American tennis player Gertrude 'Gussie' Moran stretches… (Keystone / Getty Images )
Everyone deserves life with dignity in their final years, whether you dug ditches or played tennis on the world's most famous stages.
Gertrude "Gussy" Moran did the latter. She also got that deserved dignity because of the extraordinary kindness of a woman possibly as quirky as Moran was herself — this other woman wears a $15,000 Rolex that she painted purple with nail polish to hide the gold.
We shall call her Lovey Jurgens, because that's what she will allow us to call her. Nothing else. No bending. No exceptions. The Los Angeles tennis community knows who she is and everybody else only needs to know that her story is true and exceptional.
Twelve years ago, Jurgens got an email from Mark Winters, an official at the Southern California Tennis Assn. Winters knew that Jurgens, then in her late 40s, was a woman of means and somebody who played tennis, taught it and cherished the idea of preserving its memories. The email said that Gussy Moran, the famed "Gorgeous Gussy" of Wimbledon lace-panties fame, was within 36 hours of being evicted from her small apartment near Paramount Studios in Los Angeles.
"Can you help?" the email asked.
Jurgens was there in 30 minutes and has been back to the small apartment with the "1/2" in its address thousands of times in those 12 years. Her last trips were Thursday and Friday, when she cleaned it out for the final time. Moran, 89, had died there Wednesday night.
"There is a big hole in my heart," Jurgens says, "but being with Gussy was worth every ounce of energy I used and every penny I spent."
Moran was written off years ago by many in the Los Angeles tennis community, especially by those who didn't care enough to make the effort to really know her, as a hopeless recluse. She was a world-class tennis player in her prime — she got to one doubles final at Wimbledon — but not a Pauline Betz or an Alice Marble. She was a friend of Charlie Chaplin, she was married and divorced three times, she held jobs in television and other media, but never for long.
Besides, her fame had been gained, not completely to her dismay, by wearing a short skirt that revealed lace panties at Wimbledon in '49. Moran, whose given name was Gertrude and always preferred to be known as "Gussy" not "Gussie," wanted to make a fashion splash at Wimbledon that would be in line with her outgoing personality and showcase her pretty legs.
Today, her outfit would be considered modest, even bland. But in 1949, it set photographers and Wimbledon officials into a tizzy, each for a different reason.
By the time Jurgens showed up at her door, life had left Moran with a modest monthly Social Security check and little else. There were rags stuffed into cracks around the windows, little furniture and barely enough to make ends meet. What remained was plenty of spirit.
They became friends. They argued and disagreed, but never split. Moran accepted her fate, but was also fiercely independent. Every month or so, Jurgens would give her a packet of cash, usually $2,000 in either $10 bills or $20 bills. She also hired a driver for her so Moran could get to things such as doctors' appointments.
"But she wanted her own driver, one that we had fired," Jurgens says. "So she kept him and paid him herself. He was handsome, and she never lost her eye for a good-looking man."
Besides her three husbands, Moran had many lovers and once told author and noted sportswriter Roger Kahn, whom she also dated, that the most amazing thing she had ever done in her life was "the night I went to bed with King Farouk."
Moran had cats in her apartment, which became part of the recluse bag-lady image. But Jurgens says she was never a classic cat lady.
"They found her," Jurgens says. "She didn't find them. She just kept food out so they wouldn't starve. None of them had names."
Moran stayed contemporary. A friend introduced by Jurgens, columnist Jack Neworth of the Santa Monica Daily Press, mentioned Bono to Moran one day on the phone and she quickly told him that she was quite fond of U2.
"Eighty-nine years old and she knows U2," Neworth says.
She didn't bemoan modern-day tennis or make fun of the advantages of the new equipment. She just told Jurgens she would have loved to have tried some of those rackets.
"To the end," Jurgens says, "Gussy was alert, aware and amazing."
When the colon cancer got bad recently and Moran was hospitalized at Good Samaritan, where Jurgens says she was treated like "VIP royalty," there was a need to establish her next step. The options were nursing homes or home hospice. Home hospice was a problem because Moran's apartment had no stove, refrigerator or microwave. Moran wanted to go home, so Jurgens bought the stove, refrigerator and microwave.
"It was just a week ago, and we were sitting on her hospital bed, looking at carpet colors," Jurgens says. "I had all the whites and the beiges, but I knew she always wanted a red carpet. She said, 'C'mon, girl. Let's go red.'"
By the end of the next day, the appliances and all the red carpet were in.
Next, Moran had to sign herself out, to the hospice care, which is usually the final stop before death.
"So there she is," Jurgens says, "knowing what she is signing, and she is telling the nurses to be nice to me — yes, to me — because I had lost my husband this summer. That was her. Complicated and full of love."
Sometime next week, when Jurgens, as executor of Moran's will, gets the ashes, a group of friends will gather and release them into Santa Monica Bay.
That was Moran's wish.
It will be a dignified ceremony for a life that ended in dignity.
That was Jurgens' doing.