When most young married couples fall pregnant, it’s a time for celebration.
But as tennis legend Billie Jean King reveals in her new autobiography, “All In” (Knopf), out Tuesday, that wasn’t the case for her and her husband, Larry, in 1971.
Despite rumors they were on the verge of splitting, the Kings had become pregnant. With Billie’s playing career and business interests going from strength to strength and her marriage not in the best shape, she decided to terminate her pregnancy and Larry agreed to support her.
At the time, abortion was still a felony in many states across the country. California, where King lived, permitted it, but as a “therapeutic” procedure performed by a doctor in a hospital — and only after she could go before a medical committee to explain why she needed the termination.
“Explaining to a panel of ten or fifteen strangers why I qualified for an abortion was probably the most degrading thing I’ve ever experienced,” King writes.
What’s more, the procedure cost $580 — a significant sum back in 1971 — and could only go ahead once her husband had given permission and signed the consent form.
It was, Larry King said, “ridiculous.”
It’s testament to King’s ability and mindset that she still had the most successful year of her tennis career in 1971, winning 17 tournaments, including the US Open.
But she endured brutal sexism on the court, too.
When she was 15, a coach told her she would go far because she was “ugly.” Once she hit it big, Jim Murray, a columnist at the Los Angeles Times, wrote that “King has never forgiven Nature for the dirty trick it played on her in preventing her from being a free safety for the Green Bay Packers.”
Even high-profile players in the men’s game, like America’s Stan Smith, questioned why women would want to compete. “These girls would be much happier if they settled down, got married, and had a family,” he told the UK’s Daily Mirror. “Tennis is a rough life and it really isn’t good for them. It defeminizes them.”
But it was Bobby Riggs who really got under King’s skin. A former Wimbledon men’s champion, Riggs had routinely slammed the women’s game and repeatedly challenged King to a match on live television. He had also just trounced Margaret Court, the winner of a record 24 Grand Slam women’s singles titles, 6-2, 6-1 in a similar challenge.
Tired and irritated by the endless provocation, King finally relented and the “Battle of the Sexes” took place at the Houston Astrodome on Sept. 20, 1973, with 90 million viewers tuning in for the $100,000 winner-take-all match.
“I’ll tell you why I’ll win,” said Riggs in a press conference. “She’s a woman and they don’t have the emotional stability. She’ll choke, just like Margaret did . . . the man is supreme.”
Later, Riggs showed up at his practice session wearing a T-shirt with two circles cut out to expose his nipples, before joking to reporters that he thought the shirt would look better on his opponent.
“That crossed the line,” King said.
With the biggest tennis crowd in US history watching, King routed Riggs in three straight sets, inflicting on him what he would later call “the most disappointing, disheartening experience of my life.”
At the same time, King was facing an even bigger challenge. She knew she was gay. In the 70s, homosexuality was still criminalized in many states and close friends discouraged her from coming out, especially as her career was booming.
In a Playboy interview in 1975, she actually denied she was a lesbian.
“My sex life is no one’s business,” she said. “[But] if I don’t answer your question, people will think I have something to hide . . . [so] I’ll give you the answer. No, I’m not a lesbian. That’s not even in the ballpark for me.”
As King continued to hide her sexuality throughout the years, she felt acute stress. Doctors even told her she was in danger of developing ulcers. On the one occasion King tried to raise the issue with her mother, her mom just stood up and left the room, saying, “We don’t talk about these kinds of things in our family.”
But the decision to come out was finally taken out of her hands — by Marilyn Barnett.
King had first met Barnett in May 1972 and the pair had hit it off, largely because Barnett, a hairdresser, knew nothing about tennis. By the end of the year, however, the relationship had become physical and King admits that she was “living a double life, right out in the open.”
Soon, Barnett would become her live-in assistant and road manager, traveling the world with her and taking care of King’s every need. But by the summer of 1973, Barnett’s behavior was beginning to worry King. Possessive and controlling, the two grew apart and the relationship ceased to be physical.
Even so, Barnett continued to live in Kings’ house in Malibu, rent-free, until 1978 when King gave her notice to leave.
Soon after, Barnett threatened to sell personal letters King had written to her to the tabloids. She also tried to take her own life, once leaving a suicide note before throwing herself off the balcony of the Malibu property.
Just when the Kings thought they had struck a deal to pay her off, Barnett’s lawyer revealed that his client had found additional personal letters that were worth “much more than our agreement.”
Finally, in April 1981, Barnett filed a suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court demanding the Malibu house, half of King’s earnings during the seven years she claimed they had been together and lifetime support.
“I had been outed,” writes King. “My worst nightmare had come true.”
In a hastily arranged damage limitation exercise, King held a press conference at a hotel in Los Angeles, alongside her husband Larry, where she confessed to having an affair with Bennett, putting it down as “a mistake” and thanking her husband for his loyalty and support.
Today, King confesses in her memoir that she handled it all wrong.
“Who turns being outed into a way to burrow deeper into the closet?” she reflects. “But that’s what I did.”
The palimony suit was eventually thrown out of court, with the judge blasting Barnett for “attempted extortion” and giving her 30 days to vacate the house.
But victory came at a cost.
In the first two months after the suit was filed, King lost at least $500,000 in endorsements. Later, TV commercials featuring her were shelved and Wimbledon pulled out of a deal to make a Billie Jean King range of clothing. She lost a $300,000 contract with Murjani Jeans and a $90,000 Japanese fashion deal.
And then there was a $45,000 contract with Charleston Hosiery, “whose chief executive called me a ‘slut’ in a letter when he fired me,” King writes.
At nearly 38, she lost most of her future income and also had to pay half a million dollars in legal fees. There was only one way out — she had to keep playing tennis.
King never added to her tally of 12 Grand Slam singles titles, but she did reach two consecutive Wimbledon semi-finals, in 1982 and 1983, becoming the oldest women in over 60 years to reach that stage of the competition.
After 850 tour singles matches and 27 years of competitive tennis, Billie Jean King finally called it a day in December 1983.
Remarkably, the Kings remained married throughout the palimony case and only separated in 1987, when King fell in love with her doubles partner, Ilana Kloss.
When asked why he stayed with his wife, despite all the revelations, Larry King said: “I love Billie Jean. I’ve never stopped loving her, and that translates not into possession but into trying to do whatever makes her the happiest,” he said. Billie agreed.
“Larry and I have been through so much together,” she said. “And that in itself can bind you.”
Although Billie had officially been out of the closet for 13 years, she didn’t tell her mother she was gay until she was 51.
Today, King, 77, is considered a human rights pioneer. When she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the Oval Office in 2009, Barack Obama told her the Battle of the Sexes had had a huge impact on him as a father.
“You don’t realize it, but I saw that match at 12,” he told her. “Now I have two daughters and it has made a difference in how I raise them.”
In 2006, the USTA National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows, Queens, home to the upcoming US Open, was rededicated as the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, in honor of the integral part she has played in promoting parity between the men’s and women’s game and equality in general.
But King’s journey isn’t complete.
“I’ve told people if I die right now I’d be really ticked off because I’m not finished,” she says.
“I’m not done fighting yet.”
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