Alice Marble

views updated May 23 2018

Alice Marble

Alice Marble (1913-1990) was the first female tennis player ever to win both the British and U.S. women's singles, doubles, and mixed doubles championships in the same year.

Alice Marble was born in Beckworth, California, on September 28, 1913. Her father died in an automobile accident when she was six years old. After his death, the family moved to San Francisco, where they lived near the tennis courts of Golden Gate Park. Playing there was free, so the sport was attractive to the poor family, especially to Marble's brothers.

"A Pretty Good Arm"

Despite the availability of the tennis court, Marble was more interested in baseball. By the time she was 13 years old she was the mascot and ball girl for the San Francisco Seals, a minor-league team. Her practice of entertaining fans by catching fly balls in the outfield prompted former San Francisco Seals player Joe DiMaggio to later recall to Ralph Hickok in A Who's Who of Sports Champions, "She had a pretty good arm."

Marble's interest in physical activity was fostered by her mother, who often took her five children to the Golden Gate Park and played active sports with them. "Then we'd all walk home and be in bed by eight o'clock," Marble told Charlotte Himber in Famous in Their Twenties. "Even when I was in high school, that routine continued, with the eight o'clock bedtime."

At the urging of her brothers, who thought baseball was too tomboyish for her, Marble began playing tennis on the public courts at the age of 15. She never had the advantage of being formally taught how to play the game. She was not very interested in tennis at first, because she thought it was the kind of easy game only played by sissies. Her enthusiasm for the sport did not even increase when her brothers signed her up for a tournament. The courts were wet, so Marble and the other players dragged blankets across them to soak up the water. Not surprisingly, she was beaten early, but her brief experience of competitive play had intrigued her; she realized that tennis was harder than it looked. Challenged by this experience, Marble was hooked, and devoted much of her free time to working on her game to become a better player.

During her first years in the sport Marble developed a habit of rushing the net because she didn't feel confident about her ground strokes. This habit, which started out of insecurity, later gained her a reputation as one of the sport's most aggressive women players.

Called "Brilliant but Erratic"

Marble's 75 cents-per-week allowance did not go far to pay for the racquets, balls, and shoes she needed. When she won her first tournament, the Pacific Coast Junior and Women's Championship, she was still playing with a borrowed racquet because she could not afford to buy her own. And although the public courts were free, players had to look serious if they wanted to play for longer than the occasional weekend game. Applicants for court time were put on a waiting list; if a player lost the first set, he or she went to the bottom of the list and waited an average of two hours before their name came to the top of the list again. Players who won remained on the court and played the next person on the list.

Marble was often out after her first set, but she spent her two-hour waiting periods watching and learning from other players, or volleying in the dirt in front of the clubhouse. She also attracted the attention of other players, and someone who knew Coach Eleanor Tennant eventually suggested to Tennant that she come to watch Marble play. Tennant was impressed by the teen's obvious, if unschooled, talent and offered to coach her. She remained Marble's coach for the rest of her life. In Courting Danger, Marble wrote that Tennant was an inspiring teacher. "She gave clinics in department stores, schools, public parks. She could make the laziest student run and the clumsiest hit the ball time after time."

According to Himber, Marble was considered a "brilliant but erratic" player. Fortunately, as she gained in personal maturity, Tennant also taught her about attitude, poise, and perseverance as well as about tennis. "She learned that the will to win had to be there," Himber explained, "stronger and more enduring than the power of her fastest stroke."

Illness Proved Integral to Training

In 1933, when Marble was 20 years old, she played in a tournament in Easthampton, Long Island, New York. Because of rain delays, officials decided to make up time by holding the singles and doubles semifinals and finals on the same day. Marble played 108 games during that one day; although she won the singles and doubles semifinals, she lost both finals, eventually passing out due to dehydration from overexertion in the extreme heat.

The following year Marble traveled to France as a member of a U.S. women's team, but collapsed to the ground in a faint during her first match. Eventually she was diagnosed with pleurisy (some sources say tuberculosis) and took some time off from tennis to recover at a sanatorium. Bored and anxious to leave after eight months, she convinced Tennant to get her out. She left the sanatorium against her doctor's orders. "It was a most valuable period for me, although at the time I resented the dreadful waste of time away from my beloved tennis." Marble later recalled to Himber. "I developed an attitude toward life in general that has stood me in good stead since. I became poignantly aware that good health is the most valuable of human possessions. I didn't know it then, but the whole period of my illness was as important for my career as any other preparation I have had."

