Big Bill Tilden towered over tennis in his day as no one has since. But as Senior Writer Frank Deford researched the two-part account of Tilden's bizarre life and sad end that begins on page 50, he found that few of today's tennis players know who Tilden really was.
"He was a fascinating man, a complex man," says Deford. "He was interested in music, theater, literature. He was a fine bridge player and he dominated tennis in his prime more than any man has ever dominated a sport. He didn't lose a single match of significance for six years. Babe Ruth was closest to him because Ruth, too, changed the nature of his sport. But Ruth did it with his body. Tilden made a science of tennis. He invented stratagems, he explored new depths. Maybe some of today's players—Rod Laver at his best—could beat him, but they have been able to build on what Tilden invented."
Deford's interest in Tilden, piqued several years ago by stories Don Budge told him when he and Budge were working on a book, developed into a labor of compassion as Deford traveled from Philadelphia, Tilden's birthplace, to Hollywood, London and Madrid in pursuit of those who remember William Tatem Tilden II. He corresponded with actor Joseph Cotton, who befriended Tilden in his later years; he visited Tilden's longtime friend, actress Peggy Wood; he talked with former Phillie Richie Ashburn, a native of Tilden, Neb. and a fervid collector of anything that concerns Bill Tilden.
"I've never been so engrossed in anything," Deford says. "One night, after I had spent several days reading clips in a library, I woke up and thought Tilden was in the room with me."
While Deford came across many excellent newspaper accounts of Tilden's matches, he found little about Big Bill himself. The principal reason was Tilden's homosexuality, which was well-known in tennis and press circles, but was kept from the general public until Tilden's first arrest in Los Angeles in 1946. "For one thing," says Deford, "sports coverage wasn't what it is today. There was much less written about personalities. Allison Danzig said he covered Tilden for 15 or 20 years for The New York Times but knew him very slightly. And there were taboos. You couldn't even mention pregnancy in the Times then, much less homosexuality."
Tilden's only surviving relatives, a niece in London and a nephew in New Jersey, feeling that the memory of their uncle had been maligned disproportionately, assisted Deford from the beginning. "They felt," he says, "that if I did a conscientious job, that Tilden, warts and all, would profit more than he'd lose."
What began as a magazine piece is now being expanded into a book that Simon & Schuster will publish early next year. Deford believes he has interviewed everyone who knew Tilden well but hopes that publication of the articles may scare up a few more sources. "I'd like to talk to a Bill Quinn who was a child actor in a Broadway play with Tilden," he says.
As to what Big Bill himself would think of all this, Deford speaks with assurance: "Tilden would be delighted to have a story—he was very vain. But he wouldn't like the story. Bill Tilden wouldn't like any story about himself."
DEFORD: A FASCINATING RE-CREATION