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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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On both sides, forebears of William Tatem Tilden II were British. His mother was Selina Hey, called Linie, one of four daughters of David and Selina Hey, who came to Philadelphia from Yorkshire in the middle of the 19th century. David Hey established a wool-importing business that soon prospered.

The Tildens, as all Tildens, hailed from Kent. It is an ancient and distinguished line; Tyldens married into William the Conquerors family not long after the Battle of Hastings; one helped finance the Mayflower; the first arrived in the colonies, with seven servants, in 1634.

Generally speaking, there were three Tilden lines in America. One branch went to Canada, and the name is well advertised there today by Tilden Rent-A-Car, Canada's largest firm of that kind. Another branch, centering on New York, produced Samuel Tilden, who won the popular vote over Rutherford B. Hayes in the 1876 presidential election but was cheated out of the office by carpetbag politics in the only certified presidential vote fraud in U.S. history. Bill Tilden came from the southern branch, which resided, for the most part, in Delaware and Maryland.

William Tatem Tilden Sr. was born in 1855 at St. George's, Del. but after his father's death moved to Philadelphia with his mother, Williamina. He enrolled at Central High and began working as an office boy, eventually landing a job with David Hey's woolen firm. Tilden Senior was an impressive young man, nice looking, ambitious and capable; indeed, it was not so much a case of his marrying the boss' daughter as of the boss making sure that one of his daughters latched onto this fine specimen. Linie Hey opened the door when young Tilden accepted her father's invitation to call, and she did not let any of her sisters claim the prize. The Tildens were married on a clear autumn Thursday, Nov. 6, 1879, and David Hey soon proudly accepted his son-in-law as a partner.

By next spring, Linie was pregnant with her first child, Elizabeth Hey. Hardly a year after that, the prospering Tilden was given his son and heir, Harry Bower, and in June 1883 a third healthy child, Williamina Tatem, named for Linie's grandmother, was born. The Tildens by then had moved into a comfortable three-story red brick end house at 5308 Germantown Avenue, a fine address on a cobble-stoned thoroughfare with a trolley-car line that carried Tilden downtown to his office. Other Philadelphians had begun to notice this clever young man. Despite his lack of college education and the onus of having the most preeminent Democratic name of the era, he began to be accepted into the best clubs and to gain some voice in Republican Party affairs. The Tildens seemed to have a full and happy life in store.

Williamina, the baby, died first, on Saturday, Nov. 29, 1884. She was buried on Monday, in the first raw winter cold, the hearse clattering out Germantown Avenue to Ivy Hill Cemetery on the edge of the city, where a family plot had been hastily purchased. The cause of death was listed as "'membranous croup," almost certainly because the Tildens did not want to admit what they surely realized, that the diphtheria epidemic had reached 5308 Germantown. In 1884, diphtheria could spread like wildfire among children, being communicated by direct contact. The fever came first, with headaches, then a sore throat that swelled as the toxins coursed through the pained little body.

Elizabeth, the oldest, fell next. Just past her fourth birthday, she died on Dec. 9 and was buried the next day, another sad procession moving to Ivy Hill. Tilden still had his son left, but Harry had become feverish, and he lived, in agony, only three more days. He was buried on Dec. 15, just short of his third birthday. This time the death notice pathetically concluded that Harry was "the only child of William T. and Linie H. Tilden."

Bill Tilden was not to be born for another nine years. But for these sad events of 1884, he almost surely would not have been born at all. And because of them, he was greatly affected. It is not an exaggeration to say that much of the way Bill Tilden was to be was determined years before his birth.

In the days immediately following the three tragedies, the Tildens carried on. But never again was there any lightness in their house. Within the year Linie Tilden was pregnant once more, with her fourth child, Herbert Marmaduke. At least Tilden Senior had replaced the son he had lost, and he adored Herbert and grew close to him. When, a full six years later, Linie realized she was having another child, she almost certainly longed for a girl to replace the two that had been taken from her. But it was a boy, born on a cold Saturday morning, Feb. 10, 1893, and she named him after her husband and called him Junior or June.

The child grew up spoiled, in comfort that approached opulence. By today's buying power, Tilden Senior had an income in excess of $100,000, and not long after Junior was born the family moved to 5015 McKean Avenue, into a stately new red-gabled mansion named Overleigh, a dwelling so large that it now contains eight apartments. There were several servants, a governess for Junior, and just a block away was the Germantown Cricket Club, which featured a special clubhouse for children. From birth, though, Junior Tilden was catered to and protected even more than the other society boys and girls of Germantown.

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