In the spring of 1933 there suddenly appeared on the table tennis scene a woman destined for greatness. Her name was Ruth Hughes Aarons, and she would be the only U.S. player, male or female, ever to win a World Singles Championship.
Just a few weeks before her 15th birthday, she'd had her first "bewildered" glimpse of the Sport at the NYTTA's May, 1933 National's. Here, she was to write later, she played her "first match in a tournament--"against a girl as scared as I was." This other "scared" girl was Iris Little, who next year would be the NYTTA National Champion. Ruth was beaten by Iris in this match, a quarterfinal because there were so few entries--and so was ranked by the NYTTA #5 for the 1932-33 season.
Following that, her "first and most pleasant table tennis thrill" had been winning her "school tournament." Once she'd brought home this victory she was hooked--ready to compete in earnest. Playing the entire 1933-34 season with what she would afterwards decide was the "incorrect" penholder grip, she began a streak that would culminate in incredible successes.
She joined the Parker Brothers' American Ping-Pong Association, and her first APPA win was the Oct., 1933 Westchester, (N.Y.) Open. Immediately following that, in Nov., she scored a 6, -20, 18, 18 Singles triumph over Brooklyn's Anne Sigman in what referee Neil Schaad considered one of the APPA's six major tournaments, the New Rochelle (N.Y.) Suburban Open. Back in Aug., Sigman had lost in the final of the annual Westchester Summer Open (held at Anna Held's Sports Club in Peekskill, N.Y.) to Eastern Champ Nina Berman, who just this fall had become an engineering student at Antioch College in Ohio, and who, after a (school break) loss to Aarons at the Jan., 1934 Metro Open, would disappear from tournament play forever.
As the APPA season progressed toward its climax--the Apr. National's at the Hotel Carter in Cleveland--Aarons, acknowledging a debt to her "first tutor," the "Bounding Basque" Bill Rogers, continued to win every Women's Singles event she entered, including the (Jan.) Metropolitan Open, the (Feb.) Eastern Open, and the (Mar.) New Rochelle Open.
Much to our Sport's good fortune, this "lissome, blue-eyed blonde" resembled "cinemactress Ginger Rogers" (something of a ping-pong player in her own right) and so was fast developing into a sweet-sixteen Hollywood-type glamour girl.
Where did this Ruth Aarons come from? And how, in just a matter of months, could she become so good so quickly?
The answer is that she was a show business natural. Her father, Alfred E. Aarons, originally from Philadelphia, once owned and operated the old Avon Theater on Broadway in Chicago. Better known, though, as a New York Broadway theatrical producer, he owned and operated the Great White Way's historic National Theatre. Although he was himself a composer and producer of musicals, he was above all "a shrewd and tough businessman." Charles Schwartz, whom I'm indebted to here for background on the Aarons' family, in his book on George Gershwin credits Alfred Aarons with being "the originator of large-scale theatrical bookings for road shows." As General Manager for famed international theatrical producers Klaw and Erlanger, he was "the far-sighted showman" who brought the U.S. such leading international artists of the time as "Lottie Collins (of 'Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-de-Ay' fame)." He was also the Manager "of Hammerstein's Victoria, the 'Palace' of its day on Broadway."
His son, Alex A. Aarons, Ruth's half-brother, gave up earning a living "from retailing men's clothes" to become a producer himself. In his late '20's he asked George Gershwin, who'd then had only "limited Broadway experience" to write the score for his Broadway production La La Lucille. They thus began "a fruitful association that lasted until 1933." The younger Aarons, in partnership with Vincent Freedly (their "Alvin" Theater in New York on West Fifty-Second St. derived from their first names Alex and Vinton), put on such Gershwin successes as Lady Be Good (1924), Funny Face (1927), Girl Crazy (1930), and, lastly, Pardon My English (1933).
Ruth's mother, Leila Hughes Aarons from St. Louis, was the daughter of Lisle C. Hughes, Superintendent of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. A light opera singer, she was in the original cast of The Chocolate Soldier. Her son, Lisle, Ruth's brother, had at least some recognition as a magician.
Clearly show business was in the Aarons' blood, and so, as might be expected, on becoming U.S. and then, spectacularly, World Champion, Ruth, attractive, talented, and helped no doubt by her father's connections, quickly turned her titles into stage bookings at some of the most renowned theaters and exclusive supper clubs in America.
Ruth's introduction to table tennis began, as she was repeatedly to relate, in an absolute chance way. She was playing tennis on the roof-court of a New York hotel when suddenly it began to rain. She put away her tennis racket and, looking for something to do, went down to the basement where, surprise, she tried this game ping-pong, and liked it--indeed, immediately became obsessed with it.
That fall, when she began playing in tournaments, she was a 15-year-old sophomore at St. Agatha Episcopal High School at 87th and West End--and was living at 150 Riverside Drive, coincidentally not far from 131 Riverside Drive where in several years another future U.S. Champion and world-class player Dick Miles, whose mother was also from St. Louis, would be living.
In the APPA Metro Open that preceded the '34 National's, Aarons, who would have a lifelong interest in fashion, played against the National Public Park Women's Tennis Champion, New York's Helen Germaine, in "sky blue pantaloons equipped with hip pockets for extra balls," then for her final against Defending Champ Nina Berman switched to Dietrich-chic trousers, and, as one reporter put it, was "active as a mosquito."
"To win," Ruth would say, "you need good eyesight and a fast brain more than strength." In the semi's of the '34 APPA National's, Ruth, wearing glasses to correct her near-sightedness, had no problem beating 1933 California State runner-up and Pan Pacific Champion Emily Fuller who'd returned home to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania after a year or so in California where she was said to have learned the game. Then, playing the final in shocking shorts (well, shocking to some people), Ruth was again out for blood and buzzed her attention-getting way around Defending Champion Jessie "Jay" (she preferred to be called "Jay") Purves, 20, 20, 15.
Aarons' surprisingly quick rise to become the APPA Champion raises the question, "Just how good were her contemporaries?" (Can you imagine any woman in the '90's picking up a racket and within months becoming so dominant?) But while the answer must be obvious, I want to point out that, as the scores of that '34 National's final show, Purves was no pushover. Called "the best all-round girl athlete in America before Babe Didrikson," she "excelled at field hockey, bowling, basketball, track, baseball, swimming, and golf." Had Ruth lost either of those first two games to Jay, she might also have lost her confidence...and, who knows, might not have gone on to have the extraordinary career we're going to follow.
Except for the fact that Aarons would switch to the "correct" shakehands grip immediately after winning her first U.S. Championship--ah, how easy such changes are for a confident 15-year-old, especially one who had superstitiously (defiantly?) etched the number 13 onto the rubber face of her racket--this final match with Purves was a preview of the '35 USTTA National's to come. So long as Ruth wanted to play, she would have little trouble retaining her dominance.
There was no Women's Doubles at these '34 National's, but Aarons, partnered by Sam Silberman, won the Mixed--over McClure and Chicago's Flo Basler.
Table tennis enthusiast Anita Currey, writing for her hometown Iowa paper, tried to describe Ruth's playing style: "[she] is about 5 feet 2 inches...weighs approximately 100 pounds and dances around the table like Bill Robinson, the tap dancer, and finally hits the ball like a baseball player."
Ruth would say before the 1936 Prague World Championships that she did indeed tap dance--to acquire the "nimble footwork that's so necessary"--and that her daily practice sessions were "always against men players." By playing men, Ruth said, she could accustom herself to "speed" and to "shots that carry severe pace."
