February 10, 1893– William Tatem Tilden II:
“I am not a criminal! I am a tennis player. I feel awkward saying this, but I consider myself an artist, an artist of the game…I have to create.”
I was recently regaling the sad tale of the trials and tribulations of Bill Tilden to an acquaintance who took umbrage that I was celebrating a person who could easily be described as a pedophile. I intended my story of Tilden to be a reminder of what it must have been like to live a life in the closet in his era and the emotional toll it takes on a person. I feel that if Tilden had been free to be who he truly was, he might likely have dated young men over 18 or even over 21, or possibly have met someone closer to his own age.
I feel no sexual heat for anyone younger than 40-years-old. I consider 30 to be much too young. My idea of a perfect mate would be a silver fox, 40-70, fit, tall, who knows how to use power tools. If something should happen to The Husband, God forbid, I would have to honor my commitment to Anderson Cooper first.
If this was happening today and Bill Tilden were Novak Djokovic’s greatest rival, I am sure that Tilden would be making a confession to Oprah in a broadcast on television that would then be featured on that Internet thing. Tilden would chat about his “problems” with Oprah and Dr. Drew, and then he would publicly announce that he was going into rehab for his sex addiction.
1950 was a year that brought forward even more closed minds than our own era, with social conservatism at an apex, and with an irrational fear of Communists and sexual deviants. It was also the year that Tilden was overwhelmingly voted the Greatest Tennis Player of the first half of the 20th century in an Associated Press poll just six weeks after being released from prison for the second time, on a conviction of having fondled and then made unwanted advances to a teenage boy.
In the 1920s his star was as bright as Babe Ruth‘s or Jack Dempsey‘s. Tilden won every major title for which he competed for six years, including the USA Nationals (1920-25). His greatness was not simply in his ability to hit a tennis ball. It was as much in the way he did it, just as his long and tragic fall into poverty and humiliation was as much about self-destruction as it was about sex.
Tilden won three Wimbledon titles, the first American to win that tournament, in 1920 and 1921. He didn’t compete at Wimbledon from 1922-26. The next three years he lost in the semifinals before becoming the oldest man to win a Wimbledon’s singles title, at 37-years-old, in 1930.
Tilden won seven American titles, 5 USA Doubles titles, and four National Indoor titles, while also leading the USA to seven consecutive Davis Cups championships from 1920-26, including 13 singles victories in different major competitions. He didn’t lose a match in 1924 and he won 57 consecutive games in a single stretch in 1925. Historically he is generally considered above the caliber of later champions like Björn Borg, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer.
He was given the moniker “Big Bill Tilden” because he was especially tall for a tennis player (6’2’’) and had a vast reach. His extraordinary serve was so powerful it was often compared to a cannonball.
Tilden strongly believed in the notion of sportsmanship above the other aspects of the game, including the final score. He would cede points to his opponent if he thought the umpire had miscalled a shot in Tilden’s favor. He remains the only known professional tennis player to have refunded money to a promoter when sales were not as good as they should have been and it appeared the promoter might lose money.
In the 1930s, after turning pro, Tilden moved to Hollywood and became friends with, and personal coach of tennis playing movie stars: Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Katharine Hepburn and Joseph Cotten.
He traveled the national tennis circuit with handpicked adolescent ball boys. His indiscreet behavior gradually resulted in banishment from nearly every country and tennis club, and being excluded from major tennis tournaments. Still, in 1945 Tilden and long-time doubles partner Vinnie Richards won the professional doubles championship. Tilden was 52-years-old at the time.
In 1946, Tilden was arrested by Beverly Hills Police for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Although the young man was a teenage hustler and had requested Tilden’s sexual advances, Tilden was sentenced to a year in prison. He served his sentence for seven months. In 1949, Tilden was arrested again for fooling around with a 16-year-old hitchhiker and he was sentenced to another year in prison, of which he served 10 months.
Tilden fancied that he was a master of many disciplines besides tennis, never with any success. He wrote short stories, novels and plays featuring misunderstood but sportsman-like tennis players, and he had hopes of becoming a big star on Broadway and in Hollywood. He was also a contract bridge champion and musicologist. He wrote:
“If I had to choose between music and tennis, I’d choose music.”
His reputation was tarnished by scandal and his hard-earned fortune squandered on bad investments in Broadway musicals. Tilden’s final years were excruciatingly sad, spent alone in poverty in a lonely walk-up room in Hollywood. In 1953, Tilden left this world, taken by a heart attack in his rented room. He was just 60-years-old. He had $282.11 in cash with him; $200 was returned to a student for lessons never given, making his net worth just $82.11 when he died.
He is buried at Ivy Hill Cemetery in his home town of Philadelphia, where he had been born into wealth and privilege.
In 1959, Tilden was inducted into the International Tennis Hall Of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island.
In Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita (1955), there is a character who is a washed-up tennis champion with “a harem of ball boys”, whom Humbert Humbert hires to coach Lolita, knowing that the coach will not try to seduce her, because he is gay. Nabokov told his editor that the novel’s fictional tennis coach was based on a real person who had won three Wimbledon championships, was born in 1893 and died in 1953. The name of Nabokov’s character is Ned Litam, which is “Ma Tilden” spelled backwards.
In 2004, a play by A.R. Gurney, Big Bill, based on the life of Tilden, played at Lincoln Center in NYC and received good reviews. The highly readable Big Bill Tilden: The Triumphs And The Tragedy by Frank Deford is a good place to learn more. I think Tilden’s story would make an excellent film, maybe starring Andrew Garfield.
In his memoir, My Story (1949), Tilden quite bravely writes:
“History further demonstrates that in frequent instances creative, useful and even great human beings have known such relationships. Greater tolerance and wider education on the part of the general public concerning this form of sex relationship is one of the crying needs.”