Reportedly, Mae Clouther "declined an offer from the Ziegfeld Follies to marry a Boston accountant." One can believe it. And believe, too, that after said husband had "laughed at her" for thinking she might be able to play ping-pong, she began taking the game seriously enough to venture forth from her table at home, and in the spring of 1936 start her competitive career. Thus it was that, with the 1936-37 season, Mrs. F. J. (Mae) Clouther, tall, "Titian-haired," and decidedly good-looking, began to be noticed by an increasing number of...table tennis players. Perhaps she more vacationed than competed at that Aug. Provincetown, Massachusetts tournament. But, with her husband Jim interested enough to be the new treasurer of the MTTA, she started to get good in a hurry.
At the Oct. 23 Southern New England Open at Providence, Mae lost in 5 in the semi’s to U.S. #10 Mae Spannaus, the 1937 New York State Champion. At the Dec. 11-12 Massachusetts Championships, Clouther teamed with Singles runner-up Barbara Shields to win the Women’s Doubles. Then, at the Feb. 20-21 Colonial Open at Cambridge, though Mae lost the final to Shields, she upset Massachusetts Champ Stahl in the semi’s--"Jane’s first defeat in a New England tournament in 3 years."
Two months later, Clouther scored an even bigger Singles success at the Apr., 1937 U.S. National’s where, before losing in 4 to the eventual runner-up, Emily Fuller, Mae surprised Dolores Probert Kuenz, a member of the winning U.S. Corbillon Cup Team at the recent Baden World’s--and was rewarded for her 5-game win by seeing her photo in Topics.
Husband Jim moved on too. In addition to being a USTTA Ranking Committeeman, he now became the USTTA Treasurer--hence his close working relationship not only with Ranking Chairman Reginald Hammond but with President Carl Zeisberg. In regard to ranking Jim’s wife Mae for the ‘36-37 season, Hammond, as of July 2nd, had Corinne Migneco, 1936 U.S. World Team member but afterwards pretty much retired, as U.S. #7, and Clouther #8, ahead of fellow New Englanders Stahl and Shields. Eventually, though, Migneco will fall all the way to #12 and Clouther to #9, behind Stahl and Shields. Why?
Why indeed, for on July 7th, the very outspoken, very autocratic USTTA President Carl Zeisberg approved of Hammond’s first eight women, including Clouther--though in private among the Ranking Committeemen, including Jim, he downplays Mae’s win over Kuenz, says belittlingly it was a "pooping [chiseling] match." Nor did Ranking Committeeman Elmer Cinnater object to Reg’s ranking Clouther #8, though the only women he knows about and concurs with are Hammond’s "first six"; consequently, he’ll give Reg his proxy with regard to the other women’s rankings. So what happened then to make Hammond--"Migneco is definitely at the top" of the New Englanders, and "Clouther is definitely above Stahl"--change his mind?
It seems to be Jim Clouther’s own July 19th letter in which he thinks Stahl should head the New England women in the Rankings and that his wife should be second, an assessment that only Ranking Committeeman Charlie Dahlmen agrees with. However, these differences among them about the Ranking order are really not so consequential. What causes quite a stir with Zeisberg and Hammond (who, despite his definitiveness, had asked for Clouther’s input) is the fact that Jim had breached a confidence when he repeated to Mae the comments that had been made among the Ranking Committee members--especially President Zeisberg’s remark that Mae had played a "pooping"--that is, a pushing--match with Kuenz.
Of course it was natural for Mae to be concerned about her ranking, and it would have been difficult for her husband to keep mum about the Ranking Committee’s thoughts--the more so because he himself vehemently objected to Zeisberg’s comment. In his July 19th response to Ranking Chair Hammond and the Committee members, a response which if not prompted by Mae herself certainly had her full competitive concurrence, he says he "resents the reference" that Mae played "a ‘pooping match’ when those who witnessed it will testify that it was nothing of the sort." He goes on to say that "Kuenz had the reputation of being the best woman hitter in the country," and that Mae was the better offensive player in this match. Kuenz "wasn’t able to drive through Mrs. Clouther’s blocking at any time, but Clouther on at least a dozen occasions in the first two games scored with drives through Kuenz’s forehand. Only in the fifth, because of Kuenz’s "extremely cautious play," did Mae, too, go into "a tight defensive game."
