Tuesday, September 8, 2009
An American in Paris:
The Triumphs of Helen Wills in the 1924 Olympic Games
“Remember the good old days, about a year ago, when people wondered what this younger generation was coming to, and what, since parents and preachers and police had failed, would intervene to save it from perdition? The Olympic games are the answer to both questions. After Bolshevism, a newer sanity. After the flapper, Helen Wills and the welcome young American whom she typifies.”
The Newspaper Enterprise Association, 1924, on Helen Wills.
The first reports of sightings of the California prodigy were dismissed with guffaws and disbelief by sportswriters and fans alike along the east coast. All the claims were merely more grandiloquent gobbledygook about some new Girl of the Golden West. Yet another tall tale from the Golden State, they said. Like the gigantic pumpkins of Half Moon Bay or the Watermelon sized navel oranges the Salinas Valley. Surely, they suggested, what people were reported as seeing and saying out in California was shameless hyperbole – fabulist yarns intended to produce the Golden State luster and prestige and tourists. Yes, California produced exceptional athletes now and then. But why not? It was always summer out there. They could play a set outside whenever they wanted . But everyone knew that the true heart and soul of American tennis was on the East Coast where the grass court tournaments were played in the spring and summer. The crowning American tournament was the national amateur championships played on the grass at Forest Hills. Californians played their game on hard composition and concrete courts and occasionally (as in San Jose) on hard California clay. The footing on those courts was solid and as a consequence, they naturally learned to hit hard. The California game was a power game. But California players were seldom a match for the men and women who dominated the sport out East.
Still the western spectators and sportswriters insisted that in California there was a girl who played tennis better than anyone else in the world ever played the game. She was a big girl, muscular and tall and amazingly graceful and she struck the ball harder than any man who ever picked up a racquet. Moreover, she had movie-star good looks. There was no one else in the world like her. In fact, they added, there was no worthy female opposition for her any more in California. So she practiced only with men. She won every tournament she entered. Her winning ways were so predictable that audiences preferred to see her in exhibition matches against men rather than in mismatched and one-sided competitions against women.
She lost no matches, no sets, no games and, in some contests, no points. She raced around the court blasting back her shots without ever betraying an emotion. Journalists, who fell all over each other singing her praises, began calling her “Little Miss Pokerface.” Her real name was Helen Wills.
She was born in Alameda, California, on October 6, 1905, the only child of physician, Clarence Wills and his wife, Catherine. The Wills family moved to Berkeley soon after Helen’s was born. Dr. Wills taught Helen the fundamentals of tennis on the public courts at Live Oak Park near his home. Within a few weeks, Helen displayed an incredible natural talent for the game and was beating her father. He recruited other players in the park to rally with his daughter and, to just about everyone’s disbelief, Helen bested them all. Someone who’d watched this prodigy at Live Oak Park reported what he’d seen to Dr. William C. “Pop” Fuller, who ran the youth tennis program at the Berkeley Tennis Club. Fuller came to the park one afternoon to see the young woman for himself. Deeply impressed he spoke to Dr. Wills and arranged for Helen to be awarded a membership in the club. Each afternoon he stood on the opposite side of the net from Helen and threw balls for her to hit. He was not so much a teacher, Helen recalled, insisting that in fact she was self taught –as a sort of patient human ball machine. Fuller arranged partners and matches with other club players for Helen. Before long he entered her in competitions with other clubs in the area. Without much effort Helen won every competitive match and tournament in which she was entered. There was serious talk of entering her in the men’s division of local tournaments so she could face some real competition.
In 1921 Helen went out East for the first time and won the Girls National Tournament in Forest Hills. One year later she repeated as the Girls National Champion and won her way to the finals of the Women’s Competition at Forest Hills, where she was beaten by defending champion Molla “Iron Molla” Mallory, who had held the American women’s singles title since 1915.
Reporters were enthralled by her and mystified by her on-court demeanor. She showed no emotion. Some at first referred to her as “the Ice Queen.” She waged a cold war on the courts, they said, unsettling her opponents even before a match began by refused to look at them or exchange words with them. “I do not believe in encouraging my opponents,” she told one reporter,. “I want it understood that we are in a battle, not a social affair.” Another outstand female player, May Bundy, said something like that at two decades earlier when she reminded reporters, “Tennis not pink tea!”
