Do you remember the first time we walked along the Pacific Ocean? It was in Carmel in the summer of 1965, our first vacation in California. That was during your two-year stint as a salesman in St. Louis, before we moved back to New York City. Right now I'm holding a picture Mom took of you, Ken, and me on the beach that day, the three of us with our pants rolled up a few inches, the surf gently lapping up behind us, you wearing a black, Kennedy-era cardigan, your hands on each of our shoulders. You told me later it was that trip that made you decide you wanted to move to California. California was the place for the good life.
More than 40 years later, I was reminded of the day my father, my older brother, and I first dipped our toes into the Pacific. This time, I strolled across San Diego's only private beach, a small strip located on the grounds of the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club. If La Jolla translated as "the Jewel," then surely the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club was a prized diamond, a beachside hotel-resort and private club that resembled a Spanish-style hacienda, adorned with brown, adobe-textured exteriors, red-tile walkways, and low-slung canopy roofs. These 14 acres were the embodiment of the California good life. And please, as members emphatically advised, just call it "the beach club."
For me, the beach held less interest than the tennis. The club's 12 courts were hosting a tournament, one that made me think of my father: the National Father-Son and National Grandfather-Grandson Hardcourt Championships. Since its inception in 1935, the beach club has placed a premium on hosting distinctive tennis events. Great players stretching across the last century -- from '20s star Bill Tilden to San Diego's legendary Maureen Connolly to Andre Agassi -- have played on the club's courts. Many of the San Diego area's finest players -- 1962 Wimbledon champion Karen Hantze Susman, pros Janet Newberry, Terry Holladay, John Holladay, and Chico Hagey -- cut their teeth here as junior members. There probably aren't more than three private tennis clubs west of Chicago with such a pedigree.
Until the early '70s, tennis was a sport dominated by private clubs. There were other worthy venues -- San Diego's Morley Field was one of the nation's hotbeds of competition -- but in the sport's feudalistic, exclusionary era, the clubs were the castles, fountainheads of quality tennis, power, elegance and, yes, the aspirations and status that accompanied a sport attractive to the upwardly mobile. In Los Angeles, that spirit of ascent was embodied in the Los Angeles Tennis Club. Opened in 1920, the club saw its primary mission as the creation of world-class players, wed to Los Angeles to become the West Coast personification of an East Coast center of commerce and glory.
The La Jolla beach club took another path. Residents earned their wealth elsewhere. This was a community where "lifestyle" was crucial long before the term existed. Exceptionally isolated before the University of California at San Diego grew into a full-fledged UC campus in the early '60s, bucolic La Jolla shunned boosterism and embraced comfortable family living. To this day, the club remains in the hands of its founding family, the Kelloggs. When I spoke to Bill Kellogg, employed at the club since 1979 and its president since 1989, he estimated that currently there are 100 Kellogg-related members. For more than 50 years, William Bond and his namesake son were the club's manager and primary teaching pro. It was a notable rite of passage ritual when a child came of age and could take his or her own membership. Families from all over the country returned regularly for seasonal stays.
Well into the '60s, the club netted barely a nickel. Prior to 1973, there was no waiting list to join the club, but as recently as 1980, the initiation fee was $1500, with monthly dues of $100 and a five-year waiting list. Said Kellogg, "the club was more of a hobby" for a family that earlier in the century made considerable money in the newspaper business in the Kansas City area. After relocating to the Los Angeles suburb of Altadena, F.W. Kellogg and his wife, Florence Scripps, viewed La Jolla as a summer vacation destination and sought to build an appropriate leisure spot.
Originally opened in 1927 as the La Jolla Beach & Yacht Club, within a decade the yachting notion proved untenable due to costs, decreased membership because of the hardships of the Depression and, worst of all, the winter tides that each year overran the cove. In 1935, Kellogg purchased the property from the original group of investing partners and shifted the emphasis to tennis. His son, William Scripps Kellogg, had played the game at Stanford. Upon F.W.'s death in 1940, William took charge -- in his own paternal, whimsical way.
Kellogg was a gentle pied piper, an heir to a fortune who preferred pleasure to business. Legend had it that when a member complained to him about the noise of children in the swimming pool, Kellogg told the adult he was welcome to immediately terminate his membership.
Kellogg drove a 1915 Packard Twin Six, a 12-cylinder car with a self-starter and a crank that had been delivered from Detroit to La Jolla via the Panama Canal. The noise of the horn earned it the nickname "the Old Black Goose." Kellogg created "the Old Black Goose Club." Children -- whether as members or hotel guests -- were encouraged to pick up litter. "You made a solemn pledge," recalled Bill more than 50 years later, "and soon you were given a badge marking your membership." At last count, more than 10,000 badges had been distributed.
My father died in 1992. But he accomplished his goal. It was a twisted route -- St. Louis, New York, Connecticut, another go in St. Louis -- but five years after that day in Carmel, we moved to Los Angeles.
You and Mom assumed that since it was sunny year-round that everyone in California played tennis. We started to play on public courts. My friend Steve was a member of a private club. The night I came home after playing there for the first time, you made that old movie mogul joke about the path Jews like us had taken: "from Poland to polo."
