The Incomparable Life and Mysterious Death of Suzanne Lenglen
This story appears in the May 30, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
“He probably loved to win as much as Lenglen, for instance.”
—Ernest Hemingway, describing Robert Cohn in The Sun Also Rises
Players arrived by steamship, not private jet. They bashed tennis balls with wooden billy clubs, not rackets made of space-age fibers and carbon tubes. They competed not for $3.06 million in winner's prize money, but for silver serving pieces—the same trophies that are still given out today.
Still, the Wimbledon championships of 1919—which resumed after a four-year hiatus during World War I—bears plenty of resemblance to the tournament that will begin on July 1 at the All England Club. Same impeccably barbered grass courts. Same all-white attire. Same tea break for fans.
Beyond that, the women's final played a century ago featured themes, story lines and a cast of characters thoroughly familiar today. There was the stalwart champion, trying to stave off a young challenger and pad her legacy. There was an ambitious arriviste, who smudged the line between confident and cocky. There were media critics and officious officials and—that native tennis fauna—hyperattentive fathers.
Ultimately, the challenger beat the champ. Suzanne Lenglen of France, who had just turned 20, didn't so much play Wimbledon that summer as crash it. Equally buoyant and flamboyant, she turned heads with her boasts and a daring, one-piece cotton dress that revealed her forearms and was, shockingly, cut above the calf. Unlike most of the other women in the field, Lenglen served overhanded. Unlike all of the other women in the field, she wasn't beyond tossing her racket when she missed shots.
In the final Lenglen faced the decorated British player and seven-time Wimbledon winner, 40-year-old Dorothea Lambert Chambers, before a crowd of 8,000 that included King George V and Queen Mary. Lenglen's performance was not without controversy. During one changeover her father, Charles, sitting courtside, tossed her a vial that she opened and consumed. The liquid was later revealed to be cognac, which seemed to revitalize Lenglen when her play sagged. Another time, Charles tapped an umbrella, which was likely a signal to his daughter and a way to sidestep tennis's rules against coaching from the stands. Lenglen won a spellbinding match 10-8, 4-6, 9-7, becoming the first non-English speaker to seize the Wimbledon title.
And this inaugurated one of the great runs in tennis, if not in all of sports. Lenglen would win five of the next six Wimbledons. In 1920 she won her first French Open, then took that title five more times without dropping a match. In winning gold at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Lenglen lost just four of 64 games. She once went 181 straight matches without a defeat. British tennis historian Alan Little puts Lenglen's amateur record at 341-7, a winning percentage of 98.0%. And she was just as dominant in doubles. Overall she won 241 titles during her career, which lasted all of 12 years. For perspective: Serena Williams, generally considered the GOAT of women's tennis, enters Wimbledon having won 72 singles and 23 doubles titles over a career spanning more than 20 years.
Nicknamed la Divine (the Goddess) by the French press, Lenglen was what we would now call a crossover star or, less charitably, a diva. If World War I interrupted Lenglen's rise to stardom, it also helped to bolster her popularity. After the brutality and massive casualties (1.3 million dead and more than four million wounded) that resulted from the fighting, France needed a symbol of national pride. It came in the form of a tennis player known as Notre Suzanne, a national trust. By the end of the 1920s, Lenglen was more famous and more popular than any other athlete, yes; but also any movie star, singer or political figure in Europe.
Lenglen came to tennis, fittingly, in dramatic fashion. Born in Paris in 1899, she suffered from chronic asthma as a child and took up the sport when her father, a businessman of moderate means, suggested it would help her stamina. Papa, as Charles was known to all, soon recognized his daughter's talent and drove her fiercely. "Fille stupide!" he would yell when she missed shots in practice. He also encouraged her to resist tennis convention by adopting the best aspects of the men's game at the time. He taught her to attack the net and play with aggression.
American author Larry Engelmann wrote perhaps the definitive biography on Lenglen (and U.S. star Helen Wills), The Goddess and the American Girl. He describes Papa as "Suzanne's father, teacher, trainer, advisor, coach, agent, manager, protector, mentor and, at times, even her tormentor." In the spirit of mythmaking that's become de rigueur for athletic prodigies, Charles often told the story of engaging a fortune-teller at a casino in Nice. "Will my daughter one day become champion of France?" he asked.
"Better than that," the medium responded, according to Papa. "Better than that."
