future of tennis when she wrote an editorial in American Lawn Tennis magazine in 1950 (see appendix for full text), successfully urging integration, welcoming Althea Gibson first and foremost. A statue of Gibson has greeted visitors to the US Open in Forest Hills, Queens, New York, since 2019. During its unveiling, older fans shared stories of how thrilling it had been to see Gibson play.
Alice Marble faded from view long before her death, in 1990, at the age of seventy-seven, replaced by younger players with their own signature shots and their own compelling personalities, yet her story, if anything, has become more intriguing, not less, over the years.
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