At her brother Lisle's invitation, Marcus Schussheim, approaching the end of his career, dropped over now and then to play with Ruth--though, as Mark was quick to point out, it was Sam Silberman who, more than anyone else, should be given the credit for improving her game. "I came cheap," Schussheim was to say later. In return for being a practice partner, he used to get "a sandwich served by the butler and two tickets to a Broadway show."
Mark remembers the shakehands Aarons not for any "whirlwind" style but as a "great defensive player," characterized by a close-to-the-table, forcing "block/push"-type stroke that proved very effective. His recollection of that part of her game is undoubtedly accurate, for, as we'll see later, in 1937, in defending her '36 World title against Trude Pritzi of Austria, she is forced to suddenly become something of a "chiseler" herself--a style she found "disgusting."
At the Dec., 1934 American Zone Qualifier that offered the Men's but not the Women's Singles winner an all-expenses-paid trip to the London World Championships, Aarons, playing shakehands for the first time in a tournament, had no difficulty with either Anne Sigman in the semi's or Emily Fuller in the final.
Nor at the Apr., '35 Chicago National's did runner-up Jay Purves, or anyone else, give Ruth ("the most coached player in the game") any Singles competition. With 1933 NYTTA National Champion Sydney Heitner, however, she was lucky to win the Mixed Doubles, for they were down 2-0 and 20-17 match point to Sol Schiff and Anne Sigman. Although there were 44 entries ("greatest field...ever assembled") in the Women's, there was still no Women's Doubles. Why not? Because there wasn't a woman official on the sponsoring Illinois TTA and so no one to argue for the event?
No wonder this summer Ruth would begin trying to play tennis seriously. She admitted to reading "the famed Mercer Beasley book on tennis tactics" and to "using these tactics to win on a table." Also, like the up-and-coming New York player Doug Cartland, Ruth made table tennis contact with a tennis-minded "stiff-wristed" forearm stroke rather than "a wrist flick." Maybe she would get more recognition, more attention, on and off the larger court? Maybe she could be U.S. Champion with a different racquet? Tennis, she said, was her "favorite sport."
With the coming of the 1935-36 season, Ruth, after taking "to lawn tennis seriously under the direction of Coach Terrentief, of Cornell," might have initially lost some of her table tennis touch, for at a fall tournament in Rutherford, N.J. she was -19, 23, 17, 16 challenged by the "hard-driving" Sigman, obviously a much-improved player.
No chance Ruth would pursue fame on the tennis courts, though--the more so because she was about to decide on what would turn out to be a towering table tennis career move.
U.S. Ranking Committee Chair Reginald Hammond, writing to Topics editor Sidney Biddell in Oct., 1935, is well aware that the USTTA can't fund a complete Team to the Prague World's, but they both believe that Ruth could win the Singles, and that, if another strong woman player or two could be found to pay her own way, the U.S. might also win the Corbillon Cup (Women's Team Championship).
Question is: will 17-year-old Ruth go (be allowed to go) abroad?
Hammond writes: "...if we KNEW that she could not go unless we contributed the two or three hundred dollars that at best will be available, I would be strongly in favor of sending her, even though it meant leaving a deserving man off the team.
She is the only person in the United States capable of winning a title and I feel that a winner or even a runner-up would do us much more good than having Jimmy McClure or Abe Berenbaum put up a good fight against one of the leading Europeans in an early round; or providing needed experience for some youngster. [Of course Jimmy McClure and Bud Blattner are going to win the Men's Doubles at this World's.]"
However, Hammond concludes:
"I doubt if this matter of a few hundred dollars is the deciding factor in Ruth's going. If members of her family feel it necessary to accompany her to Cleveland and Chicago, they certainly will not let her go off alone to a remote and war ridden part of Europe [at this time it looked like the site of the World Championships would be Zagreb; they would soon be changed to Prague]. Therefore her family [members] are up against sending two people, which could easily cost $2,000, as they undoubtedly would go to Europe on the same scale they have come to the last two nationals. This makes our contribution look so small that if her family [members] are able to supply the balance, they might as well do the whole thing, especially when they consider that our helping Ruth keeps us from sending an additional man."
As it turns out, Ruth will go--and her teammates will be Jay Purves and an unknown 21-year-old U.S. citizen studying piano in Vienna, named Corinne Migneco, who's been touted by a European aficionado as a world-class player!
On Feb. 25, 1936, the same day that 18-year-old Sol Schiff, the no longer #1 man on this '36 U.S. World Team, received formal notice of his immediate suspension from the USTTA for signing a contract with Parker Brothers, an exuberant Ruth Aarons wrote the following poem:
"Why are we going to Europe? Why do we anxiously flee? Out of the land of our fathers? Far from the home of the free? Will we be students in Paris? Or gaily go waltzing in Venice? Blame it on youth, or believe it's the truth: We are going to play Table Tennis!"
On Feb. 26, the U.S. Team, minus a stunned Schiff, left for the Prague World's with warm-up matches scheduled against both the English and the French. Don't anybody worry --the players will do just fine: Topics assured everyone at home that the good ship Manhattan was "large enough to insure against the effects of the rough weather," and that an "official table and balls identical with those to be used at Prague will be on the boat for practice." Oh, alright, so maybe they didn't have a Jaques World Championship table on board, anyone want to ask Ruth how much difference that made?
"...We had our table set up on the promenade deck and every afternoon we practiced, though the rolling of the boat and the salt breeze that whipped merrily around the corners, would send the ball over the net at angles more weird than any finger spin serve yet devised. We passed the hours by watching the motion pictures, eating gumdrops, dancing during the evenings, or playing monopoly...."
Monopoly? Better not tell President Zeisberg that--he might want to make a scapegoat of Aarons, as he did Schiff, for playing the Parker Brothers game.
But speaking of Manhattan life, what had Ruth been doing in the big city before she set sail--that is, when she wasn't playing table tennis? Perhaps she was interested in...cooking? Hardly. The "only thing I have ever learned to cook is peanut brittle," she said, "and I must have my recipe in front of me to do that."..."She's an artist," her proud father in his best show biz manner wouldn't be too reserved to say. "And she designs gorgeous gowns." Or, as another less subjectively involved put it, she's "attending the Traphagen Art School, from which she hopes to emerge as a competent dress designer."
No surprise then that, though this 17-year-old was accompanied abroad by her grandmother, Mrs. Martha Hughes, once they were in England for the warm-up matches with the English team, Ruth--caught up in her designer fashion-passion to collect "bellboys' buttons"--"had to chase one boy through...[her hotel] lobby in London at 3 a.m."...Was that boy caught? Will his popped button turn up among others on a studded belt, or on one of the "different colored slacks" she'd wear for her matches? That "powder blue" one with the "silver buttons"--she'd made that one herself; it had already been and perhaps would be again evening wear at court on Finals Night.
The British, Ruth would soon discover, really took their table tennis seriously. There must be a "1,000 [table tennis] clubs" in London, she'd say.
So on Mar. 5 at Paddington Baths we lost to the English 6-3 because we weren't in shape, weren't prepared? Maybe still had our sea legs?
