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Marble, Alice (1913–1990)

Marble, Alice (1913–1990)

Four-time U.S. tennis champion who is generally credited with being the first woman to adopt the aggressive court strategy previously practiced only by male players . Born on September 13, 1913, in Beckwith, California; died on December 13, 1990, in Los Angeles, California; daughter of Jessie (Wood) Marble and Harry Marble; married Joseph Crowley, in 1942 (died 1944).

Began playing tennis in her teens and advanced to professional-level play under the coaching of Eleanor Tennant, whose movie-star clients introduced her to the major Hollywood stars of the day and made her a national celebrity; after collapsing on the court during a European tour, being diagnosed with tuberculosis, and hearing she would never play again, won the U.S. singles championship at Forest Hills (1936), Wimbledon (1939), and all major U.S. titles in both singles and doubles play by the outbreak of World War II; during war, was recruited by the U.S. government to spy on Nazi activities, using her position teaching tennis clinics in Europe as a cover, and was instrumental in discovering where the Third Reich had hidden much of its stolen wealth.

Alice Marble burst into tears the first time she saw a tennis racquet. "My life was over, and my brother was the cruelest man on earth," she later said of the day her brother Dan proudly unveiled the instrument that would bring her world fame. She was 13 at the time and convinced that her future lay in baseball, a game she had fallen in love with some years earlier and at which she was accomplished enough to be allowed to toss balls with the major league San Francisco Seals during practice games. Such was the unconventional fame of the little girl with the whiplash arm that the city's newspapers fondly dubbed her "The Queen of Swat," in a joking reference to Babe Ruth, but it was precisely that unconventionality that would catapult Marble to world attention on the tennis court.

You can't keep hanging around the ballpark … and acting like a boy.

—Dan Marble to his younger sister Alice, 1926

Before discovering baseball, Alice had adopted her mother's ambition to be a singer. Jessie Wood had had to give up that goal after marrying Harry Marble and moving to his farm in the Sierras of northeastern California, where she had five children. Alice, born on September 13, 1913, was the fourth. After the birth of their fifth child, the Marbles decided to seek a more financially secure future for their brood by moving to San Francisco in 1919, where Harry found a steady job. But injuries suffered in a car accident led to Harry's premature death from pneumonia in 1920, leaving his family to fend for themselves in genteel poverty. Jessie took a job as a cleaning woman, while her brother, a brakeman on San Francisco's famed cable cars, moved in to help. It was "Uncle Woody" who first taught Alice and her brothers to play baseball and who took them to Recreation Park to watch the San Francisco Seals play. Marble's devotion to the game became so passionate that she could be found in the bleachers tossing a ball with one of her brothers hours before the start of a game, as the Seals warmed up on the field below. When one of the team's players was astounded to find that the boy with the blond, close-cropped hair and the power arm was actually a girl, Alice eagerly took her seat in the dugout as the team's unofficial bat boy and mascot, becoming an overnight celebrity.

But as Marble approached young womanhood, her older brother Dan decided the tomboy image was unsuitable for a young lady and, saving up his money from the job he had left school to take, bought the hated tennis racquet. Under protest, Alice sought out a school friend who was the only girl she knew who played tennis and, at 13, stepped onto a tennis court for the first time in her life. "In spite of myself, I was captivated," Marble wrote many years later. "I loved the sound of the ball striking my racquet, and wanted very badly to be able to control where it went when I hit it. Before the week was out, I was hooked." Marble found that her baseball years had served her well, for she had a powerful serve on the court right and quickly found her strength in a straightforward serve and volley game.