On July 27th Hammond testily writes Jim that the "only possible excuse for ranking your wife ahead of Migneco, Stahl and Shields is because of her beating [an off-form] Kuenz in the National’s." And on July 30th Zeisberg writes Jim, "Please tell Mrs. Jim [sic --Mrs. Jim?...what’s the suggestion inthat?] that my statement that what I saw of the Kuenz-Clouther match...[that it was "a push match"] was not intended to be derogatory regarding her." Which, given Carl’s past insistence on punishing pushers, is surely not true. But, perhaps because he likes Jim, who seems to be a fair, up-front guy, Carl is uncharacteristically apologetic here, and, what with Migneco having so little record in U.S. play, a compromise is made, with the Committee taking into consideration Jim’s assessment of the New England players, but not fully agreeing with him.
More important, though, than the final 1936-37 positioning of these women players, which may well be arguable, is the recognition by powerful USTTA officials that Jim and Mae ("Mrs. Jim") have voices that intend to be heard.
The Nov., 1937 cover of Topics shows a close-up of Mae that, while flattering, seems to have been taken when she first started to play, for she has a "hammer"grip, and the racket she’s holding is elongated and might even be sandpaper. But at the annual Provincetown tournament that summer, having prevailed over U.S. # 11 Lucia Farrington in 5, "wholesome-looking" Mae took home the unique Bronze Dolphin traveling trophy. Six weeks or so later, however, in the Sept. 24-26 Massachusetts Open at Cambridge, Farrington would get sweet deuce-in-the-5th revenge over Clouther, then would go on to defeat penholder Shields in the final. Mae did win the Mixed--with former Parker Brothers’ APPA National Champion Jimmy Jacobson, now a student at Harvard, whom she’d later partner at other New England tournaments.
Unfortunately for Mae, this new season’s Southern New England Open seemed like a replay of last season’s--she again lost in 5 to Spannaus. And at the Dec. 11-13 Greater Boston Open at Somerville, Shields beat her. Then, a further disappointment: at the Jan. 21-22 New England Closed, she was 2-0 up on Stahl, and couldn’t win that either--though she did take the Women’s Doubles (with Shields).
The first weekend in Feb. brought Mae a coveted Singles title--Massachusetts Closed Champion (over Shields). And, in addition to the Singles, the Mixed with Frank Filipek.
More movement upward at the Feb. 26-27 Washington, D.C. Eastern’s--where she made it to two finals: losing in the Women’s to the #1 seed Fuller, and losing with Lowry in the Mixed to Fuller and the #1 Men’s seed Sol Schiff.
It would likely take a Top 10 player to beat Mae now--and at the Mar. 24-26, 1938 Philadelphia National’s, would it be Ohio Champ Clara Harrison? Two months before, as a U.S. Team member, Clara had played quite decently at the Wembley World’s. Then, at the Mar. 12-13 Lake Cities Open in Toledo, though losing in the Singles to Betty Henry who, with the help of a very favorable draw, had reached the Women’s semi’s at Wembley, Clara’d teamed with Jean Everling to score an upset win in the Doubles over Henry and Sally Green.