English aficionado M.A. Symons spoke of Aarons' "comparatively loose play" in both the Women's Doubles (with Purves--a 2-0 loss to Margaret Osborne and Wendy Woodhead) and Mixed Doubles (with McClure--a 2-1 loss to the English #1 Adrian Haydon and #1 Osborne). But for Ruth's Singles play he had only unequivocal praise:
"Such brilliant defensive footwork by a woman player has not been seen in this country before. Standing coolly behind the center of the table, ready to step backwards either to backhand or forehand position, always on her toes for a drop shot, or to come in with a short whipped drive which troubled Miss Osborne excessively, Miss Aarons was the personification of grace and sang froid-- possessing the confidence which only experience gives."
Also, apparently not seen in England before (at least in table tennis circles) were the "well-cut bags" Aarons wore that "surprised, amused and intrigued" the "press and public" there. Another show of Ruth's confidence and sang-froid. Later, too, in Prague, when Aarons and her teammates walked a few blocks outside in their "bags," their slacks playing attire, Ruth said that "a silent, gaping crowd" followed them, "gazing at our outfits in amazement."
After the U.S. Team's last pre-World's warm-up match against the French at Mulhouse, Team Captain Biddell exclaims, "We get up at 5 a.m. and ride all day tomorrow, with 5 changes of trains....Are we tired? And when we get to Prague [two days before the World's begins] are we going to rest!"
The Prague World Championships were played at the Lucerna Palace--a 4,000-seat, underground, "bomb-proof" Concert Hall, with "three balconies completely surrounding the playing floor." This was "ideal for center court (one table) play." But "the matches not held in the evening, when an eight table layout was used, brought about conditions unparalleled in world championship play." Topics describes the chaos:
"Unruly crowds at times swarmed onto the playing floor, interrupting matches at will, and soft tables and poor equipment, together with the intense national temperament of the Czech spectators, who cared not how, but only that their favorites win, placed a heavy burden on their opponents."
In the 10-team Corbillon Cup competition, the U.S. opened strong with easy wins over France and Holland, then edged by Hungary, 3-2, when Aarons/Purves lost the doubles but Migneco came through with a good win over Magda Kiraly-Baba, a later Singles quarterfinalist. With a breather over Lithuania the U.S. was undefeated.
Now, though, they met the Defending Champion, Czechoslovakia, also undefeated, with their 1934 and '35 World Women's Singles Champion, 23-year-old Marie Kettnerova, in what very likely would be the deciding tie of the tournament. A "classic" match-up Topics called it:
"Ruth proved too good for Miss [Marie] Smid [actually Smidova]. Migneco, chosen for this match because of her fine showing against Hungary, startled the highly excited gallery by [23, -16, -11] 'almost' upsetting Kettner [actually Kettnerova]. Again the U.S. pressed in the doubles to take the first game only to lose the last two before the fierce hitting of the Czech girls. The two champions then faced each other, Ruth heretofore undefeated, her biggest test ahead, knowing she must win to keep the tie alive; Kettner equally intense, fearing if she lost Migneco might upset Smid. The unruly gallery, twenty deep, swarmed to the court so that a tie on the next table had to be halted. Each shot that scored for the Czechs was greeted with a terrifying roar and each deep winning return of Ruth's met with a concerted groan. Kettner endeavored to drive through Ruth's superb defense, but to no avail. Ruth won the first game.
The second was a repetition of the first until the score at 12-17, Kettner, who had seen her fiercest shots returned, with the true qualities of a great champion changed her game in an attempt to outsteady one who now may be called the game's greatest woman star. Slowly Kettner crept up. So tense was the spell that the impact of racket stroking ball at the far end of the hall could be heard. With the score 17- 17 and both girls white from the terrific strain, Kettner got a let [sic: for net] ball to bring the score to 18-17. One of the greatest pull-ups of the game had become a fact. Ruth faltered and lost after deucing from 20-18 down.
The third game was equally hard fought. Ruth getting away to a bad start [down 9-3]...to take it to 12-12 by brilliant tactics. The effort was too much, however, and Kettner finally pulled away after 18-all to win and end the match. The roar that went over the Lucerna as the final point was scored might well have been heard in Chicago."
Of course, prior to her loss to Kettnerova, Ruth had not been beaten since her first and only loss, in the 1933 NYTTA National's. Since she'd never before come up short in such an important match, everyone wondered whether she'd more or less collapse from a severe loss of confidence. They'd soon find out, for next up for our women was undefeated Germany--another key tie.
After Purves was beaten in the opening match by Astrid Krebsbach, the German #1, Ruth, "obviously shaken" by her loss to Kettnerova, dropped the first game to Hilde Bussmann, the German #2 who'd go on to win the 1939 World Women's Doubles title with Austria's Trude Pritzi. Ruth's collapse looked imminent?...
"Slowly Ruth's game steadied and from the second game on she was again herself. Germany made it 2-1 with a doubles victory and Ruth...had to beat Krebsbach to keep the tie alive. Faltering before the hardest women's driving game in Europe and after dropping the first game badly, she once more took control and the [tie] score became 2-2. Here Jay Purves showed her courage for after Bussmann had blasted through her 21-9, she refused to wilt and with amazing returns pulled out the second game after trailing 8-12. She again pulled away from 19-19 in the third to complete Germany's first defeat."
Ruth was warm in praising Purves--said Jay "showed as great a demonstration of tactics and fighting spirit as I have ever seen." That's the kind of thing a partner likes to hear, huh? Especially when their doubles play hasn't produced wins. Good vibes are important--they resonate for quite a while.
The U.S. then beat Austria, 3-0 (though Aarons, as if previewing their infamous '37 World's match to come, lost a first game to Pritzi). If we could take all the rest of our ties and Germany could beat Czechoslovakia, we would then be in a three-way Play-off for the Championship.
Belgium and Lithuania offered no difficulty.
But against England, who would lose four ties, Migneco couldn't get the better of either Woodhead or Osborne, and Aarons/Purves again failed to win a key doubles match, so down we went 3-1--a fatal, second loss.
Czechoslovakia beat Germany 3-2 in the final (Kettnerova won her two and Smidova stopped Bussmann), so both the U.S. and Germany were second with 7-2 records (though by today's tie-breaker rules the U.S., having beaten Germany, would retain sole possession of second).
In the Women's Singles, Aarons, as expected, straight-game swept through to arrive at her climactic semi's with Defending World Champion Kettnerova. Here's how Topics described the match:
"...Played in the afternoon, the Aarons-Kettner [sic] match might well have been the final from the quality of play, the huge gallery, and the reasoning that the winner would become the new champion. Facing the only player she had ever lost to [sic], Ruth began shakily. Kettner capitalized on this by her forcing play, driving deep to her opponent's forehand, then sharply angling the next drive to the opposite corner. As the defender of the title, playing magnificently, drew away to take the first game the continued roaring of the volatile spectators shook Ruth still further...."
Aarons may well have remembered the "perfect poise" she acknowledged Kettnerova had shown earlier in their Corbillon Cup match when, before rallying, the World Champion was down 1-0 and 17-11 in the 2nd. Now, in this all-important Singles match, Ruth had to fight to calm her own nerves: "I lost the first game and nearly went to pieces," she said later, "but then I just managed to forget the importance of the match, and everything went along smoothly."
Joseph Mitchell, in an Aug. 10, 1936 New York World-Telegram article says that while playing Kettnerova "Ruth startled European fans by changing her costumes two or three times." Would this have been in the Singles, betweengames? Or, as seems much more likely, has the reporter misunderstood, and Ruth changed her playing clothes during the U.S. Corbillon Cup tie with Czechoslovakia, not while actually playing Kettnerova but between her three Czech-tie matches?