Helen he returned to Forest Hills in 1923 to beat Mallory in straight sets in just 33 minutes to win the first of her seven national women’s titles. She was the first American-born champion, reporters pointed out, since 1919 when Mallory, a Norwegian immigrant, first won the American title. Helen was physically much larger when she played Mallory in 1923 –she had grown five inches since the previous summer and had added 25 pounds to her frame. She stood just over 5’7” tall and weighed 150 pounds. Those who watched her concluded her added weight was all muscle – she was even more powerful in making her strokes than in 1922. Her ground strokes were unforgiving on her opponents and they withered quickly Grantland Rice watched the match and wrote that Helen was “intensely serious, unemotional, stoical – not only for a girl of her age, but for a human being of any age.” As to her poker face, Rice wrote that Helen was not really masking her emotions because “she had no great emotions to mask. Her set, determined unsmiling face was a natural part of her being. She was attempting to suppress nothing – nothing but the enemy in front of her.” Helen posses, he concluded, a genuine “killer instinct” in playing tennis. The New York “World started calling Helen “The Girl of the Golden West and Paul Gallico referred to her merely as “Our Helen.”
When she was asked how she’d learned the game, Helen told reporters, “I have never had a professional lesson in my life, nor had any help from really good players, either…. I play every afternoon when at home in Berkeley. I love it. I have no theories of how to g about learning the game. I never have read any. And I don’ want any. Just play the game; play hard, for pleasure – and let the technique and variety of strokes take care of themselves. They come to you, I suppose, but they don’t really matter. The thing is to have a good time.”
The next spring she was named to the American women’s Olympic tennis team that was to compete that summer games in Paris.
No American tennis team competed at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp. The official reason given at that time was that it would be unfair for Americans to competed with players from nations that had been devastated by the First World War. The real reason, however, was that it was that the United States Lawn Tennis Association(USLTA) thought it was too expensive to send an American team abroad for such an unimportant competition.
Things changed in 1924. The USLTA asked tennis clubs and state tennis associations to raise money for an Olympic team by assessing their members a small amount and then forwarding the funds to the national office of the association in New York. The necessary funds were quickly provided. There was some disappointment when the two premier male players in the US -- Bill Tilden and Bill Johnston -- announced that they would not play on the team. Tilden refused to play because of a controversy with the USLTA over his amateur status and Johnston said he simply could not afford the time away from his job as an insurance salesman in San Francisco. The men’s team included Vincent Richards, Frank Hunter, Richard Norris Williams and Watson Washburn. Julian Myrick, president of the USLTA, was selected as the non-playing captain of the team.
Helen was named the number one player on the American women’s team. Molla Mallory, who had competed in the Olympic Games of 1908 and 1912 for her native Norway was again named to head the Norwegian team -- even though she was a naturalized American citizen. Hazel Wightman was chosen by the USLTA to serve as captain of the women’s team. The other players were Eleanor Goss, Edith Sigourney, Lilian Scharman and Marion Zinderstein Jessup.
Helen left for England in the spring of 1924 only one day after she completed her final exams at the University of California, where she was a freshman majoring in art. She was a member of the American Wightman Cup team that competed against the British and she had entered the All-England Club’s Wimbledon tournament in both singles and doubles.
She was lionized by the British press. A dispatch in the Evening Standard stated that "the first thing that strikes one about her is that not a single photograph that has been published in England does her striking beauty anything like justice. No lovelier or more striking girl has ever been seen on the historic courts here."
Helen continued to practice only against men and she defeated a top British club player and came within two points of defeating D. M. Grieg, who was ranked among the top 12 male players in Britain. Her blistering service aces were especially enthralling to the British newsmen, since very few women had ever been capable of winning points off a service.
But Helen’s performance on the Wightman Cup team was disappointing. A huge crowd turned out to see her go down to defeat twice against British women. In interviews after her matches, she offered no excuses. "I feel fine," she said. "The ball, racket and court did not bother me in the least. I did my best, but took a bad beating. There is no use worrying about the past, but I still have the greatest hopes for the future. I plan to take a good rest before Wimbledon and then hope to redeem myself." From California, Pop Fuller said of the loss, "You have to expect those things" and suggested that as soon as Helen made the necessary adjustments to playing on English grass she would win and keep winning.
