Gussie Moran: Tennis player who shocked Wimbledon with her controversial clothing

 

Gertrude "Gussie" Moran was a fine tennis player who reached No 4 in the United States rankings and played in a Wimbledon doubles final, but she will be forever remembered for a much more trivial reason. Moran's appearance at Wimbledon in 1949 wearing a short skirt that revealed a pair of frilly lace knickers shocked the staid world of tennis but delighted photographers and gossip columnists. For the rest of her life the Californian (who preferred to spell her name as "Gussy") was usually referred to as "Gorgeous Gussie", which was the moniker that the British press gave her.

Moran was arguably the first woman to bring glamour, sex and fashion into tennis. She appeared on magazine covers, had a racehorse and an aircraft named after her, was dated by millionaires and went into cinema and broadcasting.In later years, however, she led a less glamorous life. Moran, who died at 89 after a lengthy spell in hospital with colon cancer, had three failed marriages and spent her last years in poverty, refusing nearly all offers of help from friends.

An attractive woman with a fine figure, Moran had initially asked for permission to wear a coloured outfit ahead of her Wimbledon debut in 1949, but the All England Club refused to bend its all-white rules. Teddy Tinling, a flamboyant character who had become a tennis dress designer after retiring as a player, came up with a creation that would cause a far greater furore.

The convention at the time was for women to wear knee-length skirts. Tinling's design featured a shorter skirt which still looked prim and proper when Moran walked on court. As soon as she started playing, however, her lace-trimmed knickers became visible. Photographers quickly fought to secure the best position – preferably at ground level – to get their pictures, which were published around the world.

Moran lost in the first round but her fame – or notoriety in some quarters – was only just starting. The All England Club's committee was horrified by her clothing and criticised her for bringing "vulgarity and sin into tennis". The subject was even raised in Parliament.

She wore a marginally less revealing pair of shorts in her later matches in the doubles, but for the traditionalists the damage had been done. Later in life Moran said she regretted wearing the controversial outfit, saying that the fuss it caused had affected her concentration, but the episode sealed her celebrity status.

The daughter of a sound technician at Universal Studios, Moran was born and raised in Santa Monica. She started playing tennis at 11 and her ability quickly became evident in the postwar years. In 1949 she won the singles, women's doubles and mixed doubles titles at the US indoor championships and went on to make her first and uniquely memorable appearance at Wimbledon that summer.

Despite her early exit from the singles, Moran went on to reach the final of the doubles in partnership with her fellow American, Patricia Todd, before losing to Louise Brough and Margaret Osborne DuPont. It was Moran's only appearance in a Grand Slam final, though she reached the singles semi-finals at the US Open a year later, when she also made her second and last appearance at Wimbledon. This time she wore a see-through outfit that was arguably even more revealing. It was not long before Wimbledon brought in stricter rules on clothing.

In 1951 Moran turned professional, but the decision backfired. After a series of defeats she quit a tour of the US and retired from the sport the following year. For years thereafter, nevertheless, Moran remained a celebrity figure. She appeared as herself in Pat and Mike, a film starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, played tennis with Charlie Chaplin and worked in television and as a radio host. She was a popular visitor to military bases and was once on a helicopter that crashed in Vietnam.

Before long, however, life turned less glamorous. Moran launched a line of tennis clothing in the 1960s that flopped and she started to struggle financially. She had three short-lived and childless marriages – in later life she hinted that she had had abortions – and after returning to live in the family home in Santa Monica had to leave in 1986 when the property was repossessed.

Moran went to live in a small, run-down apartment in Hollywood, not far from the Los Angeles Tennis Club where she had once been the centre of attention. She had a number of humble jobs, including working in a gift shop in Los Angeles Zoo. In her latter years Moran survived on social security hand-outs and travelled around Los Angeles by bus. She became a recluse, refused to be photographed and in order to raise funds agreed to sign autographs on frilly panties which were then sold on eBay.

Moran never enjoyed being better known for her clothes and for her looks than for her tennis, but that is how she will forever be remembered. "Gussie was the Anna Kournikova of her time," the former player and tennis innovator Jack Kramer told the Los Angeles Times in 2002. "Gussie was a beautiful woman with a beautiful body. If Gussie had played in the era of television, no telling what would have happened. Because, besides everything else, Gussie could play."

Gertrude Agusta Moran, tennis player: born Santa Monica 8 September 1923; married 1956 Thomas James Corbally, 1956 (marriage annulled 1956), 1957 Edward James Hand (marriage dissolved), 1962 Frank "Bing" Simpson (marriage dissolved); died Los Angeles 16 January 2013.

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