Down Memory Lane: Gorgeous Gussie and Little Mo really caused a stir at Wimbledon
Wimbledon is with us — the All England Tennis Championships, the days of strawberries and cream, the latest fashions. A tournament which is part of our summer sporting way of life.
The Wimbledon of the Fifties and Sixties still holds fond memories for an older generation of tennis lovers who listened to BBC radio commentaries of fast-talking Max Robertson, lucid Rex Alston and the authoritative Dan Maskell, and then the advent later of television when they could watch their idols in action, admittedly in black and white on small screens.
Two personalities in that era after the Second World War remain vivid for me — Maureen “Little Mo” Connolly, darling of the media, who became an immortal, and Gorgeous Gussie Moran, another American whose lace and frilled knickers rather than her tennis brought global notoriety.
Connolly, from a Californian middle class background, began her career on the San Diego municipal courts — a youngster whose skill and power, after switching from a left-hand grip to right, made her a base line specialist.
How did the label Little Mo arise? It was an allusion to Mighty Mo, the US battleship Missouri, regularly stationed at San Diego Naval Yard, whose crew included her amongst their pin-ups along with the current film stars. That nickname remained with her until she died aged 34 from stomach cancer at Dallas, Texas in June 1969.
Little Mo, as a 16-year-old in 1951, defeated Shirley Fry at the Westside Club, Forest Hills, to become, at that time, the youngest winner of the US National Championship. She captured the hearts of tennis fans — and the sports writers — with her natural dedicated approach, quality and competitiveness on court. They crowned her the queen.
She won Wimbledon in 1952, and then, under new coach Harry Hopman, the Australian Davis Cup captain, collected all four Grand Slam tournaments — the first woman, and only second person then, to collect all four majors in the same year.
A golden gem had been found and for 24 months she was the world’s number one.
Tragedy struck two weeks after picking up the Wimbledon 1954 crown. She was horseback riding when her thoroughbred, Colonel Merrygold, reared, pinning her right leg against a truck, causing serious damage. Her glittering career was over at the age of 19.
In contrast, Gertrude Augusta (Gussie) Moran was famous not primarily for her tennis prowess but those knickers.
Qualifying for Wimbledon 1949, she asked Ted Tinling, dressmaker to the stars, to design her outfit using three colours. He declined as that breached the strict dress code rules, specifying all uniforms must be white, but he agreed to produce a dress with lace- trimmed knickers short enough to be visible during a match. It created a sensation — Wimbledon, or tennis, would never be the same again.
Fans were intrigued, curious or stunned, while Gussie was accused of “sin and vulgarity” by the staid tennis hierarchy. She wore that dress only once at Wimbledon and reverted to shorts to avoid a seismic furore.
“I was embarrassed,” Moran later admitted. “They put so much emphasis on the Gorgeous Gussie character. I was never anything to write home about. People would see me and I’d hear them say: ‘I’ve seen better looking waitresses at the hot dog stand!’ I just went to pieces. Emotionally I couldn’t handle it.”
She turned professional, and went on tour, but it was that dress and those pants rather than the tennis which always stole the show when Gussie was around.