Sun, May 17, 2009 - Page 14 News List

[HARDCOVER: UK] Game, set and love match

The first biography of Wimbledon champion, heartthrob and sporting rebel Fred Perry offers an insight into his off-court exploits

By Jamie Doward  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

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Fred Perry is best known today for the chain of leisurewear that bears his illustrious name. But almost three quarters of a century ago, he set Wimbledon ablaze when he won the men’s singles — a feat that no Briton has achieved since. He was feted internationally, but in the genteel world of the 1930s no mention was made of his extra-ordinary love life.

The first biography of the tennis star, The Last Champion, paints Perry as the heartthrob of his day: flirting with Hollywood and dating some of the world’s most beautiful women, while governments sought his services for propaganda purposes.

The book, written by Jon Henderson, the Observer’s tennis correspondent, spells out how Perry’s glamorous life was a far cry from his humble origins: his father, Sam, had worked in a factory before becoming a powerful figure in the Co-operative movement and a Labour member of parliament. But Perry’s immense talents — first at table tennis, eventually becoming world champion; then at lawn tennis — propelled him to international stardom.

It helped that Perry had matinee-idol looks. “He is 6ft (1.82m) tall, weighs around 12 stone (76kgs); sculptors declare his physique perfect ... women fall for him like ninepins,” Henderson quotes one star-struck commentator as having said. “When he goes to Hollywood, male film stars go and sulk in Nevada.”

Away from the tennis courts, women and the silver screen were Perry’s great loves. Once, while staying at a Boston hotel, Perry and an American tennis player tied bed sheets together to lower themselves down to the floor below to make a social call on two female players.

Perry was briefly engaged to an English actress, Mary Lawson, but went on to marry four times. His first marriage was to divorcee Helen Vinson, an actress from Texas; the second, to Sandra Breaux, a model with film ambitions; and the third to Lorraine Walsh, whose drink problem is thought to have contributed to their break-up. All three maintained that Perry had been cruel to them, although Henderson suggests this was largely legalese employed by their divorce lawyers. Perry’s fourth wife, Barbara Rise Friedman, stayed with him for 40 years.

But the book’s most intriguing suggestion is that Perry enjoyed dalliances with some of Hollywood’s leading ladies. He briefly dated the original blonde bombshell Jean Harlow, of whom the Hollywood trade paper Variety once noted: “It doesn’t matter what degree of talent she possesses ... nobody ever starved possessing what she’s got.”

He went on to become a close confidant of screen star Bette Davis, of whom he said: “We were always easy and natural in each other’s company ... Not exactly family, but almost.”

Perry also romanced Marlene Dietrich while coaching her at tennis. According to Dietrich’s daughter, Maria Riva: “Fred Perry taught my mother to play tennis with great patience and lots of little passionate hugs, punctuated with rapid kissing between flying balls.”

At the time, Dietrich was also engaged in a lesbian affair with Mercedes de Acosta, a Cuban-American poet referred to as the “smitten Spaniard” by Riva. “I sort of hoped the smitten Spaniard might arrive and witness the Englishman at work, but my mother was very skilful in keeping her admirers from overlapping,” said the star’s daughter.

Hollywood leading man Clark Gable’s former lover Loretta Young also set tongues wagging when she turned up on Perry’s arm at Wimbledon, although she played down suggestions of a serious romance. “You can bank on it that I’m not going back to America as Mrs Perry,” she told the press.

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