A decade later, writing her autobiography, Helen attributed her losses to illness. She pointed out that she went abroad before the rest of the Wightman Cup team in order to get extra practice. She entered one tournament and then scratched at the last moment, opting for playing practice games rather than real competition. But then it rained for several days and prevented her from practicing at all. The rain was followed by extremely warm weather. The rest of the Wightman Cup team arrived and Helen practiced with Molla Mallory. "I felt later in the afternoon as if I had had a sunstroke," she wrote. "I had all night an intense headache and the feeling of a temperature. But I did not tell any one for fear they might not let me play in the matches which were the next day."
The only bright moment for the American team in the competition came in the victory by Wills and Wightman in the doubles.
In the Wimbledon tournament Helen easily played her way into the finals where she faced Englishwoman Kitty McKane. But she again disappointed her American fans and lost. It was to be Helen's only loss in singles in the nine times she competed at Wimbledon. Helen redeemed herself in the women's doubles when, partnered once again with Wightman, she won her first Wimbledon title.
The American Olympic tennis team crossed the English Channel together in early July. The water and the weather were rough and all of the members of the team became a little ill, with the exception of Wightman and Williams, "whom nothing ever bothered," Helen remembered. But Williams had experience in this sort of thing. He was a survivor of the Titanic disaster. Williams took photographs, though Helen remembered, "nobody wanted to be pictured in a state of momentary misery."
Helen was more relaxed in France than she had been in England and had no apprehension at all about her Olympic competition. "Perhaps it was because I found that being on the Olympic team was fun,' she explained later , "or it may have been the air of Paris."
Six decades later she said she could still remember the summer of 1924 "just as though it was yesterday." "You must remember," she told me, "it was not just my first Olympic Games. It was my first glimpse of Paris." And when she recorded her impression of Paris in her autobiography she described the city in 1924 in almost the same way that American newsmen had been describing her: "Perfection along with simple homeliness. Sophistication, and deep rooted common sense."
The actual site of the 1924 games was Colombes, a manufacturing district on the edge of Paris. Hazel Wightman recalled that "if they had hunted for an uglier place for the Olympic Games, it could not have been found." The approach to the site of the competitions was along factories, rough, cobbled streets, small depressing looking dwellings and dirty corner cafes. The stadium for the field and track sports was in the middle of a large open space, overgrown with weeds, and full of stickers that got into the players stockings.
The red clay and sand used to construct the tennis courts was still in little piles and pyramids around an empty field when the American team arrived. There was no place to practice. The weather, moreover, was oppressively hot. The tennis courts were finally constructed in a small depression in a field that seemed to hold the heat. No sooner had the courts been completed than the 10,000 meter race was run in 113 degree heat and several of the runners succumbed to the heat and "sun stricken, staggering, vomiting and fainting," dropped like dead men around the outside of the tennis courts where the sun was "furnace hot."
Helen was protected perfectly from the sun and the heat by her customary sun- visor and by her cotton middy blouse and long cotton skirt. Wightman noted that the large collar on the blouse protected Helen's shoulders and back from the heat of the sun. The other players the French women in particular dressed stylishly but wilted quickly in the heat. Helen, the schoolgirl, appeared to have a special dispensation and was always cool in her cotton school uniform.
Before the first matches were played, the American team almost withdrew from the competition. Myrick, President of the USLTA and captain of the men's team, surveyed the facilities provided the players and immediately threatened to withdraw his team unless "civilized facilities" such as running water and towels and a place to rest were provided for the players. During the initial matches there was no running water anywhere near the courts and the French provided bottled water for the competitors. There was no place for players to sit except in the bleacher seats. The tables that were supposed to be used by the press were given to the tennis players to sit on and the reporters worked under the stands or on the steps of the bleachers. The dressing room was nothing more than a large wooden shed with a tin roof and a shower that, when it worked, provided one sharp needle of cold water.
But none of this seemed to bother Helen. She was in heaven. She wandered around the Paris alone sightseeing, visiting the museums, walking along the boulevards, browsing in the bookshops and galleries, worrying not at all about the tennis competition or about any other events in the Games. She had fallen in love with Paris.
When the tennis courts were completed, Helen was amused by the distractions nearby. In he distance she watched wrestlers practicing on a platform and acrobats gyrating about on a framework of rods. "It was a Surrealist scene, and very funny. All the time, roars were coming out of the big stadium across the field, but about what we did not know. The captain of our Olympic team and our officials were very cross."
Helen watched the track competition one day in the stadium but didn't enjoy it. "Everyone appeared to be in a violent state of mind," she recalled. No one seemed pleased when a race was won, and pistols were being fired all the time. I couldn't see any Americans."
