Aarons, Ruth Hughes (1918–1980)

views updated

Aarons, Ruth Hughes (1918–1980)

World champion table tennis player and only world singles champion to ever represent the United States. Born Ruth Hughes Aarons in June 1918; died in 1980; daughter and one of three children of Alfred E. (a theatrical producer) and Leila (Hughes) Aarons (a singer and actress).

For ten weeks in the summer of 1936, New York's renowned Rainbow Room headlined Ruth Aarons and her European opponent Sandor Glancz in one of the most unlikely acts to play the posh supper club: an exhibition of table tennis. After the show, the management offered a bottle of their best champagne to anyone wishing to challenge the winner—usually the newly crowned world champion, Aarons. Reputedly, the champagne is still on ice.

Ruth Hughes Aarons, one of the few high-class American players before World War II, rose to the top of a game that was just finding its niche in the United States. When she won the world title in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1936, she became the first American to reach the final rounds in a sport hitherto dominated by Europeans, especially the Hungarians. At the close of the 20th century, Aarons remained the only world singles champion—man or woman—the United States ever produced.

Daughter of Broadway producer Alfred Aarons and actress Leila Hughes , the petite Aarons grew up in homes in New York City and Connecticut and dreamed of becoming a fashion designer. But at 13, while passing time during a rain shower at a New York tennis club, she was introduced to table tennis. Fascinated, she began to study the game and practiced daily. The following year, she won her first title at the national women's championships in Cleveland. Before long, she drove the ball over the net at bullet speed and mastered an unreturn able serve. At 18, Aarons was world champion, a title she held in 1936 and 1937. (The final match of the 1937 singles championship was halted when it exceeded a new time-limit ruling, thereby leaving the title vacant. Since she had not been officially beaten, Aarons retained the championship.)

In April of 1937, Aarons' forays into show business created a furor when she was suspended for three months by the English Table Tennis Association because of a paid exhibition tour in British nightclubs. With backing from the U.S. Table Tennis Association, which threatened to break with the international organization, Aarons claimed her exhibition provided promotion for the sport and refused to curtail her appearances. Since Aarons had no upcoming matches of importance, her suspension was of little consequence and, within a year, the incident was largely forgotten. Show business eventually prevailed over championship play. Though Aarons continued her exhibition tours into the 1940s, she went on to become a theatrical agent of some note. Both her half-brother Alex and her brother Lisle also pursued careers in the theater.


New York Evening Sun (Entertainment Section). August 1, 1936.

New York World Telegram. April 10, 1937.

The Washington Post. July 25, 1937.

Interview with Tim Boggan, historian for U.S. Table Tennis Association.