In no time at all, Marble was a regular at the Saturday tournaments at Golden Gate Park, which soon eclipsed the ball park as her favorite environment. By the time she was in her first year of high school, she was a regular fixture on the Golden Gate courts during weekdays, too, playing after school until the light began to fade. But on one such afternoon, as she was walking home through the Park, Marble was attacked and raped. The trauma took years to heal, as she struggled with the guilt and self-hatred that are the deepest wounds suffered by rape survivors. It would be ten years before Marble could endure a physical relationship with a man; but in later years, she credited her fight back to self-respect as a major influence on her game. "It made me tough," she said, "and made me turn all the more to tennis to counteract my low self-esteem. I didn't care much about winning, just the good feeling that came from playing the game well."

The tennis world of the West Coast began to notice that Marble was playing very well, indeed. Even as she struggled with the aftershock of being raped, Alice became the champion of Golden Gate Park's Girls' Tennis Club, her brother Dan acting as her trainer and seeing to it that she was on the court every day; and it was Dan who scrimped together $45 to buy her a junior membership at the California Tennis Club of San Francisco. The carefully tended courts of the Tennis Club were a far cry from the dirt courts of Golden Gate Park, but the social gulf between Marble's decidedly modest background and the rarified heights of San Francisco's elite was too wide to bridge. The haughty membership of the Tennis Club considered their sport of choice strictly for the leisured wealthy, free of the commercial stain of other mass-interest sports and certainly not to be seriously considered by the likes of an Alice Marble. Alice learned as much as she could from watching, but she played no tennis at the Club and soon gave up her membership to return to Golden Gate Park, where her game steadily improved.

The first recognition of her remarkable talent came in 1930, when she was invited by the Northern California Tennis Association to represent it in upcoming tournaments for the Northwest and Canadian championships, a two-and-a-half-month tour that paid $75 toward expenses. Marble was broken-hearted to learn that the state of her family's finances made the trip impossible, even with the expense money—until a mysterious envelope arrived in the mail with three $20 bills inside. There was no note. Marble never knew who donated the money, but it was enough to send her on her first tournament in a new level of competition. But now there was a new obstacle to overcome. Arriving in Canada at the start of the tour, Marble was faced for the first time with clay courts made slippery by three days of rain that delayed play and forced competitors to play extra matches to make up the lost time. The blisters that formed on her heels became so painful and infected that a doctor advised her to go home, but Marble simply cut away the heels of her shoes and went back for more. By the end of the tournament, she had captured her first championship outside of California.

The next year, Marble captured California's Junior championship and won a spot on her state's team that was to compete for the national Juniors Title in New York. This time, she found herself playing for the first time on the grass courts that were standard in the East. The differences in the ball's spin and bounce flummoxed her, leading to a near shut-out in singles play in the early matches of the tour and an equally humiliating defeat in doubles play with her fellow Californian, Bonnie Miller , as her partner. A comeback in the Philadelphia competition for the national Junior Title seemed within reach when Marble battled her way to the final singles match against Ruby Bishop , whom she had often defeated in California. But Bishop's coach had trained her on grass courts, and Alice won only five games in two sets before once again going down in defeat. Her anger and bitterness at losing the title almost cost her a doubles title, until Marble realized halfway through her matches partnering Bonnie Miller that her ungracious attitude was affecting somebody else's game, too. "We handed our opponents the first set before I realized that I was taking my anger out on Bonnie instead of on the other team," Marble later said, recalling how she and Miller went on to win the national doubles title that afternoon in Philadelphia. Alice's other realization was that she needed a trainer who could teach her to play on a grass court as well as Ruby Bishop did. With characteristic determination, Alice settled for nothing less than Bishop's coach, Eleanor Tennant .

