Welcome to Monday’s Open Court. This newsletter publishes on Monday’s and Friday’s. Today’s edition is focused on Billie Jean King’s new autobiography “All In”. Please subscribe, comment and share!
Here’s the real deal: my life as a female in the United States would have been very different without Billie Jean King. She is around the same age as my parents, meaning I could be her daughter. Truly, all of us in GenX and beyond are the daughters of her legacy. Her constant dedication to uplifting women, pushing the boundaries of pay and opportunity, and lending her voice to social justice causes made our lives bigger and richer.
As I read her new autobiography, which comes out tomorrow, I realized I was treated better as a lowly Division II tennis player in the early 90s than she was as the top player at Cal State Los Angeles from 1961-64. The difference? Title IX meant I had rights. She was playing before it passed in 1972.
There were many moments in the book like that, where I just stopped and said Holy Shit!, out of anger and remorse that she was treated with outright discrimination.
The book is even more meaningful because one of my childhood sports writing heroes – yes, I was that kid – is King's co-author: Johnette Howard. (Maryanne Vollers is also a co-author.) Howard wrote for the Detroit Free Press when I was growing up, covering the Pistons and the Olympics. She is a high-level and award-winning writer. She has been nominated for a Pulitzer, and has worked for Sports Illustrated, ESPN, The Washington Post, The Athletic and written books.
I had a chat with Howard about the book and all things about the Queen known as King:
Q: How did you get to work with BJK on it? What was the process?
JH: I first met Billie in 1986 when I was covering the NBA for The Detroit Free Press. I introduced myself to her and thanked her for making it possible for me to be a sportswriter. Later, I had many occasions to interview her at various junctures over the years. She was extraordinarily kind to me when I was writing my first book, The Rivals, in 2004. My involvement in this project came about because Billie was working on her autobiography for a few years and was looking for someone new to collaborate with.
I started working with Billie in April 2019 and the final pass on the manuscript was done in June 2021. The greatest challenge was resisting the temptation or sense of obligation to be comprehensive. You don’t want the book to read like an encyclopedia or a CV. It’s important to create a narrative that will make sense of who she is, what she’s done, the times she lived in, and convey it in a way that people will enjoy reading. I hope we’ve done that.
Q: King has an incredible recall of the details of her life. Is this from her head or research/diaries?
JH: Billie does have amazing recall. She doesn’t keep journals, but she does maintain an extraordinary number of deep, long-lasting relationships with people. As a result, I think, her past and present remain connected and alive in an active way in her life. That helps.
We did look at every corner of her career. Like most authors, I did an enormous amount of research – scouring books, videos, documentaries, magazine and newspaper archives, academic papers, archival footage on YouTube, you name it. I followed numerous tangents into topic areas beyond sports because the sweep of Billie’s life demands it. She was more than a consequential athlete. Life magazine chose her as one of the most 100 important Americans of the 20th Century. So have others.
Billie and I talked extensively, and I traveled with Billie and her partner, Ilana Kloss, to various places. They have been together four decades. Ilana is extremely gracious, accomplished, and insightful as well. I also did a large amount of independent reporting and other interviews. I felt it was important that the back half of the book have a contemporaneous feel.
Going into this, I was already extremely familiar with Billie’s athletic achievements, activism, and the cultural backdrop that her life and career played out against because of my 35-year career as a sportswriter. I’m a big believer that context is vital in storytelling. Doing deep-dive research is like panning for gold. Sometimes you go through a lot of stuff to get one little nugget that is new or illuminating, but it can add so much richness, texture and meaning. It can even be narrative changing.
I was also fortunate that Maryanne Vollers, who is also credited as a co-author, contributed a large amount of reporting and writing in the years before I joined the project. I inherited that material. Helen Russell, who helped put together Billie’s archives at the New-York Historical Society, has worked with Billie for three decades. She was a huge resource as well. There has been an extraordinary amount reported about Billie’s life. She turns 78 in November and has never left the public arena. The challenge was paring down and capturing the essence and import of what she’s done, and carving out the narrative arc that explains her, rather than finding material to use.
Q: The weaving of world history with her life is like Forrest Gump. I am fascinated seeing her life through that filter. How did that framing happen?
