There are books, and then there’s this: the autobiography of an icon that will be read for generations. I passed—perhaps foolishly—on a review copy, because I was afraid there would be large passages of minutiae about tennis, which doesn’t interest me. I was mistaken in my concern, but it worked out well, because I borrowed an audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the author reads her own book. She is an old woman now, and hearing her detail her own remarkable life is a matchless experience. It’s hard to imagine there will be a more important, or more enjoyable book published in the coming year.
Billie Jean Moffitt King is born in 1943 and grows up in Southern California in a conservative working class family; her dad is a firefighter, and her mother stays home, as most mothers did back then. There is Billie, and there is her brother, and the family are devoted Methodists. Who is to know that both children will be famous one day? Brother Randy becomes a professional baseball player, and Billie Jean becomes a record-breaking tennis star and a passionate social justice activist. If you, reader, are younger than sixty, you probably don’t even know how much you owe Billie Jean.
Growing up, King enjoys all sorts of sports, but when she is introduced to tennis, a light comes on. The problem is, tennis is a sport for the elite, even more so back then than now. To find a tennis court, you needed to either have a private court built on your palatial estate, or belong to a country club, and of course, to do that, you also have to be Caucasian. Billie Jean’s family is nowhere near affluent enough to belong. And so, early on, her passion and her obvious talent draw support from people with enough pull, or enough money, to give her access. She takes the time to thank them, but doesn’t let this bog the story down.
Over and over, however, she is shut out on account of her gender. Prize money typically pays enough to help an athlete pay their own travel expenses and buy equipment, but when women are allowed to compete in competitions prestigious enough to offer prize money, it’s only for the men. Women are expected to be grateful that they are included at all. And as King gets better at her sport and her confidence grows, she begins to push back. Nobody wants to watch women play tennis? Since when? And since when should people of color be shut out?
Although she doesn’t say so, it becomes obvious to me that in addition to athletic talent, confidence, intelligence, and almost endless energy, King has one more talent, one that isn’t recognized as such in the mid-twentieth century: she has amazing people skills. Over and over, she is able to reach compromises, make deals, and shorten the gap between conservative perceptions of women athletes, and what all athletes deserve. She discusses the various battles (though she doesn’t use this word) and how they are resolved, and I am amazed at the grace and dignity she demonstrates. Perhaps the most telling moment is when she befriends Bobby Riggs, the obnoxious bastard that she has defeated in front of the world, and later, when he is on his deathbed, takes a call from his wife. Riggs is asking for her, and he doesn’t have much time left. She is too far away to get to him in time, but she tells him on the phone that she loves him. Wow.
If you are or were a girl that participated in high school sports, or if you or your loved ones have benefited from Title IX, thank Billie Jean, who testified before Congress. She also started the first professional tennis circuit for women.
Over the years, King wins 39 Wimbledon Grand Slam titles and a host of others as well. I am a child when she plays Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes,” and she beats him squarely. What I don’t know (and would still not have known if I’d been paying attention,) is that she does her very best not to play this tournament. Riggs is much older than she, and he hounds her—in fact, today his behavior would violate anti-stalking laws. But she calmly tells him, over and over, that she isn’t interested, and then she ignores his calls and turns away from his in-person visits. But when a fellow women’s tennis champion plays him and loses, Billie turns to her husband and manager, Larry King, and with a sigh, says, “Okay. You’d better set it up.”
At this point, I turn away from the audio book and head to YouTube to watch The Battle of the Sexes. This trip back to the society in which I grew up is hair-raising. The ways that men talk about women, in public forums! The remarks by Howard Cosell, who was the most liberal of sportscasters, about her physical appearance, and the patronizing remarks of others are appalling. I wouldn’t go back for anything in this world! But when she is asked antagonizing questions, Billie Jean comments, briefly, calmly, and without showing even the slightest offence. Her coolness on the court is mirrored in her cool public appearances. It’s remarkable.
When Gloria Steinem starts Ms. Magazine, King supports her, but she is always either asleep or busy, so husband Larry handles the mail. When he sees the request to add her name to a list of famous women that support a woman’s right to choose, as the controversy over Roe v. Wade heats up, he signs for her and then forgets to mention it to her; had he read more carefully, he would have noted the line, “I had an abortion!” King doesn’t know it’s about to be public knowledge, and her parents didn’t know she’d terminated a pregnancy. It’s not a good moment.
Later, when her feelings for other women grow stronger, she and Larry separate, but not completely. For years, she stays with him when they both show up in town at the same time, and they continue a romantic relationship, though infrequently. It is when she grows close to South African tennis player Ilana, and Ilana makes her choose, that she divorces Larry; again, they remain friends.
I could carry on all day about this woman, a champion on the court and off, but if you are interested enough to read this entire review, then you’re interested enough to get this book. I’m sure the print version is lovely, but the audio book—which sounds like a garrulous old lady telling her story, like Forrest Gump, but authentic and more accomplished—and hearing her voice wobble when she speaks of her most moving experiences, is simply unmissable.
Go get it.