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STARDOM SEEMED to await Cowan upon his return home, and he wore his fame ostentatiously and awkwardly, like that floppy hat. He landed a guest spot on Dinah Shore's talk show. Someone approached him to cohost a pilot for a variety show. He wrote The Book of Table Tennis, or at least posed for the instructional photos. And he signed with an import-export firm to promote a Chinese-made paddle called Double Happiness. The U.S. was an international table tennis also-ran, but Cowan alone could make up in style much of what he and his teammates lacked in substance. "Glenn was a rock star," remembers Robert Lange, a former doubles partner. "He was the biggest thing [U.S.] table tennis had ever seen."
"He thought he was going to really make it big," says Connie Sweeris, one of Cowan's teammates in the U.S. delegation. But the TV show never panned out. And the imported paddles couldn't be secured in mass-market quantities, so the role for Cowan—to make promotional appearances—never came off.
Shortly after his return to the U.S., Cowan was taken to see a doctor because "he was acting a little erratic," says his mother, who's now 93 and an executive assistant at the Improv, the comedy club in Los Angeles. The diagnosis: Glenn was bipolar. "He felt people were spying on him," Fran says. "He went into the hospital, and they gave him medication to keep him on an even keel. If he went off it and got high, that would throw him off. Pot was his thing: He took the drugs and didn't take his medication."
When the Chinese team visited the U.S. in the spring of 1972, Cowan didn't take part in the tour. His manager and friend, former U.S. Open champion Bobby Gusikoff, had to escort him back to California from the tour's starting point in Detroit. "Glenn freaked out," says one former U.S. table tennis official. Cowan fell into a cycle: He would go off his meds, get hospitalized, then be released after 72 hours. "It went on for years," his mother recalls. "It was exhausting for the family. There is nothing in the world you can do about it."
Cowan fell hard for fellow California-based player Angelita Rosal, with whom he played mixed doubles in the early 1970s. He claimed to be Mick Jagger's half brother, then serenaded her with the Rolling Stones' Angie, telling Rosal that Jagger had written it for her. He would make schizophrenic references to "MGM," which stood for "Mao Glenn Mick." "He was obsessed with Mao and Mick Jagger," recalls Danny Goodstein, who befriended Cowan in the fall of '72. "He had somehow made that connection and put himself with them.
"I remember one time he was dropped off at my door," adds Goodstein. "He was out of it, talking nonsense. I drove him to [a mental hospital] in the Valley. He kicked a coffee table, and they took him in. Every spring it seemed like he freaked out. My idea is that the team went to China in the spring and he had the fleeting fame, and after that went away, it became a triggering event. It was almost a running joke—springtime, time for Glenn to flip out."
Cowan eventually picked up a teaching credential at UCLA after graduating from Santa Monica College. He taught school for a stretch and sold shoes. "He always saw it as a real comedown, this worldwide celebrity out there selling shoes," says Sandy Lechtick, who hired Cowan at his headhunting firm in the early 1990s, and remembers him as intrepid in all he did. "He was most fearless when it came to girls and competition. When he was here as a recruiter he had that same fearlessness. That's why he did well."
Throughout, he haunted the Hollywood Table Tennis Club. "He was still playing almost until the end," says Fran Cowan, who displays Zhuang's gift to her son in the dining room of her Westwood home. "He loved it. He had an addictive nature. He was addicted to Ping-Pong, he was addicted to drugs."
About a decade ago Cowan briefly married, but the relationship ended after two months. By then, having discovered paddle tennis, he was hanging out on the courts at Venice Beach, hustling games. He lost his apartment, then spent several years living out of his car and on the streets, Lechtick says. "He'd be at the courts at Venice Beach, begging money. He'd be barefoot and borrow someone's racket and still win. Even when he was homeless, he always had a backpack with that Ping-Pong book he wrote."
Around 2000 Cowan underwent a bypass operation following a heart attack. He died of another heart attack on April 6, 2004, the eve of the 33rd anniversary of China's invitation to the U.S. team. He was 52. "He was like a comet," says Lange, Cowan's former doubles partner. "Flashed through the sky and then gone."