From THE DIVINE MISS MARBLE: A Life of Tennis, Fame and Mystery by Robert Weintraub, to be published July 14 by Dutton, an imprint of The Penguin Publishing Group, a member of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Robert Weintraub
The Swiss Alps dominated the landscape. The mountains didn’t know it was 1945, or that the world was at war. Those snow-capped heights were likewise disinterested in the drama playing out far below. On a winding mountain road, a sports car skidded around tight switchbacks, the driver, whose story this is, fighting to keep the vehicle from plunging into the distant valley below. Not far behind, another car, in hot pursuit and gaining.
The driver of the first car was an international icon, a tennis great who had won the sport’s most important title, the Wimbledon championship, six years before, the last time the tournament was played before World War II interfered. She was also a four-time U.S. National champion and had accumulated every accolade worth having in the prewar era of sports. She was renowned for her oratory, her singing voice, her appearance, her style, her closeness with the elite of Hollywood and Wall Street, and her optimistic, winning personality. She had become especially famous after coming back from two years away from the sport, stricken down by disease in what had seemed the prime of her career, only to fight her way back to the top.
She was just about the last person anyone would expect to be driving for her life down a European mountain, protecting evidence of Nazi war crimes on the seat beside her, squinting into the inky blackness, afraid to slow down even if it meant a fiery death.
Soon the other car forced her to stop. There was a confrontation. The precious evidence she had stolen a short time earlier, the reason she claimed to have come to the mountains in the first place, was taken from her by force. Alice turned and ran, her breath ragged in the high elevation.
A shot rang out. A blow to the back, a burning sensation, and then, nothing. What in the world was she doing there? For that matter, was she really there at all?
Alice Marble was the foremost female tennis player in the years before World War II. As the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum wrote about her in its “Pocket History of Champions”: “Women’s tennis can be put into two eras — before Alice Marble and after. She created the women’s game in its aggressive, modern style.” Hardly a contemporary match report or profile was written about Alice that failed to note that she “played like a man”— that is, her ferocious serve-and-volley style and powerhouse élan were so overwhelming that only her occasional lack of control could stop her. Using her next‐level athleticism and an unreturnable serve, Alice swept to 18 victories in what today would be called “Grand Slam” events, the U.S. Nationals and Wimbledon. That number includes multiple women’s and mixed-doubles titles, all but one in the five-year window between 1936 and 1940. Then the war forced Alice into quite different activities.
She was an outsized figure during this time, “Alice Marvel,” the “Garbo of Tennis Courts,” the “blonde bombshell of her day.” She caused a stir by playing in shorts, rather than the skirts then in favor. The press was quick to remind their readers that “her legs are like two columns of polished mahogany, bare to the knees, her figure perfect,” as one dazzled reporter wrote. “Miss Marble looks lovely even when she has just come off the court,” thought the well-known English writer Charles Graves, in a typical description that focused on Alice’s physical presence. “Few girls can do that. On the court itself you see how beautifully built she is. She walks like a prizefighter.”
But Alice was just as famous for the times when she was looking and feeling far from her best. A series of illnesses led to a collapse on the historic red clay of Roland Garros stadium in Paris, which culminated in a diagnosis of tuberculosis that seemed to swerve her budding career into an abutment. Sidelined and committed to a sanitorium, she was forgotten for nearly two years, until a dramatic comeback lifted her to the very top. Her revival to capture victory at the 1936 U.S. National Championships lifted Alice to new heights of popularity, at one stage receiving roughly 500 fan letters a day from admirers who asked her for health tips, relationship advice or her hand in marriage.
Her combination of on-court excellence and off-court style had her greatly in demand and opened up many doors. She was a regular on radio programs, as an interviewee, as a guest host, and as a singer, where her contralto voice won enough plaudits that she was asked to sing at posh nightclubs in New York and London. Her writing ability was outstanding, especially for someone who gave up a college education for the courts. She contributed pieces to newspapers and magazines with great frequency, and even was part of the original writing staff for the Wonder Woman comic book. She developed a speech based on her “will to win” and relentlessly toured the country to deliver it. Her eye for fashion and love of sporting it led to a side career as a designer of athletic outfits as well as clothes made for everyday use.
A natural athlete such as women’s tennis had never seen, Alice had risen from humble beginnings in San Francisco to conquer the sport of royalty. Her father passed away when she was still a child, and the family lived on the edge of poverty thereafter.
She found solace in sport. As a teen, Alice was known throughout the city for her baseball ability, as well as her regular gig shagging fly balls as an unofficial mascot of the San Francisco Seals, the best local nine in the time before the major leagues moved west. Upon discovering tennis, Alice found a home among the municipal players at the courts in Golden Gate Park. Years later, a London Times writer surveying Alice’s career would note that the “rough‐and‐ready apprenticeship stood her in good stead when she came to meet more artificially trained players.” Tennis was a sport for the idle rich, the country club set, the people who could compete without the bother of earning a living at the game, for it was strictly amateur in that era. Alice didn’t fit that description in any way, but her hardscrabble beginnings served her well when she started moving up in the rankings.