When the courts were completed, Helen played some practice matches on the hard clay and announced to American reporters that she was ready. She found that the heat and the bright sun dried and hardened the clay courts and made them more like the California hard courts. By the time the competitions began they were perfectly suited to her hard hitting game. "I am in good condition and playing as well as I ever did," she said. Then with characteristic modesty she added that "I can't say whether I will reach the finals or not. If it were possible to tell in advance it wouldn't be much fun for the others."
The stadium where the track and field events were held was adjacent to the tennis courts, and there was no knowing when a pistol would suddenly go off or a band would start playing a national anthem or a loud cheer or boo would go up.
The ball boys hid under the bleachers to escape from the heat and often times refused to come out and get a ball, forcing the players to do that work. The Eskimo Pie was introduced to Europeans during the games and throughout the competitions it was disconcerting to the players to hear the vendors crying out, "ES KEE MO, ES KEE MO!" One old female vendor went through the stands crying out,"Oranges, bananas, glaces" over and over again until Norris Williams asked her to stop.
The officiating was poor, at best. Several times only the umpire showed up for work and line judges had to be recruited from the crowd for some matches and in at least one important contest, when an Kitty McKane of England played against Didi Vlasto of France, the partisan crowd helped decide the line calls. But Helen would remembered only the pleasant moments of the 1924 games. "It was the best team I've ever been on in my life," she told me. "We had so much fun and it was so pleasant. And of course I was so very young then and young for my age, too. I enjoyed it. No, I loved it. I really loved it. It was my first glimpse of Paris my first time away from America.
Under a fiercely hot sun the competitions began on the morning of July 14th. The players were introduced to the audience by a little man with a very large megaphone who shouted "Allo! Allo!" to get the attention of the crowd. This got the Americans in the crowd to laugh and to greet each other around the stadium with a loud "Allo! Allo!" followed by a sophomoric laughter. When the little announcer introduced Helen he pronounced her name, "Meese Veeels"(When she married, she became" Mrs. Moody Veels" and her husband, Fred Moody became "Meester Moody Veels")
. Lilian Scharman was beaten in the first round by Lili d'Alvarez of Spain and Marion Jessup and Eleanor Goss lost in the doubles. Helen drew a bye in the singles and then faced a British opponent, Phyllis Satterthwaite. On the third day of the competition more Americans were put out of the race for the gold medals. Hunter was beaten by a Belgian. Eleanor Goss won on a default when her opponent did not appear to play on time, but she was beaten in the next round by Didi Vlasto. Helen beat Satterthwaite. The press reported that Helen looked spectacular in her victories and that her play was now "quicker, cleaner and more finished than it had been at Wimbledon.
On the fourth day of the competition Helen gave her most spectacular showing yet, beating Molla Mallory 6 3, 6 3. Molla took a 2 1 lead in the second set, but that was the only time she threatened to take the match. It seemed, some spectators noticed, that Helen was just practicing, experimenting and testing new strokes and tactics against Molla, getting ready for her next match against her Wimbledon nemesis, McKane. That was why Helen gave up the three games, most on unforced errors. While Molla stayed along the baseline, Helen proved adventurous and followed her shots to the net, a dangerous and often foolhardy tactic on clay, but she was determined to force the play and at the same time she amazed the audience and became their favorite for her apparent daring tactics.
McKane in the other half of the draw beat Marion Jessup, 6 2, 6 0 on day four but on the next day was surprised by Vlasto and the extremely hostile French crowd and was beaten in a strange see saw match, 0 6, 7 5, 6 1. When there was disagreement over a call in the second set, members of the audience loudly threatened the life of the linesman. The match was held up again and again by the shouting and disagreement. This so frustrated McKane that she lost her concentration and her rhythm and blew the match after being far ahead. In the semi final round Helen defeated Mrs. Golding of France, 6 2, 6 1.
In the doubles Wills and Wightman had no difficulty and won the their way through the competition easily and beat McKane and Covell in the final on July 19th for the gold medal. Mrs. Wightman, again directed Helen on the court with "Run Helen " and "Yours", as she had at Wimbledon, and the cries now became a humorous historic idiom for the French spectators.