But at the National’s, Harrison, who’d flown in from Cleveland, and whose husband, according to Topics gossip columnist Kirson, was being mentioned as a possible candidate for "Governor of Ohio," had been hard-pressed to beat Matilda Plaskow after this Pennsylvania #1 had been 5-game extended earlier by one of Mae’s familiar rivals, Farrington. Close then the Harrison-Clouther match figured to be. Only it wasn’t--Mae, after downing Philadelphia’s Henrietta Wright three straight, had a similarly easy time with Clara in the quarter’s. On advancing to the semi’s, however, she was stopped cold--could score only a mere 35 points total from the Maryland Champ, "Baltimore’s ultra-glamorous, ultra-defensive" star, Dorothy Halliday. The 13th seed, "Dot" was surely something of a "sleeper," for she’d go on to take a game from Fuller in the final.
Still, it was a very good year for Mae--U.S. #4.
For the Eastern players, the 1938-39 season began as usual with the (Aug. 5-6) Provincetown tournament. When Clouther became the first woman to win the Bronze Dolphin Trophy twice, local enthusiast Paul Smith spoke of her "remarkable metamorphosis from a charming woman to a merciless athlete." In the final she defeated former Champion and this year’s Tournament Chair, Stahl, the Rhode Island #1, who’d survived a 5-game semi’s with Ruthe Brewer, Schiff’s winning Mixed Doubles partner.
Early that fall, in hurricane-hit Boston, at the Massachusetts Open in which matches were played first at the Colonial Club in Somerville then in the ballroom of the Hotel Bradford, Clouther fell in the semi’s to Brewer, U.S. #17, but now so much improved that, after Ruthe beat Baltimore’s U.S. #2 Halliday in the final, her father could say that she’d be "the next national champion."
Hurricanes hopefully aside, "the new State Table Tennis Courts, under the management of John Holden, and with ranking stars Les Lowry, Mae Clouther, and Bill Holden as instructors," would open "in Newspaper Row in the heart of downtown Boston." "The largest public table tennis courts in the nation," it would have "18 tables and over 300 feet of window space on the first floor" for "daily attracting large sidewalk crowds." Would that Providence continue to favor it.
At the Oct. 22 Rhode Island Southern New England Open, Brewer again got the better of Clouther, but Ruthe was clearly not #1, for she lost badly in the final to Fuller.
Farrington, now at Smith College, teamed with New York’s Johnny Abrahams to win the Mixed from Clouther and a new player on the New England scene, young Frank Dwelly.
As the Defending Women’s Champion at the Jan. 20-21 Massachusetts Closed, Mae found herself struggling again. But, after losing the first two games at 19 to Worcester’s Priscilla Woodbury, she recovered to retain her title.
The Alcazar Gym in Baltimore was the site of the Feb. 4-5 Eastern’s, and although Mae didn’t win the Women’s Singles--Fuller was just too 4-game strong for her--she did easily dispose of U.S. #8 Spannaus in the quarter’s. Paired with Lowry she also lost the Mixed to ‘38 U.S. World Team member Bernie Grimes and Halliday. Ardent archer Frank Yetter, Chair of the USTTA’s newly formed Referees and Umpires Committee, and targeted by mellow Cupid to marry one of his early t.t. pupils in April, "escaped lynching when he rescinded his order to default Halliday in the Mixed Doubles." The Topics write-up did say, "Spectator interest" here in Dorothy’s hometown "was intense."
Mae of course had been looking forward to the ‘39 National’s, but when the mid-March appointed time came, she wasn’t in the draw. Husband Jim explained that "Mae had practiced faithfully [for this tournament], made arrangements to team up with Emily [Fuller] in the Women’s doubles and had purchased plane tickets for the trip to Toledo only to cancel the entire business because the family physician ordered her to bed with a severe attack of grippe."
Despite the fact that after the season-ending National’s there were more than 25 late-March, April, and May tournaments still to be played, the rankings were rushed out--and Mae was U.S. #5.