JH: Billie was born in 1943 and lived through the civil rights movement, the anti-war protests and feminist movement in the 60s, the rise of the gay and trans rights movement. Often, she was on the front lines of those fights. There is a line in the preface that I think is central to how she thinks and also answers your question. It appears in the passage where we describe the steadily accruing slights and obstacles that she began to encounter even as a young girl.
I think that was the spark that animated so much of what Billie has done, and I think that question continues to inform her life’s work. She often says everybody deserves the best life has to offer, regardless of where they come from, regardless of what gender, race, nationality, sexual identity they are. Difference needn’t be a “bad” thing. What she’s really talking about is the sanctity of respecting what makes us human beings.
Early in life when Billie pondered these things, Billie was speaking mostly about girls, women and the people of color she saw fighting for their basic civil rights in the 1960s. The civil rights movement made a huge impression on Billie long before feminism did. As Billie got older, the issues she engaged with expanded over time. She became more overtly political and embraced feminism, and she got involved in supporting political candidates and the LGBTQ+ movement, pushing for legislation, and so on.
Q: Co-writing a book in somebody else's voice is not easy; you want to be the big-time writer, but keep your person in the spotlight. How did you find Billie's voice in your writing?
JH: When you ghostwrite a book for someone, I think the start point and guiding principle should be it’s their book, not yours. I think you have two clients – the person who is writing the autobiography, and the book itself. To the extent differences of opinion happen, that’s a place they can occur. And I think it’s healthy. The logic has to track. The tone has to ring authentic. The facts have to be right.
As in any kind of writing, with ghost writing it’s vitally important to start by listening - just really, really listening as closely as possible, without pretext or judgement. Again, it’s about them. Part of that is asking good questions, talking things through, challenging things when necessary but ultimately accepting the answers they give you rather than imposing yourself. (Otherwise, why the hell did you ask them? LOL). I’ve done a lot of long profiles in my career. I’m always looking to accurately capture the subject as they are so that someone who knows them says, Yes! That’s them!
Billie has a very distinctive voice that’s all on her own, so it wasn’t hard. She has a characteristic way of talking, thinking, approaching things. She has an overarching set of beliefs, ideas, insights and experiences that – if the book is done right – should make you feel like the planks of her personality are falling into place as the story unfolds. That was my goal. All of those things contribute to conveying someone’s “voice.” She’s a terrific subject because she’s extremely articulate and smart, sensitive and passionate, and that just naturally comes through when she speaks in a first-person account like this.
Q: She has been through so much. What do you think kept her going and somewhat sane?
JH: She has always had the conviction that what she was fighting for --- equal rights, diversity and inclusion -- was too important to relent. She refused to be erased or minimized or accept that women should surrender their dreams and ambition, which was the standard at the time she was coming of age. There was a lot of pressure to conform.
One of the many things that made Billie so notable was she became a superstar athlete at a time when it was the near-exclusive province of men. The first year she earned $100K was also the first year of the women’s pro tour she helped create, and she out-earned all but six players in major-league baseball. That was an enormous achievement.
Billie was also the first female athlete that fought to lift women as a group, not just herself or her own career. She is an original. She and the other eight woman who broke away and eventually founded the first women’s pro tennis tour in 1970 laid the groundwork for what’s today become the entire women’s sports industry. The reverberations have gone far beyond women’s pro tennis.
I think what helped Billie immensely was her upbringing was bedrock solid. Her dad was a firefighter, and her mom was a homemaker who sometimes took side jobs to make ends meet. Her parents weren’t progressive in many ways, but she always knew that they were devoted to her and her brother, and that she was loved. That can carry someone a long way.
Q: On the other side, she was very hard on herself, and the world's pressure clearly hurt her. What do you feel was her lowest point?
JH: I think she would probably say a couple things. Being outed as gay by Marilyn Barnett in 1981 though their relationship had been over for many years. That became an enormous scandal and she felt it hurt everyone and everything she cared about or worked so hard to achieve. It devastated her that people she loved were dragged into it. Billie wasn’t divorced yet from Larry King, though they were living largely separate lives by then; her parents and brother felt fallout; Ilana was terrified she’d be outed as well. The world wasn’t a hospitable place for LGBTQ+ folks then, and the books provides a lot of detail about the context of those times.
Billie also feared the women’s tennis tour and everything else she’d worked for would be imperiled, and she might be treated as a pariah.