The singles final between Wills and Vlasto was unusual right from the start. The French gatekeepers at the courts had been rude as only the French could be and had time and again refused entry to anyone without proper credentials. Sometimes, when competitors sought entry to the courts to play, and had left their proper identification in the dressing room, they were kept out, even when it was obvious to all who they were. Henri Cochet, the French champion, was kept from his match in the finals when he forgot his pass. He was sent like a child back to his dressing room to retrieve his pass while the crowd and his opponent, Vincent Richards, waited impatiently. When he finally returned with the pass, the gatekeeper let him pass but did not apologize for the intrusion. Cochet lost his match.
Didi Vlasto, 1924
Then Vlasto forgot her pass, too, and her entry was delayed. The day was very hot, Helen recalled, and she was ready to play but her opponent never showed up. Under the hot sun the crowd grew impatient. President Domergue of France was seated in the gallery along with Suzanne. People began to stamp their feet and shout out protests and questions. But the gate keeper would not let Vlasto into the stadium. She argued for several minutes with the him and finally forced her way past him, but then when the two players walked onto the court they were greeted at first with boos and with hisses.
Didi Vlasto, 1924.
Didi Vlasto, 1924.
Didi Vlasto with Suzanne Lenglen, 1926.
At that point a contingent of University of California students, some of them members of the US track team, stood up and gave a UC cheer for Helen that began "OSKI WOW WOW." Wills understood it as an encouraging American cheer. But Vlasto, who spoke little English and had no acquaintance with American college customs, didn't know what to make of it. And she started the match still wondering what strange spell part of this audience was trying to cast on her with their arcane chant.
Whatever it was, it seemed to work. Vlasto was one of the last female players to use an underhanded service in international competition, so it was not difficult for Helen to beat Her. Helen fed high bounding balls to her backhand, heavily topped, so she was drawn far off the court and had to make an awkward high backhanded stroke to hit them. Helen followed this again and again with a hard forehand winner. Part of the crowd began to boo this tactic. They seemed to think Helen was unfairly taking advantage of Vlasto's weaknesses and wanted Helen to play to her opponent's strength. Helen was actually intimidated by this a couple of times and hit to Vlasto's forehand and then came to the net when she shouldn't have and was passed. Then she decided to beat Vlasto from the backcourt with ground strokes. At one point in the match Helen received a line call that much of the crowd thought she should not have been given. The match was interrupted with prolonged booing again. Helen, newsmen thought, purposely gave away the next point, to the absolute delight of the French crowd. But then she served two quick service aces, much to the consternation of the pro French gallery. Vlasto's misery did not last long and Helen won quickly, 6 2, 6 2.
The American fans at the match had their own victory cheer for Helen, too. And when she and was shaking hands with Vlasto after the match, many of them stood together in a section of the bleachers and shouted out:
"Allo! Allo! Allo!
Es Kee Moe!
Colombe, Colombe, Colombe!
Helen remained placid and pokerfaced through the play and betrayed emotion only when it was all over and she approached the net to shake hands with her opponent.
Helen Wills with Didi Vlasto before their 1924 match in Paris.
Helen Wills 1926.
Helen Wills and her doubles partner Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman, 1924.
Vincent Richards beat Henry Cochet in the men's singles and Richards and Hunter won the men's doubles. Norris Williams and Wightman won the mixed doubles for an American sweep.
Helen's performance in the Games were noted in the press and especially in the California press. The American success in the games produced a good deal of bad will abroad. An American spectator was beaten by a Frenchman in the crowd for cheering too loudly. The British press in particular demonstrated a distaste for the American athletes, who, it was pointed out, put too much emphasis on winning. "There is something unhealthy in the organization of amateur athletics in America today we are profoundly convinced," one British journalist wrote. "There is too much zeal for winning, too much record breaking, too much top heavy permanent overhead organization, too obvious an emphasis on the technical minutae of strictly defined amateurism and too little feeling for the meaning of the sport." In the gallery there was often disorder and disagreement and the London Times said that "miscellaneous turbulence, shameful disorder, storms of abuse, fist fights and the drowning of national anthems of friendly nations by shouting and booing are not conducive to an atmosphere of Olympic calm. The peace of the world is too precious to justify any risk, however wild the idea may seem, of its being sacrificed on the alter of international sport."
The behavior of some American athletes was far less than sporting. Especially disturbing was the plan of the American runners in the 100 meter dash, led by Charlie Paddock, to make false starts in order to confuse and tire Englishman Harold Abrahams and to produce an American victory. The plan went awry and Abrahams won.