And do you believe Aarons when she says she "just managed to forget the importance of the match"? Reporter Tom Hoctor probably did. After interviewing Ruth back in Mar. of 1934, a month or so before she was to win her first (APPA) National Championship, he wrote: "She has the ideal competitive temperament because she forgets the roar of the crowd and the importance of the match in the heat of battle."
But as for "everything going along smoothly," Topics readers would have their doubts:
"...The U.S. champion was having difficulty because of interference from the encroaching sideline seats in returning the Czech girl's deep drives, and after she had won the second game by an amzingly deep defense, a protest was lodged with the officials that the playing conditions could be improved by moving the spectators back, to which Kettner, realizing the fairness of the request, added her wish. This was refused at the end of a fifteen minute debate. Despite this handicap to her game, the American girl resumed play.
The third game found Ruth leading 15-10, with Kettner beginning to feel the strain of seeing her best shots returned. Here for a moment the challenger took the attack away from the champion only to lose five points. Both were tiring from the fast pace. The gallery sensed that this game might decide the match and for once grew grimly quiet. 16-16, 17-17, 18-18 went the score. Ruth braced and grimly took the next two. Kettner risked all with a furious driving attack that brought the crowd to its feet. Finally she hit a kill so hard it seemed impossible of return and wheeled in relief from the table, [only] to have Ruth from deep court do the impossible and get it back with her opponent completely out of position. Even the Czechs went wild at the shot. Ruth's game, 21-18.
The champion never quite regained her confidence. Though she still played with all she had, mixing a short game with heavy drives and introducing a hard flick which scorched well, she seemed to anticipate her defeat. The U.S. star never relaxed her splendid game and although Kettner drew from 16-18 to tie at 18-all she lost the last three points and her two-year title. The throng was stunned at her loss...."
Afterwards, Ruth said that at 20-18 match point she was "wondering how Kettner felt at that moment"; she was sure her own heart "wasn't even beating." Then, she said, "I hit one to her backhand and she returned it into the net!" A heady realization--to know that she had just beaten the World Champion, and was now only one match away from replacing her.
The final, played "on center court the last night," against Krebsbach, was a mere 16, 14, 11 formality for Ruth. The German "played her heart out to win, but her dreaded backhand was too unsteady to do other than force Ruth to play her best game."
Naturally it was a great thrill, and meant great acclaim not just in the U.S. but in Europe, for 17-year-old Ruth to be World Champion. "Europeans don't kid the game," she'd later say to an American reporter. "Over there it's a national sport, like baseball. I autographed hundreds of balls--which, incidentally, is pretty hard. Just try to sign your name on one of them when there are already two or three other signatures."
Considering the Corbillon Cup results, our women's doubles play, no doubt in part because Ruth, Jay, and Corinne, so geographically distant from one another, had little practice together, was nothing to write home about. But in the Women's Doubles, Aarons and Purves did have a decent 19-in-the-4th quarter's win over the Czechs Traute Kleinova and Jindra Holoubkova-Juarez before losing a feisty -16, -24, 19, -18 semi's match to the eventual winners Kettnerova and Smidova. And in the Mixed, McClure and Aarons got to the quarter's before being beaten in 4 by the Hungarians Istvan "Stefan" Kelen and Maria Mednyanszky.
Of course Biddell and his U.S. Team, especially our three World Champions, came back to the States in great triumph. As Herbert Allan put it:
"...Bouquets were presented to Miss Aarons, publicity men were on hand to introduce the erstwhile parlor athletes to the press and there was much talk of physical condition, training and the strain of competition--just as if the subjects of discussion were a stable of wrestlers."
Also coming back to the U.S. after the World's was Victor Barna, here for another "Circus" Tour and to play in and win the '36 Philadelphia National's. Aarons, to no one's surprise, pulled off the "hat trick" in Philadelphia by winning all the events she could play in. Perhaps in each, along with her de rigueur change of playing outfit, she wore unchangingly round her neck, as she had that fateful Mar. 18 night in Prague, the symbol of worldly success--the "little gold paddle and chain" the Pennsylvania TTA had earlier honored her with?
Only in the Women's Singles, though, was her task easy. With runner-up Sigman she won the Women's Doubles, 19 in the 5th, from Purves/Fuller. And in the Mixed, partnered with Barna, she prevailed 15, -17, 19, 14 over Blattner/Purves.
A Philadelphia Record reporter, commenting on the Singles final, said that "the bespectacled girl [that's Ruth--to correct her near-sightedness, she also wore glasses when reading] played attacking tennis [sic], forcing hard for the openings with sweeping swings that almost threw her off balance." Another on seeing her play said, "She reminds me of a marionette." But others found her more agile. In her "gyrations to execute her strokes," said one spectator, "she has the perfect abandon of the classic dancer going through an intricate maneuver." Another spoke of her showing "the color, poise and grace of a finished fencer."
With Aarons' unprecedented success at home and abroad, and with her father's show business connections, it was natural, after her commitment to the Barna Tour was over, that she should exploit the golden opportunity--do something more this summer of '36 than study sports clothes designing or try to become good at tennis. With her name and good looks, why not work up a sophisticated table tennis floor-show act for big-city supper clubs? Especially since she had the perfect partner in Barna's former World Champion Doubles partner, Hungarian immigrant Sandor Glancz. His pedigree (he was European, in the wine business) and professionalism were unquestioned. And as if, with his titles, his Tour experience, he needed any more credibility, Ruth, on coming home from Prague, had insisted that her "ability to cope with the games of the European girls" was in large measure due to the advice Sandor had given her before she sailed. "Until I met him," she'd say later, "I used to kill the first shot in a rally, but he has changed my technique so that now I build up slowly for one big kill." A comment of course always applicable to what she'd be doing in her keep-the-ball-going exhibition play with him.
On July 27, after an audition arranged by Ruth's half-brother Alex, Aarons and Glancz opened in the ultra-exclusive Rainbow Room atop NYC's Rockefeller Center--did the dinner show at 9, the supper show at 12:30 a.m.
Ruth said she'd never forget their opening night:
"...a scant hour before the show was to start, the table, supposed to come from out of town, had not yet arrived....A desperate phone call to Spauldings [sic: for Spalding's, a Parker Brothers' sports outlet store] accomplished the impossible, and as all their trucks were out, a taxi was sent dashing up Fifth Avenue through red lights, with a [table] tennis table reclining on top!"
One early observer said of their approximately fifteen-minute act that it would "undoubtedly create a new vogue in smart nitery attractions if for no other reason than that it's an A-1 novelty." Novelty at the moment it surely was, but if you couldn't catch their act right away, don't feel bad; you'd still be able to see them there, 65 floors up, in the summer of '41--that's how popular they'd continue to be.
The show they put on was very much what you'd expect:
"Play is on a collapsible table and the act carries its own referee- announcer, who heralds the players. They're both in smart, snug-fitting sports slacks and the 21 point match play is done with realism. Miss Aarons doesn't always win....That's of course good showmanship, as is her victory coming from behind after a 1-5 start.
Another good showmanship stunt at the Rainbow Room is the offer of a quart of top-vintage champagne to anybody who can over come [sic: that is, win with] a 10-point handicap. [The night this reviewer caught the act]...the male opponent from the audience wound up [losing] 21-10, or a love game in other words."
