*originally posted October 4, 2009
William Tilden was one of the best tennis players of all time. He was also a gay man at a time when just being himself was a crime in many places throughout the world.
He was born into a rather wealthy family in Philadelphia, and had a particularly sheltered childhood. He never really like sports, but when he discovered tennis, he came to dominate the sport like no one had before. In his day, Tilden was as popular as Babe Ruth.
In 1920, Tilden was the first American to win the men's singles title at Wimbledon; he went o to win Wimbledon again in 1921, and again in 1930 at age 37.
During the 1920s, Bill Tilden won seven US Open championships, seven US clay court titles, and six US doubles championships. He also lead the US team at the Davis Cup to seven victories in ten years. As an amateur, he won 138 of 192 tournaments and compiled a match record of 907 wins to 62 losses, an astonishing .936 winning percentage.
Bill Tilden, after winning Wimbledon in 1930, turned professional and between 1931 and 1937, he earned more than $500,000 on the professional tennis tour. Much of this fortune was squandered on bad investments in Broadway plays.
A tall, flamboyant player with a striking personal appearance, Bill Tilden was a showman off the court; he appeared in several Shakespearean plays and in the title role of a production of Dracula. He moved to Hollywood in the 1930s and became friends with movie stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, and Joseph Cotten. He wrote several successful tennis books, most notably The Art of Lawn Tennis, Match Play and the Spin of the Ball, and How to Play Better Tennis.
But Bill Tilden had a secret; an open secret at that. Most people in the tennis world knew Bill Tilden was gay, but they looked the other way while he was winning. But once he left tennis, and once his penchant for underage boys became more well-known, most people turned their backs on him.
While playing the game, Tilden traveled the circuit with adolescent ball boys; his flagrant behavior gradually resulted in his ostracism, banishment from several country and tennis clubs, and exclusion from major tennis tournaments.
In 1946, Bill Tilden was arrested and convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Although the young man -- a teenage prostitute -- had consented to his sexual advances, Bill Tilden was sentenced to prison. He served seven months of a one-year sentence. In 1949, Tilden was arrested again for approaching a sixteen-year-old hitchhiker and sentenced to another year in prison, of which he served ten months.
After his glorious career in tennis, all those championships, Bill Tilden's final years were excruciatingly sad. He's lost most of his fortune and lived his last year in a one-room walk-up in Hollywood. He died of coronary thrombosis at the age of sixty on June 5, 1953 with a net worth of a few hundred dollars. Two hundred of that was returned to a student who had paid for lessons that were never given.
Still, despite Tilden's spectacular fall from grace, despite his arrests, his athletic accomplishments could not be denied. In 1950, at the beginning of the McCarthy era, and soon after his release from his second prison term, Tilden was overwhelmingly voted the greatest tennis player of the first half of the twentieth century.
He might be neither hero nor icon, but he was a gay man and he represents a dark part of our history; of being forced to live a closeted life; of not being able to live openly as a gay man. We learned from the Bill Tildens of the world that living a secret is both shaming and damning.
On This Day In LGBT History
October 4, 1913 – E.M. Forster finished writing his novel “Maurice” which is about a man coming to terms with his homosexuality. It would not be published until 1971, after Forster’s death, at the request of the author.
October 4, 1983 – AFL-CIO voted to support gay rights legislation.
October 4, 1985 – West Germany elected its first openly gay parliament member.
October 4, 1989 – Graham Chapman, co-founder of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, died of throat cancer at the age of 48. Chapman came out in his book “A Liar’s Autobiography.” He was survived by his lover of 23 years, David Sherlock, and John Tomiczek, who the couple adopted as a teenager in 1971.