Carlsbad resident, honorary beach club member, and tennis Hall of Famer Pancho Segura migrated to the U.S. from Ecuador in 1940, a penniless five-foot-six teen with a wobbly walk caused by a childhood case of rickets. He made himself into one of the best players in the world, touring the globe well into his 40s, going toe-to-toe with such greats as Pancho Gonzales, Jack Kramer, Rod Laver, and Ken Rosewall. In 1970, Segura commenced a quarter-century tenure as tennis director at La Costa Spa and Resort. During this time, he also coached such stars as Jimmy Connors and Agassi. Tennis was such a passion for Segura that it didn't matter if he were watching a Wimbledon final or two guys at the local park. On a crisp Sunday morning, Segura, 85 years old now, was at the club, inspecting the playing styles of various fathers, sons, and grandsons, flirting with their women, and reflecting on a sport that took him from poverty to a suburban home with a Mercedes in the garage.
He waved his arms at the beach club's lush flowers, uncluttered swimming pool, and other ornamental trappings. "People think this game is all about nice clubs and nice places. But that's not what it is at all. Tennis? Tennis is democracy, right here and right now, buddy. It's two guys in an arena, trying to figure it out, trying to hurt each other. And guess what? It doesn't matter once you're on the court where you went to school, or who your daddy is, or how much money you have. Just two guys. Me and you. Very fair."
Here was the secret that drew so many of us to tennis: Elegant surroundings belie the sport's raw essence. On the court, outsiders like Segura could turn the tables on insiders. Fathers and sons, grandfathers and grandsons from all corners of the country flocked to La Jolla each year for the tournament. Sixty-four teams were entered in the 2006 father-son event, 11 in the grandfather-grandson. There were the Newmans, father Neil and son Cole, from Columbus, Ohio. Protecting himself from the sun with warm-up pants and a French foreign legion hat, Neil, a crafty lefthander, was nicknamed "the Mummy." There were the Collazos from Little Rock, Arkansas; the Perkoviches from Schererville, Indiana; and the Morse-Karzens from Wilmette, Illinois. There was Richard Azera, a lanky French business consultant now living in Orange County, partnered with his nine-year-old son Adrien for the first time. There was 75-year-old Larry Huebner from Fresno, a former NCAA doubles champion at UCLA who had overcome a major tragedy so that he could compete that week with his grandson Chase. There was Jim Settles from Glendale, who'd been coming to the beach club to play this event since 1943 and at 79 looked as exuberant as if he'd just been discharged from the Navy.
I came home one day laughing because Marvin Levine called Glendale "Goydale." You told me that wasn't a very nice joke.
Within six months of moving to Los Angeles in 1970, we visited San Diego. We drove through La Jolla, staring at houses that seemed to have drive-in mailboxes. Don't get me wrong. I grew up in a comfortable pocket of west Los Angeles. But we were aware that there were places like La Jolla, where the lawns seemed bigger and cleaner, where kids I encountered in junior tennis tournaments wielded tiny golf pencils to sign for their Cokes, burgers, and ice cream cones -- and where other families had gotten a jump start on the California good life while my father was riding the subway from the Bronx to Manhattan. Years later, as a student at Berkeley, I came home enthused about F. Scott Fitzgerald and his descriptions of American ambition, privilege, and the subtleties that separated social classes. Said Fitzgerald, "The rich are different from you and me." When I told this to my mother, she countered, "Did you ever hear what Hemingway said? 'They have more money.' "
To be Jewish was to possess a Talmudic predilection for proffering truth in the form of a bone-cutting quip. All too often, the comment was simultaneously humorous, hostile, even divisive -- Goydale. No one admitted that to some degree the snappy retorts issued in parks and kitchens, delis and driveways, cloaked the pain of a history of exclusion. For decades, La Jolla realtors had explicitly barred Jews from buying homes, even going so far as to mark applications with a Star of David to discreetly signify an undesirable potential homebuyer. The beach club marched in lockstep with this gestalt. Over breakfast one morning at the club, current member Bill Eigner, also a Jew, politely informed me, "This is the place where Groucho Marx was told the swimming pool was off-limits to Jews. He said, 'My daughter's only half-Jewish, so can she wade in up to her knees?' "
Though much has changed over the last 50 years -- according to the United Jewish Federation, La Jolla's 12,000 Jews make up the largest enclave of San Diego's Jewish community -- there is no changing history, and what took place in my parents' lifetime has flavored my attitude toward all old-line tennis clubs. Yes, many Jews are now beach club members, but not too long ago, the clubs wanted no part of me. Then again, my family wanted nothing to do with all-Jewish clubs either. California was the new start. So where did I fit in?
The answer was a tennis court. Unlike other sports I'd played -- football and baseball -- in tennis, no one was relegated to blocking or playing right field. A tennis player could touch the ball on every play. Destiny, right in my hands. I understood this from the moment I first held a racquet. Even better for a loner immigrant like me, you didn't need to know too many people to play. But understanding why Jews were excluded from swanky clubs -- the red-hot center of the sport in all its glory -- was something I was never quite able to accept.
How Jewish were we anyway? Was this notion of "how Jewish" even relevant? Was it quantifiable?
Those first two years we lived in California, I think you worked every Saturday. When I was 11, knowing I loved playing sports on Saturday morning, you let me choose not to have a Bar Mitzvah. Hebrew school was confined and parochial, filled with weary tales of the old country and dreary cerebral tasks like memorizing a funny backward language that was useless. The teacher despised sports, said it was for philistines.
