Unpleasant Intrusions Loom but Not Just Yet
The late 1960s are better remembered than the middle of that decade because turmoil resonates more than simmering transition, albeit a transition that was fast coming to a boil.
Before the mid 1960s, boys who were viewed to be well educated, thanks to time spent at a handful of New England boarding schools and four years at Harvard, Yale or Princeton, where they would have joined the social or eating clubs of their fathers and grandfathers, could expect to slide gracefully into the upper reaches of law and finance.
From the late 1960s onward, that would all change thanks to the “meritocratization” of college admissions and social unrest relating to the Civil Rights Movement and the War in Vietnam.
It was an interesting time to be at college as it had a certain fin-de-siecle atmosphere, though it would be some decades before I would know the meaning of that phrase.
In September 1964, I drove a blue Volkswagen Beetle filled with all my stuff from New York to Harvard to begin my freshman year. Come to think of it, I have no recollection of a tennis bat in the grab bag of whatever. There was probably a clock radio but no elaborate music system. There were assuredly no parents with large, heavily loaded vehicles nor enclosed trailers.
Those were simpler times.
I had never heard of the “three S’s” — social life, sports and studies — that are now staples of college advising, perhaps because nobody thought to say those words in the context of choices as to the spending of time at college in the mid-60s.
Studies would surely have finished a distant last. My father’s parting advice was never to go above the second floor of a house in Boston because crazy relatives were often housed on the third.
Sports at college were supposed to begin with hockey for reasons of family tradition, but mine began with soccer thanks to an early head start while at school in Europe. That advantage had carried me through boarding school and would do the same freshman year, but it then faded at the varsity level. I did not play senior year and was assuredly not missed.
Hockey began late because of the overlap in the two seasons. By the time I appeared, the others had been playing for several weeks. Harvard had had an uncharacteristically bad run for several years and they decided to end that blemish on their long tradition.
My class of hockey players did not appear at random. I would end up rooming with them but not playing with them. On the freshman team, they sat on the front bench while I sat on the back one in a distant corner. They went on to the varsity while I went to the JV.
Clearly those were not to be the pathways to sports success, at least not in that transitional era. Court tennis it would have to be, and there was no such thing at Harvard.
Harvard had actually had a court tennis court, but it had been converted to something else. I would not even learn of it until four decades later. It had been built as an amenity in one of the residential houses that were, at the time, privately owned, but those entrepreneurial ventures were acquired or replaced by the university during the 1930s. No more need to make one house more attractive to students than another.
The Tennis & Racquet Club in Boston was among the institutions that looked backward and, during that period, was in a state of genteel WASP decline.
The club had been designed in the style of Louis XVI in the early 1900s by J. Harleston Parker, who had been instructed to spare no expense. Joseph Bickley was “brought over” from England to work his magic on the court tennis and racquets courts.
At the time it was built, the club was convenient to Boston’s residential areas and amenities like the Boston Symphony Orchestra rather than to the downtown business district some miles away. From the end of World War II, however, Bostonians like many other Americans were moving to the suburbs and taking the club’s logical source of members elsewhere.
There was a huge office building across the street built by the Prudential Insurance Company, but its army of clerical workers did not provide a reliable supply of members. That reliable supply was working increasingly hard in downtown Boston or living in the distant suburbs.
During his lifetime tennis Odyssey, Australian George Limb visited the Tennis & Racquet Club in 1965, and observed that it was “very little used.”
The building is four or five stories high and the court tennis, racquets and squash courts are on the top floor. Below that was a dressing room and below that was a floor that included a dining room, a bar and what was called a morning room.
The morning room idea was new to me, but it was — after all — Boston. While it was fully furnished, even to the eyes of an 18-year-old, it needed a good spiffing up. There was a long wide table down the middle of the room that must once have included an array of magazines and newspapers to be perused by the gentleman who gathered there. Lonely copies of the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald drew attention to advanced stages of declining fortune.
The most memorable room at the T&R was a delightfully dark bar that was quite small. A traditional bar rail in one corner with a big personality behind it flanked by shelves of bottles.
At the time, the club’s board of governors would learn of the parlous state of the club’s finances at a raucous Christmas dinner and solve the problem by passing the hat.
As with the Harvard hockey and soccer teams, those who would have been present by tradition were being replaced by those who earned their way there based on skills, but at the T&R in the mid-60s, they weren’t being replaced yet.
A decade or so later, Devens Hamlen, a real estate person who had been the club’s court tennis champion 5 consecutive times and racquets champion 4 consecutive times, as well as the club’s president, bought the building and repurposed the unused space for commercial use while keeping the courts and a bar, though not the same one.