New England organizers went on to hold tournaments on three consecutive weekends. At the Apr. 14-15 New England Open at Cambridge, perhaps weakened by the flu that kept her from the National’s and/or lack of practice, Mae lost in the semi’s, 3-0, to Spannaus. At the Western Massachusetts Open at Fitchberg, Mae won--but against unranked Corinne Dellery. Finally, at the Southern New England Open at Providence she beat Molly Kareivis, former N.J. Champ, who’d gotten by Stahl, then lost the final to Spannaus, 19 in the 4th. Spannaus, not incidentally, in post-season play had five good wins--two over Clouther, two over U.S. #2 Brewer, and one over Helen Germaine (who’d beaten Brewer at Cambridge)--none of which counted in the rankings. Ridiculous. Moreover, it was Clouther, not Spannaus, who with English actress Gertrude Lawrence (she had a table set up backstage to help "keep her fit") got her pretty picture in Topics facing the National Ranking page.
For New Yorkers particularly, there was a significant tournament in mid-May--the Master’s Invitational at the Dan Klepak-managed 5th Ave. courts. Massachusetts Closed Champ Clouther came down from Arlington and in the semi’s beat Plaskow (who earlier, 19, 20, 19, had broken, if not Spannaus’s spirit, her winning streak). But in the final, Mae lost a (19, 20, 18) close-game match to Magda Gal Hazi whose life continued to be one continuous round of exhibitions and tournaments--pleasant work...while it lasted.
Meanwhile, the USTTA ship of state is to be headed by newly elected Frederick J. Clouther. As if already caught up in the swirl of coming events--he "belongs to the Minute Men Sportsmen’s Club and the National Rifle Association"--he pleads for everyone’s cooperation, his figure of speech all too shadowy relevant to the times:
"Such a widely scattered organization is bound to face difficulties each season, but many can be overcome by intelligent application of common-sense plus cooperation. Like the crew of a submarine, we cannot function as a unit until everyone recognizes his particular work is essential to success."
Mae went about her work as usual--but wasn’t particularly successful.
In Aug., at the Provincetown Town Hall, Hazi won the Women’s, but it was Brewer who in the semi’s prevented two-time winner Clouther from retiring the Bronze Dolphin Trophy. Mae did take the Women’s Doubles with Shields. But as expected lost in the Mixed to the Hazis with--an unusual pairing, this--U.S. (Over 35) Veterans Champ George Bacon.
Providence, though it tried to, didn’t favor Clouther at the Nov. 4-5 R.I. Southern New England Open. She lost another semi’s--this time to Spannaus--but the match (-17, 22, 21, -17, -19) couldn’t have been closer. It was Mae-day, though--for the New Rochelle, N.Y., U.S. #6 Spannaus, for, after being down 2-0, she rallied to beat Brewer in the final. Ruthe, however, later rebounded to win the Nov. 15 Northern New England Open over Clouther, 19 in the 4th.
Even before the 1939-40 season got underway, both the Eastern and Western women players were looking forward to, as USTTA Women’s Chair Violet Smolens put it, "the biggest women’s event in table tennis history"--an East vs. West intersectional for a Trophy donated by retired U.S. Champion Emily Fuller. No more "many and loud squawks about national rankings, due mainly to bad breaks in the draw at the Nationals" said Smolens. (The National’s always did count for too much in the Rankings.) No more "insufficient data" problems in trying to "compare the records of Eastern and Western girls." No more a somewhat arbitrary selection for "the women’s Corbillon Cup team." (That is, when and if the World Championships resume, for the War has canceled them.)
The 10 best Eastern women were to be selected to play a round robin among themselves (at Philadelphia, Nov. 12); likewise the 10 best Western women (at Indianapolis, Nov. 11-12). Those 5 from the East and those 5 from the West with the best records would then come together (at Cleveland, Feb. 17-18) to play a complete round robin, the winner of which would keep the Fuller traveling trophy for a year.
