On occasion Van Alen will even take to his car and hunt for someone to talk to about VASSS. A couple of years ago he stopped at the home of a sportswriter on his day off. The writer was not there, but his wife was. "That's all light, I'll wait," Van Alen announced cheerfully, and he thereupon sat himself down at the piano for three hours, playing and singing songs of his own composition. All his life Van Alen has reveled in poet and song. One of his earliest recollections is standing at attention with his father's letter opener for a sword and reciting How Well I Remember the Days of '61. Van Alen has a great interest in the Civil War; his great grandfather and namesake. Brigadier General James Henry Van Alen, raised and equipped the Third New York Volunteer Cavalry and served on the staff of Fighting Joe Hooker. "Fighting Joe Hooker, His name more than described certain interests," Van Alen mused recently before plunging into his own poem Pickett's Charge. His favorite poem by another author is Clement C. Moore's A Visit from St. Nicholas. As a boy Van Alen always thought that the poem ended too soon, and moreover, he worried that Father, who is standing by the open window as the poem closes, would catch cold, and to rectify this he has written additional verses in which Father climbs back into bed and pulls "the covers right up to my head.... My heart full and happy, my cap pulled on tight, I settled myself for the rest of the night."
Every Christmas Van Alen dresses up in a velvet Victorian suit to read A Visit from St. Nicholas to youngsters at Clement Moore's old home in Newport. As president of the House of Santa Claus Society, Van Alen has hopes of buying the Moore place and setting it aside as a Museum of Santa Clausiana replete with stalls for Donder and Blitzen and the rest of the reindeer. This Christmas Eve he would like to read A Visit from St. Nicholas in the White House. The idea is not farfetched. An ardent Republican, Van Alen composed and sang the song Good Evening, Mr. President at Eisenhower's first inaugural ball. It begins:
The country, Mr. President, is sure that you will keep
Our people freedom minded, and not governmental sheep.
'Bang!' goes inflation; corruption's on the run.
Before you've really started, the whole free world is shouting,
Ever on the go, Van Alen is the last man to shirk a challenge. "If you don't risk in depth, you can never reach in height," he says. Even so, he occasionally comes a cropper. Back in the 1950s Van Alen decided to bring to the U.S. the European robin, a bird he fell in love with as a child after reading The Death and Burial of Cock Robin and The Bolus in the Wood. He imported three robins from Belgium and put them in a specially constructed "Robin Room" in the basement of his house in Washington, where he was then serving as an Eisenhower appointee on the Selective Service Commission. Van Alen built the Robin Room "so I could have little ones," but no little ones were forthcoming, since all three turned out to be males. A year later, Van Alen took the robins to Newport and released them. "It was autumn," he recalls. "I said, 'Goodby, little robins.' 'Goodby,' they said." As much as Van Alen loves robins, it is doubtful he will ever try the experiment again, since federal authorities have warned him that introduction of exotic birds is prohibited by law.
Born in Newport, Van Alen is of old New York stock with Astor and Vanderbilt blood in his veins. Raised in both the U.S. and England, he spent a good part of his childhood alone, tended by Servants. At Rushton Hall, his grandfather's 4,000-acre estate in Northamptonshire, a groom in top hat, cutaway and butcher boots was assigned to take Master James, wearing white breeches and a white cockade in his hat, pony riding every day. Since Van Alen's mother was fearful that the pony might run away with her son, the groom was instructed to go alongside with a lead. "I would say, 'Trot, George, trot!' " says Van Alen. "He would say, 'Yes, Master James.' I had no idea the man was being degraded." Inasmuch as Master James spoke with an American accent in Britain and a British accent here, he found himself challenged to lights until his father's valet, John Dono, taught him to defend himself. As a result, whenever Master James met a new youngster, he would shoot out a clenched list beneath the boy's nose and shout fiercely, "Smell this!" Van Alen's combative nature occasionally surges to the fore even now. Several years ago, while serving as a linesman in a match at Newport, Van Alen jumped to his feet after Pancho Gonzales angrily hit a ball over the Casino roof while playing VASSS tennis. Van Alen went straight up to Gonzales and told him in no uncertain words that such behavior would not be tolerated. Gonzales backed off, muttering.
Looking back on his childhood, Van Alen finds his upbringing of immense value. "Having been brought up in the servant's hall, I know the servant's mind." he says. "I know all the waiters and the people who play in bands. When-ever I arrive at a parts and Meyer Davis' band sees me, they stop and play My Shining Hour. My theme song, a wonderful song. The words are right, and the melody has that warmth."
After attending preparatory school in England, Van Alen was supposed to go to Eton, his father's public school, but the start of World War I caught Van Alen in the U.S. and he was sent off to St. George's in Newport and then to the Lake Placid School. Summers were spent at Newport, where he took up lawn tennis under the tutelage of Craig Biddle, the father of a friend. When Van Alen proved adept, Biddle suggested that he enter the juniors at Forest Hills. However, Van Alen's father refused to let him go. "What!" he exclaimed. "Send James down to a place like that to play scallawags!"
In 1920 Van Alen went to England where he enrolled at Christ College, Cambridge. Not knowing any of the other students, he discovered, to his pleasure and surprise, that tennis opened the way for him. "This game was my passport," Van Alen says. "Tennis made a life for me. James Van Alen—my name was on boards. I became captain of the Cambridge lawn tennis team. I became a personality." The student magazine, The Granta, described Van Alen as "a considerable personage who shines in any society...if America has any more James Henry's, let's have 'em.' "
With his stylish placement game Van Alen captained an Oxford-Cambridge team that beat Harvard and Yale at Eastbourne. This was at the height of what Van Alen calls "my great period, my lawn tennis period." He went to Wimbledon and the south of France where he once was to play doubles with King Gustav of Sweden, "but then," he says, "I fell off a battleship—a British battleship, where there are no problems with getting brandy." In between tennis seasons Van Alen indulged in shooting and stalking, both still passions. ( Van Alen's wife Candy, who is fond of traveling, says, "I know I can get him to go if there's something to shoot.")
Returning to the U.S. he and his younger brother Sam almost beat Bill Tilden and Frank Hunter at Newport, losing the third set 7-5. "No dinner parties were on time that night," Van Alen says. When he realized he was not going to be the greatest tennis player in the world, he gave up competing in the sport, and when he married his first wife, Eleanor Langley, he even stopped going to Newport because she hated it. His wife's family were very horsey, and with his usual zest Van Alen rode to hounds and played polo. But horses could never take the place of racket sports. Under the guidance of World Champion Pierre Etchebaster, the court tennis professional at the Racquet and Tennis Club, he took up the intricacies of that sport. He won the U.S. championship in 1933, 1938 and 1940. "Jimmy had beautiful classic strokes." says Allison Danzig, who covered court tennis for
The New York Times
. "I wouldn't say he was the best amateur who ever lived in this country, but he was a very smart player who got the most out of his abilities." In 1954 Van Alen persuaded clubs in Philadelphia, New York and Boston to let Princeton. Yale and Harvard students practice the game so they could compete against an Oxford-Cambridge combine for a cup Van Alen found in a secondhand shop in London. The matches are now held every two years with Van Alen usually on hand to present the trophy.