By the time Marble began working with "Teach" Tennant a year later, she had become the top-seeded woman in California tennis and had advanced to seventh in the national rankings, a record impressive enough that it was Tennant, in fact, who approached Alice. Born in San Francisco to British parents but based in southern California for many years, Tennant taught at her own school in La Jolla and at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles, where movie stars and industry tycoons came to her for lessons. "She was witty and charming," Marble later wrote of the woman who would control her life for the next 15 years, "her strong voice with its slight British accent conveying an easy confidence. Everything I wanted was suddenly within my reach. With a coach like Teach, there was no telling what I could do." Realizing the Marble family's situation, so different from the status of her more exalted clients, Tennant had already arranged for Alice to work part-time at a sporting-goods store near her home by the time she approached Alice. Before long, Marble had moved to La Jolla and into the house shared by Tennant and a sister. Tennant came to rule not only Alice's tennis career, but every aspect of her life off the court, from the clothes she wore to the style of her conversation. "I wasn't allowed to cook or drive or make decisions," Marble later recalled. "She convinced me I was good at nothing but tennis, and I focused entirely on my sport, just as she intended." (Tennant would have a similar relationship with Maureen Connolly .)

At first, it seemed as if Marble's dream come true was turning into a nightmare. Tennant, and Tennant's own coach, Harold White, forced a complete makeover of Alice's game. She was required to adopt the "Eastern," handshake-like grip on her racquet and learn to control her shots with the subtlety required on a grass court. Alice resisted mightily in the beginning. "My situation was worse than that of a beginner," Marble later said, "because I had to unlearn the skills I had come to depend on." Her frustration was evident in the initial rounds of unsuccessful tournament play after Tennant became her coach. But by July 1933, when Alice won the California women's singles title, the new style began to pay off. The win qualified her to travel East again, where Marble set her sights on the Wightman Cup matches, a tournament in which the top-seeded women players from the United States and from Britain faced off across the net. To win a place on the American team, however, Marble would have to prevail in pre-tournament play at the prestigious Maidstone Club in East Hampton, Long Island, a bastion of aristocratic tennis that did not look kindly on upstart young women from lower-class backgrounds. To her shock, Alice discovered that she had been scheduled to play in both singles and doubles matches, in nearly continuous competition over three days under a blazing August sun. The tournament chair, Julian Myrick, was unmoved by her complaints, or by an angry telephone call from Tennant, who had remained behind in California. "My dear," he sniffed to Alice, "you have to prove your worth by making a good showing here. Then perhaps you'll qualify for the Wightman Cup team." Marble knew only too well that Myrick also chaired the Wightman Cup selection committee.

The first two days went well for her. By the third day, however, as she faced semifinals play in both singles and doubles matches, Marble could feel the strain on her legs and back and in the dull headache that refused to go away as she walked onto the court for the doubles semifinal, partnering the reigning tennis diva of the aristocracy, then known as Helen Wills Moody (Helen Newington Wills ). Informing Marble that she didn't wish to strain her back, Wills forced Alice to play the more aggressive game, reaching for high shots and running after challenging volleys. She and Wills won the match in three hours of play, by the end of which the temperature had reached 104 degrees. As Marble staggered off the court to change for her upcoming singles final, Julian Myrick continued to turn a deaf ear to worried fellow tournament officials who urged him to remove Marble from further play. An exhausted Alice lost both the singles final and, to Helen Wills' displeasure, the doubles final, but the crowd recognized the astounding feat of endurance they had just witnessed and gave her a standing ovation as she walked off the court after playing 4 matches in 11 sets and 108 games over nine hours of play.

That night, Marble collapsed and was diagnosed with sunstroke and anemia. "TENNIS ASSOCIATION FORCES ALICE MARBLE TO PLAY 108 GAMES!" screamed the next day's newspapers, forcing an uncomfortable Julian Myrick to explain himself. Several days later, Marble learned that Myrick had not objected to her selection for the Wightman Cup team, but the punishment he had inflicted on her proved too much. Barred by her doctor from singles play at the Wightman tournament, Alice played badly in doubles matches and failed to make it into the semifinals. Still weak and dizzy from her ordeal, Marble also lost in quarterfinals play for the national women's title at Forest Hills. When she returned to California after the tour, she was quickly put under a doctor's care at her family's home in San Francisco. She took comfort from the fact that, despite her losses, she had advanced from seventh to third in the national rankings.

