Zibby Owens: Robert Weintraub is the author of The Divine Miss Marble: A Life of Tennis, Fame, and Mystery. He has written about sports for Slate, Play,, The Guardian, Deadspin, and many more. He’s the author of four books including The Divine Miss Marble and also the New York Times best seller No Better Friend. He currently lives in Decatur, Georgia, but grew up in the large shadow cast by Yankee Stadium in Rye, New York.

Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I’m so excited to discuss Miss Marble with you.

Robert Weintraub: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: The Divine Miss Marble: A Life of Tennis, Fame, and Mystery is a deep, deep dive into Alice Marble’s life. As I was reading it, I was thinking, what was it about her that kept you so interested? You must have spent so much time on this book. What was about her that captivated you so much? What made you write this book?

Robert: A lot of time and a lot of miles back when you could travel freely without worrying about things. I was so impressed by Alice’s stick-to-it-ivness, the fact that she got hit with so many obstacles in her life constantly. She always rose back up on her feet and came back stronger. She was a great player, but came from nothing. She had to start playing on hardscrabble cement courts in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and really came from nothing to become this great champion. Then just on the verge of her breakthrough, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was in a sanitarium partially and was out of the sport for two full years and came back from that to win what we would call today the US Open, then it was called the US Nationals, and became the biggest star in the sport. From then on, it was one body blow after another, whether it was other battles with health problems that were debilitating but she kept going through them and a lot of personal issues in her private life and the war which ended her career prematurely, World War II, which really kept her from being an all-time great who everybody would know about today. As I came across and discovered yet one more pitfall after another that she managed to get back from, I just became so impressed with her. I started to idolize her. It made the travel and the long days in the archives going through these dusty old manuscripts and materials, it was easy because I was fascinated by every step she took from then on.

Zibby: You mention at several points in the book how this is what she recorded, but you couldn’t verify it anywhere. There was no backup, so you’re like, this is what she said. We’ll have to take her at her word. It sounded like you had a lot of skepticism about some of it. How did you end up feeling about her retelling of her story? Do you think it was all accurate? What really happened?

Robert: Where the facts met the legend, she liked to print the legend, so they say. You have to put it in context. She talked a lot this espionage mission that she went on during World War II at the behest of the army intelligence to reconnect with a former lover who was a Swiss banker who was working with the Nazis to launder their money. Her assignment was to go and find him in Switzerland, reconnect, and find any evidence she could of this nefarious duty and then come back to America with it. She says she found it and was shot for her troubles by a Russian double agent while being chased through the mountains of the Swiss Alps. It’s an incredible story. There’s just enough truth or unprovable falsehood in it to make it at least sort of believe. However, as you say, I couldn’t really verify much of it. You have to understand, she was a woman who was at these incredible heights of fame during the Depression when everybody in the country was on their knees, really. By the sixties, she was a forgotten figure. She had very little money because she didn’t get to earn any through her tennis greatness because it was all amateur in those days. She was a forgotten figure living on the margins in Palm Desert, California. I think there was a lot, this is who I was and if I have to embellish my tale a little bit to get people to remember me a little bit more, then it’s okay because I’ve earned it. I think she did earn it. She always had this maxim, give the fans what they want, whether she was on the tennis court or whether she was singing in a night club, which she did; or appearing on the radio, which she did all the time when she was at the height of her fame; or designing fashions. She also did quite a bit of her own and then sported them on the court and in public. She did many different things in her life. She always did it to please her public. I think this tale of her World War II derring-do may have gone along the same line and she just exaggerated for effect, as we say.

Zibby: It’s so interesting because when you talk to memoir writers, there’s this whole debate about what exactly is truth? Is it your truth? What do you believe? Is it your perception? Then someone like you comes in who tries to make sense of all of the interpretation and try to squeeze out all the facts. It’s a tricky job. It’s sort of murky when you have to rely on people’s memory or their depictions of themselves.

