Obituary: Helen Wills Moody
Saturday 03 January 1998
She came out of California, trained to be a tennis champion, determined to win the prizes of consequence in her sport. She was a private person performing on a public stage, playing the game with unerring accuracy and control, refusing to reveal her emotions to frequently outclassed and overwhelmed opponents. Above all else, Helen Wills Moody was a person who knew precisely what she wanted in life and achieved most of her goals with meticulous care for her craft and high intelligence, seldom looking back on anything she had done with remorse or frustration.
This remarkable American achieved on an astounding scale from the early 1920s until the late 1930s, producing a record few could ever hope to equal or surpass. In that memorable stretch of time, "Little Miss Poker Face" was victorious seven times in her native American Championships at Forest Hills (now known as the US Open), came through four times to win the French Championships in Paris, and captured eight singles titles on the fabled lawns of Wimbledon, where she was beaten only once in 56 matches. She was unofficially ranked as the best player in the world no fewer than nine times. At one stage between 1927 and 1933, she did not lose a single set, let alone a match.
But Helen Wills Moody was worthy of praise for more than the sum of her accomplishments. She set herself apart with the size and scope of her competitive appetite, demonstrating an uncommon courage and composure when it twice appeared as if her career might be over.
Appendicitis abruptly curtailed her activities in 1926 when she was only 20, but she restored herself convincingly by the following year. Then, after a debilitating back injury kept her out of the game in 1934, she returned with complete conviction in 1935 to win her penultimate Wimbledon championship. Finally, in 1938, nearing the age of 33, she ruled at the All England Club for the last time when most of the cognoscenti had virtually given up on her.
She was a baseline player who could drive the ball with more pace and depth off the ground than any of her rivals. She dominated her matches with both power and precision, cutting down her opponents by directing the ball rhythmically and relentlessly from corner to corner, forcing foes into mistakes by virtue of her extraordinary command of the court. The combination of her placid demeanour and her assertive style of play was what made her a champion of the highest order; neither the strategic framework of her game nor her supreme belief in herself could ever be called into question. As the revered New York Times writer Allison Danzig put it,
Power under control and the ability to hit the ball harder than any other woman on the courts were responsible for the rise of Miss Wills. The ability to mask her feelings, to maintain an inscrutable countenance in the face of the vicissitudes of match
play, was the characteristic that made the deepest impression upon the tennis galleries.
Wills Moody's upbringing surely had much to do with her successes later in life. Her father, Clarence Wills, was a surgeon who got her started with tennis when she was eight. Her mother, Catherine Anderson Wills, was a University of California graduate who played an even more crucial role in the evolution of this immensely driven woman. Mrs Wills was as undemonstrative as Helen, a quiet leader providing strength when it was most needed. She attended all of Helen's tournaments from 1921 to 1930, and shared an unusually warm and close relationship with her daughter. Helen, too, attended the University of California, learning to sketch and draw with admirable skill, even remarking fleetingly at the time, "Art will be my life."
Not surprisingly, she was an honour student, a Phi Beta Kappa who remarked of her time in the classroom: "I had a complete lack of interest in learning for the sake of knowing something. I was, in the truest sense of the word, a `cup hunter' in the field of scholarship."
Be that as it may, she distinguished herself with her fine sketches, making drawings of many of the women she competed against. But her talent outside the confines of the tennis court did not stop there. As the New York Herald Tribune correspondent Al Laney once recalled, Wills Moody could put her pen to useful purposes, writing respectable articles for the London newspapers in the 1930s. As Laney said:
She did all right financially while abroad by writing for the London papers. I heard at the time what the figure was for the pieces, but I have forgotten, although I still am able to report that tennis champions were paid at a much higher rate in those days for reporting tennis than regular tennis writers. In fairness to Miss Wills, I must say that they were very well written pieces and I was assured that she wrote them herself, entirely without professional help. I was impressed with her literary talent.
Clearly, however, she was most gifted when she held a racket in her hand, moving with serenity and authority through the major championships. In assessing the impact of her career a few years ago, the 1947 Wimbledon champion Jack Kramer said:
I was convinced at one time - and things have changed with Martina Navratilova coming along to play so well on grass, with Steffi Graf looking for so long like a world beater, and with Monica Seles taking over with her new style of game - but for the longest while I thought that Helen Wills Moody was right up there with Pauline Betz as the best woman players I have ever seen.
I played against Helen Wills, Helen Jacobs and Alice Marble when I was the US boys' champion. I felt I was quite a good player for a 15-year- old, but Helen was a very tough match for me while Jacobs and Marble who were also fine players were not up to her calibre. Later on I played mixed doubles with her when she was in her forties and it was hard to believe how good she was.
Remarkably, despite all of her prodigious successes, the most famous contest she played resulted in a defeat. Facing the incomparably charismatic Frenchwoman Suzanne Lenglen at Cannes in February 1926 for the one and only time in their careers, Wills was beaten 6-3, 8-6 in what the renowned dress designer and authoritative critic Ted Tinling called "the first big show-business match in the history of tennis, the sort of predecessor for Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973".
The high drama of the occasion was justified in light of the greatness of the two competitors. They were universally regarded as the two greatest players of the first half of the 20th century, and this confrontation was a unique chapter in their productive lives. The best of Wills Moody as a player was certainly ahead of her while Lenglen's most dominant days were nearly over. In any case, recalling the moment of that match 60 years after it happened, Wills Moody was amusingly irreverent about it all. "The first thing I remember," she said in 1986,
is that my mother did not want me to go. My father didn't see much point in it either. I just don't know why I thought it was the end of the world to leave the University of California to go to the South of France. Why did I? I almost cried I wanted to go so much. I begged and begged, and looking back it doesn't make any sense at all.
In any event, Helen Wills Moody always handled her private life with dignity and without any unnecessary fuss or excitement. She divorced Fred Moody, a stockbroker, in 1937 after eight years of marriage, then married Aidan Roark, a film writer, two years later. This second marriage lasted much longer, but she was divorced from Roark in the early 1970s.
By then, still living in her beloved California, she had become something of a recluse, but her friends and former associates understood her need to isolate herself. "In the latter stages of her life," recalled Kramer,
she just happened to want to be alone and that was fine. Nothing could disturb her when she wanted something. She would make up her mind that she was going to do something in a certain way, and that was the way it usually was. She was a very nice person, very considerate, and a quality individual all the way.
Ted Tinling had seen this side of Helen Wills Moody long before the end of her life, and he correlated her attitude to her striking appearance. "With the exception of Garbo," explained Tinling,
I have seen all the best-looking women in the world face-to-face and, in the beauty stakes, Helen Wills was very definitely in the top league. She had a flawless complexion with her facial bone structure and her finely chiselled features were reminiscent of a piece of serene classical sculpture. In dramatic contrast, she had the Marlene Dietrich technique of a conversation.
She was certainly the Garbo of tennis, always wanting to be alone and away from her fellow competitors.
- Steve Flink
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