She was the top-rated player in California before she turned 17 and was competing for the U.S. National title (the forerunner to today’s U.S. Open) on her 18th birthday. She traveled east in 1931 for the first time to play the swells of the sport at its highest level. She fared poorly but came away convinced a top coach would help her reach the pinnacle.
She found that coach in Eleanor “Teach” Tennant, one of the most colorful and successful, if overlooked, figures in tennis history. She, too, had willed her way out of the anonymity of the poor San Francisco streets, becoming the foremost teacher of the game in Southern California, with a clientele stuffed with famous film actors and actresses, the top names of the day — Gable, Flynn, Dietrich, Lombard. It was that last one, Carole Lombard, the “Queen of the Screwball Comedy,” who hung Eleanor’s nickname on her. Lombard was a serious player, though when Tennant instructed her to attack the ball higher or get in better position, she would respond with a sarcastically sweet, “Yes, Teacher dear.” After enough of those, Lombard shortened it to “Teach,” and the nickname stuck. Eleanor was “Teach” Tennant after that.
Alice and Eleanor got together and formed one of the most successful coach-student relationships ever seen in individual sports. Their closeness went beyond the typical athlete‐coach model — far beyond it. Eleanor essentially adopted Alice and took over her life for more than a decade. The pair lived together, dined together, traveled together. Eleanor took over Alice’s finances, fashioned her diet and training regimen, controlled her social life. In that time Alice captured the very highest honors tennis had to offer.
Through Eleanor, Alice was introduced to worlds closed to ordinary tennis players. She hobnobbed with Tennant’s acting pals, counting Lombard and her husband, Clark Gable, among her close friends. She was a regular guest at the American Xanadu known as San Simeon, William Randolph Hearst’s palace on the Pacific. Despite her humble roots, Alice was a favorite of wealthy families on either coast and was especially close with Will du Pont, heir to the Delaware chemical and munitions firm.
Alice had a long and enigmatic relationship with Du Pont, not unlike her one with Tennant. Because of her success, Alice gave herself freely to Eleanor’s vision. Alice called her “my adopted mother” in the London Daily Mail, just as Eleanor called Alice her “foster daughter.” Another writer referred to Eleanor as Alice’s “psychiatrist,” noting “she is particularly frank with her criticism of Miss Marble.”
For as long as they were inseparable, the pair were dogged with rumors of a romantic relationship. Neither ever confirmed such an affair, hardly surprising given the times they lived in. Homosexuality, after a brief flash of acceptance in the 1920s, was driven firmly underground by an ensuing backlash. Being openly gay or bisexual, or even “straight with a wink,” à la Cole Porter, for example, would have surely damaged Alice’s budding and then flourishing career, rife as it was with opportunities off the court.
Even with the passing of the years, and the acknowledgment of affairs and crushes on other women, Alice insisted that she and Eleanor were not lovers — in the physical sense, anyway. They were certainly in love in a more spiritual manner, and when their relationship ended along with Alice’s career, blunted at the height of her power by WWII, the breakup was shocking, given how intertwined the two women had been for over a decade.
But the specifics of Alice’s relationships with Tennant and Du Pont pale in comparison with other, even more dramatic (some would say “cinematic”) liaisons she claimed to have. Alice maintained she got married during the war, to an army air force officer whose death would lead Alice to agree to take on a wartime espionage mission to search out another of her lovers, a man whom she never publicly named and who was in cahoots, or worse, with the Nazis. It was that relationship, and the revenge she sought for her dead husband, that supposedly put Alice on that mountain road, in a car chase that ended with her taking a bullet in the back.
Alice revealed these adventures only in her second memoir, “Courting Danger,” published a year after her death in 1990. She was mostly taken at her word, though attempts to independently confirm her story have always led to dead ends, and challenges to the truth of her story showed up in book reviews and other projects left uncompleted.
I am merely the latest in a long line of Alice Marble admirers. It was always easy to appreciate her at an inch-deep level, but as I learned more about her, going further and further down the rabbit hole (how appropriate my subject’s name was “Alice”), the mysteries of her life only deepened. In writing this book I have crisscrossed the United States and scoured international archives in an attempt to chip away at the mystery of Alice’s contradictions, how such a public life could remain so shrouded in shadow. I have visited the touchstone sites of her childhood and career. I have followed every trail, every lead — some of which, more than I hoped, ended in further question marks. There are new stories here and old ones with new twists. I’ve examined faded correspondence and pieces of paper Alice herself touched, recordings she made, articles she wrote, and records she likely never expected would be looked for. And I made contact with the few remaining people who knew her, hoping they could provide some insight into the Marble Mystery.
At the end of the detective work remained a unique, pioneering, fascinating woman, which I suppose I knew was the case even before I went digging around into her life. Alice Marble may be mysterious, but she doesn’t disappoint.