Robert: You are not kidding. It is. You always have to take the fifty thousand-foot view. It’s not always easy because you want to believe the memoir writer. You want to go on what she says was her journey at all times. Memory is tricky, of course. You never want to believe the person closest to the action because their memories are the least reliable. I found that for the most part she was accurate for what she remembered and talked about. She actually wrote two memoirs. Another one came out right at the height of her fame. In both of them, there’s a lot of truth in there. There’s just a little bit extra involved that was done either to sell more books or to give her what she thought was the true, as you mentioned, this true life that she thought about in her head as opposed to the facts that you come across in the newspapers of the time. I tried to walk that tightrope very carefully and not not give her the benefit of the doubt but at the same time not crap all over what she saw in her own life.

Zibby: One of the things that you said that drew you to her and what drew me to this story and to many sports stories, honestly, is the ability to persevere and what makes some people be able to overcome things in their life and flourish and use their physical gifts and translate it all with a perfect combination of mental toughness and physical agility to become a huge sports star, whereas so many others, most people, can’t achieve that. Then when I was reading about Alice and even the rape scene at the beginning of the book, even if you just had that — then she had so many people die and drop dead next to her and one thing after another and then coming back from a two-year break. Nowadays on the tennis tour, we hear about somebody gets surgery or Djokovic is out for a little bit or something. Back then, they didn’t have all of that machinery to rehabilitate people. Anyway, that was my long way of saying, first of all, what do you think makes some people able to overcome this type of adversity? Second, why do you think we’re all just so drawn to stories like this?

Robert: I wish I knew what made people be able to do it. I would do it myself. It’s really incredible, as you say. I didn’t even mention her sexual assault, absolutely. She lost her father when she was very young. It’s an incredible portrait of somebody who just refused to lose, to use a cliché. I hate to do that. Michael Jordan’s been in the news lately just because of this documentary about him recently. He’s somebody else who just manifested everything around him to use to a single-minded purpose, which was win games. I think Alice was maybe not quite that single-minded, but had the same sort of mindset, which was, this is what I want to do. Not only am I not going to let things happen to me that will derail me from that, I’m going to use them as fuel. That’s really rare. It’s incredibly admirable. It’s just something in the brain chemistry, I suppose, that makes them, these rare few, for better or for worse and mostly for worse, something to overcome, as something to push them day in and day out. When she was laid up for two years, she got out of bed and began a really rigorous physical training program that we would take for granted today, obviously, but at the time was just unheard of. People were like, why are you skipping rope every day and doing all this physical training? She said, I’m going to get back to the top. I’m going to do what it takes to be there. That’s what I want to do in life. You have to really admire somebody who sets aside everything else like that and uses that kind of motivation to get to where they want to go. It’s so rare and so hard to do that. As I say, that’s what really in the end drew me to her and to her story. For all the things that she did that we might question in terms of memoir writing, it was overwhelmed by the fact that my admiration for her was so deep because of her amazing comeback abilities.

Zibby: This book felt very cinematic to me. It felt like I was reading the movie that I was going to eventually watch. Do you have an actress in mind who would play Alice if this were to become a movie?

Robert: Wow, that’s a great question. I suppose the first person just who leaps to mind, maybe, is Charlize Theron because she has that combination of great physical presence as well as the beauty and grace and all the other attributes that Alice had but is very believable as somebody you could see running her opponent into the ground on the tennis court and then changing her clothes and singing in a night club or going out on the town with one of her many admirers. There’s probably no shortage of actresses who could make it happen, but Charlize is the first one that leaps to mind. Obviously, that would be great if it ever came to pass, but I’m not holding my breath.

Zibby: Still, fun to think about it.

Robert: Yes, very much so.

Zibby: You write about all kinds of sports, not just tennis. Tell me about your love of sports yourself. Do you love to play sports? How did you end up becoming an avid sportswriter?

