Women players in the upcoming BNP Paribas tennis tournament at Indian Wells should take some time to visit a book signing. Yes, even in the midst of their heavy schedule of practices and matches.
That’s because the woman signing the books is both important and symbolic to them and their tour. Her name is Julie Heldman. Her book is titled Driven: A Daughter’s Odyssey. Simply put, today’s players owe her at least the courtesy of a visit.
Heldman is 73. She was ranked as high as No. 5 in the world in the early 1970s. She won 22 pro titles and advanced to the semifinals of every tennis major except Wimbledon. Her era included the likes of Billie Jean King and Margaret Court. She beat BJK four times and Court twice. The week before King played Bobby Riggs in the legendary Battle of the Sexes in 1973 at the Houston Astrodome, she lost to Heldman.
There is much more to Heldman than wins and losses on the tennis court. Her story, beautifully constructed in this lengthy memoir, is rich in history and significance. That is, in no small part, due to Heldman’s mother, Gladys. Gladys Heldman, and a group of players strong enough to stand beside her in defiance, cleared the path for many of those players who might visit Julie Heldman at Indian Wells, players who now play for seven-figure paychecks.
In 1970, a gathering of women players sought out Gladys Heldman as a tournament was about to begin in Los Angeles. They had a complaint: the men’s purse was eight times larger than theirs. And they were complaining to Gladys because she had power, the power of the press. Gladys was a good enough tennis player to play occasional tour doubles with Althea Gibson. Gladys was so wrapped up in her love for the game that she started a tennis newsletter in 1953, which soon grew into the bible of the sport, World Tennis Magazine.
She not only had the power of journalism on her side, but also a way of doing things that got them done, with little regard for the debris left along the way. As Julie Heldman says, “My mother had to be totally in charge. She was pushy, full of ideas. Also Jewish.”
Gladys Heldman got nine tour players to boycott the tournament and hold their own event. The nine, threatened with suspension from women’s tennis, were King, Rosie Casals, Nancy Richey, Judy Dalton, Kerry Melville Reid, Peaches Bartkowicz, Kristy Pigeon, Valerie Ziegenfuss.
And Julie Heldman.
From 2006, Julie Heldman is inducted into the USTA Eastern Hall of Fame with her late mother, Gladys, in the background.
The tour was the forerunner of today’s lucrative WTA Tour. Gladys Heldman got a friend, a high executive at Philip Morris, to be the main sponsor and the Virginia Slims Tour was under way. Julie Heldman keynotes well what a liaison between female athletes and a tobacco company meant. “We had done a deal with the devil,” she says, “but we had a tour.”
Julie Heldman’s memoir is about more than backhands and forehands and being a pioneer. Much more. From the book title, the words “driven” and “daughter” are the best hints. Julie Heldman was such a good tennis player that she won a national girls’ 18 event when she was 12. After that victory, more than a trophy, she wanted the praise and recognition of her mother. She didn’t get it then, or ever.
Julie describes her mother as “unapologetically unconventional. She didn’t cook. She didn’t clean. She didn’t vacuum.”
Gladys Heldman ran tennis tournaments and a tennis magazine and made time for nothing else.
One reviewer of the memoir wrote that Heldman “bared her soul about a complicated and unavailable mother.” Heldman told another writer, Shana Renee of ESPN, that “nobody knew how cruel my mother could be. I saw her as two people.”
Julie Heldman’s life has been a battle to reverse maternal disinterest. She retired from the tour when a painful shoulder injury ended her playing days.
She had a successful post-playing career stint as a network TV commentator and gathered a large following as a foil and friendly partner in broadcasting fun to the legendary Bud Collins. They worked the best tournaments, places such as Wimbledon.
A Stanford graduate, Julie Heldman got her law degree from UCLA, and was the school’s Law Review Editor in 1981, as well as UCLA’s Law Graduate of the Year. She headed into the pressure cooker of Los Angeles corporate law, then took on the chief executive role in her husband’s eyeglass company. She also battled mental problems. She has had several breakdowns and eventual was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Through it all, she sought, and seldom received, the support and attention of her mother.
In 2003, Gladys Heldman committed suicide. Of that, Julie writes that several things struck her immediately. First, she didn’t know her mother had a gun, or that she would know how to use it. Also, she noted the efficiency of Gladys Heldman, right to the last second.
“She put the gun in her mouth,” Julie writes, “pointed it upward, and pulled the trigger.”
Nine years after her suicide, Gladys Heldman was honored with one of tennis’ highest awards. It was presented at a dinner in Charleston, South Carolina. The irony is hard to avoid. The tournament being played there that week was called the Family Circle Cup.
Julie was asked to come, receive the award and make a speech. She did, paying homage, with dignity and restraint, to her mother’s professional success. It was one of many signs of healing, healing that continues today. She says, “Now, the beast within me, has become more manageable.”
Julie Heldman will sign copies of her book, Driven: A Daughter’s Odyssey, from 1 to 3 p.m. March 10 at Barnes & Noble at Westfield Palm Desert, 72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert. For more information, visit drivenadaughtersodyssey.com.