Greatness has a shelf life.
The woman the nurses at Summerville Senior Living call Miss Addie says she hasn’t played tennis in at least a year. And the onset of Parkinson’s disease has her doubting if she’ll play again. Ever.
“My balance isn’t right,” she says, with an embarrassed giggle.
So tennis is now just something to watch. And in her room at the end of the hall on the second floor of the Potomac assisted-living home, she’s been watching quite a lot of the game lately. Wimbledon’s on. Once upon a time, she played in the world’s oldest and grandest tennis tournament. And she won it.
Yes, back when Miss Addie was known as Pauline Betz (she married Washington Post sportswriter Bob Addie in 1949), she was the best women’s tennis player on the planet. She left her native Los Angeles in the late ’30s to play tennis at Rollins College, in central Florida, on the men’s team. Jack Kramer, soon to become the top male player on the planet, was the team’s captain.
Between 1941 and 1946, she won six Grand Slam titles and made the singles finals of the U.S. Open every year. Only one other woman, Chris Evert, has made six consecutive finals in the history of the event.
There is no Wimbledon plate or any other sort of Grand Slam bauble in Addie’s room these days. Some vintage photographs of her in action are the only hints of her incredible tennis legacy.
That legacy would have been even sturdier had history and tennis’s powers that be not conspired against her. Her peak years came during World War II, when Wimbledon, the French Open, and the Australian Open weren’t held. The first and only time she played Wimbledon came in 1946. Performing before the queen mother, she didn’t lose a set on her way to the championship. Before the U.S. Open in September of that year, Time magazine put her on the cover and called her “the first lady of tennis.” She won that tournament, too. Gossip columnists tracked her every move from New York to Hollywood to Monte Carlo and had her hanging around with such suave sophisticates as William “the Thin Man” Powell and hitting tennis balls with matinee idol Robert Taylor.
But in April 1947, when she was 27 and the top-ranked player in the world, she was declared ineligible to compete in Grand Slam tournaments by the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA), the sport’s top sanctioning body in this country.
“They accused me of ‘negotiating to turn pro,’” says Addie, who turns 86 next month.
This year’s women’s singles champ at Wimbledon will get about $1.1 million in prize money; tens of millions more in endorsements typically go to the winner. But until 1968, Grand Slam tennis was, like the Olympics, only for amateurs. A chance for renown was enough to get the greatest players in the game to show up each year at Wimbledon and Forest Hills and Stade Roland-Garros to play for free before tens of thousands of paying customers and, when technology came around, a global television audience. (Addie says Bobby Riggs earned a good living as an amateur by betting heavily on himself at major tournaments and then winning them.)
But in early 1947, Elwood Cooke, the husband of Sarah Palfrey Cooke, a two-time U.S. Open champ, began contacting tennis clubs saying he planned to stage a series of exhibition matches pitting his wife against Addie. In his pitch letter, Elwood Cooke said Addie “was considered one of the greatest players of all times,” and to get her and Sarah Palfrey Cooke’s services, clubs would only have to pay “$350 for a week day, and $500 for a Saturday, Sunday or holiday.” When USLTA officials learned of the letter, they suspended the two women without even interviewing them.
“I had turned [Elwood Cooke] down because it wasn’t enough money, but I got suspended anyway,” says Addie. “They wanted total control of us. I remember that even after I’d already won the nationals I was still working as a waitress. That’s just the way things were. I really didn’t realize I was being exploited until [the suspension].”
In his 1979 autobiography, Kramer called the USLTA’s treatment of Addie “the closest thing to what the Olympic committee did to Jim Thorpe.”
After getting the boot, there was no professional women’s circuit she could jump on. She did end up doing a brief tour of exhibition matches with Sarah Palfrey Cooke in 1947, but Addie killed the tour by trouncing her rival every match. Promoters of oddball athletic extravaganzas brought her along on barnstorming tours to take advantage of her name recognition, though not her tennis talents.
“I remember on one they had me playing table tennis and going on right after a guy who split wood with an ax,” she says.
She moved to D.C. after marrying Bob Addie, whom she met at a sports hangout after playing in New York. In 1950, Kramer and Riggs brought her back into competitive tennis by putting together a tour matching her against Gertrude “Gorgeous Gussie” Moran. Moran was the Anna Kournikova of her day, a decent-enough player who was marketed as a sex kitten after appearing at Wimbledon in an outfit that revealed her lace panties. That tour suffered when Moran failed to live up to billing in either the lingerie or tennis department.
“Seldom flashing the form or the lace panties which brought her international acclaim from connoisseurs of tennis and lingerie, Miss Gussie Moran was beaten again last night by Mrs. Pauline Betz Addie,” wrote the legendary Mo Siegel in the Post after the 6-1, 6-2 trouncing that took place at Uline Arena in October 1950. (Siegel complained that Moran was sporting not the delicates he’d expected but “modest little white numbers.”)
Right after the D.C. whupping, Addie says, Kramer and Riggs came to her and made it clear that her competitive spirit had the tour on the verge of bankruptcy.
She got their point.
“I wasn’t about to let them cancel the tour. So let’s just say Gussie Moran got better all of a sudden, and the tour continued,” she says with a laugh. She adds, “I studied economics in college.”
The tour with Moran was Addie’s last brush with competitive tennis. While raising five children in Bethesda, she started tennis camps at Sidwell Friends School and Edgemoor Country Club and kept them going for decades. Bob Addie died in 1982.
Her celebrity around D.C. has been reduced to next to nothing as the years have passed. Addie’s name is alongside other athletic heroes from the area in RFK Stadium’s Hall of Stars. But since the Washington Nationals came to town, the hall has been reduced to a sort of bedsheet that hangs in the right-field corner. An informal poll of attendees of a recent Nationals game suggests that very few locals have any idea that a Wimbledon winner lives among them. That’s apparently OK with Addie.
“Because she is my mother and because of everything she accomplished, I’ve thought a lot about celebrity, about the fleeting nature of our accomplishments,” says daughter Kim Addonizio, a poet now living in the Bay Area. “I even asked her not long ago what it was like to be famous—to be on the cover of Time! And she told me she’s really glad she wasn’t more famous, because she thinks it would have been too difficult to come down from that. I thought that was a very grounded answer.”
Rusty Addie, Pauline’s son, says he finds himself thinking about his mother’s athletic greatness at odd moments, usually when he’s in huge crowds or traffic jams that make him realize “how many people there are in the world.”
Rusty has sort of followed in the family way. He’s teaching this summer at a tennis camp at St. Albans School. He brings up his ancestral greatness to the young campers only at those moments when he thinks he needs to “add weight” to a particular lesson on, say, service form or racket grip.
“Sometimes,” he says, “I’ll show them something and say, ‘This is how my mom did it. She won Wimbledon.’”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photography by Charles Steck.