Along the North Shore of Long Island stand the old indoor tennis courts of the great estates, monuments to an era of elegance. During the 1920s and 1930s some of the wealthiest families in the country—Vanderbilts, Whitneys, Tiffanys, Phippses, Pulitzers—lived on these estates, and tennis was their game. The "Architectural Record" in 1929 commented that the leisure class was looking for new ways to develop its taste for sport on a year-round basis. The answer was the "sports house." And houses they were, albeit huge ones, ornately decorated, with skylighted roofs. On the courts society mingled with tennis champions, to the satisfaction of both. When it rained for a week at Forest Hills one year, Alice Marble and Sarah Palfrey practiced for their semifinal match on the Whitney court. But those days are gone. Today most of the old courts have been put to other uses. One has been used as a greenhouse, another as a movie studio, while a number of the others have become private clubs. The era of elegance is over, but on the next four pages is a nostalgic glimpse of the way it used to be.
A PERSONAL MEMORY
To kids, the indoor court was a marvelous playground, and tennis was only one of the wonders to be enjoyed. We started our tennis there, of course, and in the old days (1930s) there was always a resident professional on hand, plus two full-time ground-keepers. A hundred feet from the entrance to the court was an outdoor grass court. We were never allowed to play on it except at the invitation of my uncle, C. V. Whitney, and then only when he himself was playing. These invitations came on sudden notice, like a command performance, when some notable guest was a late scratch from a scheduled game.
One thrill about the indoor court was to sit quietly on the small balcony and watch the great players who came out from New York to play there. My uncle was only an average player, but he liked to play with the best. I remember watching him team with Don Budge against Frank Shields and Sarah Palfrey and thinking I was luckier than if I had been at Wimbledon. Later I remember Budge telling C.V.W. (probably out of courtesy) that it was the finest indoor surface in the world, and this, needless to say, was repeated by me to every schoolmate or pal that I asked over to play there.
The pro gave us all lessons, and when we started to think we were pretty hot, he'd cool us off by taking our allowance money in a series of matches in which we would start off every game at 30-love or 40-love, only to discover that the pro, who for weeks had been hitting gentle balls within easy range of us, now could bear down like an angry Bill Tilden.
The indoor court, in its heyday, was like the first of the cellar rumpus rooms: you could do just about everything there. While tennis was going on, you could play pool in the enormous upper living room; a piano was there, too, and countless huge soft sofas. Off to one end of the building was an indoor pool, heated in winter, and in the men's dressing room were displays of body-building and weight-reducing equipment that would have made Vic Tanny envious. It had a hotbox and a special needle shower. Across the driveway, 100 yards away in a building that was mostly the estate's office and carpentry shop, were squash courts and a bowling alley. In short, if you wanted sport in Old Westbury, there was something for everyone, and in those days everyone took advantage of it.
The tennis court was always cleared by 5 p.m. of all manner of kids and their pals. The superintendent, a firm, gravel-voiced man named Harry Kent, would order us out of the building while he and his assistant rolled and brushed the court. They would open a box of balls and lay the rackets carefully on the big center table. Beside it were pitchers of ice water and lemonade, and sometimes iced tea.
Then, down from New York in their town cars would come the businessmen to play a game of doubles before dinner. If invited, we could reenter the building and watch from the small balcony. Any giggling or horseplay on our part and we were shouted out of sight.
When C.V.W. moved away, first to California and then to Kentucky, the court belonged more to my generation, but we played less and less. When the place was sold to Norman Blankman, he kept the court active and ran it like a club, with Frank Shields in charge. The last time C.V.W. had anything to do with it he gave an enormous coming-out party for his daughter. Lester Lanin's band played where Don Budge had once played, and the lights that had burned for years until late at night while all of us ran about chasing tennis balls now burned until people's dancing feet were weary.
The last time I was in the court was when Blankman sponsored an art show there. It was sad for me. A great part of my early life was spent in the indoor court, and now I don't particularly care if I ever go back inside the place or not. In fact, I'd rather not.