But sports were the California good life incarnate -- sunny, expressive, healthy, an experience that for at least a few hours a week could take a bookish boy out of his head. Why had the Hebrew school teacher polarized it? Wasn't the whole message of the Olympics that sports transcended ideology? Until, that is, that night in September 1972 when my family sat in our living room and watched what happened during the Summer Games. Athletes from Israel -- a land we had little intention of ever visiting -- were taken at gunpoint, in, of all places, Germany.
Working the Olympics for ABC was Howard Cosell. Like my dad, and so many of that generation, Cosell was an ambitious New York Jew eager to assimilate into America. But on that horrific day, he was suddenly aware that sports could be personal. At 3:17 a.m. on the morning of September 6, a Reuters story revealed that the matter was resolved. Cosell had begged to come on the air but had been rebuked. Instead, the man on-air for 16 hours was the affable Gentile Jim McKay. Finally receiving word on what had happened, McKay spoke: "They've now said there were 11 hostages. Two were killed in their room this -- ah, yesterday morning. Nine were killed at the airport tonight." And then, following a slight pause, "They're all gone."
Said Cosell after the events of that evening, "I had never felt so intensely Jewish." Fancy that: Howard Cosell, a guy who changed his name and married a Gentile woman, could make us feel more aware of being Jewish than any rabbi. He raised our ethnic consciousness by talking about, of all things, sports.
So was my own history a burden or an asset? Sports like tennis were theoretically liberating, but there was also a subtext, a nasty backstory that cluttered even the sweaty, robust, and collegial democracy of sports. Munich had validated that old joke my father told me: If you ever forget you're a Jew, a Gentile will remind you.
I'd lived in California for 36 years, scarcely ever been exposed to anti-Semitism, and was sleeping at the beach club in a room with three views of the ocean. What dared intrude? A Berkeley professor of mine, seeking to teach me the fine points of the prominent poet Ezra Pound (an overt anti-Semite who broadcasted commentaries for the Axis during World War II), pointed out to me the dangers of succumbing to the same flaw that plagued the New York-based Jewish intellectuals of the '30s and '40s: a tendency to regard politics as literature and literature as politics. Wrote Sigmund Freud in Moses and Monotheism: "We found that the man Moses created their character by giving to [Jews] a religion which heightened their self-confidence to such a degree that they believed themselves to be superior to all other peoples. They survived by keeping aloof from the others."
Was that distancing quality baggage from the Old World? The California good life stood for something entirely different. "We go 'down South,' or 'back East,' wrote Wilson Carey McWilliams in "California: Notes of a Native Son" (anthologized in The California Dream), "but we move 'out West,' a phrase which invokes not only the great spaces but also the idea of escape from confinement of the old regions." The old model was the ritualistic Sunday meal with relatives, an indoor fete on a chilly day, looking backwards on past generations and clannish history. In California, one was free to choose, free to spend the day playing tennis and wear a warm-up suit to dinner. My parents had escaped their urban shtetl, a continental migration lacking the drama their elders had taken across the Atlantic but one nonetheless toward a New World. Yet there was also for so long a sense in my family that we'd arrived long after the party started. Even cocooned by privilege and sunshine, in California, in my mind I retained the outsider sensibility of an immigrant.
I was told that, since I'd started at age 12, it was too late for me to become a significant tennis player. And you, Dad, you were 45, so while we could enjoy the game like most recreational players, we were never going to be good enough to compete in an event like the National Father-Son. That wasn't the point anyway. The point was that this was a lot more fun than shoveling snow off the driveway.
There'd once been a time when I wouldn't have been permitted to join the beach club, but now there is a small piece of the club resting on my mantel, an icon front and center at just about every tournament all over the world: the tennis trophy. Examine it and you'll see a player in a classic service motion, his arms raised aloft. The man who posed for this was the beach club's pro from 1941 to '65, Les Stoefen. Stoefen had been a top player in the 1930s, winner of the Wimbledon doubles' title in '34. He was a movie-star version of a tennis pro, a languid six-foot-five hunk who, having played in the days of white flannel pants, segued effortlessly into shorts and a Hawaiian shirt.
Stoefen's signature shot, the serve, personified the beach club's manner. "The whole idea," Chico Hagey told me, "was that you were relaxed and let your wrist be the 'trigger' that gave your serve all its power." That simple, as supple and fluid as a stroll down the club's peaceful beachfront. There was no place better to master one of tennis's fundamental principles: Don't fight the ball. Let it come to you. Move your feet, relax, take a swing, and let it go. Hagey mastered this so well he went on to be an All-American at Stanford and one of the top 100 players in the world.
There were dozens of photos of Stoefen in the beach club's scrapbooks, his thick head of hair, long legs, and beautiful smile meshing perfectly with the tennis notables who brought luster to the beach club.
The photos revealed how the club conducted itself in a contradictory manner. On the one hand, the prevailing voice was one of understatement. Throughout its history, there was no active effort to solicit members, no desire on the Kellogg family's part to aggressively market the club or, for many years, to turn it into a profit center. As recently as the 1960s, hotel guests were given a supply of linens and left alone for the duration of their stay. As one member told me, "This was one of those clubs all across America that are for people in the know, a recreational Masonic order."
The beach club was the West Coast branch of a patrician order occupied by the likes of the Bush family of Greenwich, Connecticut, and Kennebunkport, Maine (always good to list two residences). George Bush Sr. initially picked up a tennis racket with his left hand. But his mother Dorothy told him that was unacceptable and forced him to play with his right hand. This was a world of obedience, an insider culture where playful nicknames spoke to the informal coziness of it all. Say the name "Chico Hagey" and you might be surprised to learn Hagey is not Hispanic but a 6'4" blond, hazel-eyed man named James who can trace his roots back to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.
