The birth of women's professional tennis was captured in a 1970 photograph of nine women in Houston. With Billie jean King and Rosie Casais among them, they hold aloft $1 bills to signal their participation in what would become a new women's tour. In the front row on the right, sits Gladys Heldman, wearing her signature dark sunglasses. Compared to King and Casals, Heldman was unknown to tennis fans. But no one had done as much as she had to make the moment possible.
The New York native was then, as she would be through much of her life, shrouded by the glare of the limelight. Nearly five years after her death and four decades after she helped put women's tennis on the map, Heldman's place in the game doesn't measure up to her contribution. "If you polled the 50,000 people who attend the U.S. Open on one of those big Labor Day weekend days," says former USTA president Alan Schwartz, "you'd be lucky to have 10 percent recognize the name Gladys Heldman, which is a shame."
"She's not as well known as she should be," says Larry Scott, CEO of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour. Few disagree that without Heldman women's tennis wouldn't have "come a long way, baby," as the Virginia Slims tag line once affirmed, as quickly as it did. In 2008, the WTA is the premier professional sport for women, with 60 events in 34 countries and prize money exceeding $70 million. "Not one woman professional player would have the life they have today without her," King says.
With her business savvy and feminist philosophy, Heldman, who owned and published World Tennis magazine, secured an initial $7,500 investment from close friend Joseph Cullman, the chairman of Philip Morris, to put on a tournament in Houston and kick-start the women's tour. Along with King and Cullman, Heldman was the third leg upon which the young tour stood.
She was as comfortable telling salty stories while puffing on Marlboros (and later, of course, Virginia Slims) and sipping scotch as she was proud of her monogrammed towels and heirloom silver. Compelling and quixotic- down to her untimely and startling death -Heldman remains largely overlooked. "On the day she died, the flags at not just the WTA but every tennis facility and institution in the world should have flown at half-mast," Pam Shriver said.
Born in New York in 1922, Gladys Medalie Heldman was the second child of a prominent lawyer and judge. A rebel from an early age, she took pleasure in smoking and drinking, flirting with boys, and challenging cultural values. After a letter of recommendation from family friend and former president Herbert Hoover helped her get into Stanford University, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in three years. On the West Coast, she met her future husband, Julius, a classmate who was also a former U.S. junior tennis champion. In her mid-20s, with two young children, Heldman took up tennis and became a highly proficient player.
While living in Houston, where Julius was a research scientist at Shell Oil, she began a one-page mimeographed periodical about Texas tennis from her home. Heldman gradually built it into a 16-page newsletter, and in 1953 launched World Tennis. In the early years, it was virtually a one-woman operation, in which Heldman wrote and edited articles, sold ads, and pasted the layout. When the family moved to New York in '53, her two daughters, Julie and Carrie Heldman, recall bringing their mother breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the small office she rented. "It was all-consuming," Carrie says. Heldman took rejection hard when potential advertisers - some of whom didn't think a woman should be running a magazine - rebuffed her, but she reveled in competing in a man's world. "If she didn't get her way, she was prepared to go five sets on clay with no tiebreaks," says former World Tennis editor Neil Amdur.
World Tennis, which was sold to CBS in 1972, grew into a glossy moneymaker with a circulation of close to 375,000, and Heldman became an influential advocate for the game. Another former World Tennis editor, Susan B. Adams, says, "She was a force of nature, a whirlwind. She was sort of above gender in many ways." Tennis writer David Gray wrote that the magazine "demanded freedom, open tennis, democracy, and common sense."
But where Heldman truly left her mark was in orchestrating the first female tennis tour. She had already demonstrated her promotional acumen at the U.S. National Championships (now the U.S. Open) in 1962. At that point, fewer and fewer foreign amateur players were making the costly overseas trip to New York, which was hurting the quality of the event. Heldman and nine other patrons put up $1,800 each to fly dozens of players from Europe to Forest Hills, money that was recouped when the 1962 tournament took in $100,000 more than it had the year before. By the end of the decade, Heldman saw the writing on the wall. The amateur game was stagnating. Spurred by prize money that favored men, the women players, led by King, turned to the 48-year-old doyenne of the sport to champion their cause.
