Tennis Legend Gardnar Mulloy, Standing Tall at 97

Thursday, January 6, 2011 12:51 PM

[Taki’s Magazine]

I do not have many friends who are 97. Tennis legend Gardnar Mulloy is one of them. It is not clear why I should be so lucky to know him, nor why I should have had the opportunity to square off against him on the tennis court.

When I first played him singles in the mid-1980's, Gardnar was somewhere north of age 75. He was a three-time Davis Cup champion, four-time U.S. Doubles champion with Bill Talbert, had been ranked #1 in both singles and doubles in the early 1950's, and had won a couple of doubles championships at Wimbledon, the last in 1957 with Budge Patty. He had been inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1972.  

Our first encounter was on the clay courts of the ancient tennis facility at the Coral Gables Country Club in Miami. I figured, Hey, this fellow can't hurt me too bad. Bunny Smith, Gardnar's long-time sidekick who had worked for him at the flashy Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach, was the pro at the club and suggested the match. Although she was a friend of mine, she failed to warn me about Gardnar's lethal forehand. It was flat, hard and accurate. It hurt me plenty. Gardnar's backhand was nothing shoddy, either, let me tell you. I believe the score was 6-2, 6-3.

As time marched on, I gradually was able to adjust to Gardnar's game. And my own game naturally improved just by playing him. His forehand lost some of its sting along the way. Occasionally, I could beat him. It was always a challenge. He was dead set against losing to anyone, ever, and was hard on himself if he missed a shot, but always gracious in a loss. The title of his first book, The Will to Win says it all. 

Gardnar was noteworthy for idiosyncrasies on the court. To cite one example, he had this weird habit of serving with all three balls in his hand. He almost insisted on it. This made no sense to me, but it worked for him. It was part of his bag of tricks. For another, when receiving serve he often held the racket in front of his face, with the rim right up at his nose, so he was peeking around both sides. You couldn't read him that way. It was deliberate.

In doubles, when serving he sometimes would aim not in the direction of the receiver. Instead, he would hit the receiver's partner on the other side with a surprise line drive, then announce the point in his favor, and nonchalantly move over for the next serve without further comment. Quirky, but perfectly legal.

In recent years Gardnar has slowed down just a bit, but not long ago he got married for the second time, and now  he has published his second book of memoirs, entitled As It Was, which greatly expands on The Will to Win. It is a first-rate item of 20th century Americana. It is packed with all sorts of odd episodes in his long career. If you want to know what the pre Open Era in the world of tennis was like, Gardnar Mulloy is your man. 

Naturally the focus of the book is on tennis, but a lot takes place off the court. He tells about growing up in Miami, along the Miami river, and about his experiences in World War II, when he served in the navy in the Mediterranean as captain of a Landing Ship Tank (LST). He saw action in North Africa, Italy and the south of France. It made a lasting impression.

I recently posted an article on Taki’s Magazine about Pearl Harbor and FDR. Gardnar relates an amazing incident which took place in 1939 in Tampa, Florida, where he was playing at a long-defunct event called the Dixie championships. One evening after the matches he was discussing the war in Europe with three other players, and gave his opinion that the U.S. should not get involved fighting Germany like it had in World War I. One of the players was Henry "Hank" Prusoff, then ranked #10 in the U.S. in singles. Prusoff piped up, "I wouldn't worry about Germany, because we will be fighting Japan soon.... the Japs are going to bomb Pearl Harbor." 

This was in 1939, mind you, and Gardnar, then ranked #8 in singles, had never heard of a place called Pearl Harbor. Prusoff was from the Seattle area and stated that Japanese "tourists" were taking photos of the Seattle harbor and "it's the general talk". Prusoff knew that Pearl Harbor was the biggest U.S. naval base in the Pacific. Evidently, he put two and two together. It was perfectly logical that Pearl Harbor would be the target.  Or maybe Prusoff was a clairvoyant.

Gardnar half-jokingly suggested that President Roosevelt be informed immediately about this vital information, if Hank was so sure. The other two players mockingly agreed with Gardnar that something had to be done:

"We ushered Prusoff into the pro shop and made him write his allegations in a letter to the President of the United States. After reading the letter and with a return address, it was stamped and I personally dropped it in a mail box."

Two years later, on December 7th, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and Gardnar was in shock. No copy had been made of the letter sent to Roosevelt. In the meantime, according to Gardnar, Hank Prusoff had died "in an elevator accident". Gardnar states in As It Was, "My feeling is that our government had to be aware the bombing would happen because, if nothing else, someone in the administration had Hank's letter!"  