During Marble's recovery, Tennant had her student eat a special diet and perform special exercises to regain her lost strength. Because she had spent such a long time in bed, the young woman could only slowly begin to walk again, first going only one block, then a little farther, and gradually working up to three miles a day. However, her energy level was still distressingly low, too low for her to play tennis. She visited a different doctor, who told her that she was anemic. After two weeks of treatment for the low level of iron in her blood, Marble regained her energy and began a program of strength training. In addition, she took up singing to improve her lung capacity. She did so well at this that, between tennis seasons, she performed as a singer in a supper club at New York City's Waldorf Astoria Hotel in 1939.

With her mother's permission, Marble moved in with Tennant. Because she had little money, she arranged a barter system with "teach", as she called Tennant; she would work as Tennant's secretary and Tennant would coach her for free. Marble truly loved tennis, describing it as her hobby as well as her full-time sport. According to Himber, she once said, "Sometimes after a day's work I am so tired as I get ready to play that I don't feel much like it, but as soon as I start to play I forget everything and just enjoy it."

Fearing another on-the-court collapse, officials of the National Tennis Association were reluctant to let Marble play again after her recovery. However, Marble proved her strength by inviting them to watch her play two hours a day in hot weather. They eventually agreed to let her play in the national tournament.

Achieved a String of Wins

In 1936 Marble lived up to her potential, winning the national singles championship and the mixed doubles championship. In 1938 she won the Wimbledon women's doubles, repeating that win in 1939, as well as capturing that year's singles title. In fact, 1939 would prove a phenomenal year for Marble as she became the first woman ever to win the British and U.S. women's singles, doubles, and mixed doubles championships all in the same year. She won the Wimbledon mixed doubles title from 1937 to 1939, and in 1939 and 1940 the Associated Press named her Female Athlete of the Year. In Courting Danger, written when she was 77, Marble looked back on her tennis career: "When you've lived as long as I have, the sheer joy of having played the game comes to matter more than the victories, the records, the memories."

In 1940 Marble broke another barrier when she was hired by New York radio station WNEW as a football reporter. She gave two 15-minute broadcasts each week. On her first broadcast, she listed teams she thought would win on the following day, and of 45 games, picked the winners of 31; three other games were ties. Her knowledge of the game, unusual for a woman at that time, rapidly won her a devoted audience.

In 1941 Marble turned professional and toured with fellow tennis player Mary Hardwick. During the 1940s she enrolled at classes at New York University and Columbia University, although she never amassed enough credits to graduate because of her busy schedule. In addition to playing, studying, broadcasting, singing, and designing sports clothes, Marble lectured at women's colleges, clubs, church groups, and other public forums, urging people to get physically fit and make it a habit for life. She urged women who believed they were too tired or too old for fitness to get moving, noting that people who became active and stayed that way were healthier and happier. She also believed, contrary to popular opinion of the time, that women were perfectly able to participate in any activity men participated in, using as an example the fact that women in England during World War II, even those aged 50 and over, took over many men's jobs when the men left to fight the war.

"I Didn't Care about Living"

In 1942, during World War II, Marble met Captain Joseph Norman Crowley, who was in army intelligence. The two were married after a brief courtship. She became pregnant, but lost the baby in a car accident in 1944. Shortly after this, news reached her that Crowley had been killed in action when his plane was shot down over Germany. Distraught, Marble tried to commit suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills, but was saved by Tennant and a friend, who took her to the hospital.

Early in 1945, Marble was recruited as a spy by the Allies. One of her former lovers, a Swiss banker, was providing financial services to high-ranked German Nazi officials, and Allied agents hoped Marble could find out some of his secrets. They sent her to Switzerland to play in well-publicized tournaments, gambling that he would try and see her again. He did, and she managed to discover a great amount of information about his dealings before she was caught and almost killed in the mission. She later wrote in Courting Danger, "When I agreed to use tennis as a cover for an assignment that had little chance of succeeding, I felt I had nothing left to lose but my life, and at the time I didn't care about living. A few months later, on a dark mountain road, I found that I did care. When my life was in danger I did what I've always done: I fought."

