Bill Tilden: The Flawed Life of a Gay Tennis Icon

As Wimbledon commences, viewers and readers will be entertained by inspiring stories of champions who overcame tragedy or heartbreak to raise the silver cup or plate.  Condemned to the shadows, however, are those who reversed the journey, descending from triumph to shame and obscurity.

Within that roll rests Bill Tilden, three-time Wimbledon champion (1920, 1921, 1930).  His homosexuality was known but not discussed during the 1920s, the decade he dominated tennis.  But when he died in 1953, he was shadowed by two jail terms for sexual activities involving underage boys.

Even before his arrest, Tilden had been consigned to the shadows.  An icon like Babe Ruth – whose peccadilloes were protected by the New York sports media – could be celebrated until his death.  But for Tilden, whose tennis primacy during the Jazz Age 1920s was followed by a retirement during a much more conservative and moralistic era, the celebrations were few.

After he was arrested in November 1946 and January 1949, the story was over, for most sportswriters and fans.  Tilden would die alone in June 1953.  The Associated Press would vote him the top tennis player of the first half of the 20th century, but it seemed more of a sad contrast with what Tilden’s life had become.

But he didn’t go away quietly.  Rare among athletes of his time, Tilden actually wrote a statement about his sexual identity.  Between his two arrests, in 1948, he published an autobiography, “My Story.”  Toward the end of the book, in only two pages (pp. 307-309), Tilden addressed the issue.

The idea seems an act of public relations suicide seen only in the age of Twitter.  But Tilden was as confident in his writing abilities as he was in his serve as a player.  He was not a child tennis prodigy who became a world champion; Tilden in fact entered the tennis spotlight relatively late, in his mid-20s.  Before then, he was a writer and reporter for the Philadelphia Evening Ledger.  At his tennis peak, he successfully syndicated his articles to newspapers and magazines, earning $25,000 a year.

Tilden did not use a ghostwriter in the 1920s; nor did he use one here.  The words are his own, and he never lacked confidence in his ability to get himself out of trouble – whether on Center Court or the front page.  He believed he could take on society’s hostility toward his homosexuality as successfully as he dispatched opponents, even down match point.

The result, however, was not nearly as successful.  Courageously for a gay man in postwar America, Tilden starts by acknowledging his “condition” and claims, “History further demonstrates that in frequent instances creative, useful and even great human beings have known such relationships.”  He even speculates that homosexuality would be more likely within athletics, given its emphasis on “physical perfection.”  He boldly states, “Greater tolerance and wider education on the part of the general public concerning this form of sex relationship is one of the crying needs.”

Those comments, however, are followed by a change in rhetorical strategy, in which Tilden seems to adopt the rhetoric of his age.  He uses terms like “condition” and refers to a “psychoneurosis or other psychological disturbance” that he blames for his act.  Rather than “degeneracy,” he refers to “an illness; in most cases a psychological illness.”

But was he referring to his homosexuality, or the situation that led to his arrest?  Unfortunately, it’s difficult to distinguish from his writing.  Throughout the section that follows this one in the book, Tilden’s description of his first imprisonment call to mind the “rehab” current celebrities seek when caught in moral or personal humiliation.  He declared himself refreshed and ready to resume his life and tennis.

This part of his autobiography leaves the reader confused.  But sadly, throughout his life, Tilden was not as good a writer as he fancied.  When the topic was tennis, he wrote with a flair that engaged his reader.  But his forays into fiction and drama were much less successful.  As Frank DeFord noted in his excellent biography, “His tennis fiction was forced and trite, but his writings about the playing of the game, however technical, read smoothly and even with a certain grace.”  Like most athletes, Tilden squandered his money, but in his case the money was lavished on productions of his own plays, which closed quickly.

In this case, as well, his contradictory approach would leave the reader confused.  Likely his editors would be reluctant to work too hard at cleaning up the section, leaving it to Tilden and his tortured prose.  But even within the section you can still see his center court combativeness, challenging the reader to confront a culture and phenomenon that would emerge defiantly in the coming decades.

In reviewing the book, Time magazine avoided the topic of sexual identity, but allowed itself thinly veiled jabs at Tilden.  The brief review was titled “Catty Reminisces,” and focused on Tilden’s uncomplimentary remarks toward contemporaries and more recent players.  The reviewer dismissed him as “an arrogant and unblushing showoff” and particularly noted Tilden’s “cattiest” description of Suzanne Lenglen, one of the top women players of the 1920s: “Her costume struck me as a cross between a prima donna’s and that of a street walker.”

The review concluded with Tilden’s plea that, even approaching age 60, he was ready to embark on another pro tour, “if the public will have me.”  But the public and the tennis establishment would have none of Tilden.  In his hometown of Philadelphia, he was expelled from the Germantown Cricket Club, and the University of Pennsylvania removed his name from the alumni files.  When friends discovered his body in his small Southern California apartment, his bags were packed and he was ready to leave for a tennis exhibition – his life and his sporting career ending together.

Tilden might not draw much attention during this year’s Wimbledon.  In fairness, he skipped the tournament between 1922 and 1926, though three wins in six tries left him with an overall singles record of 31-3, winning more than 90% of his matches.  His record in what is now the U.S. Open (seven titles) and Davis Cup were even more impressive.

But in today’s sports culture, as more high-profile athletes come out, it provides another reason to revisit Bill Tilden – a champion who, both in his playing style and lifestyle – was born too soon, discussed sexual identity too early, and has been buried too deeply for too long.

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