Gladys Heldman: A Daughter’s Perspective

Written by: on 24th September 2013
Julie
Gladys Heldman: A Daughter's Perspective  |

(Original Link: http://www.wtatennis.com/page/OffCourtNews/Read/0,,12781~2733273,00.html)

CHARLESTON, SC, USA – Among the highlights of the Original 9′s reunion weekend in Charleston was the presentation of the third annual Georgina Clark Mother Award, which was created in memory of one of the WTA’s most loyal servants. British legend Ann Jones received the inaugural award in 2010, while last year’s honoree, Judy Dalton, was on hand to announce the late Gladys Heldman as this year’s recipient. Heldman’s daughter, Original 9 member and former world No.5 Julie, accepted the award on behalf of her mother – delivering a speech that did the matriarch of women’s pro tennis proud.

 

JULIE HELDMAN:

 

Thank you for honoring my mother with the Georgina Clark Mother Award.

 

This award is certainly not because Gladys Heldman was a traditional mother. She was unapologetically unconventional. She didn’t cook, she didn’t clean, she didn’t vacuum. She was uninterested in makeup and frilly dresses. But she was a helluva role model. She taught us to value education and success, she was committed to helping others, and she stood up for what she believed in.

 

This weekend we are celebrating the founding of the Family Circle Cup and the founding of the women’s pro tour. My mother had a role in the founding of this tournament, and she was the driving force, the shepherd, and the guiding light for the beginning of the women’s pro tour. Yet my mother never took a dime from women’s tennis. In fact she dug deep into her own pocket.

 

Here’s why she was uniquely qualified to be the founder of the modern women’s tennis tour:

 

She was extraordinarily hard working. She graduated from Stanford in three years, at the top of her class. In 1953, she started, owned, edited, and published World Tennis, which became the world’s largest and most influential tennis magazine. When she sold the magazine in 1972, she liked to say she was replaced by seven men. That’s probably true.

 

She was committed to unlimited opportunities for women. In the 1950s, she was often asked “Isn’t it nice your husband lets you work?” My father was a distinguished scientist and businessman who had married a force of nature, and nothing was stopping her.

 

She had a bully pulpit. For years she used her editorial pages to campaign for open tennis, and when that battle was won in 1968, she championed women’s tennis, calling for more tournaments and bigger prize money for the women pros.

 

She was a self starter who was driven to succeed. She had no experience in journalism, but she taught herself to write and edit articles and to sell ads, the life blood of magazines. I remember her each month going without sleep for days, typing furiously, chain-smoking cigarettes, and laying out articles all over her bed, all to send the magazine to press on time. She was never one day late.

 

She was a phenomenal, creative promoter who batted 1,000. Her most successful promotion before the women’s pro tour was the 1962 US Championships at Forest Hills. The field had been weak for years, because top tennis players were playing in Europe for bigger under-the-table money. No one knew how to solve the problem. So Gladys took over. She and a group of friends ponied up enough money to jet the players in from Europe and treat them like kings. The tournament was a huge success. She saved Forest Hills.

 

She focused on the goal and didn’t back down, even when she ruffled feathers. The Forest Hills promotion is a perfect example. The men who ran the United States Lawn Tennis Association resented her coming in and doing a better job than they had. After her astonishing success, they kicked her out. She succeeded in part because she was headstrong and sometimes difficult.

 

She knew everyone in tennis. She attracted advertisers by cold-calling the heads of big companies. If she struck out, she’d go to Tiffany’s and buy herself something expensive. She owned three gold cigarette lighters, but she also got lots of ads and lots of business connections. She brought Joe Cullman, Chairman of the Board of Phillip Morris, into tennis, and his company became a major presence.

 

She was dedicated to helping tennis players. Without any publicity, she paid for players who couldn’t afford to compete. At a time when opportunities were few for players of color, she reached out a hand to those in need.

 

All of these traits came in handy when she founded the women’s pro tour.

 

Her work ethic led her to ignore her busy schedule and help the women players. At Forest Hills in 1970, the women were furious that the upcoming Los Angeles tournament had a prize money ratio of 8 to 1 in favor of the men. Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals and Nancy Richey approached my mother, asking her to help start a competing event. My mother had a magazine to run, there were people from far and wide to meet at the Open, and my parents were in the process of moving from New York City to Houston. Yet when she heard the women’s cry for help, she jumped into action.

 

She started immediately. Within days she gained verbal permission from the men in power, contacted people in Houston to run the tournament, and rounded up the players. Yet when the Houston tournament was about to start, the men in power made an about face, threatening to suspend any player who competed in Houston. Those suspensions could cause havoc for the players and the club. So Gladys reassured them all.

 

Her creativity as a promoter led to a unique solution. In 1970 the rules distinguishing amateurs and pros were complex. To make the tournament work, my mother creatively made all the players contract pros for one week by signing them up for $1. That solution protected the players and the club.

 

Her connection to Joe Cullman was vital. She called him and got Virginia Slims, his company’s new women’s brand, to support the tournament.

 

That first event was a great success. The nine of us stood up for ourselves and for women’s tennis. Virginia Slims had a public relations coup. And after the finals, the Original 9 ate spaghetti dinner at our house and then chose my mother to head a women’s pro tour. Before the lights were out that night, she attacked her Rolodex, contacting anyone vaguely capable of promoting or sponsoring a women’s pro tournament. She signed up Virginia Slims to be the tour sponsor. And she never stopped reaching out to women players, supporting those who had already committed to the Virginia Slims tour, and enticing those who hadn’t.

 

For the next two-and-a-half years, my mother was the force behind the scenes, and Billie Jean King was the tour’s greatest star, without whom the tour would not have succeeded. And the rest of us players worked hard, putting our careers and the future of women’s tennis on the line.

 

Yet some of my mother’s strengths were also her downfall. Those years were a rough go for her. She was still running World Tennis. There were fights with tennis associations and unreliable promoters, and it took a huge toll on her. And then she was booted out of women’s pro tennis when the Virginia Slims Tour agreed to combine with the rival USLTA women’s tennis tour. Why? She was outspoken, she was mercurial, and she was difficult.

 

Thank heavens Gladys Heldman was difficult. It meant she stood up for the things she believed in. It meant she wouldn’t back down. It means she and the Original 9 players started what has become the most successful women’s pro tour in all of sports.

 

- Julie Heldman, April 6, 2012

 

 

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