She was an international superstar, one of the first women to be able to make that claim in American sports.
How big a superstar?
At the age of 15, she entered the U.S. junior championship competition and won the national girls’ title.
At 17, she won her first U.S. Open competition, becoming the second-youngest player ever to hold the national adult women’s title.
She was soon ranked as the number-one female player in the nation, a distinction she would hold for a decade. From 1927 to 1934 she was also the top-rated female player in the world. Her fame was memorialized in her appearance in 1929 on the cover of Time Magazine, a very big deal at the time. The winner of 31 Grand Slam titles and two Olympic medals, Helen was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1959.
But Helen was more than just a tennis player, both before and after her decades of fame.
She attended the University of California, Berkeley on an academic scholarship, and graduated in 1925 as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Her love for UC Berkeley was a life-long affair, and her $10 million bequest to the University of California, Berkeley led to establishment of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute in 1999, a collaborative research community that investigates fundamental questions about how the brain functions.
She wrote poetry as a hobby, and painted all her life, giving exhibitions of her paintings and etchings in New York galleries
But another element of her life tells us something about the woman who would be a tennis superstar – her work as a young member of The Junior League of San Francisco.
An article in the Junior League Magazine in 1928 notes that she and other JLSF members appeared in the San Francisco Follies, which raised $13,000 – a very substantial sum of money for the time – as a “very helpful nest-egg” for the Temporary Foster Home” the League planned to build.
All in all, Helen Wills was clearly a woman of many parts.
Her obituary in The New York Times observes, “Reclusive by nature and dubbed the Garbo of the tennis tour by Alice Marble, one of the many opponents who felt ignored by her, Wills nonetheless lived a most public and, at times, storybook existence. Renowned for her Greek profile as well as her intimidating athletic prowess, she took tea with the British Prime Minister, was the subject of poetry by Louis Untermeyer and counted King Gustaf V of Sweden and Charlie Chaplin among her admirers. In 1930 Chaplin described ‘the movement of Helen Wills playing tennis” as “the most beautiful sight he had ever seen.”