Tennis was a gentleman's sport, governed by a supreme amateur code that viewed money as a corrupting force, didn't make excuses, and maintained a stiff upper lip in defeat or victory. E. Digby Baltzell was a University of Pennsylvania sociologist-historian who coined the term WASP. In his book Sporting Gentlemen, a history of men's tennis, Baltzell wrote that "The Anglo-American's code was an ethical ideal which guided the gentleman's total way of life, on the sporting field as well as in the courtroom or boardroom, on Wall Street or in the City, in Congress or in Parliament, on Park Avenue or Mayfair, indeed, through the British gentleman's empire from Port of Spain to Singapore or New Delhi. The amateur sporting code, in short, was an aspect of a class code of honor which was uniquely characteristic of the Anglo-American social systems roughly in the years between the American Civil War and World War II."
In the 2006 film The Good Shepherd, a social history of the CIA, an Italian mobster played by Joe Pesci queries the WASP spy played by Matt Damon. Pesci says, "You know, we Italians have our families and the church, the Irish have the homeland, the Jews their tradition, the niggers their music. What do you guys have?" The Yale-educated character played by Damon responds, "We have the United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting."
The men who'd founded the CIA descended from the same gentlemen who voluntarily let others enter the lifeboats on the Titanic. Baltzell pointed out that many on the disastrous ocean journey were Jewish.
In my family's home, two books stood side-to-side on one of the shelves. The first was Our Crowd, the tale of those German Jews who would do distinctly goyish things like name their kids "Junior." These were the gentlemen Baltzell was referring to. Lots of those Germans, my father told me, didn't think Hitler was referring to them until it was too late.
The other book on the shelf was The Rest of Us, about Eastern European Jews who knew precisely what Hitler was talking about and who continued to keep score in their heads as to who was likely to welcome us and who wasn't. The Jewish gentlemen of German heritage had forgotten their past and cozied up, thinking they were insiders when they were, and always would be, outsiders. My father never let me forget how costly that naïveté could be.
So the ghosts of Berlin and Warsaw, of apartments where families had been dragged out by the Gestapo, danced in my head alongside dreams of the California good life.
And make no mistake -- as Bill Kellogg told me -- the beach club was distinctly Californian. East Coast clubs often required members to wear jackets and ties in the dining room, but the Kelloggs wanted their club to match the spirit of another wealthy newspaper publisher, William Randolph Hearst. The tour guides at Hearst Castle in San Simeon noted that Mr. Hearst's dinner table featured simple cloth napkins and plain ketchup bottles. Never mind that he was rumored to have spent $50,000 a day while building the castle. "W.R." was just another Golden State resident stepping out of the pages of Sunset magazine. At the beach club, it was not uncommon for a man to emerge from the surf, don a T-shirt, play a quick match in his swimsuit, and then wear the same clothes over lunch.
Informal as this was, it was still quite different from the public park where I'd played in west Los Angeles in the '70s, when Marvin Levine and Sid Young (né Shlomo Yalowitz) would peel off their street clothes alongside the court, throw on a pair of gym shorts, and often disdain wearing a shirt. "What the hell is that?" someone once asked. "That," said Sid, "is this" -- at which point he yanked down his shorts and revealed what he called "my big, hairy white tuchas." In contrast, etched on a green sign in white letters on a fence surrounding Court Two at the beach club: "Custom and tradition require shirts be worn for play on all courts."
We visited Coronado. I'd hoped we'd stay at the Del and get to play on its fabled courts. But that wasn't your style. We stayed at a small motel and went out to Glorietta Bay Park. You said, "A court is a court is a court."
But a court wasn't a court to Kellogg the elder. He didn't want his club to go unnoticed. Born into a publishing family, he wanted to generate headlines, not for revenue but for status. Just like an upstart Jewish movie mogul, a scion of a WASP family was also seeking acceptance, importance, and perhaps most important to Californians, legitimacy and credibility. "The distinctive genius of the West and of California in particular," wrote McWilliams, "has not been freedom or openness. It has been social creativity."
Maybe all of us seeking to enjoy the California good life occupied more common ground than I dared imagine. Maybe the good life was something you had to will into existence. Maybe, despite East Coast perceptions of California as a laid-back nation unto itself, there was a strong drive beneath the sunshine.
Tennis was exquisitely deceptive too. A friend of mine who'd played basketball all his life decided one week that he'd had enough of hurting his body. He'd buy a tennis racket and start playing the game. I laughed. He had no idea that this was a sport of skill, where, as I'd learned firsthand, it took considerable effort and sacrifice just to not stink.
Beginning in 1940, Kellogg's idea for putting the beach club on the map was to hold special tennis events, inviting the game's star players to compete in various singles and doubles exhibitions and tournaments. Since the lion's share of America's best players were already located in Southern California, it was easy for Kellogg to rustle up talent and build relationships with other tennis power brokers such as the Los Angeles Tennis Club's Perry Jones.