Continued to Fight

Throughout her life, Marble remained determined to achieve her goals, fighting social prejudices along the way. Later in her life she was active in encouraging tennis officials as well as the public to accept the presence of African American and homosexual players in the game. She also continued to encourage women to become physically fit and participate in sports. "When the day comes that a woman who is athletic will no longer be regarded as the unusual type, when it will seem as natural for women as it now seems for men to be keenly interested in athletics, we'll start training girls to be active athletes," she commented to Himber. "We'll not discourage them, as we do today, from taking part in tomboy play when they're six, and ten, and twelve." Marble died in Palm Springs, California on December 13, 1990.


Biographical Dictionary of American Sports, edited by David L. Porter, Greenwood Press, 1988.

Hickok, Ralph, A Who's Who of Sports Champions, Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

Himber, Charlotte, Famous in Their Twenties, Books for Libraries Press, 1942.

Marble, Alice, with Dale Leatherman, Courting Danger, St. Martin's Press, 1991. □

Marble, Alice

views updated May 21 2018


(b. 28 September 1913 in Beckwith, California; d. 13 December 1990 in Palm Springs, California), world champion of women's tennis in the 1930s and a woman of extraordinary courage, resourcefulness, and spirit.

Marble was to the fourth of five children of Harry Briggs Marble, a high climber lumberjack, and Jessie Wood, a former nurse. When Marble was five, her family moved from the Sierra Nevada town of Beckwith to San Francisco. Sadly, her father died two years later on Christmas Eve, plunging the family into poverty and causing her two older brothers to leave school to help support the family.

Marble was blessed with a photographic memory, extraordinary athletic ability, and a keen love of sports. At thirteen her baseball skills earned her the title "Little Queen of Swat" as an unpaid warm-up player and official mascot of the San Francisco Seals, a feeder team for the New York Yankees. Alice loved baseball, but when she was fifteen her brother Dan bought her a tennis racket, encouraging her to pick a more ladylike sport. In spite of her initial disappointment, within a week she was hooked on tennis, and soon was playing and winning local and then statewide tournaments.

Three years later Marble represented California in the Eastern Tournaments and the U.S. Nationals. Her excellent hand-eye coordination, natural athletic ability, quick foot speed, and years of practice pitching had given her an aggressive game and a powerful serve. At first her ground strokes were terribly performed, but she improved as she watched others play. Coming from a family with few economic resources, Alice at first felt uncomfortable, as if she didn't belong in the rarefied atmosphere of tennis. By 1932 she knew she belonged. That year, as an unknown, Marble beat a seeded player in the first round at Forest Hills, where she earned a national ranking in singles and in doubles.

In 1932 a famous tennis coach, Eleanor "Teach" Tennent, discovered Marble, and would guide her career and her life for the next thirteen years. By 1933, with Tennent's help, Marble had sharpened her game with a change in grip, improved ground strokes, and a winning attack game at the net, and improved her singles national ranking to third. Because of her ability to get to every shot, and her ferocious net game, she was also a great doubles player. It was said that Marble, both a golden blond beauty and a bold and free powerhouse on the tennis court, could play like a man. This was because unlike other women players of her time, she used her powerful serve and attack and volley game to dominate her opponents. She pioneered an aggressive style of power tennis for women, a strategy followed by later champions, such as Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova.

There was no questioning Marble's tennis skills. One day in 1933, in a final qualifying tournament on Long Island, Marble showed the world that she also had great spirit, fortitude, and courage. Tournament officials decreed that she play five matches on a scorchingly hot day of over 100 degrees. She played a total of 108 games and was on the court without much rest from ten o'clock in the morning to seven in the evening. Losing twelve pounds, she managed to finish out the day. Later that evening she collapsed from sunstroke and anemia. Although she would play the following season, she could not recover her health. At the French Open in 1934, she played in pain until she collapsed and had to be carried off the court and rushed to a hospital. Suffering from anemia and pleurisy, she was misdiagnosed with tuberculosis, and doctors said she would never play competitive tennis again. Marble returned to her family to recuperate, but soon realized that her care was an added burden to her overworked and economically precarious family. She asked her coach for help, and Tennent responded by taking over responsibility for Marble's care, including the costs of a stay in a tuberculosis sanitarium. Later, at Marble's insistence, Tennent smuggled her out of the facility against the director's orders. Together, the two engineered Marble's return to competitive tennis. Tennent worked to provide for them financially, while Marble worked to recover her health and her tennis skills.