The reception was favorable. Initially Ruth had a reservation or two: "I hope...I will get through the engagement without popping a ball into someone's cocktail," she'd said. But she needn't have worried. Patrons--on one particular night they included "Ginger Rogers, Helen Hayes, Robert Montgomery, and John D. Rockefeller, Jr."--enjoyed every minute of it. "They are inclined to let their food get cold and their drinks warm while they take time out to applaud and cheer," wrote one reviewer.
After their Rainbow Room engagement, Ruth and Sandor would be booked into the swank Empire Room in Chicago's Palmer House where their original four-week stay would be extended to mid-November, and from there they'd go on to the Detroit Athletic Club. World Championships aside, as professional entertainers, they'd arrived.
However, January was departure time for Ruth. She and her recently widowed mother were off to the '37 Baden World's--with the U.S. Team being given a warm-up this year by the Hungarians. Said to be "dead tired" when they arrived in Budapest, the men couldn't win a single match, but Aarons beat both Ida Ferenczy and Magda Gal (soon to be Tibor Hazi's wife), and Aarons and Purves had a very good 2-1 win over Maria Mednyanszky and Anna Sipos, reiging World Women's Doubles Champions from 1930-35.
At the Baden World's there were 9 women's teams in the Corbillon Cup, and from the scores of our 8 round robin ties--five 3-0's and three 3-1's--it might seem in achieving our historic victory we were never pressed. But this was not the case.
We blanked Austria 3-0, but each match had some tension. Aarons played a not easy to assess -19, 8, 10 three games with Trude Pritzi, World #5. Before her months-long night club circuit act with Glancz, Ruth was in the habit of playing seriously from one to three hours a day. Does that -19 first game against Pritzi reflect Ruth's lack of practice and/or tournament competition? And yet, given that -19, 8, 10 result, were these two to play again in the Singles (as they will), which woman would apparently have learned more how to play her opponent and so would seem a solid favorite?
Dolores Probert Kuenz in her first Corbillon Cup singles effort did well to beat the experienced Traute Wildam, 2-0--for had Dolores lost that 24-22 second game, would she have had the confidence to win the third? And Aarons and Purves, our doubles combination for all the remaining ties, struck just the right beginning note for their harmonious partnership with a come-from-behind 19-in-the-3rd win.
Against England, who fielded the same team they beat us with last year--Osborne and Woodhead--Aarons and Purves lost the doubles, as they did in Prague, only this time in, ohhh, three deuce games. But, with Aarons winning two, we still needed Kuenz to come through, and she did, 20, -19, 12, over Woodhead.
Our match with the '33 Paris World's Corbillon Cup winners, Germany, threatened to darken our psyches. After losing the first game to Ruth, Astrid Krebsbach, or rather now the doctor's wife, Astrid Hobohm, rallied to take the second at deuce, but then could do no more. With Kuenz playing so well, it hadn't seemed reasonable to select Purves for this tie--though last year Jay had scored that very gutsy 19-in-the-3rd win over Hilde Bussmann, now the German Champion. So Dolores played, but since she couldn't contest either game with Bussmann we were in trouble. Big trouble. For in the doubles that followed, in the match that quite likely meant not just the tie but the Cup itself, against a pair that had been undefeated in Cup play last year, Aarons and Purves were down 20-15 match point in the 3rd. And won 7 straight!
This comeback was something of a miracle--for Kuenz would have been in great danger of losing to the hard-driving Hobohm, '33 and '36 World Women's Singles finalist. Naturally Ruth quickly finished off a demoralized Bussmann to end the tie.
That left the Czechs. And Kuenz played well against Kettnerova but (-16, -20) not well enough. So again, even if Ruth were to win her two singles, the doubles was key. Kettnerova's World Women's Doubles Co-Champion from last year, Marie Smidova, didn't come to Baden, but her Corbillon Cup replacement, Vera Votrubcova, whom Aarons beat in the first match of this tie, would go on with her regular partner Vlasha Depetrisova to win this year's World's Women's Doubles and then with Bo Vana the Mixed as well. That the two Czechs in this Cup partnership could play well together was evident when Ruth and Jay found themselves down 1-0 and at deuce in the second. But again the Americans won when they had to. And Aarons, again on a high, cheered on by her teammates, beat Kettnerova two straight to end the tie.
So the U.S., with far more difficulty than it would seem to anyone just looking at the scores of the ties, won the Corbillon Cup--and only once more in History, in 1949 (with Jimmy McClure as Captain), would any U.S. Team be able to do that.
Moreover, the fact that our Men's Team complemented our Women's Team by winning its one and only Swaythling Cup this same year, 1937, is an historic oddity. Indeed, for any country to win both the Corbillon Cup and the Swaythling Cup in the same year--no European country has ever done it--well, it wouldn't happen again until Japan first did it in 1954 and China first did it in 1965.
In the Women's Singles, Aarons was such a cool favorite that she wouldn't feel any stress? "I never get nervous," she'd say later. Excited? Yes. "I get so excited just before a match that you couldn't make me eat anything even if you held a club over my head. Of course when it's over I eat anything I want--hamburgers or steak, or hot dogs, or anything." As for keeping her cool even before the unpleasant debacle of the upcoming final, she certainly didn't always do that--in fact she wasn't sure she liked Austria or the Austrians. Take that small boy who approached her:
"Imagining he wanted her autograph or something of the sort she waited for him to speak. Instead he tried to blow some pepper in her face. Most of it missed its aim luckily. Some of it went into Ruth's mother's eyes."
In the quarter's of the Singles, Ruth beat a far more off than on Krebsbach-Hobohm in a (first game give up?) 3, 14, -20...oh, I'm down 14-5 in the 4th match, at which point the German withdrew. In the semi's against Kettnerova, Ruth was down 2-1, but then had no difficulty winning.
Aarons' final opponent, Austria's Trude Pritzi, had persevered through a series of 4-game matches--the first being perhaps the most interesting: a -16, 20, 20, 17 victory over Rumanian Champ Angelica Adelstein (later the great Angelica Rozeanu, World Champ from '50 through '55!) which violated the experimental time limit rule in effect this World's, ran over the 1 hour and 45 minute limit for a 5-game match, but which officials allowed, "saying that they did not need the table." After this extended eighth's match and wins against Votrubcova and Bussmann, Pritzi was ready to fight to the death against Aarons.
In his Table Tennis Today Barna describes Pritzi's game--the same with which she'd also get to the final in '38 as a winner and '39 as a runner-up:
"Her game was fully defensive. She had a very good chop from both backhand and forehand, long-range defence coupled with perfect footwork, and abundant stamina which allowed her to play for hours and even for days with surprising concentration.
Her weakness was that she found it impossible to hit a ball. Many times I have seen her in practice try an attacking stroke, but strangely she just could not do it. Her stance, grip, or body balance, were not suited for attack, and she had difficulty in hitting the highest of sitters.
It is amazing that a player should have so much talent for a defensive game that she can become world champion, yet no talent at all to make the simplest of aggressive strokes."
Tell it to President Zeisberg and the USTTA. Over a year ago, they'd passed a rule that forbade any "purely defensive" player, "no matter how good his/her tournament record," to represent the U.S. abroad. So, had Pritzi been playing in the States, she would have been, as we say dismissively in the '90's, "history."
