Gussie Moran had legs that went on forever. She walked, the late designer Ted Tinling said, as if she were tiptoeing across tennis balls. She was a California girl with a California tan. She was a jock, she was beautiful, it was 1949 and Gussie Moran showed her lace panties at Wimbledon.
"Gussie was," says Jack Kramer, part of Los Angeles tennis royalty, "the Anna Kournikova of her time. Gussie was a beautiful woman with a beautiful body. If Gussie had played in the era of television, no telling what would have happened. Because, besides everything else, Gussie could play."
Today the top 16 women's tennis players in the world begin play at the season-ending Home Depot WTA Championships at Staples Center.
We will see Serena Williams and her tight, taut, flamboyant cat suit, the outfit she showed off while winning the U.S. Open. Serena's sister, Venus, already has a $40-million clothing deal with Reebok. Serena's Puma contract is up soon. It is a safe bet Serena will earn more than Venus.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 08, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 4 inches; 172 words Type of Material: Correction
Gussie Moran -- A Sports column Wednesday on tennis legend Gussie Moran misspelled the last name of late sportscaster Bob Kelley as Kelly.
For wearing the lace panties, for being so daring as to display her knees, to be seen on the cover of magazines worldwide, to find herself playing matches where the camera flashbulbs would nearly blind Moran during her matches, she made no money.
Moran is 79 now and she wears her brown-gray hair in two pigtails, held in place by rubber bands. She wears wool tights in an argyle pattern of gray, black, pink and white. Her skirt is lightweight and pale green with a ruffle at the bottom and her sweater is blue, red and white. Moran has on big, round glasses tinted light blue. Moran still defies style convention.
In the afternoon sun, cats play in the courtyard as Moran steps outside and for a moment all you can think is that Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond character has walked off Sunset Boulevard and William Holden must be right around the corner.
She lives in a single room in a run-down building with the cement sagging. It is just off Melrose Avenue and behind Paramount Studios in Hollywood. There is a mattress on the floor. Newspapers are everywhere, for Moran loves cats and four of them have the run of her place. On one wall are dozens of cards -- holiday cards, birthday cards, friendship cards. On the windows are bedsheets made into curtains. This is Moran in 2002.
In 1949, Gussie Moran was a tennis sensation. Moran came to Wimbledon and caused a scandal. Tinling had made for Moran a tennis dress with a skirt so short it didn't cover the knees and, for underneath, white panties trimmed in lace. A glimpse of those lace panties every once in a while on the body of Moran caused Wimbledon brass to cover their eyes and photographers from around the world to lie on the ground so they could shoot "Gorgeous Gussie Moran" from the bottom up.
When Moran played that Wimbledon, tennis was still a sport for amateurs. Moran had paid her way to the tournament for which there was no prize money, only honor.
When Serena Williams walked proudly onto Stadium Court at the U.S. Open in her pink and black form-fitting leotard, after all the gasping, Williams was compared to the daring "Gorgeous Gussie."
Gussie lives on what little Social Security she earned from some of her dozens of careers. She receives occasional money from an anonymous Australian friend. She would like to come to Staples Center to see this tournament. "But I can't afford a ticket," Moran says.
She loves Serena's forward fashion approach. "The cat suit was fun," Moran says. "It was attractive on Serena's body. She should show off that body and what's wrong with having a good time with your clothes and your body?
"I see nothing wrong with what Anna Kournikova does. She's a beautiful girl with a beautiful body. I love it."
She blushes when told that Kramer compared her to Kournikova. "Oh, no," Moran says. "I was never that attractive."
But even now, after some face lifts that might not have been perfectly planned, behind the skin carved deep with wrinkles that came from all those days in the sun, on the beach, that came from her perfect California tan, there is the outline of that beauty.
Moran has blue eyes that sparkle, a delicate nose, an upturned mouth.
"If I could have a wish," Moran says, "it would be to have a face lift."
But no, Moran is told, that is not necessary. "Maybe not," she says, "but I would like one."
Author Roger Kahn, a long-time friend of Moran's, remembers his first meeting with the glamour girl. "It was at Dodgertown in the 1950s," Kahn says. "All I saw were these legs attached to that body attached to that head. She asked me if I would work out with her. I said I don't play tennis but I play volleyball. So we played volleyball."
For nearly two hours Gussie Moran tells stories.
She tells of learning to play tennis as an 11-year-old, the daughter of Harry and Emma, of a sound technician at Universal Studios and a housewife. She speaks of her childhood in a big, wood, Victorian house a block from the ocean in Santa Monica.