Tomorrow is the birthday of one of Santa Monica’s most beloved native daughters, former tennis star Gertrude “Gussie” Moran. As for how many candles will adorn the cake, it’s not gentlemanly to ask a woman. So let’s just say Gussie was born during the Roaring ‘20s. The glamorous era was marked by jazz, “flappers” (women flamboyantly flouting convention), art deco, idolized sports heroes and movie stars. (In a way, Gussie was both.)
The Roaring ‘20s is a perfect term for the beautiful and adventuresome Gussie. Unquestionably, Gussie’s most outlandish “roar” took place in 1949 at Wimbledon. A fan of fashion, she wanted to make a bold statement. Instead, she shocked the world. Well, at least the tennis world. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Gussie’s Santa Monica childhood was idyllic. Open and undeveloped, our picturesque city was even more of a paradise then than now. Free-spirited, Gussie was tanned and tall with long legs and a natural athlete, especially in tennis, a sport of high society.
Her father was a sound technician at Universal Studios. Gussie even worked as an extra in movies and her tennis group enjoyed Sunday soirees at Charlie Chaplin’s Hollywood Hills mansion. (Gussie once had lunch alone with Mr. Chaplin, an avid tennis player.)
The Morans lived in a palatial Queen Anne-style Victorian home at 1323 Ocean Ave., which was built by her grandfather in 1870! Just south of the Shangri-la Hotel, today it’s used as elegant office space.
Ocean Avenue was a parade of artistic Victorian homes and Gussie’s was among the most beautiful. (There used to be a plaque on the wall acknowledging Gussie’s contribution to Santa Monica, but it’s disappeared.)
But paradise changed with WW II. When Gussie was 17, her older brother was declared missing in action. Devastated, Gussie worked at Douglas Aircraft in Ocean Park (like the cultural icon, “Rosie the Riveter” who represented women toiling in factories to support the war effort). Gussie also joined USO tours to California hospitals and military bases.
After the war, Gussie was one of the best (and most attractive) female tennis players in the country. She was the epitome of a fun-loving and adventure-seeking Southern California beauty, a liberated woman before her time. And 1949 was a great year as, coached by the legendary Bill Tilden, she won the Triple Crown at the U.S. indoors: singles, ladies doubles and mixed doubles with tennis great Pancho Gonzalez. Which brings us to perhaps the most publicized Wimbledon before or since.
In anticipation of her appearance at the All England Club, Gussie exchanged letters about her outfit with Wimbledon host and innovative fashion designer, Teddy Tinling. She wanted each sleeve to be a different color and the skirt to be a third. But Wimbledon insisted on white clothes only, so the daring Tinling designed an ensemble that complied with the rule but would knock the tennis world on its collective fanny.
Gussie’s dress was so short that her ruffled lace knickers might be visible during a match. And sure enough, on June 20, when Gussie strolled onto the hallowed Centre Court, her knickers peeked out below the hem of her dress.
The stuffy All England Club was mortified. But photographers lay flat on the ground to catch the most risqué shots of Gussie’s powerhouse serve (and knickers.) The story “went viral” around the globe, but not without a price for Gussie.
High society considered the outfit “vulgar” and “sinful.” As Gussie lamented, “I couldn’t have caused more of a stir if I was walking out there naked.” (Which is the title of a proposed book about Gussie’s flamboyant life.)
Afterwards, Gussie was forever known as “Gorgeous” Gussie. A ship was named after her. So was a play. And a racehorse. Gussie would become a professional tennis player, travel the world, host a TV sports show on KNBC in Los Angeles, become a sportscaster at WMGM in New York City, and even appear in the hit Hepburn/Tracy movie “Pat and Mike.”
It’s said that in every life a little rain must fall. Gussie had her share of storms, including three failed marriages. In 1970 she was on a Vietnam USO tour when her helicopter was shot down, giving her broken and dislocated bones. But the worst blow came with her mother’s death in 1977 and Gussie eventually lost the beloved family home.
Philosophic, Gussie is still high spirited as she reflects on the ups and downs of her rich life. She lives in a Hollywood apartment with three cats. But she has the sweet memories of two other great loves in her life, tennis and Santa Monica.
From all of us to you, happy birthday, Gussie!
The Santa Monica City Council issued an official commendation in honor of Gussie’s birthday while Jack’s determined to get that plaque, detailing how Gussie brought fame to Santa Monica, back on the former Moran house. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.