Following the competition, Helen alone among the large American contingent at the games, was praised by the American press and the American public. For the first time the young Berkeley player was on the front pages of many newspapers. The whole world began to take notice. She had star quality but at the same time she was an innocent and fresh and decent young woman of modesty and humility and simple taste and dress a schoolgirl champion discovered on the public courts of California, self trained, determined, strong, level headed, pretty, generous in victory and defeat, an American ideal, a democratic icon. Not many writers had believed that a woman like this existed anywhere anymore. And certainly none expected such a young woman to have such extraordinary skills in athletics.
After the competition Helen walked around Paris again looking in book shops and clothing stores. She used her scholarship money from the University of California to buy a fifteen pairs of evening slippers. "I suppose I was supposed to buy something intellectual," she told me. "But you should have seen them. Those slippers were exquisite and I loved them."
During her shopping spree Helen lost all sense of time. She was out on the streets when the American team prepared to leave by train. When her mother finally found her, after a frantic search, and told her she must hurry, Helen remembered "a most curious feeling of happy indifference came over me." And as her taxi raced toward the station, Helen said "I hoped we would miss the train." But they did not. They arrived just as the train was about to leave. The team members were leaning out the windows watched her dash down the platform. Myrick later presented Helen with a watch, engraved to commemorate the event and to remind her in the future to be on time.
Until she arrived in New York aboard the Aquitania with the rest of the Olympic tennis team, Helen was not yet aware of how she had been transformed into a media star by the American press. And so she was surprised when a small army of reporters and photographers the New York Times referred to them as "a veritable horde" stormed aboard the ship as soon as it docked. They were accompanied by an equally large crowd of "utter strangers" who simply wanted to see the woman they had been reading about throughout the summer. The Times correspondent found in her something that the American press and the American public was to celebrate and about Helen for the next decade. He found that "she looks a bit older. She is of the athletic build and broad shoulders and her face, too, is broad with a rather wide mouth and excellent teeth and lips which bespeak vitality and energy, and teeth a perfect set of teeth which indicate determination, firmness. She is perhaps as perfect a specimen of the outdoor girl of twenty two or thereabouts as this country can produce."
And when the reporters questioned her only her, among the athletes on board the ship they eventually pulled her aside and continued shouting questions at her and she confessed that this had never happened before and that "this sort of things upsets me."
Was there something about the trip, she was asked, that impressed her especially? "No," she answered. "Nothing especially. It was all wonderful."
In answering the remaining questions Helen continued to use the word "wonderful." Europe had been wonderful. London was wonderful. The Olympic Games and Paris were wonderful. Everyone and everything was wonderful. The world was a wonderful place. It would be wonderful to get back home. But first she would defend her national titles. Wonderful.
During the interview session that followed, the newsmen discovered that all of those wonderful stories about her filed from England and France were in fact true. And one of them wrote that she was still just, "a shy, modest, schoolgirl, although international laurels rest now upon her brow."
They found that when she described her accomplishments and her titles, she was not like the other athletic champions or stars or celebrities or politicians. The Times correspondent observed that she described her European adventure "in a detached manner, as if she had lived through a world of dreams and seen those dreams come true and was still aghast at the fulfillment of her dreams, still wondering how it was that to her, of all persons, had come a fulfillment so complete, so almost overwhelming."
The gentlemen of the press were seduced by something like admiration and affection for the young woman as they watched and questioned. On board the ship she stood with some of the other Olympic athletes but nobody had any questions for them and nobody took their picture. This was The Helen Wills Show. She "stood quiescent a figure trying to shrink into the obscurity of kindred spirits. Unobtrusively dressed and clearly of a retiring disposition, the young champion was hardly discernible in the midst of those to whom other glories in other fields of athletic endeavor had come." The only thing that set her apart from all of the other Olympic athletes was her simplicity and her humility and her magic and her two medals.
To Californians she was primarily a "California girl" and a "Girl of the Golden West." But to the New York Times and the rest of the country she was being transformed slowly what would be termed "the American Girl."
Following her triumphant return to the United States Helen succeeded in successfully defending her national singles title and then she won both the national doubles and mixed doubles title for a triple crown.
