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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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It is a baffling inconsistency that Tilden never paid any real attention to his namesake, the only son of his beloved brother Herbert. At best, Tilden was perfunctory in the relationship. Although he had seemed close and friendly to Herbert's widow, Hazel Macintosh (he gave her away when she remarried), he came, for some reason, to tie his remaining family, and even the whole East Coast, like a tin can to the tail of the USLTA, with which he had carried on a prolonged feud. He pawned a few trophies, but willed the rest, as well as his manuscripts and other possessions, to Arthur Anderson, and he gave both Andersons harsh, explicit orders never to let the USLTA or his family get their hands on anything of his. A couple of trophies are on display at Marrion Anderson's, a couple more at her son's house, but most are hidden away in a warehouse. Marrion Anderson has a steamer trunk full of Tilden's trophies that she never has opened.

When the war ended, Tilden was instrumental in organizing the Professional Tennis Players Association, and although he was 53 by then, he regularly got as far as the quarterfinals in pro tournaments and once nearly beat Bobby Riggs, then the world champion. He still went first class, with the best suite and a ball boy, and he still drew a lion's share of the attention. Once settled in his suite, he would call up the press—"Big Bill is here"—and they came to see him. Even then, open tennis seemed just around the corner and, anyway, the prize money for Tilden's pros in 1947 was certain to be doubled.

Then, shortly before 10 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 23, 1946, Beverly Hills police officers saw a 1942 Packard Clipper being driven erratically on Sunset Boulevard. When they flagged the car down at the intersection of Rexford, a 14-year-old boy got out of the driver's seat. Bill Tilden, sitting next to him, had just taken the boy to see The Jolson Story at the Pantages Theatre. At the station house, Big Bill readily admitted indiscretions with the boy on this evening and one previous.

Richard Maddox, 36, who had represented a lot of picture people, took the case, reluctantly. "The toughest cases I've ever had," he says, "are where a dog or a child are the victims." Nor was his defense helped by the fact that Tilden took a negligent, even condescending, attitude toward the whole affair. These little nuisances had popped up before, he told Maddox, and nothing had ever come of them. "But this time you've been indicted," the lawyer told him. Tilden would not believe they would do anything to Big Bill. Two weeks before the trial, he wrote his sister-in-law, Hazel Macintosh, assuring her that there was no need whatsoever for the family to worry.

Many friends of Tilden, even knowing that he was a homosexual, convinced themselves that it was a frame-up; many believe it to this day. But there is no evidence to support that claim, although as Tilden headed for trial certain cards were stacked against him. By coincidence, A. A. Scott, the judge assigned the case in Superior Court, happened to be the son of a famous trial lawyer named Joe Scott who had recently represented Joan Barry in her paternity suit against Charlie Chaplin, Tilden's best-known friend and an increasingly suspect Communist fellow traveler. It took little imagination on the part of the public to visualize the orgies that must have gone on on Summit Drive, with the Communist sympathizer ravaging all the teen-age girls, and the degenerate tennis player all the boys. Maddox sought help from Chaplin, but Chaplin's only advice was that Tilden should jump bail and leave the country.

Maddox did have a plan. First, he wanted a jury trial to get the case away from Scott and a stern moralist named William Ritzi, the prosecutor. He was certain that the boy's wealthy parents would never let him take the stand and face cross-examination. The boy, whom Tilden had met at the L.A. Tennis Club, came from a broken home, and seemed to have had a rather dissolute, promiscuous sex life before Tilden took him riding. Without the boy's testimony, Maddox knew the state's case wouldn't wash. Besides, both the social worker and the psychiatrist who investigated the case urged that Tilden be treated, not incarcerated. The psychiatrist wrote: "In my opinion, whilst he appears outwardly cool, he is basically a neurotic and in some ways quite juvenile. This man should be regarded as one who is mentally ill."

But Tilden would have none of Maddox' advice. Arrogant and uncompromising as ever, even in these straits, he was sure he could beat the rap. And to give him the best of it, he was also as loyal as ever, and did not want to do anything that would risk hurting the boy. He informed Maddox that he would plead guilty. The lawyer says, "I told him point-blank, 'Bill, they're going to hang you. They're going to chew headlines.' But he wouldn't believe me. He didn't think they would dare touch him."

At the trial, Tilden, the unrelenting man of honor, may have damaged himself even more by lying, doggedly and pitifully. By now the court knew very well (if it could not prove it) that he had a long history of such behavior. Scott, who still views homosexuality as something Tilden "got mixed up in," as if it were like joining a dope ring, was anxious to see him confess all and renounce the devil. "I am just wondering, Mr. Tilden," he asked, "have you ever given any thought, over the years that you have been engaged in athletics, to the harm that you could do if you were ever caught doing something like this?"

Tilden: "Sir, I don't think I have thought of that because I have never been involved in anything of the kind."

Scott: "You mean by that you were never caught."

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