Tilden [left] with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Manuel Alonso
Although he disliked sports growing up in Philadelphia and didn't make the team on his first try at Penn, Bill Tilden became a tennis legend, easily the sports' greatest player in his lifetime and as famous nationally as Babe Ruth. In 1920 he was the first American to win a Wimbledon singles championship, and he won the US singles seven times, doubles five times, and mixed doubles four times. A feat that has never been matched is Tilden's leading the US team to seven consecutive Davis Cup championships. He finally turned pro in 1931 and earned half a million dollars in six years. The never-married Tilden's homosexuality was an open secret, as was his preference for teenagers. He traveled with his own ball boys. As he aged he is said to have become more brazen about those relations; or maybe he wasn't more obvious, maybe people were simply less inclined to look the other way once he was a has-been.
In November 1946 he and a fourteen year-old hustler were parked in Beverly Hills when a policeman saw them and arrested Tilden. Although he wrongly believed his status and celebrity friendships with the likes of Charlie Chaplin would protect him, he was only charged with a misdemeanor (contributing to delinquency) rather than a felony (lewd and lascivious with a minor). He was sentenced to a year in jail and served seven months. In January 1949 Tilden picked up a sixteen year old hitchhiker and did it again. Again he could have faced felony charges but was only charged with violating his probation. Again he was sentenced to a year in prison and served ten months.
Within months of his second release, in 1950 AP conducted a nationwide poll of sportswriters to determine the greatest athletes of the half-century in each sport. Overwhelmingly they voted the twice disgraced Tilden #1 in tennis, by a wider margin than any other athlete earned. He was increasingly, though not entirely, shunned on the country club circuit.
Tilden died at sixty in 1953 with a net worth of $88.13. He had squandered his fortune investing in bad Broadway shows, some of which he starred in. He also wrote popular tennis manuals, and some unsuccessful novels, though his most enduring spot in literature is his cameo in Lolita. Contrasting Humbert Humbert's heterosexual underage love is a gay former star "with a harem of ball boys" whose name is Ned Litam. Typical of Nabokov's endless wordplay, spelled backwards that's Ma Tilden. In nonfiction, he is the pivotal coach in Marshall Fisher's riveting A Terrible Splendor [Kindle] about the 1937 Davis Cup match between straight American Don Budge and queer German Gottfried von Cramm.