But play for Austria she did. In the last two games of their match in the Team's, almost a week earlier, Ruth had been able to hit through Pritzi with ease, so it was natural that she should start off this final by trying to win with an attack again. But perhaps if she wasn't too tense she was just the opposite, too uninhibitedly rushing her shots, for, "driving every ball," she lost the first game at 12. Then, improving her concentration, she "steadied," waited patiently for an opening, got her attack working, and, nothing to it, just like in the Team's, won the second 21-8. Except, she said, that from the moment it was obvious she'd changed her strategy--"from the second point of the second game...the table was surrounded by noisy officials, and our match was transferred [from the "centre table"] to a "side table."
Before that long second game was finished, Ruth was informed, as it turned out Ms. Pritzi had been before the match, that "a time-limit of one hour and forty [sic] minutes was being placed on the match!" This was news to Ruth--and she felt she was now at a big disadvantage, for, though she had the technique to win, she didn't have the time to.
I wonder, though, why Ruth apparently wasn't aware of the time limit that had been in effect the evening before in the McClure-Soos Men's Team match. Didn't she watch them play, or at least hear about how, match for match, that so important men's final tie went? Or, having seen or heard about the drawn-out Adelstein-Pritzi match, did she think the Austrians wouldn't enforce any time-limit rule among the women--despite the fact that everyone knew Pritzi was a notorious pusher? And what about Team Captain Elmer Cinnater? Later, he'd posit a ranking for the men, but not for the women. How often was he watching the women play, giving them advice?
Moreover, if Ruth needed so much time to hit through Pritzi, could she have done that--in a 5-game time-limit match--even if she'd adopted such a strategy from the beginning? Perhaps Pritzi, against a careful attacker, could not win--but, because she relentlessly push-returned balls, she could not lose either, for Time was on her side.
No doubt it was Aarons' showmanship nature to want to hit through Pritzi--as a Champion should. Had not Ruth earlier, back in the U.S., said how much she hated the "chiseler." Had she not called such a player that "disgusting type...who stands up to the table and attempts to keep the ball in play and nothing else." So instinctively she began by hitting out, but then winning was too important, she had to adapt--as a Champion should.
But now "time was passing," and "every other moment," she said, "the Austrians furnished further distraction by consulting their watches." Pritzi, too, according to Capt. Cinnater, kept looking at her watch. Talk about a bizarre situation, talk about pressure:
"Although I took that [second] game I realised my task was hopeless in the allotted time, but Captain Cinnater and my companions reminded me of the fact that if the match was called a draw, I would still retain my title from the previous year when I had won it at Prague, and advised me to remain patient and keep the ball in play for the remaining time, which I did."
When Ruth, more or less just going through the motions to a foregone conclusion, was down 19-16 in the 3rd, the officials, whose warnings against "stalling" of course had to be ignored, stopped the match, declared it "no contest," and proclaimed the title "vacant." The Jury's decision to enforce the 1 hour and 45 minute time-limit rule, by a 7-5 majority (with the Austrian representative voting not to enforce the rule), was clearly one not to be repeated. As ITTF founder/president Ivor Montagu himself reportedly said later:
"I regard the temporary rule as a thoroughly bad one. It offers to an inferior player, without the ability to defeat his [or her] superior opponent the means whereby he may, none the less, remove him from the competition."
How irritating it must have been for Ruth to read the Associated Press's report that "Ruth Hughes Aarons of New York lost the world women's table tennis singles championship tonight...." Further galling to her, who now, at best, had to share her title, was the double-standard knowledge that the Bergmann-Ehrlich men's final had exceeded the 5-game time limit but that this had been allowed by the Jury because the players did not "stonewall maliciously" as Aarons and Pritzi did.
Stonewalling, the kind of thing Al ("Stonewall") Goldman had been suspended for by Zeisberg and others back in the U.S.--that ought to draw a penalty? You could hardly wait for Carl's feisty turnaround reply:
"Instead of being penalized in this instance, Miss Aarons deserves the thanks of the ITTF for preventing capture of the world title by a player who never hits the ball. We will continue to publicize Miss Aarons as the undefeated World Champion."
So...2 and 1/2 titles. Anything more to win?
For McClure and Blattner, another Men's Doubles. For the U.S. women, nothing. Aarons and Purves lost in the first round to the Hungarians Magda Gal and Magda Kiraly. And Blattner and Aarons might as well have defaulted for all the struggle they put up against Slar and Depetrisova.
Still, enough stirring triumphs for the U.S. Team you might think. But it wasn't time for our players to go home yet. Immediately following the World Championships they were off to London for the Feb. 10-13, 328-entry English Open. Only the World's was considered a more prestigious tournament, and soon 8,000 spectators, about a sixth of England's registered players, would be watching the finals at Wembley Stadium.
Aarons, the most where-it's-at of the American "it" girls, as at least one English tabloid called them, was naturally the center of attention from the time she first arrived at Paddington Baths (where all the matches prior to the finals would be played). What did she have on? A sporty short cape and slacks outfit. Since she said she was "very keen" on "dress designing," it didn't take long for a reporter to elicit Ruth's opinion that in America "girls of moderate means can buy up-to-the moment clothes which look chic" but that in London girls need "a lot of money to look real smart." Then, as if something more politic were called for, she spoke of how "gallant" English men were, and how "nice" everyone was in London, her favorite European city. "People here seem happier," she said, "and there's no tension in the atmosphere."
Yes, it was true, she acknowledged in reply to another inquiry, that she'd asked the ETTA's permission, as she'd already secured the USTTA's, to let her stage table tennis performances, acts, here in London after the English Open. In fact, she had already signed contracts to do so.
Oh? comes the response. Won't that cause a problem? The ETTA isn't likely to give their consent, are they? Won't they say that "the game is a sport and must not be commercialized"? Ruth replies that she hopes everything will work out. She feels that "everything should be harmonious. I shall do nothing to spoil what has been a marvellous trip."
Aware that a reporter notices her tinkling bracelet, Ruth asks, "Like it? I do. It's so modern. I like everything to be modern....Things that are old-fashioned drive me batty. And old-fashioned ideas too." In an era where women have been used to playing table tennis in near ankle-length dresses, and are slow to change, she's gone modern, she says--has appeared in slacks, first in the U.S. and then abroad. Women ought to have more freedom in sports, she proclaims, and in her best ambassadorial manner insists there's "no place like America for feminine freedom."
Well, enough politicking and prosyletizing, right now Aarons had better avoid anything controversial and concentrate on winning matches.
She opened of course with a win--over last year's English Open runner-up, Connie Wheaton.
In the second round, Ruth met Astrid Krebsbach-Hobohm who'd last minute dashed here from the German Championships where she was again runner-up to Hilde Bussmann. My husband, she said, "has agreed to let me play through this last season....But after these Championships I go home and settle down." (Settling down, however, will include playing, at least in her home country, through the War years, so that, remarkably, as late as 1949 Bussmann and Hobohm will still be #1-2 in Germany.)
Hobohm is wearing "a workman-like dark blue dress with trousered [sic] skirt." (Ah, when would European fashions change?) Ruth, unlike her "It-girl" teammates, must have had laundry problems. She was sorry, she said--not to her opponent Hobohm, but to her teammates--but at the moment it seemed she had no suitable blue-matching Team shirt to wear. So to "dive swallow-like to the corner of the 'court'" after one of Hobohm's wicked drives, Ruth wore a "Middy suit of her own design--R.A.F. blue trousers with chromium buttons and a crushed strawberry shirt." Presumably before she went out to play she took off her jacket. Anyway, she won comfortably.
