OCEAN PARK — This past Wednesday, Santa Monica lost one of its most fabled prodigal daughters.
Gertrude “Gussie” Augusta Moran, a much beloved tennis star of the 1950s, who helped put the city by the sea on the tennis map and was known as “Gorgeous Gussie,” passed away peacefully in her sleep. Gussie had recently spent 11 days in the hospital fighting colon cancer before being discharged home where she received around-the-clock care. She was 89.
Born in 1923, Gussie was raised in a Victorian house built by her grandfather in 1870. Located at 1323 Ocean Ave. (just south of the Shangri-La hotel), it’s reportedly the oldest standing house in the city.
Living across from the beach, Gussie experienced an idyllic Santa Monica childhood. She was a graduate of Santa Monica High School, where she excelled in academics and athletics. The tennis courts at Christine Emerson Reed Park are where Gussie walked almost daily after school and perfected her game.
Gussie’s father worked at Universal Studios, which facilitated her being an extra in a few movies. Her tennis group frequently enjoyed Sunday soirees at Charlie Chaplin’s mansion, which included playing tennis on Chaplin’s private court. Years later when Gussie got engaged, Chaplin hosted a party in her honor.
Gussie’s family suffered tragedy during WW II when her older brother was declared missing in action. Devastated, Gussie went to work at Douglas Aircraft, in what is now Sunset Park, helping to assemble planes for the war effort. She also joined USO tours to California hospitals and military bases.
All the while Gussie played top flight tennis and gained national attention. (Highest U.S. national singles ranking was no. 4.) She also excelled in doubles and mixed doubles. In 1947, she won a national title with Pancho Segura and later a national indoors championship with Pancho Gonzalez. (Both Panchos became Hall of Fame players.)
In 1949 Gussie won national titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles. But it was at Wimbledon that year that Gussie became known worldwide and where she was dubbed “Gorgeous Gussie.”
Via letters, Gussie had been communicating with famed English fashion designer Teddy Tinling. She was hoping her Wimbledon outfit could include a color for each sleeve and a third for the dress. But the All-England Club in London only permitted white so Tinling designed a dress that complied with the rule but would create an international firestorm of controversy.
Gussie’s tennis dress with ruffled, lace-trimmed knickers, showed off her gorgeous long legs. But it was also so short that her knickers were visible during the match, a first for any tournament anywhere. Reporters began calling her “Gorgeous Gussie,” and photographers fought for positions where they could get low shots of Moran, with the hope of glimpsing the lace. The event scandalized the overly-proper Wimbledon officials, even prompting a debate in Parliament.
Such was the attention that a ship, a play and a racehorse would all be named after Gussie. She wasn’t entirely comfortable with all the attention, “You’d think I’d have walked out there naked.” Decades later those lace panties would become part of the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Moran said she was happy that modern-day players like Anna Kournikova, Maria Sharapova and the Williams sisters were flashy and unashamed in their court fashion.
“What’s wrong with having a good time with your clothes and your body?” she said in 2002. “I was not very comfortable doing so. Maybe it would be different now.”
Following Wimbledon, Gussie was offered a lucrative professional contract by Jack Kramer, which she might have been better off turning down. She was matched on tour against Pauline Betz, whom Kramer would call the “second best women’s tennis player ever.” Kramer would later comment remorsefully that if Gussie had waited a few years she would have been able to better handle all the fame and pressure.
Though Gussie won some matches, Betz dominated the tour. And fans flocked to the matches to see “Gorgeous Gussie.” She would later lament, “They were expecting to see Rita Hayworth in a tennis skirt. I was OK, but I was no Rita Hayworth.”
In the last year of her life, I had the privilege of chatting on the phone and exchanging letters with Gussie. She was uncommonly intelligent, full of life and had wonderful stories of her youth. I would send her my columns and she not only would read them more than once, but she would have questions and comments. It was indeed a mutual admiration society.
Following the pro tour, life was not easy for Gussie, but it was also not boring. A feminist before anyone knew the word, she wrote newspaper and magazine columns and hosted radio and TV sports shows in Hollywood and New York where she befriended the rich and famous in all walks of life. Though outspoken, Gussie’s spirit and charm was irresistible.
Gussie loved men and they loved her. Married three times, her life was filled with more than her share of heartache, but she never expressed regret or complaints. Sadly, she had outlived her family and most of her friends. She had no children. There were financial and health issues, but she was remarkably upbeat.
And inexplicably, Gussie seemingly kept up with everything. I once mentioned the singer and activist Bono and she interrupted, “Oh, I’m a big fan of U2!”
Another time I was explaining how computer dependent I am. (Her letters were all exquisite long hand.) As I rambled I foolishly said, “I’ll try to be brief.” Gussie joked, “Jack, you stopped being brief three paragraphs ago.”
You couldn’t help but love Gertrude “Gussie” Augusta Moran. May she rest in peace.
Gussie’s friends will scatter her ashes into the ocean she loved so much and in view of the family home.
Jack Neworth is a regular contributor to the Daily Press with his column “Laughing Matters,” which appears every Friday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.