Helen of California

Challenge: Combine the two portraits below of Helen Wills as classic beauty and Helen Wills as tennis player into a single portrait. Recommendation: Skip this challenge.

Helen Wills as Classic Beauty: Four Male Perspectives

  1. Charlie Chaplin on the most beautiful thing in the world: “the movement of Helen Wills playing tennis: it had grace and economy of action as well as a healthy appeal to sex.”
  2. Diego Rivera paints Helen Wills’ face 30 feet high as a symbol of California, Helen’s face looming over California like Nefertiti’s looms over Egypt.
  3. John Berryman sings: Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so. I ballboyed for Helen Wills MoodyOnly the fact of her husband & four other people kept me from springing on her.*
  4. How much is Haig Patigian’s sculpted likeness of Helen of California like
    A) Helen of Troy the face that launched a thousand ships
    B) Helen as upper-class American girl painting and writing in the 1920s and 30s
    C) Helen as Venus de Milo: cool, classical as the sailors gather round

Helen Wills as Tennis Player: Her Place in Tennis History

5. Her records that lasted half a century until Margaret Court and Martina Navratilova came along: 19 Grand Slams singles titles, 8 at Wimbledon. Helen Wills, as a contemporary put it, hit so hard “she either broke your confidence or broke your arm.”

6. Don Budge, the first winner of the calendar grand slam, in his search for tennis perfection: “Whenever I heard Helen Wills would be practicing at the Berkeley Tennis Club, I rode up there on my bicycle and watched her hit topspin shots of both forehand and backhand.”

7. What Helen Wills has in common with Gottfried von Cramm. She lost one of the two most celebrated tennis matches in history prior to WWII, her one match with Suzanne Lenglen.

8. How many in Helen Wills’ position would have accepted the challenge she turned down to play Ora Washington, the eight-time champion of the American Tennis Association for black tennis players? Anyone?

9. Her one record that may never be broken: more wins and close losses to highly ranked male players than any female in tennis history. One year she took a set off the reigning men’s Wimbledon champion in an exhibition match.

 Too much mansplainin’ femsplainin’ tennishistorysplainin’ to do . . .

*In the poetry of John Berryman above, I have taken the liberty of putting together lines from three different poems.

About the de Young Museum: Housing one of the most varied and interesting collections among world museums, the de Young was my favorite place to visit while growing up in San Jose, California. For more information, you can visit their website: de Young Museum, San Francisco.

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