Which is not what she did in the quarter's--there unexpectedly she was forced to go 5 to take out England's Corbillon Cup reject, Lillian Hutchings, who in Baden had surprised everyone by being a quarterfinalist in both the Women's Singles and the Mixed and a semifinalist in the Women's Doubles.
After that, she could relax against England's Doris Jordan.
But now the final against Kettnerova. Most important to History of course was what the two were wearing. Colorful, even flamboyant, Ruth might have been viewed by the English in her orange playing shirt and blue serge trousers. Her Czech opponent might have seemed the more formidable for being dressed in somber contrast. She wore "wide-cut plus fours [long, loose knickers] that offered more freedom than (and looked better than?) a dress." She also wore "a dark, short-sleeved blouse" with "a white Eton collar and white piping and three white buttons that relieved the severity."
Would that Ruth herself initially have had relief from this two-time World Champion's unsparing attack, for she found herself down 2-0 and down 18-14 in the 3rd. But as a reporter for Table Tennis Activity wrote (that's the rival, independent magazine of the day to the ETTA's official one):
"Kettnerova had to fight hard for those two games [she'd won them 18 and 19]. Her famous angled forehand drive had been returned over and over again, and she was compelled to try and hit harder. Aarons commenced to chop hard, and Kettnerova began to find the net."
When the Czech didn't win the 19 3rd game, it was she who was in trouble. No doubt she recalled all too well that she'd had a 2-1 lead against Ruth at the World's but couldn't get more than 13 a game thereafter.
"Slowly but surely Aarons took the edge off the Czech girl's attack." She won the 4th, and to the "Atta, girl, Ruth" encouragement of the Americans, was up 11-9 in the 5th when, as one London paper, mirroring other accounts, put it:
"Miss Kettnerova almost collapsed and cried: 'Oh, I can't go on! I can't go on!' She appealed to the umpire for a rest, which was refused.... Miss Aarons supported the appeal, but it was against the rules and they had to continue play."
Arm-weary Miss Kettnerova undoubtedly was, and her "plight" may have been "pitiable" to some, but it was not true that she'd cried out, "I can't go on!" Table Tennis Activity, pointing out that in the final-game excitement the players had not changed ends when they were supposed to, made this important correction: that "in the middle of the third game [sic] she [Kettnerova] called out: 'I can hit no more'"--whereupon Ruth, in a great show of sportsmanship, asked for a break.
Kettnerova did play on, but lost--lost, as a front-page article in the London Sunday Express said--to Miss Aarons' "sheer pluck and consistency." And Ruth herself said, "It was the hardest match I ever played in my life."
After Ruth's retirement from competition, which she herself perhaps did not yet realize would be so soon in coming, Laszlo "Laci" Bellak, while wanting to give "full credit" to Ruth's "wonderful" career in the game," said that "the main reason for her success" was that neither Kettnerova nor any other woman player of Ruth's time "was physically strong enough to maintain an offensive game for a full match."
Laci has a point--but perhaps not a totally convincing one. In the Austrian Open that followed, Kettnerova was down 1-0 and 20-16 to the indefatiguable defender Pritzi--but this time she had the strength to keep hitting until she won that Championship.
Any other titles for the U.S. at this '37 English Open?
The Mixed was an all U.S. final--with Ruth and Bud Blattner beating Dolores Kuenz and Jimmy McClure in straight games. In the Women's Doubles, though, Ruth and Jay Purves lost to England's Osborne and Woodhead (whom they'd have one last chance at, and beat, in the Anglo-American International at Birmingham on Feb. 15 just before the U.S. Team left for home).
Gold medals awaited the U.S. players on their return. But Ruth was not going back to the States just yet. Such an electric personality was about to generate a current of controversy that would jolt not only the U.S. and English TTAs, but--with such strong-willed autocrats as Zeisberg and Montagu at odds--the ITTF itself....
After concluding her playing commitments for the U.S. Team at the '37 Baden World's and the English Open that followed, Aarons stayed on in London and the very next week worked up a 15-minute exhibition act with "Michael French," a "World Doubles Champion," as her partner. Show business was in Ruth's blood and she wanted to take advantage of the fame her titles, looks, and personality had brought her. She'd contracted for a series of bookings that, though they would take her up to Scotland, were centered in London--one at the May Fair Hotel cabaret, for example, another on a flood-lit stage at the Paramount Theatre where Claire Trevor's film "Career Woman" was playing.
"Michael French" was no "World Doubles Champion," but Michel Glickman, the 1931 French Champion, who, for a short time back in the States in 1935, had given some exhibitions with Ruth. The two of them had quickly incorporated some sophistication into their act. Astaire and Rogers were playing in "Swing Time" at the Streatham Astoria? Don't miss the companion Aarons/French stage show:
"One of the novelties of this attraction is the way in which the latter half of the match is presented [in the dark], the players being disclosed in silhouette form by means of special lighting. The ball [as well as the net] appears to be illuminated, while the players can be picked out by their white berets, white gloves, and white shoes."
Ah, and it was only last Oct., when Ruth and Sandor Glancz had an engagement at the Palmer House in Chicago, that the manager had chided Ruth "for ordering changes in the lighting system" in the ballroom where she was performing.
Now she was no less direct in speaking with the press about her contracts:
"Since [in Table Tennis] there is no distinction between amateur and professional [that is, all players are permitted to be members of the same USTTA and to play against one another for titles and prizes, and to be paid to give exhibitions and to endorse products--Table Tennis Corporation of America, for example, sold an Aarons bat with carrying case for $2] I intend to make all the money possible while I have my title, and I. m not at all ashamed of cashing in on this opportunity."
So what's the problem? How is it that Aarons' difficulties with the ETTA are far and away going to upstage even Sol Schiff's suspect USTTA suspension?...
Back on Jan. 10--as USTTA President Carl Zeisberg would later make clear in a detailed four-month chronological review to all USTTA Officers and Affiliates--Ruth had asked for USTTA approval to make contractual commitments in London. So on Jan. 24 Zeisberg wrote her "a letter of approval with copies to W. J. Pope, English TTA Secretary, and Ivor Montagu, ITTF Advisory Committee Chairman [in effect, Montagu's the ITTF President, a title soon inaugurated and that he'll then have]." Montagu is also "the ETTA Chairman," but, says Zeisberg, "I didn't know that at the time." That same day, Zeisberg also wrote Pope "requesting ETTA sanction, with copies to Mr. Montagu and Ruth."
According to ITTF regulations, the ETTA had territorial jurisdiction over Ruth:
"[That is, with regard to compensatory acts]...players registered with any other national governing Association and temporarily visiting a country upon a specific tour or [for a] tournament, the governing body of that country is entitled to rule...upon such acts as may be committed within its borders...."
This request for approval for Aarons to make compensatory contracts, Zeisberg thought, or wanted to think, was merely "a courteous formality." And apparently Ruth thought that, or wanted to think that, too, for on receiving Zeisberg's letters in Baden, she signed the London engagement contracts.
It's hard to believe though that Ruth, as Montagu himself would claim, "entered into the contracts in all innocence and without knowing that ETTA permission was necessary." Surely she had to know from Zeisberg's letters thatpermission was necessary. But she expected it to be more or less automatic...or, if it wasn't, she'd risk the violation?
Though Montagu was not at Baden (it was the only World Championship he'd thus far missed), it's not clear to me whether Ruth contacted any other English TTA authority figure (though she should have?) before she signed. My guess is she didn't. She wants to do the performances, so why seek out possible objections?