The genteel decline was arrested with the help of Henry Wheelwright, a benefactor, Bill Minot, a skilled lawn tennis player, Dick Brickley and Oakley Brooks, who first played court tennis in Boston while at Harvard after a black-tie dinner when the attendees took off their shoes and jackets and flailed about, fortunately without injury. The experience made a sufficient impression for him to take the game up at Merton College Oxford and at Hampton Court during his post graduate years in England. It would be arrested yet again nearly 40 years later when the roof needed replacing. Jeremy Wintersteen and Suzy Schwartz led the effort with considerable charitable support from Dick Brickley (for a second time) and Temple Grassi. By then I was serving as Chairman of the United States Court Tennis Preservation Foundation, which helped with the charitable aspects of the project. It felt like sending a thank you note for the time I spent there.
Joe Crane, a product of the Jimmy Dunn Falls Road pipeline of American tennis pros, was the Head Professional and he was delighted to fill afternoon court hours with Harvard boys and older members who had successfully reduced most unpleasant intrusions on their time.
Alex Williams was a notable player of the period. He was novelist, John Marquand’s, editor at Little Brown, where it was alleged that he never used the men’s room. As the need arose, he would go to the Somerset Club on Beacon Hill.
As a player, Williams achieved a state of almost complete immobility, but his hand eye coordination made up for it. He described his serve as being like a war bond, because it paid dividends. Unsurprisingly, he favored doubles and would station himself at chase the last near the main wall.
Williams was also the music critic for the Boston Globe and once famously filed a review of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s regular Friday concert, even though the event had been canceled that day due to a snowstorm. He had heard the BSO do that program so many times that it seemed unnecessary, in light of the snow, to leave his house in Needham to hear it.
At any given time in my four years of college, there was an evolving cadre of about half a dozen people who had played court tennis sometime in their lives. To these, we added members of the squash team, who were far more skilled, both at playing and at avoiding the attention of their squash coach, who would have been appalled at the idea of his players doing anything other than what paid his salary.
Day to day from September through May with breaks for exams and vacations, we would go from Cambridge to Boston for an afternoon and evening in this fading fin-de-siecle world.
The traditional path for the Harvard boys who played court tennis in Boston was car, dressing room, court, dressing room, bar, car. I suspect time on the court exceeded time in the bar but not always and not by much.
The most curious aspect of playing at the Tennis & Racquet Club was that I never saw a bill nor talked to anyone about the topic. The club welcomed the Harvard boys at no charge other than for drinks. Not the slightest attention was paid to the 21-year-old drinking age that prevailed in Massachusetts. I suspect my father paid for mine, but I have no idea who paid for the other boys. There were never any food charges because the ample supply of biting orange cheddar cheese and Ritz Crackers was free.
Twins, Bobby and Billy Devens, were the older boys in my era. They were native Bostonians whose father, Charlie Devens, had pitched briefly and successfully for the New York Yankees. Billy was killed soon after in a car crash and Bobby went onto a career on Wall Street.
Gaines Gwathmey was from Tuxedo and had played as a boy. He would not continue in the game, but his brother Archie did and has since become one of its leaders. Tony Adams and Kim Prince, both of who had gone to St. Paul’s, had the misfortune of dying young or they too might have gone on to be leaders of the game. They certainly seemed to be enjoying it at the time. Louis Bailey and Dinny Adams were among the dragooned squash players.
Perhaps the most remarkable was Bob Bailey, another boy from Tuxedo who had played there. He had been in my class at St. Paul’s before taking a year off to work on Wall Street. He has appeared on these pages before as the Epidemiologist from Eberlin’s.
He would be elected President (they have a different name for it, but I am not allowed to know it) of the Porcellian Club and appeared headed for a Wall Street career that, in due course, would have permitted the avoidance of unpleasant intrusions on his time.
That was, of course, not what happened. No writer of any level of respectability would write that if it did.
Bailey went on to become a Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Illinois, Chicago, an adjunct professor at UIC’s Department of Anthropology, a research associate at Chicago’s Field Museum and a visiting lecturer at the University of Nairobi.
He has spent much time in central Africa, first studying primates, then pygmies and finally the link between the transmission of HIV/AIDs and the absence of circumcision. Reportedly, he was near to a MacArthur genius grant but for concerns about the delicacy of the subject matter in which he made such an important contribution.
But there was more to college court tennis than just the T&R.
Spring break in that era was far less than it is today. Some people might have gone to beaches for drinks and debauchery, but it was far less of a thing than it is now.
Instead, we would call ourselves the Harvard court tennis team and head for a Tuxedo Park where we would play against Yale, Princeton and sometimes the University of Pennsylvania. Harvard itself had not the smallest knowledge of any of this and would assuredly not have been supportive if they had.
In Tuxedo, we would spend a weekend or more, staying at the club, playing matches against the others, eating and drinking.
Presumably the teams from Yale and Princeton were assembled by court tennis playing fathers, who would gather their sons and friends for a few days of practice in New York before the tournament. Penn was easier thanks to the Racquet Club of Philadelphia, which provided similar hospitality to the college boys as did the T&R in Boston.
The USCTA, then just over a decade old, supported this activity and told us to sign all Tuxedo Club chits “USCTA.” This generally worked fine until we had signed too many bar chits and the acronym would be distorted in scatological ways not at all suited to a family publication.