When she returned to La Jolla late in 1933, Marble's career took a new twist: she and Teach Tennant were invited to give tennis lessons at San Simeon, the extravagantly luxurious castle built by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Hearst and his mistress, the actress Marion Davies , were enchanted with Tennant's young pupil; and in Alice's time at San Simeon, others of Hearst's set—from George Bernard Shaw to Jean Harlow to Charlie Chaplin—shared their hosts' opinion. She gave lessons and played doubles with many of them, earning a bear hug from Hearst himself, who told her she was the best partner he'd ever had. Hearst and Davies became two of Marble's biggest fans, once sending her a telegram that read: "To Alice, who will be champion whenever she wants to be." Also among Marble's admirers was actress Carole Lombard , who would become a close friend and financial supporter.

Alice's third-place ranking brought an invitation from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association in the spring of 1934 to join the Wightman Cup team again. This time, however, the tournament would be played at Wimbledon in England, the first time Marble would be playing in Europe; even more exciting, the USLTA had arranged for a series of matches to be played in Paris before the team traveled to Wimbledon. The previous year's experience at East Hampton was still painfully fresh, but Marble had no intention of putting herself at risk this time. "I promise, no marathons," Alice told Teach Tennant, who would remain behind in California. "I won't do anything stupid." Marble reported she felt a little tired when her ship docked in France. By the time of her first exhibition game in Paris, the rest of the team grew worried as Alice seemed to be struggling her way through a match she eventually lost, gasping for breath. The team doctor was called in. She was slightly anemic, he reported, but still able to play. The next day, Alice collapsed during her first match and woke up in a hospital bed. She would have to be sent home, the doctors said. She had tuberculosis and would never be able to play tennis again. "I was beaten, and my life was over," Marble remembered thinking. "Tennis was my life. I had never thought beyond it."

What lay beyond were long, dreary, idle days reclining in bed at her family's home in San Francisco, followed by nearly a year and a half

at a sanatorium for tubercular patients in the California desert that Teach Tennant had located for her. Some consolation was to be found in a letter written to her by Carole Lombard, who had herself survived an automobile crash and returned to her acting career after being told she would never appear on film again. "I had nothing to lose by fighting, so I began to fight," Lombard wrote. "I made my career come true, just as you can—if you'll fight!" Marble took the advice to heart, working out an exercise regimen with Teach Tennant that was put into place as soon as Alice returned to La Jolla in 1936. She began by walking a block away from the house and back for a week; then another block was added. By the time her damaged lungs could withstand a three-mile walk, swimming was added and, in time, slow games of tennis with Tennant. A new doctor was consulted, who ventured the opinion that it was pleurisy, not tuberculosis, that had felled her and agreed that Marble could eventually return to the tennis court. Alice took his prediction to heart and, a year later, won her first tournament in nearly two years by defeating the woman who had succeeded her as the third-ranked player in the country. Although it was only a private tournament held at Palm Springs' Racquet Club, Marble knew she was back in the game.

But it was a different game Alice brought to the court when she appeared at the 1936 state championship tournament in Berkeley to defeat her opponent for the state title in just half an hour. One sports reporter characterized her as "the girl who played the same game as the fellas," for Teach Tennant had added power and aggression to her prize student's game. Rather than playing the base line and waiting for the ball to come to her, as was then the norm in women's tennis, Marble played close to the net and met the ball before it ever touched the ground, drilling it back at her opponent to cause maximum effort for the return. With her first title in three years behind her, Alice and Teach Tennant headed East by car for the U.S. National championship tournament in Forest Hills. It was during a stop in Ohio that Marble met former women's champion Mary Brown , a friend of Tennant's. "Brownie" would, in the end, have more influence over her life than even Teach Tennant. "You can do anything you want, if you care enough," Brownie told Alice, who proceeded to prove the truth of that statement by defeating four-time U.S. champion Helen Hull Jacobs 4–6, 6–3, 6–2 at Forest Hills on September 12, 1936, becoming the new U.S. champion and a national celebrity. It would be the first of four National championships she won between 1936 and 1940, not only in singles matches but in doubles and mixed doubles play. (Marble nearly quit playing in 1937 after the death of her mother from cancer, and did not compete at the national level that year.) Her fortunes improved dramatically overseas as well, with titles at Wimbledon in 1939 (for singles, doubles and mixed doubles). By the outbreak of World War II, Marble had been named Woman Athlete of the Year and was co-chairing a national physical fitness program for the Office of Civilian Defense. "Now that Alice has regained her health, nothing can stand in her way," a proud Teach Tennant told reporters in 1939. "She is the best woman player in the world today."