All of this coincided with the launch of Philip Morris' new Virginia Slims cigarette brand, marketed to women. After nine players decided to take a stand by boycotting the Pacific Southwest tournament in Los Angeles, which was offering significantly more prize money to male participants, Heldman persuaded Cullman to put up the money for an initial women's event at the Houston Racquet Club.
The United States Lawn Tennis Association (now the USTA) threatened to ban the group from its events -including, possibly, the Grand Slams - if they played in Houston. The organization, the ruling body of the amateur game in the U.S., was trying to maintain control of the players in the pro era. In response, Heldman had the players sign $1 "personal service" contracts that would give them antitrust protection in the case of a USLTA suspension. They then staged their famous photo. The USLTA suspended them as promised, but the tournament went on as scheduled and the players refused to back down. Heldman quickly lined up two more events and signed her group of pros to contract extensions.
According to Amdur, forming the new tour was "the single most symbolic act of protest in women's sports." The following year the 19-event Virginia Slims Circuit was established-Heldman nicknamed it the "Women's Lob, Featuring the Little Broads"- and the USLTA backed off
By 1973 the players were eager to create a more formal association. According to King and Casals, they wanted Heldman to take the reins of the future WTA, but she declined. King says she isn't sure why Heldman turned them down. "She got upset with me," King says. "She enjoyed power. She cared for our sport. She would have been the big kahuna. I still don't understand it." Casals recalls "some butting of heads" between herself and Heldman as well as between Heldman and King. "Gladys was never anybody who wanted to answer to guidelines," Casals says.
Following the sale of World Tennis in 1972 and her disengagement from the tour, Heldman slowly receded from the sport. She spent the next few years writing a novel, The Harmonetics Investigation (still available on Amazon.com), collecting rare books, and starting a consulting business aimed at placing women on the boards of major corporations. In the early ig8os, she and her husband retired to Santa Fe, N.M., accompanied by her cats, Virginia and Slims. There she founded the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra & Chorus and spent some of her happiest days playing tennis, studying Japanese- "I have to study four hours a day just to stay lousy," she said- and plowing through crossword puzzles. Though friends from the tennis world often visited and played on the indoor court at her home, she kept her distance from the sport and the women she once championed
A thaw came near the end of Heldman's life. In 2002, on the occasion of her 8oth birthday and 60th wedding anniversary, she invited King, Casals, and others to celebrate in Santa Fe. King interpreted the invitation as a kind of detente. "It was her way of telling me, 'It was pretty great, wasn't it?"' King says. "All was forgiven, though she didn't say it that way. We had a great time and it was great closure." Still, King remains perplexed by the long silence.
A year later, Heldman left the world as she approached it- on her terms. On June 21, 2003, she attended a costume party at her friend Eleanor Brenner's house in Santa Fe. She arrived in full regalia as the Arch Duchess Adelaide. "She was having a blast," Brenner says. Schwartz, the former USTA president, sat at Heldman's table. He says she asked him to play doubles the next day. No one is sure what happened when she left, but according to several people, Heldman wasn't feeling well and had complained of acid reflux and pain in her shoulder earlier in the day. The next morning, on June 22, Heldman took her life with a gun she kept by her bedside.
Many who knew Heldman said it didn't shock them. Her fear of hospitals was well known. Her two daughters think she might have feared she was having a heart attack and taken matters into her own hands. Brenner says she was "numb" when she heard the news and later was told by Julius, "Gladys lived as she wanted to and died as she wanted to." Carrie says her mother, never one to miss the chance for a one-liner, had emphasized in a letter her wish never to be hospitalized, instead preferring "to die in bed, looking smashing with lots of makeup to hide the blemishes."
Those close to Heldman say she felt underappreciated bur not bitter near the end of her life. In 1979, Heldman had earned enshrinement in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, but wider-spread recognition eluded her. King, who recognizes that her presence has overshadowed Heldman's contributions, as well as others', mentioned both Heldman and Cullman in her speech when the USTA's National Tennis Center was renamed in her honor two years ago. "If they had been alive," King says, "I would have invited them both on the court."