As it turned out, these Zonal Eliminations were hugely successful--the only top player who didn’t show was U.S. #4 Dorothy Halliday, who’d had a tonsilectomy
In the East (where they played best 2/3), Clouther and--surprise--U.S. #17 Matilda Plaskow, playing on her home courts, tied with 7-2 records. This forced a play-off, and again Mae got the better of Matilda, and so finished first. Spannaus, Brewer (who beat Clouther but lost to Plaskow), and Germaine made up the rest of the qualifiers. Reba Monness had very good wins over Clouther and Spannaus, but finished a mediocre 5-5.
In the West (where they played best 3/5), Henry, though losing a sensational 25-23 in the 5th match to Green, did not lose another, while Sally, playing a number of shaky matches, lost to both Wilkinson, 22-20 in the 4th, and U.S. # 13 Marjorie Leary, 9, 17, 9 (sic)--the latter apparently because, as Sally’s father Fred, Chair of the event, said, Sally’s match with Betty finished her, for she tore a muscle in her upper arm. Wilkinson, U.S. # 11 Helen Baldwin, and Leary completed the qualifiers.
This looked like it might be Mae’s best year, but again at a major tournament--the Feb. 3-4 Reading, Pennsylvania Eastern’s--she came down with the grippe and couldn’t attend. Then bad weather forced her to abandon plans to go to the East-West Matches, where Chair Smolens suggested that "the girls who played in Cleveland be given extra consideration in national rankings and in seedings for the National championships."
This lack of competitive play may have taken the edge off Mae’s game, for at the Feb. 22 N.Y. State Championships she was was beaten, 3-0, in the semi’s by Brewer, one of her chief rivals for a high ranking--the more so because Ruthe was playing so much this season (had even won in Canada) that she’d end up receiving the Wilkinson Cup, an award based on participation points weighted in favor of how one did at the more important tournaments. An oddity at these N.Y. Championships was the entry of 1939 U.S. Indoor Tennis Champion Pauline Betz. She was able to beat both Plaskow and Monness before losing to the lesser regarded N. J. Champion Alice O’Connor, runner-up to Brewer.
Prepping for the U.S. Open at the Mar. 15-16 New England Open, Mae had to go 5 in the semi’s with an improved Corinne Delery, whom she’d had no trouble with in the final of the Massachusetts Closed back in Jan. Then--a win she needed--she defeated Brewer, 18 in the 4th, in the final.
At the Indianapolis National’s, Clouther, seeded #5, did not meet Brewer, seeded #4, in the quarter’s, but drew instead the hometown favorite Sally Green, while Brewer was positioned against the weaker #8 seed, Oregon’s Mayo Rae Rolph. This put #s 2, 3, 5, and 6 on one side of the draw. Mae, however, was not thrown off balance, for she shut out both Germaine and Kuenz, then twice got to 19 with Green. In going on to win her first Championship, Sally lost only one game--to Brewer in the final. Henry, the #1 seed, was fortunate to escape Leah Thall, deuce in the 5th, in the quarter’s, then was beaten, 3-0, by Brewer. World semifinalist, U.S. #3--that was enough, Betty retired.
USTTA Public Relations Chair George Koehnke had hyped a "Beauty Queen" photo contest in the pages of Topics for this National’s, and a 19-year-old Northwestern co-ed, Mildred Bjone, won. "George Petty, the famous creator of the ‘Esquire’ Petty Gal," was the judge. Mildred received train fare, was put up in a hotel suite, and given the use of a private car. In her role as Queen, she wore "earrings, a necklace, and a bracelet made of table tennis balls," and was "crowned by Governor Townsend of Indiana." Even better, she was invited by "interested spectator" Guy Lombardo "to make a personal appearance with his ‘Lady Esther’ orchestra at the Lyric Theater, where her beauty drew enthusiastic applause."
Would our 1940 National Champion, also newly crowned, be tempted to trade places with the unknown Bjone, give up her win, this glorious tournament moment? So Sally wasn’t treated with such niceties--would you expect her to be green with envy? Surely her rewards would be long-lasting?
And pretty Mae Clouther, U.S. #6? Where was she in all this queenly pomp and paegantry?