The Riviera had a kind of Post impressionist air and light in February of 1926 when Helen Wills came to Cannes to play tennis with Suzanne Lenglen. The French franc was about 25 to the' dollar and a bottle of the wine of Provence was 10 sous. Hemingway had just left for New York to peddle The Torrents of Spring. Fitzgerald was holed up at a resort in the Pyrenees, where Zelda was taking" the cure. An adaptation of The Great Gatsby was playing on Broadway (Hemingway said he had paid to get in and would have paid to get out). Matisse was in Nice: Picasso was married to Neo-Surrealism and a ballerina named Olga Koklova. It was the last lovely time before the Western world turned sour and modern.
February in New York City was cold and rainy, and the gin at the Texas Guinan Club was made in bathtubs in Jersey City. Every American sportswriter who could spell Paris (about half of them) figured it was a whole lot better to be in Cannes than covering two-bit pugs duking it out in St. Nicholas Arena up on West 66th Street. Things were just as dull in London, Madrid and Paris itself. The cricket pitches were empty, the bullrings were shuttered, and nothing was running at Longchamp. It was time for a "ballyhoo," one of those spontaneous media circuses that erupted whenever reporters were bored and thirsty and tired of looking at their editors.
Newspapers reveled in a heyday of fad, fashion and overnight heroes, and the impending tennis match between Wills and Lenglen had everything a jaded, bloodless American city editor needed: a classic story of innocent America (in the guise of the sweet, uncomplicated, 20-year-old Wills) versus decadent Europe (the amorous, vain, hard-drinking, 26-year-old Lenglen). Even the stodgy proprietors of the London Times could see this story. Lenglen, the six-time Wimbledon champ, had lost only one match—and that by default—in seven years. Wills was an ingenue who had consolidated her dominance of American amateur tennis with three straight singles titles at Forest Hills. The two women had never played each other in singles, and as it turned out, they never would again.
The ballyhoo began on Jan. 15 when Wills stepped off the ocean liner De Grasse in the port of Le Havre. Dozens of local reporters wore waiting to pelt her with dozens of questions. The attitude of the French press was downright imperial. Americans were viewed as generally inferior and mostly laughable. Paris-Midi, in fact, had only recently described them as "degenerate and rotten, physically, intellectually and morally. They offend our eyes, our ears and our nostrils."
With their noses quivering in anticipation, the assembled bled French reporters found Wills polite, demure and possibly fragrant. Wills explained that she had come to France not so much to play tennis but to paint. The Frenchmen were charmed by this straightforward California. Wills so enthralled the prestigious Eclaireur de Nice that it pronounced her "une petite jeune fille de province"—a lovely little country girl.
Soon newspapers around the world were regaling their readers with tales of Wills and Lenglen. Daily dispatches chronicled Wills's passage through nondescript tournaments on the way to Cannes. A reporter for TIME magazine, who evidently deemed it unnecessary to actually talk to Wills, concocted a weekly diary of her travels and even dreamed up the thoughts he put in her head.
Through it all, Wills stayed cool and placid. She dressed for matches with conservative good taste, mostly in white starched cotton skirts and blouses that accentuated a certain schoolgirl sensuality. When asked a few years later to name the most beautiful sight he had ever seen, Charlie Chaplin answered, "The movement of Helen Wills playing tennis: It had grace and economy of action as well as a healthy appeal to sex." That great sensualist Ed Sullivan, a columnist for the New York Evening Mail in 1922, saw a more remote, dispassionate quality in Wills, and nicknamed her Little Poker Face.
Coverage of Lenglen was more flamboyant. La Grande Suzanne was a national treasure in France, where her name was invoked with the same fervor as Joan of Arc's. But she was no porcelain-cheeked beauty. "Her face was homely in repose," the Paris Herald's Al Laney wrote in a later book, "with a long crooked nose, irregular teeth, sallow complexion, and eyes that were so neutral that their color could hardly be determined. It was a face on which hardly anything was right. And yet, in a drawing room this homely girl could dominate everything...." Lenglen wore ermine and partied on champagne, she traveled by chauffeured limo and private rail car, and she knew everyone who ever wrote a memoir about the Lost Generation. She was also a bit of a mess, a baseline Zelda Fitzgerald who succumbed routinely to fits of depression and hysteria.
"Wouldn't you tell me about some of your widely discussed love affairs, Mademoiselle Lenglen?" asked one impertinent reporter.
"Oh! Mais c'est indiscret!"