Though eyebrows were lifted, this was not the cause of this intercollegiate event fading from view. The inability to avoid unpleasant intrusions on one’s life would spread from older Bostonians to college students.
Jimmy Van Alen would appear each year to watch over the event and make sure we followed the newly developed Van Alen Simplified Scoring System that would revolutionize lawn tennis by adding the tie breaker. His format was not as well suited to court tennis: first because the serve is earned and not shared; and, second because of the hazards and chases. Nonetheless, we were his guinea pigs.
Technically, the four years of tournaments in Tuxedo were not my first venture to that lovely club. My birthday is at the time of the Gold Racquet Championship in February, in which my father played every year. Being taken to Tuxedo was described as a birthday treat and it took many years — decades even — for me to realize that the trips had more to do with avoiding babysitters than birthdays.
Between matches I would scurry out onto the Racquets court and hit a few balls because that is what I saw my father do. I did however watch a memorable match involving Alastair Martin, an early sports hero, as he played through badly blistered feet that bled into his PF Keds sneakers, which were little more than ballet shoes with laces.
Boston and Tuxedo were courts two and three in the odyssey after Greentree. Courts four and five were at the Racquet & Tennis Club in New York.
My admission to membership there was unusual though perhaps not at the time.
My father had been given a life membership on his 21st birthday by his father and he had given a life membership to my older brother in 1963 but, by the time of my 21st birthday 1967, the club had made a wise financial decision that life memberships were too good a deal and abolished them.
This presented a quandary for my father who was, at the time, a member of the Board of Managers. His sense of fairness would not permit treating one son differently from the other though he supported the decision itself.
The solution was to end life memberships while putting one on ice until I became old enough. Hence, I am the youngest and probably the last life member there will ever be.
After college, there was a short gap in my court tennis life from 1968 to 1970, when I served in the Navy in Newport Rhode Island. The court there would not be restored for another decade or so.
The turmoil of the late 1960s made me think law school sounded like a pretty good idea and I was shoehorned into Fordham in New York City.
The three years there provided ample opportunities to play court tennis at the Racquet Club. Hence my exposure to both the East and West Courts was frequent and they became numbers four and five on my life list.
The professionals were a significant factor. At various times I took lessons from Pierre Etchebaster (World Champion 1928-1954), Jim Dear (World Champion 1955-1957) and Jack Johnson (World Champion 1957-1959).
Etchebaster’s playing and teaching styles were described in the Greentree story but, every now and again, he would find himself in want of funds and would announce his retirement. The club members would duly organize a dinner at which he would be presented with a handsome thank you check. Sure enough, the following Monday he would be back in the pro shop.
On one such occasion a member was changing into black-tie for the dinner and asked a friend if he was going.
The friend replied, “no, I’ll wait for the next one.”
Jim Dear had an analogy to boxing with hands kept close to the chest and dancing feet. He would also have you face the back wall when returning serve so your entire body could uncoil as you hit the ball.
When things are not going well in games today, I try to think about the dancing feet and facing the back wall. The boxing thing never really resonated.
A key lesson that still comes to mind often was not given by a professional. I was playing a match one evening and there was a single spectator sitting alone in the dedans.
My opponent and I changed ends and the spectator quietly observed that I was hitting the return of serve too wide, making it hit the side wall then the back wall and bounce right into the middle of the court. The better shot, he thought, was to hit the back wall before the sidewall and make the ball bounce away from the opponent. It is a rare match today, half a century later, that I do not think about the advice given that evening by Alastair Martin. He had challenged Etchebaster for the World Championship in both 1950 and 1952.
My law school studying took place in the beautiful library that I have come to believe is the heart and soul of the club.
Stretched student budgets were eased thanks to the ever present Wispride Cheese and Ritz Crackers, an endless supply of peanuts and 4:00 PM tea with English muffins and an especially piquant marmalade. Here it should be noted that the WASPy orange cheese of the T&R in Boston had been replaced by a WASPy yellow variety in New York. The effect was the same.
While I was at law school, I saw both World Championships between Pete and Jimmy Bostwick, two of the last four amateurs to hold the title. Pete won 7-1 in 1970 and Jimmy won 7-2 in 1972. I played hockey with both of them, but was never close to good enough to have hit a tennis ball with either of them. Northrup Knox, a New York amateur, had beaten Jack Johnson in 1959 and Ronald Hughes in 1966, before resigning in 1969. Howard Angus defeated Gene Scott twice in the 70s after Jimmy Bostwick resigned in 1975. His run would end in 1981 at the hands of Chris Ronaldson. No amateurs nor any New York member, for that matter, has held the title since.
It all came to an end in 1974 when I moved to Omaha, Nebraska to become a lawyer, who emphatically did not save the world as he might have thought.
Leaving New York was the beginning of a 20+ year diaspora that would see me playing but once or twice a year until the project to build Prince’s Court gathered momentum.
By the time I returned, the fin-de-siecle mid-60s were long over. It was no longer possible to avoid unpleasant intrusions on one’s time.