The club's scrapbooks showcased a glorious cavalcade of tennis history. A youthful Jack Kramer, in plain white T-shirt. The cheeky Bobby Riggs, decades before taking on Billie Jean King in the "Battle of the Sexes," likely planning a side bet on his next match. The eternal Dorothy "Dodo" Cheney, who'd first come to the club in the '30s from her home in Santa Monica and even now, at 90, as a La Jolla resident, continues to compete, earning more than 350 national titles. There was the pint-sized Connolly, nicknamed "Little Mo" (an homage to the Navy's Big Mo warship), who when standing next to Stoefen resembled a character in a Diane Arbus photo. Connolly had also been the first woman to win all four of tennis's prestigious Grand Slam titles in a single calendar year, a feat that made her not just the greatest player in San Diego history but to this day one of the all-time top ten.
These black-and-white photos were an enchanting portrait of tennis's bygone era, a time of athletic feudalism set against sunny skies. Through the '40s and '50s, on into the '60s, the game's amateur code barred prize money, its powers-that-be rewarding players with minimal sums dubbed "expenses." Lords such as Kellogg, Jones, and other promoters were also known to surreptitiously reward marquee stars with a few hundred discreetly slipped into the hand or left in the player's shoes. Tired of the pretense and caprice of what was dubbed "shamateurism," such top players as Kramer, Riggs, and Segura opted to become professionals. The price of freedom was that they were barred from prestigious events such as Wimbledon, Forest Hills, and even the beach club. Instead, these pros trekked across the world, nomads competing in arenas, gyms, skating rinks, or even cow dung.
Whether as amateurs or pros, tennis players then were traveling minstrels. But in 1968, the game became an open sport. Prize money was permitted at all levels, paving the way to today's multimillion-dollar tournament circuit. Open tennis also ended the feudalistic paternalism that kept the sport's amateurs in cozy clubs like La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club. Pro tennis headed toward bigger arenas and new, larger facilities -- places of new money and action, like La Costa (where Hollywood types gambled on tennis matches and where promoters poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into big-time tournaments). Meanwhile, the beach club continued to host high-quality amateur events. Said Kellogg, "The people who play tournaments like the National Father-Son are here strictly because they love tennis. None of them make money from it. They just love to play."
As I sat alongside the courts looking at the scrapbooks, sitting near the pool while sipping lemonade, it was easy to get lost in the photos, tumble into the past, when the beach club was a never-ending parade of dinner dances by night, athletic elegance by day, the players a-twinkling in their pretty whites, the women resembling Katharine Hepburn, Stoefen an American Cary Grant, the visiting stars like Kramer, Riggs, and Segura all humble boys gently wielding their wood rackets and politely thanking Mr. Kellogg for the accommodations, a nice week of fine tennis, a quick wink for the extra C-note. It all seemed so tranquil.
My daydreaming was interrupted by a yell, tennis's present reality intruding on its mythical past. "What are you doing? Don't talk during the point," 14-year-old Zachary Leslie of San Diego barked to a group of six spectators. He and his father Eric were making a comeback in the second set of their match against Jay and Jon Nistad of New Jersey. One fascinating aspect of father-son play was the disparity in ages, playing styles, levels of expertise, and even wardrobe. The oldest man on the court was often dressed in classic tennis clothes. The youngest wore baggy shorts, T-shirts, and a hat turned backwards.
Dress code wasn't the only difference. In most doubles' matches, all four players are of relatively similar skill. But in father-son, there might be four distinct player journeys. In his teens, Zach Leslie was ascending rapidly but still rough around the edges. So long as he lived under his parents' roof, he could throw himself into tennis. His father was a crafty player, young enough to cover the court well but not likely to improve significantly. Said Charlie Hoeveler, a Northern California player who has won many father-son titles, "One day you're changing the kid's diapers, then you're the one encouraging him to play well, then the next thing you know he's the better player and you don't want to let him down."
Jay Nistad was in his late 20s. While, for Zach, improvement over the next three years would come in giant steps, Jay was entering the incremental phase of his tennis life. With the need to focus on work and family, tennis no longer dominated his days and nights as it had a decade earlier, when he'd become good enough to play college tennis. Improvement for Jay would come in inches from here. Meanwhile, his father was the oldest man on the court, and while experience could carry him far -- in this tournament, a father's lob could be a silver bullet -- he knew Zach was gunning for him.
The Nistads had won the first set and served at 5-2 in the second, the equivalent of a five-run lead in the ninth inning of a baseball game. But the Leslies scrapped back, aided by a few tentative shots from Jon Nistad that created openings. Such is tennis's scoring system that a significant lead can be narrowed within five minutes. You can't run out the clock, nor merely hold down the opposition. You have to keep scoring. Yet even as they made their comeback, the Leslies continued to scream after losing points. Jay bellowed too, wondering why neither was being reprimanded by the official. Eric received a warning. The set reached 6-6, but this time the Nistads closed it out. Zach tossed his racket toward the back fence. In genetic syncopation, he and Eric sulked forward for the ritualistic post-match handshake.
All my life I knew there was one notion you found absolutely insupportable: the stage parent, the overbearing paterfamilias who invokes his progeny's desires and achievements as rationale for his rudeness. The last thing you and Mom wanted to be was yet another pushy Jewish parent. So if the downside of your laissez-faire approach to my tennis was that often the mere act of getting to a tournament represented my biggest triumph, the upside was that tennis was completely mine and mine alone. In true California style, tennis was a world I could create completely from my vision and desires.
I met a man I'll call Arthur Klein. A fellow Jew, Klein boasted that at age 67 he was surely the oldest man entered in the father-son event. This is the kind of ill-informed assertion that boils my blood. I asked Klein if he knew about 79-year-old Jim Settles. He conceded that he hadn't checked the draw. Unbelievable.
