Tennis Champion with a Mystery
Today professional athletes—and particularly tennis players—are well known from social media and for their off-court activities. However, before World War II when tennis players often remained obscure except for a few fans of the game, there was one whose accomplishments off the court benefited not just tennis but her entire culture. This was Alice Marble whose life, both on the court and off, was public yet often mysterious.
Born in September, 1913 in California, from childhood Alice was a skilled athlete. She played several sports in high school but when her brother suggested she play tennis, she quickly mastered the game. One place where she polished her skills was on the municipal courts in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. In fact a later sportswriter reviewed Alice’s career and remarked that her first playing in that location served as a “rough-and-ready apprenticeship [that] stood her in good stead when she came to meet more artificially trained players.”
At the time tennis players were all amateurs, since it was the sport of upper class people who had independent incomes, those who didn’t have to work for a living. As one source put it: “Alice didn’t fit that description in any way, but her hardscrabble beginnings served her well, when she started moving up in the rankings.”
Over the next few years Alice entered more advanced competitions, winning a national singles title in 1936, followed by other singles, doubles or mixed doubles tournaments. She competed at the British tennis competition in 1939 at Wimbledon and then placed among the top ranking American tennis players. During this period she was in the world tennis top 10 rankings. She was also Associate Press Athlete of the Year in 1939 and 1940.
When she finally turned professional in 1940 she went on to earn more than $100,000 playing in exhibition matches.
Before World War II Alice was called by one source as “The foremost tennis player in the U.S….” and in fact, a Wimbledon Tennis museum publication had some interesting things to say about her: “Women’s tennis can be put into two eras,” they wrote, “Before Alice Marble and after. She created the women’s game in its aggressive, modern style.”
Called by some “Alice Marvel,” and the “Garbo of Tennis Courts,” Alice’s blonde beauty brought attention and so did her attire. She caught attention (and also criticism) when she played in shorts, not the longer skirts that were up till then the standard for women players. One reporter wrote: “Miss Marble looks lovely even when she has just come off the court.” And another wrote, “Few girls can do that. On the court itself you see how beautifully built she is. She walks like a prizefighter.”
As she retired, Alice began a new area of her life as she served briefly on the editorial advisory board of the DC Comics company, known for their publishing the adventures of Superman, Batman and others. Alice was credited by one source as an associate editor on the Wonder Woman characters. She also was credited with the creation of the Wonder Women of History comic feature which related the accomplishments of major female historical features.
Alice herself related in her posthumously published autobiography one particularly mysterious adventure. She wrote that in the 1940s she had married a pilot named Joe Crowley who was then killed in action in Germany. However, a few days before his death, Alice was in an auto accident, followed by a miscarriage. This led to a suicide attempt, and then in 1945 after she recovered she began to work with U.S. intelligence as a spy. One early mission in this new role had her trying to reconnect with a Swiss banker with whom she had once had a relationship. Her task was to acquire some Nazi financial information. It all ended when an enemy agent shot her as she attempted to escape. She recovered from her injury. However later when researchers sought verification for this incident—at that time they could find little or none—that’s part of the mystery that surrounded Alice Marble.
Yet there was one identifiable accomplishment that enabled Marble to contribute to new opportunities for her fellow tennis players. At the time Black players—no matter their skill—were usually banned from competitions often because of restrictive policies often on a local level.
This began to change as Alice Marble contributed an editorial to a major tennis magazine in 1950 to support up and coming tennis player Althea Gibson. She wrote: “Miss Gibson is over a very cunningly wrought barrel, and I can only hope to loosen a few of its staves with one lone opinion. If tennis is a games for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentle-people and less like sanctimonious hypocrites…If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts.” The letter led to policy changes and Miss Gibson played in the 1950 U.S. Championships, becoming the first Black player to take part in such a tournament.
Marble was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1964. She settled in Palm Desert California, and continued to teach tennis until she passed away in Palm Springs in December, 1990. However, her inspiration and talent continued in many of her students, one of whom was tennis great Billie Jean King.
A recent biographer described how as he had carefully researched Alice’s life. He commented: “…I have crisscrossed the United States and scoured international archives in an attempt to chip away at the mystery of Alice’s contradictions, how such a public life could remain so shrouded in shadow.” He added: “At the end of the detective work remained a unique, pioneering, fascinating woman, which I suppose I knew was the case even before I went digging around into her life. Alice Marble may be mysterious, but she doesn’t disappoint.”
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.