I think the second moment she might mention is seeking in-patient treatment for an eating disorder at the age of 51. That’s when she was finally able to hurdle the difficulties, she had about publicly acknowledging her sexuality.
Q: King's legacy is so vast - anything that you learned that surprised you?
JH: I never knew that she was very religious as a girl and seriously thought about becoming a missionary. I didn’t know until late in our work together that she and Ilana had gotten married. I didn’t know that Billie had a genuine interest in running for public office by her 40s, but privately disqualified herself because she was closeted and didn’t think Americans were ready for a gay politician.
Other people are often surprised that Billie had trouble reconciling her sexuality. I finally realized this may be the best way to explain it: She was such an indomitable champion and fighter for social justice that accepting her sexuality required something anathema to her – the willingness to surrender. It’s a paradox. But I think it’s at the heart of the internal conflicts she had at times, and a key to understanding her.
Q: She's been the subject of so many books, some with her cooperation. What was the goal of this one to make this what she wanted?
JH: I think Billie’s interest in doing this autobiography book was motivated by a few things. She turns 78 in November, and she’s felt there was a lot about her life that’s been left unsaid. Also, she continues to work for what she believes in, and she wanted to look backward and forward and share what she’s learned. So many issues that she and others fought for in the past and are being re-argued today. In the book, she offers some great insights into leadership, activism, her approach to trying to make a difference in the world. She says it’s important to think about all of that in “a daily, intentional way.” Change doesn’t just magically happen.
The other thing is, people have this mistaken impression that Billie has written other autobiographies, but the truth is she hadn’t done one since 1981, when Sports Illustrated write Frank Deford and she did a quick book in response to her being outed and sued by Marilyn Barnett. And she didn’t talk freely in that one. Billie was planning to retire shortly. She had held a press conference and admitted to the affair and lost nearly all of her income and future deals overnight. She was nearly 38 and wound up having to play several more years despite having had six knee surgeries by then.
Billie didn’t want to do the 1981 book, but her manager at the time was afraid her future income sources were imperiled for good and told her she “had” to do it. She finally gave in. Frank went to the French Open to interview Billie, but it was only three weeks after being outed, and Billie was still so traumatized she admittedly didn’t give Frank much time. Nor did she participate much in the rest of the process. She has regrets about that.
In Billie’s view, this book is intended to be the definitive story that captures her entire life, before 1981 and after.
Q: King is blunt, unsparing at the overt sexism shown by Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith and Perry T. Jones (a big figure in SoCal tennis when she was growing up.) What was your approach to writing that?
JH: I didn’t try to balance her bluntness at all. Billie is irrepressible, determined, prescient, opinionated, action-oriented, fair-minded and wise. It’s what makes her great. It explains how she changed the world. Those same traits explain why her arguments and successes have been enduring. She’s always been an egalitarian, not a separatist. She’s an indefatigable worker. She’d rather try to build consensus first and resort to sterner measures when all else has failed.
Additionally, as anyone who knows Billie will attest, she is rigorously honest -- most especially when it comes to herself, even when telling the truth about herself isn’t flattering. She’s an avid student of history and knows that this book will be part of the historical record of the times she lived through. Being accurate, portraying things in an honest and fair way, was the goal.
The things she says about Ashe, Perry T. and others are demonstrably true.
Q: She casually drops into a photo cutline that she got married in 2018, and then elaborates further later on in the book. Why did she not say anything before this?
JH: I think her 42-year relationship with Ilana is another thread that was important for Billie (and Ilana) to include in the book. As Ilana puts it, “Our story together has never really been told before.” And she’s right. Ilana had quite a passage early in her life as well, as someone who grew up in apartheid-era South Africa and is the granddaughter of Jews who fled persecution by relocating to Johannesburg.
Billie and Ilana explain why they waited to get married in the book. The short answer: The danger and trauma of being outed in 1981 was so scalding for both of them – they had been together only two years by then, they were closeted to their families and most everyone else, and homosexuality was actually still illegal in South Africa. Billie’s publicist prevailed on Billie to send Ilana back to South Africa the same night Billie was outed, and they weren’t able to speak for a month as all hell was breaking loose. That kind of stuff made a deep impression on both of them.