Klein and his son Robert played at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, which was heavily populated by Jews, many with entertainment-industry ties who had been barred entry to the Los Angeles Tennis Club. There once was a Jew who by dint of being a world-class player earned a junior membership at the Los Angeles club and once asked a Gentile friend of his if indeed these clubs practiced a discreet form of anti-Semitism. Said the friend: "Of course. You Jews are different. You talk too much."
Klein revealed that we had a mutual friend, a former Beverly Hills club teaching pro, who, said Klein, "thinks we'd have a war of a singles' match."
Now I was downright pissed off. I was hardly a player of renowned proficiency, but competition had proved to me that, at age 46, the only players 65 or over who could beat me were those ranked in the country's top 25. Klein was not one of these. What was the teaching pro doing selling me down the river? Why was this guy who'd never seen me hit a ball throwing down the gauntlet? Let's go out there right now. Make my day.
I asked if he'd ever played a former Beverly Hills club member named John. "He's a very good player," said Klein. "I tried but couldn't beat him." I said that I'd beaten John both times we played. Feel lucky, punk?
As I talked with Klein, I recognized aspects of myself that were unattractive and downright peevish. There I was, rising to the bait. What a schmuck. Why was there all this talk about who could beat whom in tennis? What did it matter? Why were we Jews always so quick to make everything some sort of verbal vendetta? Forget the idea of politics as literature and literature as politics. Cross Freud with Muhammad Ali -- psychology as sport and sport as psychology.
Maybe the Gentile was right. The spirit of tennis was not talk but action. It wasn't conjecture but performance -- win, lose and, most of all, make the effort without making a big deal out of it, without a story that could easily become an excuse and so invalidate the victor while propping up the loser. I knew this would happen if I played Klein -- and I hated it. As Segura had told me, you shut up, strapped on your boots, and got down to business. Your racket did the talking. I prided myself on the fact that, as much as I'd talk off the court, during a match I said scarcely a word.
Klein prattled on about how he'd won a small regional junior tournament in a Midwestern city 50 years ago (disturbingly provincial, considering that the city was a distant tennis constellation and that we were on the grounds of such a fabled club), how the juniors of his time had included all-time great Rod Laver (what about the other 50 Klein hadn't beaten?), and how his son, a sweet-enough young man who played fine tennis and taught high school, was "a truly extraordinary human being."
You told me about the term "nachas" -- the pleasure Jewish fathers and mothers took in their children's success. "Those kids are cute," went the joke. "How old are they?" Says the parent: "The lawyer is two and the doctor is three." There rapidly came a point when nachas curdled into narcissism, where what the father was saying was, "Look at me. If my kid's great, it must be all because of me."
Here I was, in flight from my own tribe. I'd grown up a 15-minute drive from the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. Klein was a man kind enough to tell me that he'd actually read and enjoyed my book. When he wasn't talking up his son as if the Nobel Prize committee was listening, Klein was overtly affectionate with him in a sweet, endearing way. Though I'd never met him before, I recognized him in spirit. Klein was alert, with the kind of verbal agility I'd been around my whole life, which helped me grow into an animated kibitzer -- which helped me become a writer and create a distinctive livelihood. But I didn't feel this was a tribe I wanted to embrace. Said Mike Kreiss, a man who'd been a Beverly Hills club member as a child and now had joined the beach club, "That Beverly Hills environment was a war zone. This, this is so nice, so friendly." He conceded, though, that the combative nature of his childhood had accelerated his growth as a tennis player. As Allen Fox (a BHTC member who became a top-ten American) once told me, "When you've got people talking and bickering and questioning in this way, it can toughen you up."
So while I wasn't enamored of my fellow Jews, I wasn't entirely a fit for the Gentile tranquility of the beach club. For this was a place where, as one member told me, the annual holiday party boasted "200 of the nicest, dullest people in the world." Even the Jewish members I'd met had been exceptionally low-key, reminding me of tales of African Americans who'd attempted to "pass" in the white world. What was the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club all about? The Father-Son and Grandfather-Grandson event was but one occasion when the club opened its doors. What went on here the other 51 weeks a year?
Amy Von Buskirk wanted to educate me. Now in her 50s, she grew up at the beach club. We met inside the club's small bar, a tidy rectangle of a room with six circular tables and five or six stools pushed up near the serving counter. On the wall were photos of past tennis notables, as well as one of young men out on the sandy beach, dated August 1948. The caption read: "The Way It Was." Said one of Amy's friends, "Isn't that great about this place? The way it was. How it once was and how it will always be, boys turning into men, on the beach."
Von Buskirk is an advertising executive, the daughter of a salesman (hey, like my dad!) who'd been a friend of former vice president Spiro Agnew (OK, not like my dad). She spoke with the crisp diction and confidence of a radio newscaster. Von Buskirk loves the beach club with her heart and soul, cherished how it taught her so many life lessons through the many jobs she had, from earning 25 cents an hour fetching balls for Stoefen during his lessons to doubling her salary as a babysitter for hotel guests to teaching swimming, working the front desk, helping her mother Jane on various tennis events ("the Racqueteers"), and taking part in the annual Jewel Ball, a charity event held on the grounds of the club. There were so many warm and friendly days, flowing into subdued, classy evenings. Von Buskirk recalled how fun it had been to zip around in her MG and take part in San Diego society. "If this place had stables, I suppose I'd have learned about horses," she said. "But instead it had tennis, and that in its way was the means to learn about the value of a dollar and the value of good manners. When I grew up, you were taught to be seen and not heard."
