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Out of the Sun, Into the Shadows
Frank Deford
January 20, 1975
On the tennis court Big Bill Tilden was a winner, the best player of his time and perhaps of all time, but in the end he was in disgrace—a lonely loser
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January 20, 1975

Out Of The Sun, Into The Shadows

On the tennis court Big Bill Tilden was a winner, the best player of his time and perhaps of all time, but in the end he was in disgrace—a lonely loser

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Tilden Senior left the rearing of the baby strictly to his wife. A striking man with a large mustache, well dressed and with a fresh carnation in his lapel every day, he was a perfect gentleman, a successful businessman, a hearty clubman, a pillar of Philadelphia. Three times he was president of the Union League, the most prestigious Republican sanctum, and he entertained Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Taft at Overleigh.

By contrast, Linie Tilden seldom ventured far from Overleigh. Although she adored music and was an accomplished pianist, she was hardly the wispy, ethereal type, but "tr�s formidable" says her granddaughter, Miriam Ambrose, with a smile. Linie well reflected her stern, humorless Yorkshire heritage. Overleigh seems to have been a house of little love and gaiety, but much respect and a fair amount of understanding. Always, like a grim drop cloth, the memories of 1884 overlaid everything.

One lasting, if understandable, result of the tragedy was that Linie became obsessively health-conscious. Her husband had been sufficiently involved in the upbringing of Herbert to insulate the older boy from her excessive concerns, but Junior had no such counterbalance. While there is no evidence that he suffered from anything more than the usual mild childhood diseases, his mother decided that he must be sickly and treated him so. Soon, everybody who knew him assumed that Junior Tilden was weak and different.

For one thing, he was kept out of school and tutored at home, at Linie's skirts. His earliest memory was of himself sitting reverently at her feet while she played the piano, and although he rarely spoke of his childhood when he grew older, Tilden would always volunteer how much he adored his mother, how "I worshiped her."

He never slopped honoring her. Among the vast catalog of communicable ills that Linie Tilden was worried her baby boy might someday contract were venereal diseases. From an early age, the only sex training Tilden ever received was that women could give him a disease. Even his later homosexual experiences were casual, and he was ashamed that anyone would think him capable of more fulfilling involvement. With almost no exceptions, his sexual relations, whether with males or females, were rudimentary, and, in extension, that constraint made it difficult for him to be close to people, especially his peers. Bill Tilden diverted his sex drive to the arena, to a clean, bright place.

While Herbert's role was far subordinate to the one his mother played in Tilden's childhood, the brother was major influence. He became a father substitute. It was Herbert who inspired Junior's interest in tennis and helped him to develop his game. From an early age, Tilden regretted the fact that he had no one to be an older brother or a father to. In the fiction he wrote, older brother/younger brother, father/son or older friend/younger friend relationships dominate. They form the core of the close human dealings he wrote of, whereas wives and husbands and good friends of the same age have stilted, contrived relationships. Tilden succeeded in one quest in that he became famous and was the child who brought honor to his beloved mother, who had suffered so much agony. But he could never find the son who could both love him and succeed him as a champion, as he loved Herbert and eventually surpassed him as a player.

From the beginning, June played the older-brother role. His friends were all younger, and he made them his coterie. After ice skating, he would assemble the younger children in someone's house, where they would sit by a fire and drink hot chocolate; then June would draw the curtains and recite poetry and tell ghost stories. Dracula, which he later played on Broadway, was his best role. "Oh, he'd scare hell out of us," says Frank Deacon, a younger neighbor. "June also established his own nobility. He was the king, course. Jo Dodge was the queen. I believe I was a marquis and Roy Coffin was a duke. It went all the way down to Judith Jennings, who was the court cat."

But, increasingly, tennis and music were Tilden's two major avenues of expression. Alice Tatnall Franklin, four years younger, was musically inclined, so June would invite her to his room where they could enjoy his growing gramophone-record collection, or he would go to her house and listen to her play the piano. For any of his younger friends who showed the slightest interest, he would provide tennis instruction. "He was the kindest person, always," says Josephine Walton, who also grew up in Germantown. "None of us ever had any idea that he would become this great athlete—he was so sickly—but he must have taught all of the younger children in the neighborhood to play tennis."

Yet no one felt close to June, and the feeling persisted that he was strange. And his social reputation was not enhanced by his curious neglect of hygiene, a characteristic he retained all his life. Even as a teen-ager, he often had the foulest breath, and his perennial outfit, a woven blue mackinaw with stripes at the waist, stank of perspiration. How his mother was able to ignore or accept this is impossible to fathom.

In 1908, when Junior was 15, Linie contracted Bright's disease and was confined to a wheelchair. Tilden Senior, who had invested heavily in the Pennsylvania coal fields and was being mentioned as a candidate for mayor of Philadelphia, had begun to devote even more time to his outside interests. Herbert was finishing up at Penn and about ready to bring home a bride, so Junior was finally sent to Germantown Academy, farmed out of the house. He was bivouacked a few blocks away at 519 Hansberry Avenue, where he was given the third-floor room of a small row house in which his mother's maiden sister, Aunt Betsy Hey, lived with her niece, his cousin Selena. She had taken the name Hey because she had been raised by Aunt Betsy, but actually Selena was the daughter of another sister's failed marriage to a ne'er-do-well Civil War hero.

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