Robert: I think I followed the traditional path, which was I played avidly until I realized I was not very good at them, and certainly not good at them to continue playing beyond high school, at which point I switched over to covering them. I worked in sports television for a long time and then when I had a family transitioned into writing because it was a lot less travel and long hours. I’ve just always been really fascinated by the history of sports and the day in, day out competition of sports and the outsized personalities that come with it and the things that we are talking about. People who wind up achieving greatness have these incredible qualities that so few of us have. I think most of us, certainly myself included, are drawn to that. By writing about them, I get to sort of walk in their shoes a little bit. I get to feel at least a little bit how it must have felt for Alice to be at her lowest of lows and overcome all that to get to this incredible precipice. I think that’s what draws a lot of us to sports in general, is the fact that you get to see these athletes who are performing at this incredibly high level and knowing how they got there, each of them with their individual stories intact. It’s really something that’s fascinating. It’s a drama that never ends. When we get sports back someday, hopefully, that will certainly continue to be the case. I’ll keep covering it until the day I die. I can’t get enough of, really.

Zibby: My husband is such a sports fan. This quarantine, I swear, I think that’s been the hardest part for him. Whenever anyone askes, he’s like, “I miss sports so much.”

Robert: Him and me both. It becomes part of your everyday life. It really does. We can talk in the abstract about how seeing these great athletes perform is so much of it, but it’s also just a daily thing that’s part of your life. It becomes as much a part of your day as brushing your teeth or walking the dog, turning on the ballgame and seeing how your team did. When you take that away out of nowhere, really, that’s very tough to overcome for all of us. In a way, we’re all Alice Marble right now and we have to overcome this body blow. We’ll get there. We’ll get back to the heights. I’m sure of it.

Zibby: It’s true. I feel like it’s a double whammy with sports because you have the community of shared rooting for someone. To be a fan, you’re a part of something. I feel like it’s hard these days to feel a part of anything, particularly now. Then to have that taken away, what does it mean if you’re a Denver Broncos fan when nobody’s playing? I’ll just say we’ve had a lot of Tennis Channel reruns on the TVs around here. I’m ready for some new matches.

Robert: Very understandable. Exactly, these live dramas missing from the — the matches may be great, but when you know who won already, it kind of takes away from a lot of the pleasure, unfortunately. I’m with you. I’m dying for the return of live sports. I’m a big New York Yankees fan and Cincinnati Bengals fan. It’s part of your identity after a long time. Especially, as you say, you become a community with your fellow fans. To have that ripped away from you, you start to question who you are a little bit. The sooner sports can get back and make us all whole again, that’ll be a good day.

Zibby: It’s true. How long did it take, by the way, to do all this research and write this book? It must have been a while.

Robert: Two-year range from beginning to end including the preproduction, as they say, trying to figure out if it was really a book. Then once it was and I had a way to tell it, there were a lot of ways to go with it, but I had to kind of insert myself into the story a little bit more than I usually would be inclined to do because of the mystery involved and because so much of it is trying to figure out what exactly Alice did and did not do. I turned it into a little bit of a mystery story where I’m the dogged detective on the case just figuring out what in Alice’s life and what happened was real and was not real. That took a little bit longer than usual, but about a two-year range, which is pretty standard for me for turning a book around. Some people take a lot longer. Other people who write a lot faster than I do and I’m envious of can crank them out in less time. For me, it’s about two-year range.

Zibby: Do you know what your next two years are allocated to at this point?

Robert: Great question. Nothing set definitely set in stone, so I probably shouldn’t talk about it, but more interesting tales of a fascinating figure. Let’s put it that way, not necessarily involved in tennis, but another rich human being. Let’s say that.

Zibby: Great. Awesome. Do you play tennis, by the way?

Robert: Yeah, absolutely. I love to play. I don’t play as much as I used to with the family and the wonky knees. I definitely enjoy playing. I live in Atlanta where there’s a huge doubles league scene, so I’ve played for many years in the doubles leagues around Atlanta. It’s great. It’s the kind of thing I hope to get back to when we can all shake hands over the net again. That’s for sure.