When she arrived in California a large crowd greeted her at the Berkeley train station. Newsmen found her to be still "the shy sweet school girl" to who had departed four months earlier. She reminded reporters that she had gone to Europe not for herself, "but for the people of this country who sent me and who had so much faith in me." Her head had not been turned at all by the attention and praise she had received abroad. She was still the same unaffected Helen with "no frills and no furbelows." She was greeted officially by Mayor Frank Stringham of Berkeley, the head of the Chamber of Commerce, various representatives from the state tennis association and a large and noisy contingent of Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority sisters. There was no band, but there was a parade of cars with honking horns.
When Helen was told that a special collection had been taken up to buy her a new car as a sign of the city's appreciation for her, she said it was too good to be true. "It is awfully good of them, but I do not deserve it," she said. "Everybody has done so much for me now that I do not think I should be given anything more."
A week later after playing an exhibition at the Berkeley Tennis Club Helen was presented with a new Buick. "Why an automobile?" someone at the ceremony asked? "Because it is something she can keep and remember," he was told. And there was no question at all that this might compromise her amateur status. She was given the automobile not for her tennis, it was said, but for her fine representation of California.
One of the things that interested the press and the public more and more about Helen following her return from Europe in 1924 was the fact that she appeared to be such a spectacular anachronism. In an age of flappers and flasks, Helen was something of a sweet old fashioned girl. In an age of flaming youth, she was an ice queen. And yet, ironically, there was nothing about her that seemed awkwardly out of style. She appeared to completely comfortable with herself and with her dress and with her values. When asked about jazz, on her return from Europe, Helen said, "Oh I can't say anything at all about jazz, because, you see, I've never jazzed around at all." She answered the question without apologizing, in a straightforward way, the reporter noted, as though it was the most ordinary statement in the world for a typical college sophomore to make. But it wasn't ordinary at all. It was, in fact, quite extraordinary. Young women like this didn't often make the news. Young women like this didn't often attract public attention. Young women like this weren't supposed to exist anymore in the roaring 20's. Yet here she was. There was something solid about her, like a principle, something that transcended the style of the moment or the latest rage. There was almost something timeless about her, something classic. But one thing was sure, above all else, she was a singular young woman. The press and public could recall no one like her and they never could have predicted her appearance.
Helen was celebrated by the press and the public more and more as "a model of the ideal maiden to be evolved out of the flapper." The contrast between Helen and the typical flapper was dramatic. One columnist listed the differences and pointed out that Helen had:
No bobbed hair
No beaded eyelashes
What she did have was
By her victories and her behavior, Helen proved herself to be more than an athletic champion, he wrote. She proved "the clean cut superiority of the new American girl."
"You can't flap and be an Olympic champ," another reporter pointed out. "And while not every girl aspires to be an Olympic champion, yet every girl knows that the Olympic Games stand for the highest all round development of the topnotch ideal of young womanhood today."
"The Olympics have done more to put the flapper into discard than all the sermons preached against her. A new type is on the horizon and the new type is the sort which Helen Wills personifies." Naturally, the writer pointed out, Helen would not admit this because of her modesty.
"Take one look at Miss Wills," a writer for the Newspaper Enterprise Association suggested, "easily balanced in the midst of a volleying drive, every muscle on the alert, her face flushed with exercise and abounding health, her clean limbed figure as lithe as a panther's, but without anything sinister in her makeup. Then take a look at the typical flapper, with her cocktail, her cigarette, her boyish haircut and her killing walk. And then choose."
Well, there just wasn't any question which one would be chosen, of course. Helen was to "the average flapper what the Wings of the Morning are to the grasshopper. And it's the girls of the Helen Wills type that young Miss America is taking today as her pattern."
And the pattern was a striking one. "Her broad face is saved from plainness by the splendid color with which it is always flushed," another reporter described her, "and by the big, clear, bright blue eyes. Her firm red lips do not look as though a cigarette had ever touched them." When she was asked about the youth of the day Helen said, "I hadn't thought about them very much. It was a perfectly splendid crowd of young people that went over to the Olympics; congenial and fine and full of good sportsmanship, especially tennis players."
Helen did not appear to worry about what others thought of her or about her destiny or about the destiny of her generation. The criticism or praise of others, she pointed out, just sort of rolled off her back.
"She spends her days in study and athletics, and in the endeavor to make something of herself in one or the other of these lines," another writer found. And she did not try to make herself conspicuous. She wore her hair, which was bronzed by the sun and thick in braids wound neatly around her head and "done up so carefully that even in the most violent tennis match no strand of it flies loose."
