Gladys Heldman by Richard Evans

Written by: on 2nd September 2018
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The Girls Before and After
Gladys Heldman by Richard Evans  |

Editors note: We pulled this out of the vault. It’s a “GEM”. Women’s Tennis ( WTA ) exists because of one person. It’s GLADYS HELDMAN !  Thanks Richard for this great piece. Happy new year.

—P.S. From Nancy Richey—

the pieces of paper we wrote our votes on were put in a little glass bowl and dumped out for counting on her famous round bed–Gladys won out over Larry King, Billie Jean’s husband, to run the tour after Larry presented his plan and Julie Heldman presented Gladys’s plan for the new tour. The meeting took place in the bedroom..amazing stuff happened in that bedroom around that bed! Women’s pro tennis was born with Gladys as our leader!!!

 

 

King Arthur had his round table. Gladys Heldman had her round bed. A lot happened on that bed but not much of it had to do with the ever-supportive Julius who was banished to a cot in his dressing room while his dynamic wife was busy publishing and editing World Tennis magazine and creating the WTA tour.

It was the early 1970’s and the Heldmans had just left their penthouse apartment in New York overlooking Gracie Mansion and moved to Timberwilde, a leafy lane in a residential district of Houston, Texas. The one story property was spread over more than an acre and, of course, had a tennis court and swimming pool. But the bed was the hub.

It was there that Gladys spent hours with the make-ups of the next edition of the magazine spread  before her. She had a perfectly good office downtown with a small, dedicated staff but a telephone, held in the crook of her shoulder, was all she did needed to make her decisions known. Did I say she just published and edited World Tennis? I forgot to mention that she assigned the articles, chose the photographs, wrote the captions and sold some of the ads.

And then there was the fledgling WTA. I had been at the Los Angeles Tennis Club when Billie Jean King and Jack Kramer fell out over prize money allocation. Kramer, the grandfather of pro tennis in those dark days when the amateur game treated those who signed with Jack like pariahs, enjoyed women’s tennis but, as a hard nosed businessman, he knew who sold the tickets and it wasn’t the ‘gals’.

Infuriated, Billie Jean and Rosie Casals flew to Houston for a summit with the one women they knew who could kick start an idea and make it happen. Gladys had already saved the US Championships at Forest Hills in the sixties when the lack of entries from European stars was threatening to turn it into a purely domestic affair. Mrs Heldman’s solution was to phone up the ten richest people she knew in New York and persuade them to part with $2,000. With the resulting $20,000, she hired a plane; flew it to Amsterdam and picked up about 25 of Europe’s leading players, few of whom could afford the air fare. She was a  ‘Can do, will do’ sort of person.

So it did not take long for Gladys to gather nine of the world’s leading women players around her; get them to sign pro terms for a token dollar and start beating the bushes for a serious sponsor. It didn’t take her long. Joe Cullman, CEO of Philip Morris, was already a friend from her New York days and, being a committed tennis fan – not to mention a Gladys fan – Cullman saw the possibilities of wedding his Virginia Slims cigarette brand with a group of healthy young athletes. Yes, I know, the thought is slightly appalling today but that was a different age.

I believe the brand was already being sold on the back of the “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” slogan and now Philip Morris were about to discover just how far their tennis babies could go.

After several tense and barely civil conversations with USTA officials over some sort of co-operation, Gladys and Billie Jean decided to let them stew in their desperate desire to maintain total control over tennis players and go it alone. So the Women’s Tennis Association was born. And, with Gladys working the phones from her bed, the first independent tournaments soon followed.

Gladys Heldman was a unique personality. Dark-haired, athletic, wiry, and nervous, she off set what might have been an intimidating presence with an infectious smile and terrific sense of humour. I’m sure the eyes twinkled but you rarely saw them because Gladys needed to wear prescription dark glasses. But you sort of knew you were being observed very keenly.

She loved cats. There had been a particularly snooty pussy called Putty who used to sunbathe on the ledge of the New York apartment’s balcony but, after his demise, the Houston residence became inhabited by two other white cats. You almost don’t need to be told that they were called Virginia and Slim.

One night when I was staying there, Gladys had a young lawyer from CBS in New York occupying the other guest room as she was in the process of selling World Tennis for one million dollars. Gladys was on the phone after dinner – no, surprise, there – and Julius, a Shell Oil Vice-President , the lawyer and I, were enjoying a night cap in the sitting room. Soon, either Virginia or Slim – I could never tell them apart – slunk in and started tearing at the expensive fabric that covered the sofa with its long claws.

The lawyer jumped up, horrified. “Mr Heldman! Your cat’s ruining the sofa! Aren’t you going to do something about it?”

Julius took another puff on his pipe. “No,” he replied with a little smile. “It’s worth it.”

It was worth it, in other words, not to get into an argument with Gladys over what her precious cats could do. They were to be treated a protected species. He was a very intelligent man was Julius. Later, when I met the Thatchers, I was reminded of how similar a role he played in Gladys’ s life to Denis and Margaret. If you want to lead a tolerable life, you need to know how to deal with strong women.

Julius and Gladys had two exceptional daughters. The vivacious Julie went on to be a world class tennis player, reaching the semi-finals at Forest Hills while Trixie has always been inclined to reveal the rebellious side of her mother’s nature which Gladys struggled, on occasion, to keep under control. In the most recent photo I saw of Trixie her hair was mauve, not really quite as shocking as the transparent shift in which she appeared, at the age of 17, at one of her parents’ formal dinner parties in New York.

The august company held its collective breath, waiting for a reaction from the Matriarch. After a suitable moment of reflection, Gladys exclaimed, “Darling, you look absolutely charming.”

On with the soup.

 

Editors Note • September 2018. We dusted this story off and reposted it. GLADYS’ daughter Julie Heldman who was a top ten tennis player released her book. Ok. Julie might get mad. But she was actually number five in the World Twice! She poured herself into this amazing project. The book is called “Driven: A Daughters Odyssey” • it’s available in the U.S. Open bookstore. On kindle and via AMAZON.

www.amazon.com/dp/B07GDVS53N

Only one woman formed the WTA. Her name was Gladys Heldman. (LJ)

 

 

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