Two years later, in 1936, Forest Hills tournament officials had to be convinced of Marble's readiness to return to tennis competition. They made her play a demonstration match against a male player, who faded under her relentless power and stamina. When finally given permission to enter, she proved them wrong again when she beat Helen Jacobs to win the U.S. Singles Championship and the mixed doubles title (with Gene Mako) as well. She had made her way back and became the top woman player in the United States. For the next four years, her tennis skills, determination, and winning spirit would win her three more U.S. Singles Championships, three doubles championships (with Sarah Palfrey Fabyan), and three mixed doubles championships (with Donald Budge [1938]; Harry Hopman [1939]; and Bobby Riggs [1940]). In 1937 she won the mixed doubles at Wimbledon (with Budge); in 1938 she won both the doubles and mixed doubles there (with Fabyan and Budge); and in 1939 she reached her ultimate goal, winning Wimbledon Championships in singles, doubles (with Fabyan), and mixed doubles (with Riggs).

In the years from 1936 to 1940, Marble dominated women's tennis. She was ranked number one in the world, and the Associated Press named her Female Athlete of the Year in 1939 and 1940. Then, at the height of her career, Marble's personal financial obligations and her desire to contribute to the war effort caused her to sign a professional contract. She toured the country in exhibition matches, promotedphysical fitness for the Office of Civilian Defense, entertained servicemen and -women with tennis exhibitions, visited military hospitals, helped sell war bonds, and tried to enlist, always being turned down because of her continual health problems.

In 1941 Marble met and fell in love with Captain Joseph Crowley, an army intelligence officer. They were secretly married during one of Joe's brief military leaves. The couple was deeply in love, but had only brief interludes of marital happiness. Marble was thrilled when she learned she was pregnant, but suffered a miscarriage. This tragedy was compounded in 1944 when she learned that her husband had been killed in action. When she learned of his death, she unsuccessfully attempted suicide and plunged into despair.

As Marble was slowly emerging from her depression, Army Intelligence recruited her as a spy. She went to Switzerland on a tennis tour, and while there courageously gathered information about German financial accounts. She was shot in the back while escaping a counteragent, was rescued, and then went on with her life. Always needing to earn a living and to repay Tennent, this multitalented woman sang in New York City nightclubs, debuting at New York's Waldorf Hotel in 1938; served as a sports announcer for WNEW in New York in 1940; and designed a line of tennis wear. She had a long-standing affair with television writer Rod Serling, and made a cameo appearance in the movie Pat and Mike with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. She coached future champions Billie Jean King, Darlene Hard, and Maureen Connolly. In 1950 her editorial in American Lawn Tennis Magazine shamed the tennis establishment into breaking its whites-only policy to allow Althea Gibson, a woman Marble had mentored, to play in the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association tennis tournaments.

Throughout her busy and productive life, Marble suffered from health problems, but nothing seemed to stop her, including colon cancer and the loss of a lung to pneumonia. In 1964 she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. By 1965 she was happily settled at the Palm Desert Country Club in Palm Desert, California, where she taught tennis and continued to follow and visit with the young champions of the day until her death there in 1990.

Marble wrote two autobiographical works, The Road to Wimbledon (1946) and, with Dale Leatherman, Courting Danger (1991). Her place in tennis history and her powerful style of play is covered in Owen Davidson and C. M. Jones, Great Women Tennis Players (1971); Virginia Wade's and Jean Rafferty, Ladies of the Court: A Century of Women at Wimbledon (1984); and Janet Woolum, Outstanding Women Athletes, Who They Are and How They Influenced Sports in America (1998). An obituary is in the New York Times (14 Dec. 1990). There is a discrepancy in her birthdate, most sources giving it as 28 September rather than 13 September 1913.

Julianne Cicarelli

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Alice Marble

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