Yet "this new American girl was not reverting to a mouse like timidity or the super ladylike seclusion of the good old days when hoopskirts were rife and no girl stirred abroad without a duenna." In fact, "Nothing could be more free than the new girl. In her knew length tennis skirt, battling for a championship, with a thousand spectators applauding her every move, the new Miss America is anything but a retiring and suppressed personage."
Another writer used a political allegory to describe the appearance of Helen, not as a sweet old fashioned girl, but as "the newer girl". What interested modern sociologists and psychologists, he suggested, was that between the flapper and the newer girl there was the same difference as between Bolshevik Russia and the French Republic. "Having gone through the Bolshevik stage, where she felt compelled to hurrah for her freedom till the welkin rang, to trample on tradition and generally make herself a large sized blot on the landscape, the modern girl has now acquired enough freedom so that she can afford to be dignified." Helen, the writer pointed out, was willing to sacrifice many things in order to improve her tennis game and keep it supreme. But her general attitude toward life was the one toward which most young women seemed to be turning at the time. "Not long ago the goals of the typical American girl seemed frivolous dancing and drinking and smoking and jazz music seemed goals in life, not simply diversions. Now there are other things. Helen seems to be showing the way.
"Helen Wills doesn't use mascara. She doesn't bead her lashes. She goes to bed at 9 or 10 nearly every night of the year, and she has breakfast at 9 in the morning. She watches her diet, too; not in a finicky way, but in the way of the sensible girl who would rather forgo a rich dessert than her healthy color."
To understand Helen, another writer said, you had to picture her on the court at Forest Hills before an enthusiastic filled stadium, with newsmen, cameramen and radio broadcasters all around. Before such a crowd, the nerves of most flappers would show. "But Miss Wills has steel nerves, where the flapper has only brass nerve. Following her victories, Wills gives a faint smile, shakes hands with the other players, poses for photographs, signs autographs for the ball boys and others, all gladly and without much reluctance. With dignity, with all the poise in the world, and with a championship, Helen Wills disappears at last behind the doors that lead to a shower and bath and rest.
"Perhaps you can imagine how the typical American girl of well, even of a year ago would have taken such honors. 'Ohhhhh, my d e a r! It was too thrilling.
"For some time now," he said, "the flapper has been 'old stuff.' She piled so many thrills, so many shocks, one atop another, that after a while people ceased to be thrilled or shocked at all. For the last few months, people have only been amused, then annoyed, and finally alienated. The mannish flapper is not a thing of the past. But her popularity is.
"Remember the good old days, about a year ago, when people wondered what this younger generation was coming to, and what, since parents and preachers and police had failed, would intervene to save it from perdition?
"The Olympic games are the answer to both questions. After Bolshevism, a newer sanity. After the flapper, Helen Wills and the welcome young American whom she typifies."
Helen not only symbolized a new incarnation of youth and womanhood in America, but she also gave a tremendous boost to athletic activity for women. After the Olympic games, golfer Glenna Collett commented, "the tomboy has come into her own in America." She said that Helen seemed to be a throwback to the pioneer days of America in her attitude toward vigorous exercise. Physical fitness, she pointed out, was "the rightful heritage" of the American female. Helen was helping restore that heritage.
For a long time physicians had been warning American women about the detrimental effects of athletics. They insisted that participation in a rigorous sport imparted masculine characteristics to women that would be unattractive to men. The problem with athletic girls, American physicians advised at the time Helen won her first national title, was that they might mean "empty cradles" in the future and race suicide. One leading authority on the subject warned that "intemperate indulgence in strenuous sports makes against a sound womanhood and a better race." He insisted that strenuous athletic participation could either make a woman incapable of motherhood or unsuited for it. A British physician warned that vigorous sports activity could produce a sort of "'manwoman,' a distinct third sex."
Following Helen's return to American in 1924, many journalists began reexamining those notions of health and beauty. Helen was helping to alter the popular misconceptions of beauty and athletic activities for women. America was not only starting to "glow with pride" for this unusually talented young woman, but it was doing some serious thinking about what she represented. Many schools that had dropped women's tennis as an reincorporated it into their athletic programs following the triumph of Helen Wills in Paris.
Author’s note: Helen Wills went on to win 8 Wimbledon singles titles, 7 US national singles titles and 4 French national titles. Her last Wimbledon victory was in 1938. She passed away on January 1, 1998