Sunday, 28 April 2013

Bill Tilden

The name Bill Tilden does not mean much to many these days.  But ‘Big’ Bill—he was six foot one-and-a-half inches tall—won Wimbledon twice, in 1920 and 1930 (the latter when he was thirty-seven), and he was described by René Lacoste as ‘the greatest player of all time’.  He was a close friend of Charlie Chaplin’s, and once starred in a silent movie, Hands of Hope (1924), which he had written and produced himself.  One summer in Hollywood, Clifton Webb hired him to give tennis lessons to some of Webb’s favourite actresses, including Greta Garbo.  He published tennis stories and even, in 1930, a tennis novel, Glory’s Net
            Tilden was not a particularly clubbable presence on the tennis circuit.  In the locker room he was obsessively private, never allowing himself to be seen naked, even by men who knew him all his life.  Outside the locker room he preferred the company of ball-boys to that of his fellow competitors.  He agreed to take part in a tournament in Baltimore only if he could throw a dinner party for some of his young friends.  These turned out to be the majority of the page-boys staffing the US Senate.  While it is true that he mixed with celebrities—in London with Tallulah Bankhead and Beatrice Lillie, for instance—he was generally uneasy in the presence of adults.  His nephew defined the attitude: ‘Uncle Bill was always glad to see you, but at the same time, you knew he would be gladder still when you left’.  At first, there was no evidence that he tried to seduce his tennis protégés, even if, as his biographer puts it, they ‘tended to be cute little devils, and … Big Bill always seemed to have his arms around them’.  However, once he had turned professional in 1931 and begun a hectic schedule of international touring, he appears to have started taking more risks.  He would always travel with a teenage boy, ostensibly a ball-boy, usually German.  (He had first played in Germany in 1927, and loved it there.  Even as late as 1938 he called himself ‘the most ardent admirer of the German people’ and said he would ‘rather play in Berlin than any city in the world’.)  Some cities he visited could not be returned to: in his biographer’s not very forthcoming words, ‘some unfortunate incidents were hushed up on the road, some polite warnings given’.  Presumably, the same was true not only of cities but also of people’s homes.  He was probably never invited back to Errol Flynn’s place after being accused of assaulting a seventeen-year-old guest at a tennis party Flynn held in 1943 (pp.51, 50, 159, 171).
            Tilden did not seek anything so complex as sexual mutuality with his boys.  He would masturbate them but not himself—again, his obsessive sense of privacy prevailed, and he would only masturbate himself later, when alone.  After his eventual arrest, the court psychiatrist who asked if he had ever engaged in ‘fellatio’ or ‘pederasty’ (anal intercourse) received a furious response.  Tilden regarded such activities as ‘perverted’; indeed, he was not even known to associate his own activities with ‘homosexuality’, a word which no one could remember his ever having used.  Yet, notwithstanding the rudimentary nature of his sexual contacts with the boys he befriended, if we are to believe a young tennis pro he spoke to in the late 1930s, he claimed to have rather unconvincingly grand aims.  ‘Those of us who have my way of thinking’, he supposedly said, ‘well, we look upon ourselves as the chosen few … I think it’s my responsibility to convert young boys.  God has smiled upon us’ (pp.212, 208).
            God was not smiling on Big Bill at ten in the evening on 23 November 1946, when two police officers flagged down an automobile that was being driven erratically along Sunset Boulevard.  In the driving seat was a fourteen-year-old boy called Bobby.  In the passenger seat was Bill Tilden, with his left arm around Bobby’s shoulders and his right hand inside Bobby’s flies.  Expecting probation, Tilden was horrified when, on 16 January 1947, he was sentenced to a year behind bars.  Having served eleven and a half months he was released on 30 August 1947, but banned from any further association with juveniles.  So another custodial sentence followed when, on 28 January 1949, he was accused of interfering with a sixteen-year-old hitchhiker called Michael.  Sentenced to another year, Tilden served ten months, from 10 February to 18 December 1949.  By now he was almost fifty-seven and barely capable of earning a living.  He more or less gave up washing, always wore the same clothes, and gradually pawned his old tennis trophies to pay his rent.  He died of a heart attack, aged sixty, on 5 June 1953.

Source: Frank Deford, Big Bill Tilden: The Triumphs and the Tragedy (London: Gollancz, 1977)

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