Helen Jacobs, The Wimbledon Winner, Gay Rights Champion And World War II Spy

Helen Jacobs was a tennis player like no other
16:00, 11 Aug 2020

America in the 1930s was about fighting the gloom of the Great Depression.  The 102 storey Empire State Building went up, a shining beacon of the American dream. Movies went from silence to sound, and icons such as Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard and Greta Garbo were suddenly heard and instantly loved. And in sport, the two epochal female figures were tennis players, Helen Wills Moody and Helen Jacobs.

The two Californians’ Hellenistic on-court battles both in Europe and across the Atlantic commanded attention, and Wills Moody retired with 19 Grand Slam titles, today still the fourth-highest of all-time on the women’s charts, marginally ahead of both Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. But Ms Jacobs had a far more interesting tale to tell, far away from tennis.

On the court she generally lost to Moody, including six major singles finals, four Wimbledons, one U.S. National, and one French International, but that didn’t dampen the atmosphere of the dramatic encounters. For two decades the pair would provide some of the most electric battles in the sport, setting the tone for rivalries to come.

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It was in Forest Hills, New York, where Jacobs achieved the most success. She won the US Championships consecutively from 1932 to 1935 and in her four victories, dropped only one set, to - guess who? - Wills Moody. Jacobs was also a three time U.S. National Women’s Doubles Champion and appeared in six singles finals at Wimbledon between 1929 and 1938. 

And as a character, Jacobs was a champion. Where Wills Moody was phlegmatic and professional, Jacobs was extroverted and affable. Jacobs also courted controversy when, in the ‘33 U.S final, she retained the title - her third of four straight - wearing shorts without stockings in her sporting attire, and would do so again in front of Wimbledon the following year.

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But even more tendentious: this tennis star was a gay tennis star. Jacobs was an out, loud and proud lesbian, dating the publishing heiress Henrietta Bingham for ten years. At the time of her death, in 1997 aged 88, she had been running a farm on Long Island for almost 30 years with her life partner, a woman named Virginia Gurnee.  

Though she would have to constantly cede the limelight to Wills Moody throughout her playing days, Jacobs would also have another far more important part to play away from the court, and this time as a pioneer not for her sexuality, but her religion, when it was most under threat. Born into a Jewish household in Arizona Jacobs would be involved in the fight for freedom when the United States’ entered the Second World War. Jacobs took courses at the College of William & Mary in preparation for training as a U.S. Navy WAVE and subsequently became a commander in the U.S Navy intelligence, one of just five women in the Navy to achieve that rank.

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She was also the first female tennis player to be named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year in 1933, and in September 1936 she appeared on the cover cover of Time Magazine (she same year she achieved the world number one ranking in her sport)  wearing a black shirt with white trim around the collar and man-tailored shorts, revolutionising new attire for women’s players that she popularised. She continued her fashion forays after the career had concluded, designing sportswear.

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Jacobs retired from tennis in 1947, having won nine major titles - five singles, three doubles, one mixed doubles - and reached finals 18 other times. 

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Helen Jacobs, the Gay Jewish Tennis Star Navy Commander was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1962. 

Over half a century later, she was rightly afforded a place in the National Gay and Lesbian Sports equivalent.

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