Jewish kids were encouraged to speak their minds. You and Mom loved to tell the story of me at age three babbling on, you telling me to calm down and me loudly declaring, "I've got to talk!" But polarizing Jews and Gentiles wasn't quite accurate either. Hadn't old man Kellogg encouraged kids to make all the noise they wanted?
But it wasn't Amy Von Buskirk who made that evening at the bar memorable -- and rather beguiling. She insisted I meet others involved with the club. A spectrum of her girlfriends flocked around the bar. They ranged from new members, to applicants, to past members, to those who enjoyed soaking in the beach club's atmosphere. Annette, a nonmember from North County who described herself as a one-time hippie, whispered in my ear, "Go ahead, ask how many of these people are members because of their parents' money. Go ahead."
Jolene, a non-legacy member about to end her time on the waiting list, said one of the club's finest attributes was that "I like that I don't have to use public restrooms. But face it, this club is about community. People want it whether they admit it or not."
Ellen laughed about what got her into the club: "My ex doesn't even play tennis, but he'd come here as a child and vowed one day he'd be a member."
Repeatedly, I was told about the value of safety. The beach club was a refuge from San Diego's urban clutter. Other members justified the club's current $60,000 initiation fee as the added-on cost of a backyard. (A 2006 Coldwell Banker study listed the average price of a home in La Jolla as $1.76 million.)
"This place is amazing," said one of the maidens. "You should write a book about it."
"What's so interesting?"
"The beach parties are so neat."
"I'm not so sure I can write a book about beach parties."
"But there's more. It's unbelievable. There are so many scandals, families, substance abuse, affairs."
I handed the aspiring Deep Throat my card and dared her to call me. I was here to write about tennis, but if there was more, all the better.
Annette, Jolene, and Ellen said little about tennis. But one interloper did. Charles Murphy -- adding "the third" when he introduced himself -- seemed aware that he was rakish and cynical, precisely the brand of arch, friendly n'er-do-well a journalist might expect to find at the bar of an affluent leisure spot. Call it Midnight in the Garden of Tennis. "This place," he said of La Jolla, "is where people made their money and they're comfortable with it. They don't need to show off what they've made."
But Murphy was no beach club member, just here to see his mother, a lifelong tennis lover who worked as a volunteer for the tournament. Pandering to my desire to cast him as the decayed WASP, he jokingly called her "Mumsy." Murphy confessed that he despised tennis. The sport, he scoffed, "had been drummed into me and right out of me." Murphy (Murph? Chaz?) favored football, squash, and lacrosse. I asked if he had any repressed anger. With a grin, he responded, "What do you think?"
Then spoke Dana. Like Amy, she had grown up at the club. But while Amy learned enough about money to pony up the dough eventually for her own membership, Dana was not an adult member. Moreover, she was angry at how the club's hotel division had of late become much more focused on generating revenue. "Staying in some of those rooms used to require a sponsor," she said. "Now they'll just let any Merrill Lynch broker stay there."
Down at the end of the bar, Annette said, "See? They all say they love this place but don't have what it takes to join it. Maybe I can afford it, but I don't want to be at a club like this. I like it better in North County."
The waiter would come to our table and ask, "Anyone care for cocktails before ordering dinner?" He might as well have been talking in Sanskrit. Not once in my life did I ever hear you or Mom say "yes" to this question. You used to joke, "They'll drink themselves to death. We'll eat ourselves to death."
Amy told me the beach club was all about one word: tradition. Hey, wait a second, I thought, wasn't that what we Jews were all about, at least according to Fiddler on the Roof -- tradition? But what was tradition to these people -- $60,000 for a private strip of beach? That is what California has come to, a great escape from the world?
There was the club, and there was the tennis. Which held the key to truly enjoying the riches of the California good life? Like many immigrants, I clung to idealistic dreams of a new land. I didn't want to think of these youthful, friendly women -- none of whom were Jews -- as fearful maidens, entitled dilettantes, or former debutantes ill-equipped for life as adults in the very market economy that lined their parents' pockets. California was about building a future rather than retreating into the past. I hoped.
The next morning at 7:45 a.m. it was 45 degrees. Racket bags littered the grounds near the courts. A slate of matches was getting underway. The smell of liniment cut through the chill. The sounds of fathers, sons, grandchildren and grandfathers filled the air.
"Grandpa, wait up."
"Maybe you should swing through that forehand a bit more."
"It's going to be very sunny on that other side this morning, so make sure to lob a lot."
"Let's hit a few."
"Maybe we should stretch first."
Beach club member Chico Hagey had won the tournament with his father Ted in 1970 and '71. He'd been an NCAA singles' finalist, competed at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, but could recall nothing that matched the pressure of partnering with his father. Said Hagey, "By then I was in my late teens, and it was no longer my dad who was the one carrying me. The pro here, Bill Bond, told me how it worked: 'If there's any ball you can touch and you don't go for it, you might as well cut your throat.' "
Paul Settles said, "The emotional attachment is so powerful. The wins and losses with the family go into the family folklore, and there's also the whole aspect of the passing of the baton." Settles recalled vividly how he and his father Jim once lost two championship points. "I didn't do enough with the volley," he said, "and, well, that was just enough."
