Penning a Play about Bill Tilden, Closeted Superstar

Penning a Play about Bill Tilden, Closeted Superstar

A.R. Gurney, a straight man, combed historical records to stage the life of a gay icon

He was tall, strong, and broad-shouldered, and very handsome in a horsy kind of way. The sports pages soon started calling him Big Bill, which was a lot more to his taste than the “Junie” he’d hated as a kid––Junie for Junior.

When I myself was a kid I once saw Tilden play after he’d turned pro at the old Madison Square Garden. He was then in his late 40s, exactly my father’s age. I never saw anybody hit a serve that hard in my life––his cannonball serve.

From 1920 through 1926, says the International Tennis Hall of Fame, William Tatem Tilden II (or Junior) “dominated the game as has no player before or since.” As an amateur from 1912 (when he was 19) to 1930, he won 138 of 192 tournaments and had a 907-62 match record; won Wimbledon twice; won 13 successive singles Davis Cup matches against the best the world had; and won seven U.S. Open championships.

He also had a fondness for young men and adolescent boys.

In 1946, he served seven months of a one-year sentence for contributing to the delinquency of a minor; in 1949 he served ten months of another one-year sentence.

“It is a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, a story of tragic dimension,” said A.R. “Pete” Gurney, and he has a play on the boards to tell that story. Directed by Mark Lamos, with John Michael Higgins starring as Tilden, it’s called “Big Bill” and is at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater through May 16.

“Big Bill” begins with Tilden not only refusing to accept a point on a bad call in his favor (“The linesman was wrong… My serve was half an inch out”) but practically making a federal case of it.

It is the way he played the game all his life, and when his lawyer, much later, urged Tilden to plead not guilty to the sexual charges against him, Tilden replies, according to Gurney’s extensive research, “I don’t think I can plead not guilty, Richard… Because that would be cheating. How can I possibly deny this thing?… That’s like trying to win a match on a bad call.”

The whole course of Tilden’s life was really, in a way, Gurney said, in reaction to being called “Junie” as a boy.

“Growing up in an oppressive cultural climate, he tries to redefine his manhood by becoming a great tennis player, not a sissy. And that works fine until” — as the years pass — “he begins to lose. Then his homosexuality begins to emerge in context with the game. There are young ball boys all around him . . .”

Once, during his Army years, Tilden bedded with a woman, a whore near the base. It repulsed him. He recounts the experience to the judge who has to pass sentence on him.

“Your honor, may I ask you something?”

“Go ahead.”

“If this [young hitchhiker who’d brought molestation charges against Tilden] had been one of those young girls in shorts and halters who wave at the cars along La Cienega Boulevard, would I be in the same difficulty?”

“If she were a minor,” the judge answers. But he does not soften.

“You are not a sportsman, Mr. Tilden,” he says. “You were once a great athlete. You may still be an excellent teacher [of tennis]… But you are no longer a sportsman nor a gentleman. You are a pederast, Mr. Tilden… You are a criminal, sir.”

“I am not a criminal!” Tilden cries. “I am a tennis player. I feel awkward saying this, but I consider myself an artist, an artist of the game. Other people have said so too. Sportswriters, tennis players, the great opera star Mary Garden have all told me the same thing. I am an artist! I have to create! And now that I’m getting too old to create my own game, I have to create it in others. I have to pass on what I know.”

Gurney pulled much of his dialogue verbatim from court records but also acknowledged his debt in other respects to “a wonderful book,” Frank Deford’s 1976 “Big Bill Tilden: The Triumphs and the Tragedy.”

A.R. Gurney would not, however, be the very fine playwright he is if he did not have, first and last, a rich imagination––the kind that can put into Tilden’s mouth the words: “I’ve been acting all my life,” or into the mouth of a sexy young woman who’s come to watch him play: “I hear they call him the Great Gatsby of tennis.”

At which exact point, Tilden, pressed hard by his opponent, starts to lose the match. He blows up at the spectators. “You people are chattering like magpies.” The sexy girl says: “Uh-oh… He’s a fruit fly… He’s a flit.”

Flit! That’s a word that nobody’s used about a male homosexual for 40 or 50 years. In short, Gurney has done his homework.

“I went to ‘The Dictionary of American Slang’ and other sources for the terminology used on gay people in the 1920s and ‘30s,” the playwright said on the phone the other day. “I told Mark Lamos that I was a little worried about using these words. Mark is gay himself. He said: ‘Don’t worry, it’s okay.’”

Pete Gurney was born and raised in Buffalo, New York.

“I come from a tennis playing family,” he said, “and my mother, Marion Spaulding, was a local champion. Buffalo had one of the first indoor courts in the country. Tilden used to play there, and my mother’s name was up on the board in golden letters, next to Tilden’s. I’ve always associated those two names, and many of my plays have had tennis scenes.”

This one also happens to have in it an incidental character named Pete, a Yale-bound young man who hero-worships Tilden, and whose mother used to play tennis!

When the Pete-ness was called to his attention, Gurney laughed over the telephone.

“Want to know why? Here’s how that happened,” he said. “We were doing the play in Williamstown, and that character was in the script merely as ‘a young man.’ Then I had to go away for a day, and Mark Lamos gave him the name Pete.

“I’m a junior too,” Gurney said, “but have never been called Junie. I do know a guy in Buffalo who was called Junie, but he didn’t take it the way Tilden took it.”

“Sir,” says Tilden to the judge who, for all his severity, is trying to figure out what to do with him––“Sir, I know my own nature. In the end, I’m back to little Junie Tilden, the sissy, fooling around behind the barn.”

The judge sends him to prison.

In his heyday, Tilden, who adored women if he didn’t have to sleep with them, was good friends with Mary Garden, Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Peggy Wood, and, among the males of Hollywood, Clark Gable, Douglas Fairbanks, Joseph Cotton, and Charlie Chaplin.

These people stuck up for him. Many in the world of tennis did not. “They walked away from him,” Gurney said.

One who did not walk away was the great new young champion Don Budge. In “Big Bill,” a dramatic Budge-Tilden one-set exhibition match is background to a tightening of the web around Tilden. Big Bill serves up his cannonball to Budge. The crowd roars. But it is late in the game. Because, as another felon could tell you, each man kills the thing he loves––the coward does it with a kiss, the brave man with a sword. Or a Wilson tennis raquet.

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