by Louise E. Wright
In July 1928, U.S. tennis great “Big Bill” Tilden entered the Challenge Round of the Davis Cup against reigning world and Wimbledon champion René Lacoste. Five sets later, Tilden emerged victorious, his outstanding command of the ball stunning his opponent and bringing the crowd at Paris’ Roland Garros Stadium to its feet. Hedi Forchheimer of Regensburg, Germany, may well have been among those cheering the American’s win.
West Mt. Airy resident Jon Rossman relates that his mother, Hedi, shared memories of seeing Tilden play in Paris in the 1920s. An athletic woman who participated in the game herself, Hedi “was interested in the whole tennis world.” According to Rossman, she considered Tilden “very, very good” and “a wonderful player,” words that fail to do justice to the man who dominated the international tennis scene during that decade.
The first American to win Wimbledon, Germantown native Tilden ranked No. 1 in the world from 1920 through 1925 and in the U.S. through 1929. He earned seven national singles titles and played on 11 Davis Cup teams. Now Rossman, 78, is on a crusade to have the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission (PHMC) erect one of its blue and gold markers in honor of the Germantown favorite son.
William Tatem Tilden, Jr. was born on Feb. 10, 1893, at Overleigh, the family mansion on McKean Avenue. In his teens, he moved a few blocks away to 519 Hansberry St., where he lived with his aunt and cousin while attending Germantown Academy. Tilden played tennis at the Germantown Cricket Club and retained his ties to the neighborhood for the next 30 years. His ashes are buried in Ivy Hill Cemetery.
In 1939, Tilden moved to Los Angeles, where he taught tennis, played occasionally in professional tournaments and hobnobbed with such Hollywood legends as Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn and Mary Pickford. That same year on Nov. 10, three-and-a-half-year-old Jon Rossman and his family arrived in New York Harbor, refugees from Nazi Germany.
At the time, the Third Reich still permitted some Jews to emigrate. Rossman explains that an uncle had paved their way, visiting the U.S. in order “to get affidavits, to find people who would agree to sign documents to let us in. All Jewish children had the same exit visa, stamped with a big red ‘J.’ I didn’t research it, but I’m pretty certain the ‘J’ stood for Jew.”
The family came directly to Philadelphia, drawn by the prospect of work for Rossman’s father, whom he describes as “a well-known designer of patterns for knitting machines.” By the late 1930s, however, the knitting industry had left the city, so the older Rossman found employment in New York, commuting home to southwest Philadelphia on weekends.
Rossman grew up on Cobbs Creek Parkway and 63rd Street between Webster and Christian. He attended William Cullen Bryant School, Central High School and the University of Pennsylvania. Having earned a Master’s degree from the University of Illinois, he joined the handful of instructors making up the English department at the then-newly founded Community College of Philadelphia, proceeding to teach there for more than three decades.
Driving around Germantown one day, a friend pointed out Overleigh. “That’s Bill Tilden’s house,” he said.
“Why is there no marker?” Rossman wanted to know and wondered, “Maybe because he was gay?”
“Tilden was well known in this country,” Rossman reasons. “He was right up there with Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey. These are outstanding athletes whom America honors.”
Remembering his mother’s interest in Tilden, Rossman decided “there should be a marker” recognizing the man who “put American tennis on the international map.” Of his determination, he jokes, “Maybe I have too much time on my hands.”
If so, then it’s a good thing, for the process of applying to the PHMC is lengthy and involved. In addition to amassing “historical or newspaper articles” and references to books, Rossman must provide an explanation of “why Tilden is deserving of such an honor.” He must also submit “letters of support from relevant people.”
Philadelphia city officials, however, have failed to rally around the cause. Mayor Michael Nutter declined to write such a letter, Rossman reports, but “never said quite why.” Other politicians have also refused. Rossman speculates the reason is Tilden’s criminal record.
In the 1940s, Tilden was arrested twice on “morals” charges for allegedly making sexual advances to teenage boys. Convicted, he served a year in prison each time. Rossman emphasizes, however, that the marker is to honor Tilden’s “tennis prowess” and has nothing to do with his sexual preference or criminal record. (Ed. Note: In those days, any attempt by a gay man or woman to connect with another gay person could result in arrest, loss of job, etc.)
Rossman has had better luck with the tennis community. In the course of doing research and following up leads, he connected with Philadelphia writer Allen M. Hornblum, currently at work on a biography of Tilden. A tennis player himself, Hornblum has been instrumental in obtaining endorsements from such stars as Dick Savitt, the 1951 Wimbledon singles champion, and Vic Seixas, winner of the same event in 1953.
Rossman has also approached Billie Jean King. Although he has heard nothing definite, he has reason to believe that “she might write a letter for us.” He has also obtained endorsements from Tilden’s alma mater, Germantown Academy, and from Legacy Youth Tennis and Education.
Applicants, Rossman explains, must submit the text of the marker, although the PHMC reserves the right to edit it. In addition, applicants must “indicate where it might be placed.”
The commission, which does not pay for the marker, also requires that those applying indicate who will be responsible for the cost. For the time being, Rossman has assumed that responsibility. “I have not asked anyone for money,” he emphasizes but admits he is “hoping for contributions.” Several individuals have indeed offered to help out financially. One small difficulty is that contributors may want to take a tax deduction. In that case, “fiscal arrangements” will have to be made so that the donations are tax-free.
Rossman reports that campaign is “going pretty well.” With luck, a PHMC marker will soon grace the front of Overleigh or other spot closely associated with Tilden, and Rossman can devote his free time to yet another worthy project.
For more information or to assist in getting the well-deserved marker for Bill Tilden erected, call 215-844-0779.
Ed. Note: The list of luminaries who were imprisoned and/or committed suicide because they were gay is long and includes author/playwright Oscar Wilde, World War II Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing (the current movie, “The Imitation Game”), German steel manufacturer Friedrich Krupp, poet Hart Crane, British four-time “Fashion Designer of the Year” Alexander McQueen, photographer Diane Arbus, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, fashion model Margaux Hemingway, explorer Meriwether Lewis, folksinger Phil Ochs, poet Sylvia Plath, painter Mark Rothko, actor George Sanders, author Virginia Woolf, et al. I find it interesting and extraordinarily hypocritical that current politicians like Mayor Nutter and City Council members who have embraced gay voters should turn their backs on Bill Tilden, a victim of grave injustice who obviously cannot vote anymore.