Strolling past the courts, I was again struck by the genetic and emotional links bonding these teams. They were all skilled, even the Kleins (who I found myself rooting against, perhaps making me a self-hating Jew). It made me think of how it might have gone had my father and I been good enough to compete in an event like this. But my father never interfered with my tennis, probably watching fewer than five of my matches. Through much of my teens, he and my mother played at a venue in Culver City that was nominally a club -- a utilitarian set of courts sandwiched in between two apartment buildings, with not a single trace of the beach club's history or sensuality.
I hardly ever played there, but one weekend they had a junior tournament, which I won. This, of course, proved to me how shallow the level of play was. How good could a club be if I were its junior champion? As Groucho said, "I would never be a member of a club that would accept me as a member."
But you thought it was a great moment. You joked that this day, with people watching and me performing, well, that was my Bar Mitzvah. At the time, I thought it was a silly notion, but maybe you were on to something. A Bar Mitzvah is the day when a boy becomes a man and enters the community.
My father suffered a fatal heart attack at age 66. Larry Huebner's family thought he had too. His coronary on June 1, 2006, was so massive that his wife Gretchen was told to summon their three children to the hospital. He was on life support for five days. The doctors said that, should Huebner survive, he'd be lucky if he recovered 20 percent of his motor skills.
Tennis had made Huebner's life. He was fond of calling himself "the middle-class millionaire," thanks to the way the sport had given him the chance to play at posh venues all over the country. At home, he'd taught the game, started a club, owned a sporting goods store.
But perhaps tennis also literally saved Huebner's life. He never stopped playing and, incredibly, made a nearly full recovery. Six months to the day after the heart attack, Huebner and his grandson took the court. His daughter Karin, former captain of the UCLA women's team, broke into tears at seeing her father in action again. Gretchen, who'd met Larry when she was a pep girl at UCLA, waved a blue-and-gold pom-pom and recalled that one of their first dates had been at the beach club. Having learned to play in an era of fast courts and attacking tennis, Larry's game was custom-made for doubles. At 75, he could still strike deft volleys and touch shots into the court's nooks and crannies. He and Chase easily won two matches to reach the finals. Though they carried Chase Helpingstine and Ronald Keiger to three sets, they ended up losing. It hardly mattered. Larry was so happy you'd think he'd won the lottery. Said Gretchen, "To have been where he was, where we all were, this is just unbelievable."
Bill Kellogg, a friend of the Huebners' his entire life, was exultant too. "This is what it's all about," he said after he'd handed out the awards to the winners and runners-up. "Families together, enjoying tennis, enjoying this great weather, playing this game their whole life." Before he could talk more with the Huebners, Kellogg spotted three used bags of potato chips and two empty water bottles on the ground ten feet from the court. He gathered it in his hands and dispatched the pile into a trash can.
"For the immigrant the continuity of time is broken and life...is simply an endless present." -- Wilson Carey McWilliams, California: Notes of a Native Son
Lifelong beach club member Terry Holladay had been ranked as high as number four in the country, earning wins over the likes of Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova. She played at dozens of venues on every continent, but none matched the sublime flavor of the club where her tennis journey started. "And by the way," she added, "my brother John wanted to hit some this afternoon, so if you want, I'll have him call you." John Holladay had also been a pro.
Terry Holladay had never seen me hit a ball, had no awareness that, at best, I was a plausible recreational player -- by age 12, John Holladay was a better player than I'd ever be. I said to Terry, "John Holladay doesn't need to hit with me." She said, "It's not a problem, he's just hoping to hit a bit, so he'll call you at 3:00."
By 4:00, we were on the courts, joined by John's teenaged daughter Hannah. This wasn't the challenge match Klein had suggested, just a nice form of exercise. There was no need for me or John or Hannah to discuss who was better, who could beat whom, or our tennis résumés. As we hit ground strokes and volleys and played a few points, we said little.
It was an odd contrast, the status and importance the maidens attached to the club, and the austerity of playing tennis. Not once did I see Amy or her friends watching the tournament's matches. Was there a fable afoot, wherein the maidens would age but the tennis players would remain forever young? Larry Huebner and, yes, even Arthur Klein possessed more vitality and authenticity than anyone I'd spoken to that night at the bar.
It staggered me to think that someone would cough up $60,000 (the price of a home my parents had purchased in 1973) to join a place like this, not to play tennis but to gain social esteem or to occupy an isolated stretch of sand and water. The member who'd suggested I explore the club's seamy underside did not return my two phone calls, though she'd written this prophecy in my notebook: "Life-changing story."
The days I watched the Huebners, the conversations I had with Terry Holladay, and Kellogg, and the Newmans, and the Settleses, and so many others, answered my quest to find a time and place where I belonged. Never was this clearer than when I played with John Holladay. As balls flew across the net -- he smooth as silk, I making every effort not to miss and not to waste his time -- Holladay said matter-of-factly, "Nice '70s backhand." With those words, a simple nod to a single shot, Holladay anchored me and welcomed me in, stamping my citizenship papers. There was another quip that said you could shun Judaism as a religion, but the excuse meant nothing when the Gestapo showed up at your door at two in the morning.
Even if I never set foot again in a synagogue, I'll always be a Jew, puzzling, questioning, turning myself back on myself and looking for ways to cogitate as the outsider, when of course I ache to act as the insider. That dichotomy, that kind of sociological language, I've learned, is only useful to a point. The bigger point is that so long as I can swing a racket (and occasionally shut up), La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club will be but one of my many homes. On a good day in California, with the sun shining and the feet moving, the past is similar to the swing of a racket toward a ball. Let it go.