I met the legendary Herwald Lawrence only once--at Sandor Glancz's funeral. This was only a year before Lawrence himself was to die of cancer on Christmas morning, 1974 at age 72. Ironically, in a tribute he paid to Sandor, he said he hoped that a Table Tennis Hall of Fame would be established and that Sandor--a former World Doubles Champion with Victor Barna, and later Ruth Aarons' suave supper-club-performer partner--would be among the first to be chosen. Sandor is yet to be chosen, but in 1996 Herwald Lawrence, proprieter/manager of the most famous table tennis Club in U. S. history, was himself inducted.
In the Apr., 1975 Table Tennis Topics, 1950 U.S. Women's Singles Champion Reba Kirson Monness gives us a portrait of Lawrence, a man usually reluctant to talk about himself. He was born in Barbados--reportedly, his mother being native to the island and his father a white minister.
"Herwald Lawrence [said Reba] was a gorgeous hunk of man, even when he was in his forties and fifties. He was six foot, three inches tall, lean of build, with a beautifully-shaped head. He wore his curly hair closely cut, he had hazel- light eyes, perfectly chiseled features, and a light complexion. His cultured voice was deep, cultivated, and resonant. He elicited perfect diction, was very graceful in his movements, and was gracious and charming whenever-he-wanted-to-be."
Which was not always the case, for to Pauline Robinson Somael, whom he taught to play--gave a free lesson to every day until after six months she was able to win a trophy at the '48 National's--he "could be the nicest person around or he could be impossible."
When, in 1951, Herwald was elected President of the NYTTA, Pauline was the Recording Secretary in his administration. To almost everyone, and especially to Reba, Lawrence "was noted for his upright character, his sense of principle. He was well-behaved and demanded good manners from all of the players. Players who did not maintain his modicum of behavior he would expel from his club."
However, John Kauderer, who at the beginning of the 1938-39 season succeeded John Morgan as head of the New York City Metropolitan TTA, has also emphasized Herwald's worldly understanding of those less scrupulous. "At the 1949 National's here in New York, Herwald took a licking running it." When at the St. Nicholas Arena tournament site the "NYC Fire Department tried to [and did] shake him down for the O'Dwyer slush fund," Kauderer said he offered to intervene. But Lawrence replied "if he didn't pay there, they would get him at his place of business." So what could he do but bear with it.
Reba said he had "infinite patience" and was "very explicit" in his teaching. Marty Reisman spoke of how Lawrence would stick an ice pick through a ball, and, holding the pick with his left hand, would rotate the rubber racket against the ball to show the spin produced.
It may well be that on coming to the States from the West Indies he at one time had "served in the U.S. Army" and had "once studied to be an engineer." But History meets him at "Lawrence's"--1721 Broadway (between 54th and 55th Streets) in New York City.
Supposedly the place was first famous as a "Legs" Diamond-frequented gangster speakeasy--with bullet holes to prove it. It was taken over as a table tennis establishment by Bernard Joel, who'd been the General Secretary of the 1931-formed New York Table Tennis Association, and when later Joel ran into financial difficulties, it was owned by that same John Morgan I've just mentioned who, besides being an early '30's pioneering table tennis official, was a well-known commercial artist and a man then in his mid-60's. Morgan was an avid player, but he certainly didn't want to run the establishment, so he worked out an arrangement where Lawrence the player would become Lawrence the manager, and Lawrence's prize pupil, future 1945 U.S. Open Champion Davida Hawthorn, would share in the ownership until Lawrence himself became the proprietor, with or without an extended lease.
Reisman said he must have been about 12 when as the Lower East Side "Seward Park Champ" he went looking for this fabled "Lawrence's." Unbeknown to him, he went to another Club several blocks away, one he would later call "Arnold's, which he'd been led to believe was "Lawrence's," and, for three months, every time he wanted to know where the good players were, the locals would string him along, saying they were all "Out on Tour." Finally, when Marty wised up, and got over to the right Club, he found Lawrence sweeping the wooden floor, pushing his broom through some kind of green-colored, powdery substance meant to keep down the dust. Marty thought he was the porter.
Reba said that Lawrence "became the first black man to own a business establishment in the Times Square area on Broadway," and that "it was AFTER the landlord met him and was so favorably impressed with him that Lawrence was allowed to own the place." Reba also said that "when it was not fashionable to be pro-Negro," many affluent players wanted to "do things" for Herwald, but that he invariably refused their help. Perhaps had he not been such a proud man he would have been able to keep "Lawrence's," for, had he availed himself of the good lawyer available to him, he might not have eventually been forced to give up his tenancy. When, then, in 1957 or so he tried to open a new Club way up on 207th St., it didn't work out, and, as he'd always loved to work with figures, he ended up as a bookkeeper, reportedly "somewhere in the garment district."
"Lawrence's" consisted of two floors of tables--seven downstairs, where his control desk was , and where into the wee hours of the morning the famous Table #7 would sport gambling matches being played by some of the most illustrious names in table tennis--Miles vs. Reisman, to name but the most obvious.
On Tuesday nights Lawrence held handicap tournaments, and, said Reba, "he had "an extraordinary ability to judge strangers' handicaps. "Care for a game, old top?" he might say to someone who'd wandered in off the street. Then, after hitting a few with the newcomer, he'd assign him a fair spot relative to any habitue he might pair him with.
The Friday night single elimination tournament, though, was what everyone wanted to play in and stay to see, many of course making round by round bets on the matches. There were often so many people crowding in that if you weren't on court it was hard to move.
Hard to move on here too, but I have to. I'm going to close this little show of homage to Herwald, who always tried to give a touch, indeed more than a touch, of class and dignity to our Sport, with an excerpt from Robert Lewis Taylor's Jan. 31, 1942 New Yorker Profile of Lawrence that will illustrate, as Herwald says, that his tournaments "keep a steady finger on the pulse of table tennis," for "the best practioners have favored me with their custom":
"To get the tournament underway, Mr. Lawrence sits down at a card table on the sidelines and picks up the microphone of an amplifying system. In grave tones he announces the pairings for the night's play. Then a cluster of bright lights go on over the tournament table. Suddenly Lou Pagliaro steps out onto the floor, looking solemn. As befits his station, he is to play the first match. Mr. Lawrence's voice booms out over the loudspeaker: 'The national champion, ladies and gentlemen. Shall we give him a hand?' It is when Pagliaro hears the applause which follows that he thinks life and ping pong have been very good to him."