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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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The social call turned into a donny-brook, however. On Jan. 15 the following four-tiered headline appeared in The Los Angeles Times: LENGLEN LEAVES HOSTESS' HOME; BOTH DENY ROW; TENNIS PLAYER'S WHEREABOUTS UNKNOWN—HAD TICKETS FOR EAST; MRS. ANITA BALDWIN IN COLLAPSE, REPORT SON, FRENCH WOMAN'S MANAGER, ALSO QUITS CALIFORNIA HOUSE.

Back to Europe Suzanne went, this time for good, with the Sheik in tow. As the party left New York, Baldwin's lawyer announced to the press that he would seek a divorce for his client in Paris.

The divorce never came about, nor did the marriage, but the affair lasted four more years. By 1930 Lenglen was at work selling sports clothes in a Parisian dress house, which was distinguished by a vest-pocket tennis court on the premises. Some society page observers exulted in print over what they saw as Lenglen's descent from queen to shopgirl, although no one seemed sure whether financial need was involved. In fact, it probably was. The family had lost the use of the villa in Nice, and Charles Lenglen had succumbed at last to failing health, in 1929, dying at age 70.

When the French tennis federation reinstated Feret in 1933, it was expected that Lenglen, who had also applied to regain her amateur, status, would be next, but that never happened. Her movements were still news, though, and her public appearances in informal tennis matches always attracted attention.

Five-time U.S. champion Helen Jacobs recalled in her book. Gallery of Champions, a practice match she played with Lenglen in 1933 during the French championships at Roland Garros Stadium: "Jean Borotra was playing on the stadium court and the stands were filled to capacity. The court to which Suzanne and I walked was behind the stadium, but visible from its rim. A spectator must have passed the word that 'Lenglen was playing,' for in a matter of minutes we were being followed by a procession of people far more eager to watch Suzanne than any of the tournament aspirants."

From 1933 until her sudden death at the age of 39, in 1938, Lenglen was director of a government-backed tennis school in Paris, apparently having given up hope of being readmitted as an amateur.

The one event in her life that she could not stage-manage was her death, of pernicious anemia. On June 29 she was given a transfusion and on July 4 she was dead. The disease by then was no longer considered incurable, but Lenglen's health had never been robust.

Her funeral at Notre Dame de l'Assomption in Paris befitted that of a national heroine. Her old friend King Gustav V of Sweden sent an emissary, as did Premier Edouard Daladier of France. Borotra and Brugnon represented the Musketeers, and floral displays from tennis clubs filled three automobiles in the procession to the cemetery in suburban Sain-Ouen. Suzanne was buried in the family plot, alongside her beloved Papa.

At Wimbledon, Moody, who had just won her eighth singles title, said Lenglen was "the greatest woman player who ever lived." So, at one time or another, did every other prominent player who had ever been her opponent, including Mallory, Chambers and Browne.

But of them all, the one who knew her best was Elizabeth Ryan. Ryan was one of the last players to beat Lenglen at singles, when she was 14. She also gave Suzanne one of her few tough matches at Wimbledon, a three-setter in 1924, after which Lenglen withdrew from the tournament. For six years Ryan was Lenglen's doubles partner, at Wimbledon and elsewhere. As a team they were never beaten.

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