Recalling Gussie Moran, the gorgeous and tragic

In 1949, Wimbledon photographers got down on their backs to capture a better angle of Gussie Moran. George W. Hales/Fox Photos/Getty Images

They called her "Gorgeous Gussie," once one of the best tennis players in the world who became a household name the year she dared to reveal a glimpse of her ruffled panties and set Wimbledon on its collective ear.

But the day I interviewed Gussie Moran for the Orlando Sentinel in June of 1988, her teenage co-workers at the Los Angeles Zoo had no idea who she was.

"I know she's interested in tennis," the boy said then. "We talk about it all the time because I play. I told her I'd teach her. I'm a pretty good player."

I tipped him off that Moran used to be a pretty good player too, a semifinalist at the U.S. Open in singles and a finalist at Wimbledon in doubles.

The kid swallowed hard and shook his head.

"Oh my God," he said. "She never told us that. I just got the shivers."

His female co-worker nudged him. "Maybe she doesn't want us to know," she whispered.

This I knew for sure.

At the time, Moran lived with her four cats in a small studio apartment in Los Angeles, and she was putting in five shifts a week at the zoo's souvenir shop.

Covering tennis at the time, it took me nearly a year to find her and talk her into an interview. Once one of the most photographed women in the world, Moran did not really want to talk and, now highly self-conscious about her looks, refused to have her picture taken.

But she told me her life story that afternoon. And a more harrowing one I had seldom heard.

She had been evicted from her home of 22 years just two years earlier and said she was still not over the shock. She lived with friends for a while, tried teaching tennis and then, at age 64, found the job at the zoo.

And in a way, it all began with the tennis panties.

Her obituary this week in the Associated Press used a 2002 L.A. Times quote from tennis Hall of Famer Jack Kramer, who called Moran "the Anna Kournikova of her time. … Gussie was a beautiful woman with a beautiful body. If Gussie had played in the era of television, no telling what would have happened. Because, besides everything else, Gussie could play."

In 1949, Moran, then 25, was known for both her powerful forehand and her dazzling good looks. British dress designer Ted Tinling, who first gained fame in the tennis and fashion world with the dress he designed for tennis champion Suzanne Lenglen, received a letter from Moran before Wimbledon that year asking that he design something for her with wild splashes of color.

But his idea was to shorten the traditional skirt to just above the knee with matching shorts underneath.

Tinling, one of the great characters in all of tennis who by '49 was a longtime host at Wimbledon, was thrilled to talk about Moran and the dress nearly 40 years later.

"The titillation was that you only saw [the panties] about once every three minutes," he said. "No one ever knew what they wore underneath in those days. No one would ever ask. You had photographers, for the first time in history, lying on their backs. Everyone went wild."

Wimbledon officials were shocked by the reaction. They banned Tinling from the event, and not until 33 years later was he invited back. Moran was mortified by all the attention. The seventh seed that year, she had walked on the court with her racket in front of her face, and so distracted was she that, after defeating the great Shirley Fry at a tune-up tournament in Queens, she was eliminated early at Wimbledon.

"I really couldn't handle the pressure," she told me.

Moran turned professional a few years after that, which she likened to joining the circus. While she traveled the country playing exhibitions with Pancho Segura, Pauline Betz and Jack Kramer, she saw only a fraction of the money she was promised and was promoted not as a tennis player but as a sex symbol, her image a favorite among GIs.

"All the publicity on the pro tour was about the lace panties," Moran said. "Someone brought me some clippings the other day. They still make me cringe."

Moran, whose brother went missing in action during World War II when she was 17, worked at Douglas Aircraft pulling bolts for the war effort and later toured military bases and hospitals with other players; she also joined a USO Tour. From there, she worked for TV stations in L.A. and New York, where, in 1955, she gave daily sports reports.

"I was one of the first women doing sports, and men, particularly, resented it," she recalled. "I got some awful mail and phone calls."

She worked for a time in the garment industry, selling her own line of tennis clothes, a business that soon failed. She returned to California, where she was a hostess at a Palm Springs tennis club. Then it was back to TV for another short-lived stint in L.A. that ended, she said, when she referred to the Catholic religion as a political party.

In 1970, Moran joined a USO Tour to Vietnam, and during the trip, the helicopter she was riding in was shot down. Though she physically recovered from the accident, she was unable to remember anything about the accident until several years later.

Another series of jobs followed, including one as a radio sports director that she learned, after taking the job, really meant hosting weekend getaways and cocktail parties sponsored by the station.

In 1975, attending a centennial celebration in her hometown of Santa Monica, she was listening to Lawrence Welk and his orchestra perform. It was the last thing she remembered about the afternoon until seven years later, when her other memory of the day came back -- that of talking to two orchestra members who found her backstage, where she had been beaten and raped.

"I have a very strange type of memory," Moran told me. "I black out all the very worst memories. It's like something is protecting me from remembering."

After her mother died in 1977, she inherited the family's Santa Monica estate, valued at more than $1 million. But the taxes, she said, nearly wiped her out. She wrote a book about tennis, hoping she could get a $5,000 advance and dig out of debt, but no one was interested in the book.

Giving tennis lessons kept her afloat, she said, after she found she did not possess the skills necessary for jobs she applied for. "Maybe my age was against me," she told me, "maybe it was the picture I presented. I don't know."

Borrowing against her mortgage, she eventually ran out of money and was evicted from her family home in April 1986.

The job at the zoo gave her a steady enough income to rent a tiny apartment. In our interview, she said she dreamed of taking ice skating, tap dancing and French lessons.

She had been married three times, one at age 19 annulled, the other two ending in divorce. She had no children. She had friends in and out of the tennis world but she was too proud, they said, to accept help.

Tinling, who died in 1990, had said he tried to contact her but she did not return his calls or letters.

"Tell Gussie when you see her that I love her dearly," he told me shortly before my interview with her for the Sentinel. "One can never forget what we went through. We're both probably a little scarred, but we're much wiser people, I believe."

Moran spent her last years, her obit read, "in a tiny, run-down apartment in Hollywood."

I wondered if it was the same one. And I flashed back to that day I finally met her after she had clocked out of work, dressed in brown work pants, an L.A. Zoo T-shirt, a baggy olive green jacket and pink Reeboks on her feet.

She walked briskly toward the cookie stand, where we met for a cup of coffee, and I recalled another comment from Tinling.

"One of the greatest walks ever," he said. "Gussie always carried herself like a dream, like she was walking on a rubber ball."

In '88, I ended my story for the Sentinel about Moran with a quote that was not exactly cheery but was ever hopeful.

"I guess you could say I'm treading water," she said. "It was like Vietnam in 1970. I remember our chopper being hit and going down and I remember being in this cold water and being told to 'hold on.' It's sort of like treading water. You don't know where you are exactly, but you know if you hold on hard enough, you won't sink."

In her obit, one of her friends said Moran had talked of wanting red carpet in her house because she thought it was glamorous. So after what would be her final trip home from the hospital, they pitched in and had a red carpet installed.

Gussie Moran died a week later. She was 89.