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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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When her contemporaries ran out of words to describe Suzanne Lenglen they always fell back on "incomparable." On that and that alone they could all agree. Everything else about her was cause for furious debate on both sides of the Atlantic. Was she heroine or harridan? Was she courageous or corrupt? Was her infamous temperament a byproduct of genius or just the manipulation of an overweening arriviste? Did she purposely keep Queen Mary waiting at Wimbledon? Did she quit rather than lose to Molla Mallory at Forest Hills? Could she have survived a third set against Helen Wills at Cannes? Was she rich? Was she broke? Was she in love, engaged, about to be married? Was it cognac in the little silver flask from which she drank at the changeovers? And by the way, between us, exactly what did she wear beneath those silk tennis dresses of hers?

No matter where she went or what she did, controversy, scandal, gossip and rumor buzzed about Lenglen's bandeaued head like a swarm of benevolent bees, and she, who understood better than even the best sports promoters of her day the uses of fame, did nothing to quiet any of it. This delightful, outrageous and quintessentially French woman was the unrivaled queen of tennis from 1919 to 1926. In that span she won the Wimbledon singles title six times, the French title six times and the world hard-court championship four times, as well as two gold medals at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp. But most impressive of all, in those seven years she lost only one match, a highly controversial (of course) default to the U.S. champion, Mallory, in 1921. One loss in seven years. And she didn't just beat her opponents, she demolished them. They measured their successes against Lenglen in points. A game was a triumph. A set was historic. In 1925, her greatest year as a player, she won the Wimbledon singles title after losing a total of only five games to her seven opponents and the French championship after losing just four. In 1926 her fame transcended not only tennis but also all of sport. In an era of living legends like Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Jack Dempsey, Gertrude Ederle and Bill Tilden, she was the best-known athlete in the world, the one whose private life was hot news and whose personal style was a yardstick by which contemporary sophistication was measured.

In that year, she did what no other tennis player had ever done: She became a playing professional. When she announced her intention, the world was stunned.

The elaborate pretense that tennis was an amateur sport, the same charade that was doggedly maintained until 1968, already was fully institutionalized by the mid-1920s. Lenglen and other notable players of the day were rewarded for their efforts in wondrously devious ways. It was rumored, for instance, that Wimbledon officials once guaranteed Lenglen's appearance by betting her father, Charles, a considerable sum that she would not show. When of course she did, Papa Lenglen collected.

As long as an athlete toed the line as it was laid down by his national or local tennis federation, he or she was reasonably well looked after, and in the case of a star such as Lenglen, lavishly indulged.

Deviation from the rules, however, brought swift punishment. The capital crime was uncamouflaged professionalism, even straightforward teaching professionalism, and its penalty was that most terrifying fate of all, banishment. At Wimbledon it was understood that a player, even a former champion, who had become a teaching professional was no longer even entitled to sit in the friends' box with those who had not. In 1932, when Lenglen, then in retirement, returned to Wimbledon as a spectator, she and Dorothea Lambert Chambers, with 13 Wimbledon singles titles between them, were seated together, far from the center of social action. Chambers' trangression had been to become a teaching pro.

Lenglen was nothing if not daring. Her disdain for convention was a large part of her allure during the period of social tumult that followed World War I. She was continually doing in broad daylight what most people only dreamed of in the dark of night. She drank, she danced, she smoked, she swore, she wore her skirts short and her arms bare and she had lovers—lots of them. She was a Gallic elaboration on the postwar silent movie siren, The Vamp, adding to that sullen stereotype her own elements of wit and charm.

As a tennis player, Lenglen was her father's creation. As a public figure, a star, she invented herself. She would appear at a strategic moment, dressed with care and surrounded by courtiers, often handsome young tennis players, all of them chattering and laughing at what, one imagined, was something terrifically witty, utterly sophisticated, terribly chic and, above all, deliciously French. She was far from beautiful, but she was glamorous to her painted fingernails, and there were few sacrifices she was unwilling to make for her breathless audiences. Regardless of the climate, she appeared for tennis clad in fur, or fur-trimmed, coats with large collars that framed her pale, powdered face, with its gray-green eyes and dark red lips. When she posed for photographers she stood with her rackets in the crook of her left arm and her right hand on her hip, holding her coat so as to reveal the tennis costume underneath—a white silk dress, knee-length and pleated, and a brightly colored sweater which exactly matched the two yards of silk chiffon wound around her bobbed black hair, the celebrated "Lenglen bandeau" that was copied by millions of women, whether or not they had ever held a racket. Beneath the silk dress she wore silk stockings rolled just above the knee, and who knew what else. Certainly not a petticoat. Tennis had had its beautiful women before Lenglen—the French champion Marguerite Broquedis was one—but it is nevertheless safe to say that Lenglen, in the liberated style of her play—full of acrobatic, even balletic leaps and lunges—her dress and her life, introduced sex to tennis, and vice versa.

When Lenglen went onto the court, however, the glamour show was over. Her smiling mask was set aside and the tense, drawn and at times haggard face of a driven, sleepless, unrelenting perfectionist was revealed, a face that looked decades older than the lithe, graceful body below it. Lenglen's face was not her fortune, but it told the story of her brief but brilliant life.

By the time she turned 15, Suzanne Lenglen was already established in continental tennis circles as an amazing prodigy. Her teacher, guide, business agent and hard-driving taskmaster was her beloved Papa, Charles Lenglen, a retired businessman of moderate means who moved his family—wife Anais and small daughter—from Compiègne in the north of France, where Suzanne was born on May 24, 1899, to Nice on the Riviera. Within three months of being given a tennis racket, Suzanne, then 11, played before her first gallery.

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