There was more waiting in store for Marble. In 1938, when she was 26, Alice fell in love and embarked on a tempestuous affair with a man whom she would never identify by his real name. She called him Hans Steinmetz in her autobiography, and claimed he was a wealthy Swiss banker who introduced himself while she was in France for a series of exhibition matches. "Hans was handsome—not movie-star handsome, but striking, with an angular face that softened quickly and often into a smile," she wrote of the slim, attractive man who offered his compliments in a hotel lobby in Le Tocquet, on the Normandy coast, where Alice and Tennant were staying. Such was Hans' charm that, for the first time after having been raped over ten years before, Alice allowed a man to make love to her—on their first night together, and on a nearby beach where Hans had escorted her on a midnight walk. "At that moment, we were the only life on the planet, perhaps in the whole universe, and the stars were singing," she later said. The affair became public knowledge soon enough and was quickly ended by Teach Tennant, who mistrusted Hans' motives and feared that Alice's concentration on her game would be lost. It was the first rift between the two women in their ten years together, and one that would widen in coming years.

The outbreak of war in Europe, and America's entry into the conflict in 1941, put a stop to international competition. In addition to her duties for the Civil Defense Department, Marble played a series of exhibition games at military bases around the country and conducted tennis clinics with Tennant. The already weakening bond between teacher and student, however, was dealt another blow when Marble met an Army captain named Joseph Crowley and married him in 1942. The two met at the Stage Door Canteen in New York, a military club which Alice occasionally visited as part of her Civil Defense duties. Crowley worked for Army intelligence, but would reveal no details, telling Alice only that he would frequently be away in Europe while the war was on. He did, indeed, disappear for three months after their first meeting, but the two were secretly married in a quiet ceremony aboard a Navy ship docked on the Hudson River in New York in 1942. The Army insisted that the marriage remain secret as long as Crowley worked as an intelligence agent, but it wasn't long before Teach Tennant heard the news. "I suppose she thought I would come to my senses," Marble later wrote, "or something would happen to break us up. She didn't dislike [Crowley], just his intrusion on her grand plan for my life."

But Crowley's war work demanded longer and longer absences in Europe, during which Marble was unable to speak to him, even if she had been able to find the time during her touring schedule with Tennant, who was horrified to learn that Alice had become pregnant after Crowley's latest visit to the States. "You have obligations, a career," Tennant insisted. But tragedy struck when Marble was involved in a car accident and lost her baby. Then, on Christmas Eve, 1944, a telegram arrived informing her that her husband had been killed in action, his plane shot down over Germany. "There was nothing left for me but pain, and I couldn't face that," Marble recounted in later years. "I had been forced to be strong all my life, and I was tired of it. I didn't want to be strong anymore." She was rescued from a suicide attempt by Tennant and Brownie, who kept watch over her during the long weeks of her ensuing depression. Finally she was able to leave her apartment in New York for short walks, and the cure was completed when a telegram and flowers arrived from Clark Gable, who had been equally devastated by the death in a plane crash of his wife Carole Lombard that same year. "If I can do it, so can you," he wrote.

