World on Her Strings
Bethesda's Pauline Betz Addie was one of the top women's tennis player of her time.
Behind the red brick walls of the Summerville at Potomac assisted living facility, the woman they call Miss Addie lies on her bed, hair like spun sugar against the white of the pillow. The girl who used to greet her father by walking up the driveway on her hands, who barnstormed the nation with a single change of clothes and a jar of peanut butter for nourishment, who flew across a tennis court as if she had wings on her shoes, now rarely stirs. The young woman who captivated Hollywood legends with her laser backhand and witty quips struggles to utter a simple phrase. It has been years since the one-time world champion has even been able to walk onto a court and stand between the straight white lines that defined her life, and her place in history.
In her day, in the early and mid-1940s, Pauline Betz Addie was the best woman tennis player in the world. She won the U.S. singles title four times in five years, claimed in 1946 what was then the world title, Wimbledon, in her first attempt, without losing a set, and saw herself on the cover of Time. Tennis Hall of Famer Jack Kramer called her “the best athlete I ever saw in women’s tennis.”
She was no doubt robbed of many more world titles. Robbed by history during her peak, when Wimbledon was not held due to the war. Then robbed by a tennis establishment that ruled her ineligible to play in what were then amateur-only tournaments. Her crime: thinking about turning pro.
After the forced retirement from tournament play following her Wimbledon victory, Pauline toured the country putting on exhibitions, earning a few hundred bucks per match in contests she never lost. She married Washington Post sports columnist Bob Addie in 1948 and settled in Bethesda, where she raised five children. For nearly half a century she taught the area’s most promising tennis players at Sidwell Friends School in the District, at the Edgemoor Club in Bethesda and at the tennis center at Cabin John Park, recently named in her honor.
Her son, Gary Addie, an independent tennis pro who lives in Washington’s Palisades neighborhood, says, “She used to take us out and race us and win every time. I never could beat her at Ping-Pong; she crushed us. I couldn’t beat her at anything. She’d walk up and down the stairs on her hands. She was just a great athlete who played tennis. Up to the point of [age] 76 or 77, she played doubles at the Edgemoor Club on the A team against college players.”
About 12 years ago, when she was in her late 70s, Gary says his mother began to be afflicted by Parkinson’s disease. “Once she really lost the ability to play tennis and be physical, she lost a lot of her will to live. That was her life, being an athlete.”
When Pauline Betz was born in 1919 in Dayton, Ohio, dreams of sports stardom were not standard issue for girls. But Pauline was lucky. Her natural abilities and inclinations were recognized and encouraged by her mother, a phys ed teacher. The Betz family moved to Los Angeles when Pauline was a baby. In her 1949 autobiography, Wings on My Tennis Shoes, which has been out of print for more than half a century, she recounts a raffish childhood as an exuberant tomboy. She and her younger brother, Jack, began augmenting their 20-cents-a-week allowances by stealing empty milk bottles from neighbors’ porches, then claiming the refund themselves. After that scam was quashed by the authorities, she realized her lack of ready cash could be offset by the swap shop a few blocks away. She’d trade household items filched from family members.
It was in the swap shop window that 9-year-old Pauline encountered the object that would determine her life. The wooden tennis racket was old and warped, but to her eyes “a lovely, shining thing.”
She knew she must have it, and to that end she liberated her father’s pipe collection and made the trade. Despite having to lug newspapers from house to house until she had earned enough to buy back the pipes, she had no regrets. The racket was worth every minute of forced labor. At first she valued it for “the satisfactory boing” it made when it landed on someone’s head, and the way it sent stones soaring over the fence in majestic arcs, like those produced by the great Babe Ruth, then in his prime. But it was inevitable she’d end up using the racket in the way it was intended.
Her mother taught Pauline tennis, partly, no doubt, to keep her mind off theft. On her own, Pauline drew a chalk line on her garage door and tried to “out-rally a wall,” succeeding mainly in annoying the spinsters next door. When the neighbor ladies went out, she and Jack would play rip-roaring tennis matches on their manicured lawn, which they called “Wimbledon.” These hard-fought championships continued until Pauline hit the inevitable errant forehand, busted the neighbors’ window and shattered an antique vase.
When Pauline turned 14, her mother determined she’d gained enough control to play competitively. In her second tournament, she made the finals. Six years later she entered the 1939 national indoor championships, unseeded and unknown, and won.
