Alice Marble

The Queen of Swat

Dale Fehringer

Copyright 2015 by Dale Fehringer


Photo courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Photo courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution

The next time you explore San Francisco, you might want to spend a few minutes at the Alice Marble Tennis Courts on top of Russian Hill, less than a block from Lombard Street. Standing there, it’s possible to enjoy breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Alcatraz. And it’s there you can reflect on the remarkable story of a San Franciscan named Alice Marble who was a world-famous tennis champion, World War II spy, tuberculosis survivor, and civil rights advocate.

Tennis gave me the opportunity to serve my country, but it did not prepare me for what I was asked to do – be a spy!” That’s how Alice Marble opens her autobiography, which quickly turns into a dramatic rise-and-fall story. She calmly tells how she overcame vast odds (including tuberculosis) to become the best female tennis player in the world, lost everything, and bounced back to help prosecute the people who tried to destroy her life.

No one would have predicted such an exciting life for a girl who grew up an ordinary tomboy in 1920’s San Francisco. As a girl, Alice Marble was primarily interested in sports, especially baseball. When she was seven, her father died on Christmas Eve, leaving her mother to raise five children. Her uncle filled in by taking Marble and her brother to local minor league San Francisco Seals games. She enjoyed it so much she went whenever possible, arriving early to play catch before the game. Thinking she was a boy, one of the Seals players asked her to come on the field. Marble later wrote that “… my hero, Lefty O’Doul, asked me to shag flies for him. Joe DiMaggio, beside me in center field, yelled encouragement.”

After that, local newspapers printed stories about her, identifying her as the new “Seals mascot,” and a San Francisco Examiner sportswriter dubbed her the “Little Queen of Swat.”

When she was thirteen, her brother gave her a tennis racket and told her, “You can’t keep hanging around the ballpark, hitting balls through people’s windows and acting like a boy.” At first, Marble was devastated to lose her time with the Seals, but she learned to play tennis – and to play it well. She excelled at sports at San Francisco’s Polytechnic High School, and after school she became a champion tennis player, noted for her aggressive play on the court and pioneering a new form of women’s power tennis. She also started a new dress style for women’s tennis, being the first to wear shorts. She toured the U.S., Canada, and Europe, playing in tennis tournaments, and she won most of the time.

In 1934, Marble collapsed during a match at a tennis tournament in France. Doctors diagnosed her with tuberculosis and told her she would never again play tennis. She was taken to a sanatorium and confined to bed, where she watched her muscles and her hopes wither. After nearly a year, she left the sanatorium and went to live with her tennis coach. Encouraged by her coach and by actress Carole Lombard, who became a friend and confidante, Marble made a remarkable comeback. Through excruciating rehabilitation and grueling effort she went back on the tournament schedule and in 1939 she won tennis titles in women’s singles, women’s doubles, and mixed doubles. She became the best female tennis player in the world and was named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year in 1939 and 1940. Her comeback and championships won her fame and notoriety. She designed her own line of tennis clothing for women, gave inspirational talks, conducted tennis clinics, hung out with well-known people, including Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, William du Pont, and Randolph Hearst, and was mobbed by fans and given special treatment wherever she went.

During World War II, Marble volunteered to serve in the armed forces, but she was turned down because of her tuberculosis. Instead, she was asked by President Roosevelt to co-chair a physical-fitness program for the Office of Civilian Defense. To pass security, she was interrogated by the FBI, who questioned her about an earlier affair with a Swiss banker named Hans and delved into her lifelong photographic memory. She also served her country by conducting tennis clinics for soldiers and by performing as a singer at U.S.O. clubs. She fell in love with and married a handsome, dark-haired pilot named Joe Crowley. They exchanged love letters and spent blissful days together when he was home on leave. She became pregnant and looked forward to raising their baby.

On Christmas Eve, 1944, as the Battle of the Bulge was being fought in Europe, the doorbell at Marble’s apartment rang. A man in a uniform stood in the doorway with a telegram in his hand. Joe was dead, killed in action over Germany. Only days before his death, Alice had a miscarriage with their child after a car accident. It was too much for Alice, and she wrote that “Joe was gone, and all my dreams with him.” She fell apart.

Again, Marble’s tennis coach was there to help her find a reason to go on. After recuperating, Marble was recruited as a spy by the Army. Her mission involved renewing contact with Hans, her former lover and a flourishing Swiss banker, and obtaining Nazi financial information from him. She received training in self-defense, firearms, and using a miniature camera.

She was sent to Europe to play in a series of demonstration tennis matches in order to attract Hans. The ruse worked, he contacted her, they dated, and she wound up falling in love with him. He made her feel alive for the first time in months, and she was torn by her longing to be with him and her desire to help her country. Her conscience reminded her that she was the only one who could do what had to be done, and she decided to do her duty.

She discovered where Hans kept a key to a safe containing stolen valuables and names of the Nazis who had stolen them. She feigned an illness and while Hans was out she photographed the information in the safe. Just as she was finishing Hans came home. She suspected Hans had left the keys in his car, as he usually did, so the servants could move it to the garage, and she waited until she heard him enter the house and go upstairs to look for her. She ran out the front door, got into his car, and fled. She was afraid he would follow, or that she would be stopped by police. Instead, she was flagged down by the Army contact assigned to her, who had been watching Hans’ house.

Her relief turned to terror when she discovered her contact was a double agent. He demanded she give the photographs to him, which was not the agreed plan. She refused and fled. He shot her in the back, took the photographs, and turned them over to the Russians.

Badly wounded, Marble spent months recovering in a hospital. Fortunately, she was able to use her photographic memory to recall many of the Nazi names and information, which she related to U.S. agents. It was valuable intelligence that was later used to help prosecute high-ranking Nazi officers.

After the War, Marble resumed playing and teaching tennis. She spent the rest of her life mentoring female tennis players, including Billy Jean King, and she contributed to the desegregation of the sport by writing an editorial in support of Althea Gibson, the first African-American athlete to cross the color line of international tennis.

In 1964, Marble was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She moved to Palm Desert, California, where she taught tennis until her death in 1990.

The Little Queen of Swat had never given up. She spent her life overcoming adversity and fighting for what she believed in. Hers is a story for the ages.

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