Shortly after her recovery, Marble's life entered a brand new chapter when she was approached by an Army intelligence officer (she gave him the name "Colonel Linden" in her memoirs) with a startling proposal. He asked her to become a spy to assist in her country's attempts to locate the whereabouts of the art treasures and other booty the Nazis had hidden somewhere in Europe to finance their faltering war effort. The cover was to be a series of tennis clinics that would be set up for her in neutral Switzerland. The Army was sure that her presence in Geneva would attract the man thought to be handling the transfer of art and money—none other than Marble's former lover "Hans." "If I could do what they wanted," Alice said, "it could hurt the bastards who shot Joe's plane out of the sky." The day after her meeting with Linden, Marble agreed. She was to tell no one, not even Tennant or Brownie, who believed she was taking afternoon classes at New York University when Alice was actually in a warehouse in Brooklyn being trained as a spy.

She had been in Geneva for only three days when Hans phoned her. What ensued could have come from a Hitchcock suspense film—the evening dinner at Hans' palatial mansion, the creep down to his wine cellar in his absence, the discovery of a hidden list of Nazi officials and the whereabouts of the art they had stolen which Marble committed to film using the tiny camera supplied to her, and a midnight car chase down a mountain road. Her pursuer was not Hans, but one of the Army's recruiters from New York who, as was now apparent, was a double agent. Shots were fired, the double agent was killed by other spies who had followed Marble in case help was needed, and Alice found herself in a hospital with a gunshot wound. But the information she gathered was used after the war at the Nuremberg Trials in 1945–46 and brought several Nazi war criminals to justice.

Safely back in New York by late 1945, Marble's next crisis involved her deteriorating relations with Teach Tennant, who was becoming increasingly abusive and dictatorial. "I was no longer a willing, malleable Eliza Doolittle," Alice later wrote. "Too much had happened. It was time for her to leave me and find another champion." The break finally came at the end of 1945, when Tennant moved out of the New York apartment the two had shared and went back to California. They would not speak again for nearly six years.

By 1950, with her national celebrity and reputation assured, Marble turned from professional play to coaching and lecturing. She spoke out strongly against the decision to bar African-American player Althea Gibson from U.S. National championship games. Alice's public protest carried enough weight to make Gibson the first African-American woman admitted to the championship tour, after which she became the first black woman to win the U.S. National championship title and the first to win at Wimbledon. The vagaries of her health that had plagued Marble all her life returned during the 1950s; her lungs were now so severely scarred that one had to be removed, forcing her formal retirement from professional tennis and a return to California, where she and Eleanor Tennant made up their differences and embarked on joint coaching of promising young players. Among these players were Billie Jean King, Darlene Hard and Carole Caldwell . Marble was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1964, and into the International Sportsman's Hall of Fame in 1967.

During her last years, Marble delighted in watching the new breed of players who took the "masculine" style of play she had introduced years earlier to new heights. She was especially impressed with Martina Navratilova . "Not only is she stronger than I ever was," she wrote, "she's fitter. In my time, training didn't exist in any real sense. I thought I was doing great to run a little to build up my wind." She expressed outright fear at the thought of facing Steffi Graf 's serve and admired the grace and calm of Chris Evert , whose father she had taught. ("I grew up on you!," Chris once told her.) But as the years went on, Marble's health continued its downward slide. She survived five operations for colon cancer between 1981 and 1989, but finally succumbed to pneumonia on December 12,1990. She was 77.

"When you've lived as long as I have," she wrote in the autobiography she completed just before her death, "the sheer joy of having played the game comes to matter more than the victories, the records, the memories." But thanks to the strength and determination that ruled her life, Alice Marble left an abundant supply of just those items as her gift to the game she loved.

sources:

Davidson, Sue. Changing the Game: The Stories of Tennis Champs Alice Marble and Althea Gibson. Seattle, WA: Seal Press, 1997.

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

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York

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