Congratulations to Justine Henin for winning the U.S. Open women's singles title for the second time in her career. It's as good a time as any to discuss Carole Lombard and tennis, because her favorite player won that title four times.
Alice Marble ranks as one of the greatest players in the history of women's tennis. She won the Open in 1936, 1938, 1939 and 1940 when the event was held at the famed West Side Tennis Club in the Forest Hills section of Queens.
Marble also won Wimbledon in 1939 in what would be that tournament's last event before it was suspended by World War II. In addition, she was an accomplished doubles player, winning six Grand Slam titles in women's doubles and seven in mixed doubles. It's been said that until Martina Navratilova came along, no one in women's tennis played the serve-and-volley game better.
Lombard, who had a zest for tennis and could hold her own in the sport against just about everyone in the entertainment indistry, and Marble had much in common despite their five-year age difference. Both made the cover of Life magazine in photographs taken by the fabled Alfred Eisenstaedt:
Both also rallied from personal setbacks early in their careers. In Marble's case, it came in 1934, when she collapsed during a match in Roland Garros stadium in Paris; she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and pleurisy, and was sent to a sanitarium to recuperate. She had just turned 21, and many believed she would never play tennis again.
Then, one day, she received this letter:
You don't know me, but your tennis teacher is also my teacher, and she has told me all about you. Once I thought I had a great career in front of me, just like you thought you had. Then one day I was in a terrible automobile accident. For six months I lay on a hospital bed, just like you are today. Dcctors told me I was through, but then I began to think I had nothing to lose by fighting, so I began to fight. Well, I proved the doctors wrong. I made my career come true, just as you can -- if you'll fight. If I can do it, so can you.
After Marble left the sanitarium in the fall of 1934, Lombard called her frequently, but they still wouldn't meet for another few months. In her autobiography "Courting Danger," Marble recalled Carole "always had a funny story, something that happened on the set or in one of her personal appearances. She was such a regular person, a chum who treated me like an equal. I already adored her."
They finally met, and the friendship intensified. Lombard provided financial support for medical and other expenses as Marble worked her way back into shape; she even paid for a voice teacher to give Alice singing lessons. (Later in the '30s, Marble sang at the Waldorf-Astoria after winning one of her Open titles.)
Marble's career was reborn. She won the 1935 California state championshps at the Berkeley Tennis Club, with Lombard in attendance, telling reporters that Alice's next trophy "will be for winning the national championship." The following year, Marble made good on Carole's prediction, winning the title in Forest Hills less than two years after it appeared her tennis days were through.
Lombard and Marble continued their friendship, and Alice also became good pals with Clark Gable when he entered Carole's life (she accompanied them to Atlanta for the "Gone With The Wind" premiere).
Carole once told Alice that she expected to die young. "Don't say that!" Marble replied. "Did your fortune tellers tell you that?"
"Yes, they did, but it's more than that. It's a feeling I have." With that, Lombard quickly changed the subject, but as Marble later wrote, "a million times I've wished her premonition had been wrong."
Marble turned professional in 1941. Years later, she championed Althea Gibson, who was not allowed to play at the U.S. Open until 1950 because of the color barrier. Gibson would later win singles titles at both Forest Hills and Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958, becoming the first black champion at either venue.
During World War II, Marble worked as a spy for U.S. Army intelligence, working undercover in the home of a Swiss lover to find names of noted Nazis secreted in his private vault. She was shot in the back by a Nazi agent, although this didn't become public knowledge until after her death in 1990. Given Lombard's interest in producing films, if she had lived, one could envision her starring in a movie about her friend's espionage experiences.