With the trophy in the back seat, she returned cross country to her job as a soda jerk at a Thrifty drugstore. There, instead of the adoring masses she imagined, she found the same impatient diners offering little more in the way of congratulations than “hurry it up, Girlie.”
The next summer she returned to “the circuit,” a series of tournaments starting in Florida and working up the East Coast. Although tennis fans were eager to pay to watch the best players fight it out on courts of clay and grass, the tournament promoters pocketed the profits and the players scrambled for meager expense allotments. Pauline drove thousands of miles with her feisty mother, sleeping in the car or, on occasion, on the beach to save a few dollars.
At one of the tournaments that summer, the coach for Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., offered her room, board and tuition on the spot. She showed up on campus in the fall of 1940, fresh from a tournament. The six rackets under her arm intimidated teammates instantly, but not as much as her play.
“If I was lucky,” recalls Nancy Dillon, Pauline’s teammate and college roommate, now retired and living in River Forest, Ill., “I could occasionally win a set in practice. But when she played me in tournaments, she would beat the heck out of me. She would never give up on a ball. She’d fall flat on her face to get to a shot. And she’d always get it.”
With her “killer instinct,” exceptional foot speed and masterful one-handed backhand, Pauline went on a tear. From 1941 through 1946, in addition to racking up straight A’s at Rollins and earning an economics degree, she won five major titles in what today would be called Grand Slam tournaments. She also made the singles finals in eight majors, six straight at the U.S. national championship, now called the U.S. Open. Only one other woman, Chris Evert, has equaled that.
“When I am winning,” Pauline wrote in her typical ironic tone, “babies can cry, dogs howl, or husbands loudly berate their wives. I meet all situations with a smile and benevolent glance. But if I am losing, someone in row eighty-six with a noisy purse clasp can be very annoying and undoubtedly the cause of my missed shots.”
Even the possibility of losing so upset her that she routinely threw up before big matches.
Her son, Gary, the tennis pro, beat his mother for the first time when he was about 15 and she was 50. “She never played me again,” he says.
But for a long stretch in the 1940s, Pauline didn’t have to worry about losing, because she almost never did.
Today, a woman who wins multiple U.S. championships earns millions in prize money and endorsements. But in Pauline’s time, the people who had money were in the bleachers, wearing crisp white shirts and sweaters knotted about their necks. The players, especially those reared on public courts like Pauline, scraped by. There was a standing Betz family punch line about what would happen once Pauline—nicknamed Bobbie since her older sister mispronounced the word “baby”—won the national championship. Whenever the car needed a new clutch or the drains clogged, someone would say, “Never mind, just wait until Bobbie wins the nationals.”
When Bobbie finally did, beating Louise Brough Clapp in three sets at Forest Hills in 1942, her brother’s telegram read: “So Bobbie won the nationals stop Call the plumber.”
But nobody, least of all Pauline, equated her success with a financial bonanza, except in the form of more generous expense reimbursements.
She did enjoy her celebrity, though. After winning her first title, she recalled in her autobiography, she felt awe at being interviewed on national radio. “Somewhere back at Thrifty’s, the clatter of the dishes, the pitch of the noonday crowd, was stilled as they heard YOUR voice.”
Her new star status attracted the rich and famous, who lined up to hit with the national champion at the posh Los Angeles Country Club. Barbara Hutton, glamorous heiress to the founding families of both the Woolworth department stores and E.F. Hutton & Company, not surprisingly one of the richest women in the world, was as starstruck by Pauline as Pauline was by her.
Hutton’s friendship came in handy in 1945, when Pauline, at the height of her game, began to wear herself down, working full time at a brokerage firm while keeping a full-time practice schedule between tournaments. Hutton, recently divorced from Cary Grant and living in the Douglas Fairbanks Jr. mansion in the Pacific Palisades, became concerned for her young friend, who had lost an unhealthy amount of weight. She invited Pauline to stay at the mansion and recover. Hutton and her famous friends would play tennis as Pauline lay by the pool, for the first time “content to be an idle observer” and doubting she would ever want to play again.
In fact, it only took three weeks for Pauline to return to a healthy weight and feel the urge to get back on the court. But she was changed. She had discovered that the world didn’t come to an end if she failed to hit 500 backhands and forehands every day.