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By his own definition, James Henry Van Alen, a millionaire sportsman of 69 who looks like a cherub, is "a busy little body." He has been called "the first gentleman of Old Guard society in America" and " Newport's last grand homme," and, given his money and position, Van Alen could have been just another social gadabout, but he is driven by an almost manic spirit of noblesse oblige. In his efforts to make the world a better place than he found it, Van Alen has espoused the cause of Santa Claus, put up the money to rescue the journals of James Boswell from Malahide Castle in Ireland, edited the North American Review, rejuvenated the Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Club in New York, saved the landmark Newport Casino, collected the greater bustard and other rare Iberian birds for the American Museum of Natural History and promoted the reformation of scoring in tennis with such fervor that he was recently given a new sobriquet, "the Rolls-Royce radical."
Of all his interests, Van Alen is most intense about tennis. A tournament player in his younger days, he says, "I don't want you to think I'm a nut, but tennis established me on my own." As far as Van Alen is concerned, millions upon millions of people should be playing tennis regularly, but in his opinion the sport will never achieve the great popularity it deserves as long as matches drag on and the scoring is obscured with terms such as "love" and "deuce," pseudoarchaic words imposed on tennis, Van Alen says, by the English in 1873.
In line with this Van Alen, who turns out verse on any subject that engages him, has written a poem, The Facts of Love, which goes in part:
The French think English crazy
It's true that 'l'oeuf' means 'egg' in French,
To reform tennis Van Alen has thought up the Van Alen Simplified Scoring System, known as VASSS. In VASSS zero replaces the term love, and deuce and advantage are eliminated entirely. Briefly put, individual games are simply scored one, two, three instead of 15, 30, 40, and the game goes to the first player who wins four points. Should players be tied 6-6 in games, they then play a nine-point sudden death with the set going to the player who first scores five points. By using VASSS, no match can last longer than about an hour and 10 minutes or, as Van Alen puts it, "Just about as long as I care to watch people play tennis."
As the result of devising VASSS, Van Alen is convinced that his name will go down in history. "Pasteur pasteurized milk, I will VASSSify tennis," he says. His Humber touring car has Rhode Island plates that proclaim VASSS, and for a brief while he even considered changing the name of his Newport cottage, Avalon, one of four residences he maintains in the U.S. and Europe, to YASSSalon, but thought better of it. When Van Alen can't use VASSS to, excuse the word, advantage, he goes around marking everything with his family initials, an intertwined VA. Thus the towels in Van Alen's bathroom look as though they had been stolen from the Veterans Administration, and the VA that he attached to the hood of his Rolls-Royce, in place of the figure of the lady, made his Rolls dealer apoplectic. The dealer complained that Van Alen was making the Rolls look like a Volkswagen. In his spare time, Van Alen designs jewelry with a VA motif for his wife Candy, who says, "I love to have Jimmy doodle in gold or diamonds or whatever."
Tennis is not the only sport that Van Alen would reform. Indeed, he has so many ideas about other sports that he is thinking of going into business as VASSS Inc., Spectator Sports Specialist. "I'm going to look at any game from the point of view of the spectator," he says. "People want blood! Out at Forest Hills, people get blood with sudden death. If I go to a baseball game I want to see runs made, hits made, action! They've lowered the mound. That's not enough! I'd like to sec ball games won 28-27!" To accomplish this Van Alen would move the pitcher's rubber back five feet—"The pitcher in baseball was supposed to put the ball into play, not end it with a strikeout"—and have the ball slightly softened. Van Alen has little regard for home runs. I [e finds no excitement in the ball soaring over the fence, but doubles and triples are the very Stuff of blood to him. To make sure that batters hit slews of doubles and triples with the softened ball. Van Alen would do away with the center-fielder and the shortstop.
Yacht racing is another sport Van Alen deems in need of reform, particularly the America's Cup which, he says, is "deader than Admiral Nelson's left aim." Van Alen's low opinion of the cup races stirs up Newport, especially when he endorses Ring Lardner's idea of taking the yachts to the Niagara River and starting the race 100 yards above the falls. As Van Alen sees it, no foreign yacht ever has a chance because of the U.S. edge in hull design and sail-making. To make the cup truly a test of seamanship, he proposes competing crews swap boats after each race.
For a supposed radical in sports, Van Alen has impeccable credentials. He was captain of the lawn tennis team at Cambridge, a well-known amateur player in the 1920s, thrice U.S. court tennis champion in the '30s, and nowadays holds the presidencies of both the Newport Casino and the National Lawn Tennis Hall of Fame as well as membership in such plush clubs as Piping Rock, Racquet and Tennis, River, Knickerbocker and Spouting Rock in this country and Buck's and the Bath in England. Knowing everyone in the Establishment, he has the contacts and the time and energy to do "my yammering, squawking and shouting" about VASSS practically nonstop. If Van Alen can't corner a sympathetic audience in person to extol the merits of VASSS he relies on the telephone, and he calls with such frequency that the numbers and letters have disappeared from the dial faces of the phones in his Fifth Avenue apartment.