The Kings' marriage is best described by Billie Jean as two circles that intersect occasionally. This arrangement absolutely fascinates people, and in the worst way, and while it upsets Billie Jean that others should be so grubby in their curiosity, Larry seems unmoved by the speculation. Despite the sweet adolescent countenance, placid speech, a no-drink, no-smoke regimen, he is a tough, stubborn kid, still only 30, who came from an indigent, broken home and who possessed an unbridled ambition long before Billie Jean was introduced to him in the college library at L.A. State. If other people want to nose around his marriage, that's their hang-up, not his.
There was a time, up till a year or so ago, when the marriage was dissolving, when the two circles were only smoke rings. For a while Larry made no bones, even in front of his wife, about going around with another player, the Australian Janet Young. Billie Jean retreated further into seclusion, protected by her secretary, Marilyn Barnett, who began as her hairdresser, then became her friend and confidante, and ultimately, many felt, her Haldeman as well.
Of course, the madness of the Riggs episode may have demanded sanctuary and change. The competition itself had the consistency of cotton candy and just as marvelously sweet a taste, but it was, as a personal experience, searing. When the cauldron finally cooled, Billie Jean and Larry seemed to discover each other again. Now they are always on the phone and coo a lot when they are together. As much as this revelation might confound some people and disappoint others, the fact is that the reason they stay together is simply that they are very much in love.
Billie Jean found another rock on the beach and flung this one angrily into the waves. "Dammit," she said, "what do people want? I just love Larry. I've gotten to the point where I can't say anything else." She looked up tenderly and shook her head a little, imploring. "I still think it is the most marvelous thing that he came into my life in any way."
Their relationship has apparently been strengthened further by shared adversity in their business ventures. Larry was studying to be a biochemist when he met Billie Jean, switched to law, in part at her urging, but is now foremost a promoter, plotting, roaming all the while. The lasting vision of Larry is of him standing in a World Team Tennis ticket booth, trying also to sell lifetime subscriptions to womenSports, as a friend walks by and calls to him: "How's the condos going, Larry?"
Billie Jean views her husband's commercial eclecticism with the same sweeping enthusiasm she gives to colors. "It's too bad we weren't born with silver spoons in our mouths," she says, "because there's 25 things we'd like to do right now if we had the money. Larry loves to solve problems, you know. I mean, Larry likes problems. He's not happy unless he's risking everything. He's got to be at the edge all the time. He loves to gamble. I have no need to gamble. What I have to do is hit backhands down the line."
If, indeed, Larry likes problems, he has been in seventh heaven lately. TennisAmerica, the Kings' tennis instruction outfit, which Billie Jean admits "has been mismanaged," had assets of $17,000, liabilities of $400,000 and a few months ago filed for bankruptcy. womenSports, which they founded last year, nearly went under before Larry found a last-ditch angel. He says of World Team Tennis that "I got my money up front," but he and Billie Jean are tied to it emotionally, if not financially, and he has had to spend much of his time lately chasing down the mean streets of the recession for the venture capital WTT needs to survive.
Billie Jean has numerous endorsement connections and she makes an additional $50,000 a year for representing Cape Eleuthera. She is so deep in affiliations that during one stretch of two weeks in New York she gave four fancy press conferences at '21'. Her press agent also handles the likes of Robert Redford and Racquel Welch. Billie Jean has a two-year contract at an annual $125,000 from ABC, plus she is trying to package her own TV show. And, of course, tennis. She makes something like $150,000 from the New York Sets and the odd $100,000 or so from old-hat tournament prize money. And yet, she has only been in the big bucks for a very few years, and the travails of TennisAmerica and womenSports have drained her resources. The unkindest remark going around the tennis community is that Billie Jean may not only be the Jackie Robinson of women's sports, but the Joe Louis as well.
Nonetheless, she has never been stronger. For a time this winter Billie Jean spoke very casually—manfully, one could say—that she would probably have to abandon her plan of selective play and enter every possible tournament, just to win enough prize money to keep the wolf from the magazine door. Last January, when the situation was most desperate, Billie Jean, out of shape and playing in Chris Evert's home state, went out and slaughtered her in a Virginia Slims final. "I probably played so well because I had to, for the money," she said. "Out of frustration comes creativity. Right?"
The magazine is the major part of King Enterprises, which employs about 25 persons and is located in San Mateo, a San Francisco runway suburb, where Billie Jean and Larry also display their first hint of domesticity: an actual apartment to live together in and Lucy, a mongrel puppy that Billie Jean's brother, Randy Moffitt, the San Francisco Giant pitcher, gave her. But then, she is still spread around. Cape Eleuthera is her official residence. For much business New York is headquarters. And, like Peter Pan, her shadow is yet elsewhere, being tailored in Beverly Hills, where her press agent, Patricia Kingsley, elegant and professional, offers to trade new lamps for old. "Pat Kingsley is the first touch of class Billie Jean's ever had around her," an old friend and associate says. "Previously, it was all a pickup game, everybody playing skins and shirts. Everything you'd accomplish with Billie Jean herself, they managed to unravel."