Zibby: Exactly. I love tennis. I feel like it’s like you’re having a conversation when you’re not even talking. It’s so fun. That’s what I love about it.

Robert: Every stroke is another witticism or declaratory statement. That’s right.

Zibby: Yes. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Robert: Boy, that’s an open question. I’ll tell you, yeah. I would say certainly if you think something is worthy of a story to be told at book length, do it. Like I say, I started in television. I was a big reader. I always thought I could write a book, but at no point did I ever say to myself, let’s just go ahead and do it, until the time came and somebody encouraged me and said, “You can do it.” I said, “Yeah, you’re probably right. I can.” There’s no alternative to just sitting down and doing it and banging it out. I would certainly say if you’re writing a book-length treatise there, don’t think about the big picture. That gets too overwhelming. Just think about that day’s writing. What’s this small little chunk that you can bite off and finish in the near future? Keep your goals small and easily attainable. That way after a lot of those goals are achieved, you find yourself with a big goal achieved as well, a big book all ready to be published. It takes some doing, but it’s not beyond any of you out there. I’d say that for sure.

Zibby: I think that’s good life advice in general. Anything could seem overwhelming unless you break it down into small pieces.

Robert: Exactly. That’s the best way to go, as you say, hour by hour. If you look at the big picture, boy, you’ll just bury your head under your covers and stay in bed forever.

Zibby: Yes, particularly these days, particularly at the thought of perhaps not even having school in the fall. Oh, my gosh. How old are your kids?

Robert: I have a twelve-year-old girl and a ten-year-old boy. They are enjoying the idea of not going back to school very much, but I’m dreading it. Like most people, you get more of a parent/teacher role this fall. It’s a cross we all have to bear, it looks like.

Zibby: Yeah. I have thirteen-year-old boy-girl twins. Then I have a five and seven-year-old. My little kids are fine, but my twins, my thirteen-year-old daughter misses her friends so much that she’s willing to sit in school all day if she gets to hang out with them.

Robert: Exactly. That’s the other thing, the social component. This is beyond the dumbing down of our kids. It’s horrible for these kids not to be able to see their friends every single day. I feel so bad for them. Can’t get them sick either, so it’s a rock and a hard place.

Zibby: Right, I know. I keep thinking this is probably the ideal time in my own personal life for this to have happened where I’m happy not really being that social and getting all my socializing done over the internet by talking to friends and family and just hanging out with my kids and being very settled. At so many other parts of my life, this would’ve been a total disaster when things were up in the air or when I was trying to meet somebody. Anyway, whatever, I’m going on a tangent here.

Robert: I hear you. Listen, as a writer, I’m a natural shut-in anyway, so this is right up my alley. In that sense, social distancing isn’t a problem, but all the other aspects of it are just terrible. The sooner it’s over, the better, absolutely.

Zibby: Yeah. Well, thank you. Thanks so much for chatting with me today. Thanks for the entertainment of your book. I will channel Miss Marble as I’m playing tennis later today and the resilience that she had.

Robert: Good for you, very good. Wear shorts. That was her big thing. She chucked aside the skirts and put on the shorts and changed the game forever. I would definitely advise you to not play the game in calf-length skirts if you can avoid it.

Zibby: You know, I actually wouldn’t mind playing tennis in a calf-length. I love long skirts. I’m wearing a tennis skirt now. I hate shorts. I feel like I should’ve been born in a different era. I would’ve been happy with —

Robert: — You were a pre-Alice Marble type.

Zibby: Exactly. Maybe one of these days we’ll meet in person and could play some tennis and all the rest.

Robert: No doubt. I’d love to have a conversation over the net with you at any time.

Zibby: Sounds great. Thanks so much.

Robert: Thank you very much. I appreciate the time.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Robert: Take care. Bye.