Alice Marble (right) poses with friend and fellow Palm Springs habitué, actress Carole Lombard in the mid-1930s.

Tennis Legend Alice Marble’s Escape to Palm Springs

Tennis, tumult, and espionage: how an 18-time Grand Slam tennis champion found solace on the court in Palm Springs.

Amanda Oliver History, Sports

Alice Marble (right) poses with friend and fellow Palm Springs habitué, actress Carole Lombard in the mid-1930s.

Alice Marble (right) poses with friend and fellow Palm Springs habitué, actress Carole Lombard in the mid-1930s.

Tennis legend Alice Marble’s path to greatness epitomized the American dream. Born in 1913 to a blue-collar family in Northern California, Marble fell in love, first, with baseball. “We were poor, so naturally we picked a hobby that was cheap,” she explained in her first autobiography, The Road to Wimbledon.

During Marble’s freshman year of high school, she received her first tennis racket, a Bancroft. A gift from her older brother, it came with instructions to “stop being a tomboy,” suggesting tennis was somehow more feminine than America’s pastime. Marble learned to play on public courts in San Francisco, and by 1934, under the tutelage of famed coach Eleanor “Teach” Tennant, she had become one of the top 10 women’s tennis players in the world.

That year, Marble collapsed on the tennis court in Paris, France. She was subsequently sent to a sanitarium in Monrovia, California, and advised to never pick up a racket again.

The active, jovial tennis star found herself on bed rest, eating a diet of bacon, liver, butter, cream, and eggs. Eight and a half months into a stay with no defined duration, a sedentary and depressed Marble escaped the property with the help of Teach. The two grabbed what few items Marble had, threw a coat over Marble’s pajamas, and ran from the property,  absconding to The Racquet Club in Palm Springs.

“Teach and I had an apartment over the drugstore. I was in bed by 9 o’clock. It was a very quiet life. Occasional movie. That was a big deal,” Marble noted in a 1987 interview for Prickly Pears, a video series documenting Coachella Valley history through the eyes of  locals.

Armando’s Bar

Alice Marble. 

This great escape was not Marble’s first excursion to Palm Springs. In 1931 at age 18, she came to The Desert Inn with Teach to play with the pros — and party with Hollywood legends including George Bancroft, James Stewart, Clark Gable, and Carole Lombard, who became an instigator and good friend. It was on the grounds of The Desert Inn some years later that Marble accepted a challenge from a young Shirley Temple, who bet Marble she couldn’t play tennis on a bicycle. But Marble could and did.

Marble’s post-sanitarium return to Palm Springs was somewhat tamer. She ran the pro shop at The Racquet Club, playing tennis with members in low-stakes, friendly games. In the desert heat, she often wore shorts, which she was widely criticized for wearing on the pro circuit in place of the obligatory tennis skirt.

“Amid the calm of those days and evenings,” Madeleine Blais notes in Queen of the Court: The Many Lives of  Tennis Legend Alice Marble (Grove Atlantic, 2023), “Alice considered whether to resume her career or torpedo it forever.”

Once again, she set her eyes on the big leagues, though the tennis world was at first reluctant to welcome her back. In 1936, Marble won the national singles and mixed doubles championships. In 1939, she took the singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, rising to become the world No. 1 player a mere two years after doctors had advised her to give it up. All told, Marble won 18 Grand Slams between 1936 and 1940. She became a mentor to Billie Jean King and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1964.

Marble drummed up attention off the court, too. In the 1940s, she served on the editorial advisory board of DC Comics, working as an associate editor on Wonder Woman, and conceptualizing the “Wonder Women of  History” feature that ran in the comic book from 1942 to 1954, spotlighting in illustrative form stories of prominent women through history, from Joan of Arc to Susan B. Anthony.

Armando’s Bar

Marble dives for the ball at Wimbledon.

Marble also claimed to be something of a superhero herself. In her second autobiography, Courting Danger, she wrote about serving as a spy for the United States in early 1945 after her pilot husband was killed in battle during World War II. The operation supposedly ended when a Nazi agent shot Marble in the back while she was trying to flee the scene in a car. (The validity of Marble’s claims has been corroborated by few and called into question by many. There is no confirmation that her pilot husband existed, either, with many alleging the story was Marble’s attempt to hide that she was gay.)

Marble notably helped with the desegregation of American tennis when she wrote an editorial in the 1950 issue of American Lawn Tennis supporting Althea Gibson and helping her gain entry into the 1950 U.S. Championships, where Gibson became the first Black player to compete in a Grand Slam.

In the early 1970s, Marble took up residence at Palm Desert Country Club, where she lived and taught tennis until her death in 1990. Today, Alice Marble Lane and Alice Marble Hall, a community events center, commemorate her there. Like all truly memorable examples of those who lived the American dream, Marble left behind a legacy of fascinating stories, including a fair amount of  folklore.

Upon her mentor’s passing, Billie Jean King told The New York Times, “Alice Marble was a picture of  unrestrained athleticism. She is remembered as one of the greatest women to play the game because of her pioneering style in power tennis.”