At first, they felt that so many intimacies of their life have been open to public purview, getting married was something deeply personal that they wanted to keep private, just for themselves. That’s changed, and they’re now ready to talk about it.
Q: I loved the part where King gives a shoutout to female sportswriters, the group of pioneers in the 1970s who opened the doors for many. How did your relationship with her start?
JH: When I got into journalism in college, it wasn’t all that long after Woodward and Bernstein’s work on the Watergate break-in drove Nixon from office. I graduated high school in 1977. A lot of people got into journalism then because it was seen as a way to do public service. I was one of them. I was also an athlete. So, I was always drawn to following what Billie did. I remember watching her Battle of the Sexes match against Bobby Riggs as a kid.
Later, once I was in business, I fell into covering tennis quite by accident at The Washington Post because their previous writer left suddenly in 1993 to take a job in the Clinton administration. That put me in touch with Billie again. I ran into her and Ilana on a train back to London from Eastbourne, and they really didn’t know me from anyone but offered to give a tour of Wimbledon the day before the tournament started when I excitedly told them I’d never been there before. As I’ve often joked, they didn’t know me from a racket string yet reached out to do that for me. That’s how kind they are.
When I was reporting my other book in 2004, they were kind to me again. They invited me to stay with them during Wimbledon at the apartment they always rent overlooking the All-England Club grounds so I could save some money. Mary Carillo was staying there was well, and Billie – who basically keeps the hours of a jazz musician, up at 11 am or so, and then off to bed long after midnight – would get rolling at night telling stories with whomever stopped by. It was a privilege to be there and hear them laugh and hoot and holler. She’s been involved in so much. In the years since that stay, we’ve had many other occasions to talk for stories I was writing or to catch up, and we have some mutual friends.
Q: You've done other tennis books and pieces...what is your attraction to the sport/people?
JH: I think tennis, like boxing, has some inherent drama baked into it because it’s a one-on-one sport and it demands so much of the players mentally, physically, and emotionally. Winning requires enormous amounts of a lot of stuff. You have no teammates to take over for you, and there’s no equivalent to a buzzer-beating shot or bottom-of-the-ninth home run that can win the match for you with a single blow. Every tennis match is more like a marathon. You have to construct wins point by point, game by game, set by set over the course of two or three hours, often in broiling heat. Like most sports, it reveals a lot about the people who play it and, often, where they come from or where they’re performing. The fact that tennis is an international sport adds a ton. It opens a window to so many other worlds beyond sports and evokes so many more stories and emotions. All of this makes it great and vivid to write about.
Q: Your career has taken a lot of twists, how do you think you have been a survivor through all of the changes in journalism?
JH: As far as my career, I often laugh because I worked for one place that folded (The National) and another (Detroit) that nearly did, I’ve been among the legion of writers who have been laid off a few times, I encountered harsh treatment and sexism, and I still think I’ve had a great life! It’s so funny. Journalism has changed so much for the worse because the business has gone into the tank as a whole. Sports Illustrated, another place I worked, is sadly one of them. It used to be the gold standard and now it’s a shadow of what it was.
What sustained me along the way is I love to write and travel and think about things and learn new stuff. It’s an ever-renewing challenge and I think it helped that my emphasis has always been on the work, the work, the work, not becoming famous or rich or known. I honestly don’t give a damn about the latter stuff, beyond the fact that it’s useful when you’re trying to make a living. But if the work is good enough, your career usually works out. The work is the thing.
Also, I was willing to move or adjust. I generally get along with people, which isn’t the same as being a pushover. I speak my mind.
Lastly, I’ve always insisted on keeping some modicum of balance in my life – by that, I mean having a life outside of work, as well as having a deeply committed work life – because if you don’t watch it, working in a 24/7 business like journalism can overrun you, especially now that social media is a daily fixture in everyone’s life. You see a lot of folks with broken relationships and folks that just keep working because they have nothing to go to in the rest of their lives if they stop. I saw that early on and I didn’t want that. I’ve always put a premium on my happiness. If I hated doing something or encountered too much sexism or whatever, I felt I didn’t have to accept it or endure it. I had a choice.
Genuinely feeling that way gives you a sense of freedom and agency. It’s liberating, regardless of what is happening around you.
Thanks for reading, and come back Friday for more Open Court.