Soon enough, Suzanne Lenglen was 14 and winning premier tournaments while demonstrating an attitude befitting a diva. For Lenglen, tennis was as much performance as it was competition. She played with flair, leaping—sometimes completely unnecessarily—and gliding gracefully around the court. Lenglen would decline to compete if she didn't like the way she looked, and she cried, even while she was winning, if she didn't meet her own exacting standards.
Perhaps above all, Lenglen embodied tennis's contribution to the Roaring '20s and the flapper sensibilities of the Jazz Age. She took the court in full makeup and, sometimes, in ermine scarfs or even fur coats. She played in what she called "a headache band," a chic and crisply colored swath of silk that wrapped around her bob haircut. France's top designers competed to provide her outfits.
Bill Tilden, the contemporary American star, once remarked of Lenglen, "Her costume struck me as a cross between a prima donna and a streetwalker." Vogue, on the other hand, called her dress "extraordinarily chic in the freedom, the suitability, and the excellence of its simple lines."
When a match began, she hit the hell out of the ball, mixing power and precision. Then she calmed her nerves by sneaking sips from a flask of brandy during changeovers. When tennis officials discovered what she was doing, she soaked sugar cubes in cognac, which were then added to her courtside water bottles.
An A-list international celebrity, she traveled in chauffeured cars and by private rail. In 1922, Wimbledon moved from Worple Road to its current location on Church Road, in part because the old venue could not accommodate the crush of fans who had come expressly to watch Lenglen. She was, as we would say today, pure box office, this marriage of graceful athleticism and irrepressible personality.
Asked about her method of play, Lenglen responded with a familiar Gallic pfft. "My method? I don't think I have any. I just throw dignity to the winds and think of nothing but the game. I try to hit the ball with all my force and send it where my opponent is not."
The French media didn't really cover Lenglen; they served as her press agency. When she played unremarkably she was, inevitably, ill. When she played poorly in doubles it was, naturally, the fault of her partner. "It was a brave journalist who dared to write one word of criticism concerning her activities," Engelmann writes. "And whenever some journalist did make a rare error in judgment and published something even slightly unflattering about the Goddess, he was immediately denounced by other journalists and his story passionately refuted. Such a newsman was ridiculed not simply as a fool, but as an enemy of Suzanne Lenglen, of sport and of France."
Lenglen came to the U.S. in 1921 to play at Forest Hills in New York City. She was a star on par with the Yankees' Babe Ruth, and like the Babe, she had a reputation for tippling. In New York she insisted on having wine before her matches. When it was explained that Prohibition had taken effect the year before and that drinking alcohol would violate the Volstead Act, Lenglen threatened to go home. Tournament officials capitulated. Keeping her happy was a greater priority than complying with federal law, and so they plied her with contraband booze. At the time, her midmatch sips were seen as simply in line with her outrageous reputation. Time and again Lenglen would default a match during the day, citing injury or illness, then be seen dancing or drinking at night. It all became worldwide news, heightening her intrigue and popularity.
Playing the American star Molla Mallory, Lenglen lost the first set and began coughing. After dropping three more points she approached the umpire and complained that she was ill and unable to continue. Fans booed. Officials were furious. When they played for the Wimbledon title the following summer, Lenglen won 6-2, 6-0 in 26 minutes, the shortest final in history. They had barely shaken hands at the net when Lenglen sniffed, "Now, Mrs. Mallory, I have proved to you today what I could have done to you in New York last year."
Her erratic behavior during matches grew more common as Lenglen's career progressed. Chafed that a 1926 Wimbledon match was delayed to accommodate the arrival of Queen Mary, Lenglen refused to come onto the court. A French male player, Jean Borotra, applied a blindfold, entered the women's locker room and beseeched Lenglen to emerge. She did, and won again.
That same year Lenglen played the defining match of her career. Perhaps more than any other sport, tennis thrives on rivalry. Lenglen had an ideal foil in Wills, who was not only six years younger than Lenglen but also presented a stark contrast. A sunny and uncomplicated Californian, Wills played pragmatic tennis and scandalized no one with her behavior or sense of style.
Both entered a tournament at the Carlton Club in Cannes, France. As it became clear Lenglen and Wills were destined to meet in the final, the match became an international event, "a cross between the French Revolution and the Battle of Gettysburg," as John Tunis, a Europe-based sportswriter for The New Yorker, put it. Scalpers jacked up the price of tickets—from $12.50 to as much as $50, which would be about $700 today. Fans leaned out of the windows of neighboring buildings to watch. Sensing a challenge to her supremacy, Lenglen played marvelously and won 6-3, 8-6. But that would be the only time she would face Wills.
