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Original Issue


Billie Jean King, 38, has now written two autobiographies. This seems a bit excessive, not to say redundant, when you consider that Benjamin Disraeli and Franklin Roosevelt didn't write any; Joe DiMaggio, Bella Abzug and Margaret Thatcher haven't yet and may not; and a number of other people with interesting things to say, like Abe Lincoln and Winston Churchill, contented themselves with just one.

Ms. King has also complicated matters for potential readers by titling both her autobiographies Billie Jean by Billie Jean King. The first was written with Kim Chapin and published by Harper and Row to sell for $6.95, and the second was written with Frank Deford and published by Viking to sell for $13.95. The first came out soon after Ms. King's highly publicized tennis match with Bobby Riggs—which seemed like a smart publishing idea—and the second capitalizes on the publicity attending the exposure of Ms. King's sexual relationship, nearly a decade ago, with her former hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett. No other reason for the book than this can be given much credence. Indeed, Ms. King devotes the first 40-odd pages of the new book to a discussion of the Barnett affair, and references to it are scattered through the remainder. There is, of course, a certain amount of updating of Autobiography No. 1, but it surpasses rational belief that without Barnett any or all of this would have justified, eight years later, Autobiography No. 2.

It's a waste of time, therefore, to review No. 2 by discussing Ms. King's blistering remarks about her favorite male chauvinist pig, Jack Kramer, or her description of her childhood in Southern California, or even her forthright opinions on women's rights which, to her credit, haven't changed and, undoubtedly, never will—though her reluctance to endorse the Equal Rights Amendment is a puzzlement. The reasons she gives for this are ridiculous; they add up to the old chestnut that "you can't legislate human nature," an idea whose time comes whenever bigots are desperate for excuses to block action on human rights.

What remains of substance in No. 2, then, is Ms. King's lengthy account of the Barnett affair, which poses a problem for a reviewer who feels, as Ms. King repeatedly says she does, that such highly personal matters are nobody's business but that of the people involved. The book itself proclaims that the Barnett affair was "insignificant" and "inconsequential" and has been "overpublicized." So why is Billie Jean King trying to publicize it some more? Why, months after the King-Barnett trial was concluded, is she trying to bring it to everyone's attention again?

One reason for this is that, like many another champion athlete, Ms. King has an ego as big as the Ritz. It surely has contributed hugely to her brilliant achievements as a tennis player, and it also contributed hugely to her decision to reopen the Barnett affair.

Ms. King says she first heard that Barnett had sued her—"like a bolt out of the blue"—in May 1981, when she was playing in a tournament in Orlando, Fla. She took the first plane to New York, "holed up" in her apartment there, discussed the crisis with her husband and others and decided what she would do: She would "go public." As she put it to them, and exhorts us in the book, "I'm a person who takes risks. And the only way I can deal with this is to be aggressive and stand up...."

It's difficult to understand what all this means, aside from its being a fine Act II closing speech. Ms. King had no choice in the matter. The affair with Barnett had begun nine years earlier, in May 1972, and lasted until after the Riggs match in September 1973, when, as Ms. King says, she "...told Marilyn that I really didn't need her as a constant traveling companion any longer.... Both the physical and romantic aspects of our relationship had cooled considerably." Nevertheless, whatever the relationship, it continued for many more years, until all of Ms. King's associates and her husband knew of it and were engaged in parrying Barnett's threats to sue, to release some letters of Ms. King to the press, to tell all. There was no decision for Ms. King to make about going public and taking risks. The decision had been made, and it was hardly a bolt from the blue.

Ms. King's great fear is that now she will be "labeled" and "categorized" as a lesbian and that this will severely damage women's tennis; indeed, that it might bring crashing down the whole edifice she labored so hard to erect. She also laments that the disclosure took place when it did, "when I was finishing as a player. Now...there is no way I can get back in the news for winning something on the tennis court which could send the Marilyn episode back to oblivion."

It isn't possible that both these contradictory notions could be valid. A stigma that can be erased by victory in a few tennis matches hardly has the potency to destroy the sport of women's tennis. In fact, neither notion is valid; women's tennis continues to prosper mightily and Billie Jean's fear that when people hear her name "they will think of scandal before championships" is also unwarranted. She has fashioned a remarkable record both as player and advocate of her sport, and cannot fail to be remembered, first and foremost, for that.

Too many other theses presented in the book are equally inconsistent, illogical and irritating. Through page after page, Ms. King repeats her admirable refusal to be "labeled" and "categorized," and her distaste for putting people in classes and niches. Unfortunately, she is one of the quickest draws in the West at pulling out and slapping on her own labels. "Older American men" are the world's worst chauvinists; "I'd always heard that all the lesbians were in the fashion world—right?"; black men are less prejudiced against female athletes than white men, but Arthur Ashe is a chauvinist pig and so is his best friend, Donald Dell. The labels go on and on until, in one massive swoop, she slaps one on a whole nation of people—the trouble with the British, she suggests, is that they don't have a winning attitude.... "They don't like winners at all.... What the British like is r/u's—runner-ups."

Ms. King has also applied her mind to the interesting question of why the world is blessed these days with so many superb black athletes. All the social and physical scientists who have been working in this area for years can now relax and move on to lesser problems. Ms. King's analysis: White male athletes marry cheerleaders; black male athletes marry black female athletes. The white children from these marriages have athletic genes on only one side; the black children have athletic genes from both sides.

Who knows what wonders await us in Autobiography No. 3!