Gardnar contacted the two other individuals, Bryan "Bitsy" Grant and Harold "Hal" Surface, to verify the incident. Grant, ranked #7 in singles, said he remembered it and was just as bewildered as Gardnar. Hal Surface, ranked #7 in singles in 1937, refused to comment.

Most likely, Prusoff's letter exists in a manila envelope somewhere in the national archives, stamped TOP SECRET in red, along with more official-looking documents in the same file, attesting to the foreknowledge by Roosevelt's inner circle of the “sneak” attack.

This is an interesting story, but there are a few problems with it. For one thing, according to the New York Times, Henry Prusoff was alive at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. He died in May of 1943. However, the obit is not accessible on line. Prusoff did have a near-fatal accident in an elevator, but that was in 1935, according to Wikipedia. He recovered well enough to be ranked #8 in 1940.

Prusoff was born in 1910 and so would have been 33 when he died. Could his untimely demise have been the result of delayed complications from the elevator accident in 1935? Hank Prusoff appears to have been absent from the tennis circuit from 1941 onward.

Incidentally, in August 1940 Mulloy and Prusoff teamed up and were in the finals of the U.S. national doubles championship, at that time played at the Longwood Cricket Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. They lost to Jack Kramer and Ted Schroeder in a close match: 6-4, 8-6, 9-7.

Fast-forward to the 21st century. In the run-up to the Cheney/Bush Jr. invasion of Iraq, Gardnar and I were often on the tennis courts at Fisher Island, Florida, trading shots and talking about World War II and current events. As reported in a previous posting, "Gardnar felt that what Bush Jr. was doing in the Middle East was simply insane, just incomprehensible. He was at a loss to understand why it was happening and why the American people could let it happen."

On the occasion of the publication of his new book, I asked Gardnar if he would write a short piece for Taki's Magazine. He chose to about the war in Iraq, a frequent topic of our crossover conversations:

George Bush's Insane, Repugnant War

by Gardnar Mulloy

As a World War II veteran, I cannot understand the thinking of those who approve of President Bush's insane invasion of Iraq. Apparently they are blind to, or haven't felt first hand, the horror of the dead and battle-wounded. Unfortunately, it is those safe from harm's way, who have not or will not do the fighting, that influence others to risk their lives with "go get 'em, I'll hold your coat!"

The gullible American public, far from the action, does not realize or remains blissfully unaware that heroic wounded soldiers, soaked in their own blood and perhaps dying, lie in dirt screaming in agony. Pity the tired, homesick and loyal soldier. He is constantly under dangerous pressures. He rarely bathes or has a decent meal, and seeks protection as best he can, sometimes in a building he has destroyed. He is ordered to trudge weary miles with blistered feet carrying a rifle and heavy backpack, always with the fear of being killed by an unseen enemy as miserable as he is.

However, the worst scenario of war is the millions of suffering, defenseless civilians--men, women, and children who are bombed out of their homes, killed and wounded, or become starving refugees. Meanwhile, our leaders, who cause the carnage, spread the glory of war by proclaiming that God is on our side, as they remain out of harm's way.  At the same time, our government pays endangered soldiers peanuts and shamefully allows rampant and unabated war profiteering.

Actually, Gardnar has little interest in politics or even in international affairs. What interests him is the here and now. Most of all, he thinks for himself, and that comes through in As It Was. Often on "the outs" with those in authority, whether it be the U.S. Tennis Association or his Navy superiors, he didn't give a damn for public relations or adverse consequences. He went his own way. This helps to account for his no-nonsense view on Iraq and his condemnation of the Bush Jr. Administration. Gardnar can't be conned. 

In addition, Gardnar has a touch of misanthropy. Having taken the measure of his fellow man, he walked away unimpressed, indeed appalled. Like Gulliver upon his return from the land of the Houyhnhnms,  Gardnar prefers the company of animals, in particular his beloved dogs and cats. They have free run of his modest dwelling, which is situated in a sleepy neighborhood where time has stopped.

It is off the beaten track, tucked into an historic district of old Miami called Spring Garden, far from the crowds of ordinary people who race back and forth across the causeways. This is where Gardnar grew up, and where he has returned, bringing back an enormous trophy case, packed with more trophies than any person has a right to possess in one lifetime.

--Copyright 2011 Patrick Foy--