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The Lady In The White Silk Dress
Sarah Pileggi
September 13, 1982
Suzanne Lenglen drank, swore and had lovers by the score—and played tennis incomparably, losing once in seven years
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September 13, 1982

The Lady In The White Silk Dress

Suzanne Lenglen drank, swore and had lovers by the score—and played tennis incomparably, losing once in seven years

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On Aug. 10 Suzanne was interviewed by Thomas Topping of the Associated Press, who observed that she looked five years younger, carefree and happy. "Some seem to believe I am tied up hands and feet by becoming a professional," she told him. "To me it is an escape from bondage and slavery. No one can order me about any longer to play tournaments for the benefit of club owners. I got great fun out of tennis for a few years after the war, but lately it had become too exacting.... I have done my bit to build up the tennis of France and of the world. It's about time tennis did something for me."

The most urgent question on both sides of the Atlantic was whom would she play in both singles and mixed doubles. There were few women who could give her a game, and none of those was a professional. An amateur would automatically lose his or her amateur status by competing against her. Lenglen's first choice for a mixed doubles partner was her current lover, an Italian Davis Cupper named Placido Gaslini. But Gaslini's father, a Milanese banker, would not permit it. In Gaslini's place, Paul Feret, the fourth-ranked French player, was picked and accepted. Feret at the time was disconsolate over the death of his 19-year-old wife and ready for a change of surroundings. (When Feret returned to France after the tour, he applied for reinstatement as an amateur, pleading tennis' version of temporary insanity. The federation accepted his plea, accompanied by a check representing his professional earnings, and anointed him an amateur again.)

When Lenglen and Feret sailed for New York on the liner Paris they had no idea who their opponents might be, but en route, when the Paris' sister ship, the France, was sighted steaming in the opposite direction, they got their first news. Aboard the France were the Four Musketeers: Borotra, René Lacoste, Henri Cochet and Toto Brugnon. During a ship-to-ship radio conversation Lenglen learned that Pyle had signed a former U.S. champion, Mary K. Browne, to be her singles opponent. Although 35 and past her playing prime, Browne was well known, having won the American women's title in 1912, '13 and '14.

But Pyle had saved his real stunner for the landing of the Paris in New York. When the liner docked on Sept. 30 he announced to a glittering assemblage in the ship's ballroom that he had acquired the services of "the greatest male tennis player in the world...Vincent Richards is now a professional!"

Richards was then 23 and about to be awarded the No. 1 U.S. ranking, dislodging Bill Tilden from that spot for the first time in six years. His decision to turn professional at the very peak of his amateur career was almost as startling as Lenglen's.

The United States Lawn Tennis Association took its revenge on Richards just as the French federation did on Lenglen. Both were stripped of their No. 1 rankings and thereafter dealt with as nonpersons.

Pyle filled out his troupe with two Californians: Howard Kinsey of San Francisco, who was ranked No. 6 in the U.S., and Harvey Snodgrass, a Southern Californian who had been ranked No. 6 in 1924 and subsequently had become a teaching pro in Los Angeles.

Again Charles was too ill to travel, but for company Suzanne had her mother, a personal maid, Helene, an Irish masseur named William T. O'Brien and Ann Kinsolving, 19, a cub reporter for the Baltimore News, now Mrs. John Nicholas Brown of Newport and Providence.

"When Suzanne was introduced to me, she stared at my fur-lined cloak as though she were studying its texture," Ann Kinsolving Brown told Italian journalist Gianni Clerici. "I seemed to pass her test, and she quietly said to me, 'You're the person I'm looking for. I need someone who understands me and will know how to speak about me.' " So Kin-solving signed on as tennis' first personal press agent, for $6,000.

Opening night, Oct. 9, 1926, at Madison Square Garden, was preceded by intense publicity. Lenglen's name was everywhere, endorsing French perfume, French girdles and French gowns. She was reported seen in the audience of a Broadway musical, at a Mary Pickford movie and at a World Series game at Yankee Stadium.

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