Later that year Lenglen became the first woman to turn professional, saying it would be "an escape from [the] bondage and slavery" of amateur tennis. If getting paid meant that Lenglen could no longer enter Wimbledon—which was open only to amateurs at the time—so be it. (Wimbledon officials were so offended, they rescinded Lenglen's membership, never mind that she had won six singles titles and 91 of the 94 matches she played.)
A full 40 years before the Open era ended the division between tennis's professional and amateur divisions, Lenglen offered what might as well have been a manifesto: "Under these absurd and antiquated amateur rulings, only a wealthy person can compete, and the fact of the matter is that only wealthy people do compete. Is that fair? Does it advance the sport? Does it make tennis more popular—or does it tend to suppress and hinder an enormous amount of tennis talent lying dormant in the bodies of young men and women whose names are not in the social register?"
She accepted $50,000 from American promoter Charles Pyle to tour the U.S., playing against Mary K. Browne; Lenglen defeated the three-time U.S. champion in all 38 matches. "Athletically formidable and emotionally tattered," as one biographer put it, Lenglen retired from tennis at 28. She retreated to her villa in Nice and turned inward. Her mother, Anaïs, issued a statement that Suzanne was "fed up with newspaper talk about her and only wants to be left in peace." Meanwhile, Charles told the media that Suzanne was going to wed her boyfriend, a wealthy Californian—married at the time—with the spectacular name of Baldwin M. Baldwin. No ceremony ever took place. And Papa died in 1929.
According to Engelmann, by 1930 Suzanne had returned to Paris, where she worked "as a saleslady in a sporting goods establishment." There, she "invented" shorts for women that came up above the knee. She also began to run a tennis school for Parisian children, subsidized with public funds, while the newly married Helen Wills Moody had become the new It Girl of the sport.
Though Lenglen was free from the pressures of celebrity and the itinerancy of professional tennis, she continued to have health issues. In 1934 she nearly died from acute appendicitis. Lenglen was in her late 30s when she was reportedly diagnosed with leukemia. In mid-June of '38 she complained of feeling unwell; doctors came to her Paris apartment and administered transfusions. On July 4—just days after Moody won a record eighth Wimbledon singles title—Lenglen died in her sleep. She was 39. The cause of death: pernicious anemia.
Or was it?
Pernicious anemia stems from the lack of a specific protein made in the stomach that helps vitamin B12 become absorbed into the bloodstream. A B12 deficiency can cause a decrease in red blood cells, which are crucial in carrying oxygen to the heart, brain and other organs. In medical jargon pernicious means deadly. But in the 1920s, American physicians George Minot and William Murphy figured out that patients can simply be injected with B[12rich liver extracts, rendering pernicious anemia a misnomer. Within a decade, 20,000 lives were saved in the U.S. alone.
So why wasn't Lenglen's?
The cure was well-known around the world by 1939. In fact, Minot and Murphy had won the Nobel Prize in Medicine five years earlier "for their discoveries concerning liver therapy in cases of anemia."
"There's no way they wouldn't know to give her liver or liver extracts," says Scott Dinehart, a dermatologist (and amateur tennis historian). "It would be like Beyoncé having pernicious anemia and not getting B12—that's not going to happen."
Pernicious anemia usually causes a slow decline marked by fatigue and trouble with balance over several years. Lenglen fell suddenly ill three weeks before dying. Just before that, she'd conducted a tennis clinic for more than 100 young Parisians.
During Lenglen's final days, pernicious anemia was one of just several maladies mentioned in stories about her. Besides leukemia, she was also reported to suffer from sinusitis, "a ganglionic condition" and "a neglected case of the measles." Alcoholic liver failure belongs on the list of potential causes, Dinehart believes. It could have resulted in pernicious-anemia-like symptoms, including a lack of red blood cells, susceptibility to infection and, ultimately, death. And there's ample evidence of Lenglen's long proclivity for drinking.
Anemia expert Janis Abkowitz, who is the head of hematology at UW Medicine in Seattle, says that she "could make 15 different diagnoses with the paucity of data here." However, if a new explanation has to be found, she notes that many more people suffer from alcoholism than anemia. Without examining Lenglen's medical records, she can't close the case entirely.
Everything about Suzanne Lenglen was a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a silk headband. Her life and tennis career were shrouded in theater and drama. Why not the end of her life as well?