Bill Tilden - Born Into Privilege
Born Into Privilege
William Tatem Tilden, Jr., was born on February 10, 1893, at the family mansion, Overleigh, in the wealthy Germantown section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The home, a Tudor-like structure on McKean Street, was symbolic in two regards: it demonstrated the Tilden wealth and lineage, and its location, less than three football fields distant from the gates of the local tennis club, the German-town Cricket Club, presaged baby William Jr.'s future field of endeavor. Bill Tilden was born into a family with deep Anglo-Saxon roots. His father's family came from Kent, England, of a long and distinguished British line whose ancestors included, among others, in-laws to the family of William the Conqueror and a Tilden who helped finance the Mayflower. The first Tilden came to the colonies in 1634, accompanied by seven servants. From that beginning on the American continent, the Tildens spread north to Canada, where subsequent generations established that country's largest rental car company, to New York, where one of the offspring, Samuel Tilden, lost the presidential election in 1876, and to Delaware and Maryland. Bill Tilden's father was a result of this southern line of the Tilden clan. He moved to Philadelphia in 1855 where he found work with the woolen firm of David Hey, married the boss's daughter, Selina Hey, and set about becoming partner in the wool business and a wealthy man.
Before Bill Tilden's birth in 1893, William Sr. and his wife Selina had three children in rapid succession. The family prospered and became members of the best social and athletic clubs. However, in 1884, tragedy struck. The diphtheria epidemic of that year did not distinguish between the poor and the wealthy. Within two weeks in late November and early December all three children had died of the disease, and that sad event changed Selina forever. When more children came, she would dote on them and try to protect them from every germ and danger in the world. "Bill Tilden was not to be born for another nine years," wrote Frank Deford, in a Sports Illustrated profile of the great tennis player. "But for these sad events of 1884, he almost surely would not have been born at all. And because of them, he was greatly affected. It is not an exaggeration to say that much of the way Bill Tilden was to be was determined years before his birth." A brother was born six years before Bill Tilden, but with the birth of this fifth child, the mother decided she would shelter him from the world. He thus was schooled at home in a mansion that included eight apartments and a large domestic staff, and was vastly spoiled. Named after his father, he bore the Jr. on his name and was called Junior or June, a name he grew to resent and ultimately changed. The father left the rearing of this last child to the mother, who decided early on that Tilden was a sickly child and had to be kept safe. He grew up at his mother's side, learning to love music as he sat by her at the piano, and learning to speak "proper" English from her, one that contained few American slang expressions.
Tilden, however, found another early outlet for his self-expression. At the age of five, while summering at the family vacation home at the Onteora Club in the Catskills, he first picked up a tennis racquet and began hitting balls against the back of the house. Tennis professionals who taught the game were a rarity at this time, but his older brother also played, and Tilden styled much of his game after him. At the age of eight he won his first singles trophy, defeating all comers at the 15-and-under Boys championships at the Onteora Club. He continued his tennis playing at the Germantown Cricket Club—scene of some of his most memorable matches in later years—just steps from his home in Philadelphia. In 1908 Tilden's life was turned upside down when his mother was taken ill with a kidney disease and he was sent to live with an aunt and cousin on his mother's side in a more modest dwelling nearby. He would maintain this room for the entire time he lived in Philadelphia. Away from Overleigh, he was enrolled in the prestigious Germantown Academy, graduating in 1910.
Despite his early tennis trophy, there was little about Tilden's game as a youngster to suggest that he would be the greatest player of the century. He played on the Academy team as well as on the University of Pennsylvania team when he entered that institution in 1910, but was a star on neither. Then in 1911 his mother died and Tilden, losing this anchor, foundered for a time. He stayed in college, but was never a brilliant student in the best of times. He also continued to play tennis, winning the U.S. mixed doubles in 1913 and 1914. When his father and then his brother died in quick succession in 1915, Tilden's life utterly changed. He left the university, took a reporting job for the Philadelphia Evening Ledger, and determined to devote his life to his one enduring passion: tennis.