Apparently, as the ETTA's rival publication Table Tennis Activity reported, Ruth did not receive any "official communication" from the ETTA; however, Mr. Pope, ETTA Secretary, spoke to her (at some time in Baden?) "and said that he understood that she was to give exhibitions" in London, and she said yes, "and as a result of what then passed she was under the impression that her plans met with approval." (Perhaps Pope didn't realize--and it made a difference that he didn't--that Ruth "was to appear at two London super cinemas and at the Mayfair [sic] hotel"? Or perhaps Pope felt he ought to talk to Montagu before he insisted to Ruth that her plans would not meet with ETTA approval.)
At any rate, Zeisberg's understanding was that when the U.S. Team arrived in England about Feb. 9 Montagu said that "Ruth and Elmer F. Cinnater, Captain, were lax in complying with his requests" (I assume that Montagu, informed by Pope, wanted verification that Ruth had indeed signed a contract or contracts without first getting permission from the ETTA, and, were that true, he wanted her to break that contract or contracts or be subject to ETTA penalty.) That independent-minded Ruth was loath to break any contract (though actually she did secure a cancellation for one week to play in the post-English Open Anglo-American international event in Birmingham) we can easily believe--and not just because she was legally obligated but because she was enjoying her show business career and feeling fulfilled by performing. But world-famous Champion or not, it was ultimately her responsibility to see that she'd actually gotten ETTA permission to make these bookings, and perhaps she knew that but thought the more practical and wiser course (seconded by Captain Cinnater?) was to just go ahead and sign, and no big deal, trust that her prestige, her youthful enthusiasm and "innocence," and the sure popular support for her performances would carry the day.
As Table Tennis Activity, defending her, would say:
"...she was news. Pictures and stories about her appeared daily in almost every national newspaper.
It is safe to say that she gained more publicity for the English National Championships than any other individual player.
If only because she was definitely . box-office. Miss Aarons should have earned the gratitude of the E.T.T.A., to whom the financial success of the tournament was imperative.
Common-sense would have indicated that in the interests of Anglo-American good feeling, and as a personal act of courtesy to Miss Aarons, it would have been as well to have...given approval, even if reluctantly, and accompanied by a . Don't do it again. admonition."
But, regardless of the fact that exhibitions or performances had been given at hotels or cinemas before, the ETTA Executive Committee had just that season passed new regulations regarding "Payment to Players" which they'd decided to apply rigorously. An article in the Dec., 1936 issue of the official ETTA Table Tennis made this very clear:
"(g) Players may not enter into any contract to provide for the exclusive use of certain goods or materials, or exclusive play on premises controlled by a firm, in any circumstances.
(h) Players shall not receive any remuneration other than bare expenses for playing in a competitive event in any circumstances."
English players who played table tennis exhibitions for money or were tempted to, and who participated in other sports during the summer, were worried about losing their amateur status? If so, these ETTA regulations helped to protect them. But what about other players who didn't care if they were considered professionals, who in fact rather liked the idea?
Table Tennis Activity, the independent publication, opposed the ETTA view. Their editors argued that "income should be the birthright of those who have climbed to the top. The sooner it is possible for a steady income to be made by those skilled in the arts of the game the better. Further, they said:
"There is no particular virtue in amateurism [or, also in their words, "a descent to shamateurism"]. Too often people label themselves amateurs and thereby seek to justify an insufficient performance.
Rules or no rules, the only time paid players will cease to exist is when nobody is prepared to pay them. Not before."
Clearly, though, Ruth, whose exhibition status in London was like that of an English player, had violated ETTA rule "(g)" above. And because she had, she'd also violated the following ITTF rule:
"22. Expenses: General. A Table Tennis player may accept compensation in any form, travelling and hotel expenses, for playing the game in a tournament, match or competition other than those named in 21 [World Championships, Swaythling Cup and Corbillon Cup], or in an exhibition, only provided that:--
(a) Permission to pay such expenses shall have been previously obtained by the payer from the Association, or such payment shall be by the Association, in whose territorial jurisdiction the event may take place."
Montagu, President of both the ETTA and the ITTF, felt he had to be adamant. "The ETTA," he was to write later, "was on the spot as a disciplinary-exercising body: could visitors flout with impunity the rules we enforced on our own players? There was bound to be trouble either way, whether ETT[A] acted or not."
This was Montagu's strongest argument, but he had no trouble finding others...then or through the years. For example, he later wrote:
"...Worse still, in England the particular precedent of Ruth Aarons, using an opportunity to visit England on invitation to play an international match as an official representative, and accepting an engagement for professional entertainment that the law of that time obliged the intending visitor to disclose beforehand and which required a labor permit for entry--this could not only jeopardise our relationship with the immigration authorities in respect to all future teams, but place the offender herself, however innocently, in jeopardy from the law."
Ruth was lucky she wasn't jailed?
As it is, Montagu just plans to suspend her. Which of course draws the ire of the equally strong-minded, equally autocratic USTTA President, Zeisberg. Now, an I-have-to-suspend-her/Don't-you-dare-suspend-her debate goes on literally for weeks, with threatening telegrams from both sides being exchanged like gunshots across each other's ship-of-state bow. When Montagu persists, Zeisberg will threaten to, and finally, at least informally, withdraw the USTTA from the ITTF and attack Montagu himself as incompetent.
Zeisberg defends Ruth by saying it was he who made the initial mistake (in not taking the need for ETTA permission seriously enough); innocent Ruth shouldn't be held accountable. This of course was not his position when a year earlier he'd written in Topics:
"Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Star players who yield to the impulse to play before big crowds without consulting the proper sanctioning official may suddenly find the reward for their thoughtlessness is suspension or expulsion."
Ruth herself--who said, "when I learned that the English Association did not approve, I tried to obtain release from my contract, but was unable to do so"--soon adopted a what's-the-fuss-all-about? attitude that would further her innocence: "I really am at a loss to understand the attitude of the ITTF....No one in England had anything but praise to say of my exhibition tour there."
After a prolonged ego struggle between Montagu and Zeisberg, mirror-image I-want-control power-figures, on Apr. 8, 1937 Ruth was officially suspended by the ITTF, and Zeisberg responded by introducing "[USTTA] Executive Committee resolution No. 65 to suspend Bylaw I [ITTF Affiliation]."
Montagu relates how Ruth was requested to and did "helpfully" appear before an ETTA Disciplinary Committee. An innocent breach of the law Ruth's may have been, Monatgu says, but the Committee didn't really think she'd made any serious endeavor to void her contracts. Moreover, as Montagu later explains, her advisor, Corti Woodcock, Ivor's "old friend and doubles partner" who spoke for her, "instead of excusing her by an apology and pleading inadvertent offence by ignorance, sought to attempt justification by attacking the rule." And, says Montagu, that defense "struck us. We had to maintain the policy and authority of the rule." So the Committee saw it as their duty to:
"enforce a penalty as testimony of their right to do so and [affirm] that an offense had technically been committed; to make it [the penalty] a nominal one, so that its [sic: meaning the penalty for the rule's] infraction should inflict no undue hardship on the technical offender."
You can see from the confusingly written lines above (so uncharacteristic of his usual clarity) that Montagu's squirming with the language, as he must be consciously and unconsciously with his thought, so as to judiciously both penalize and not penalize Ruth. However, more than 10 years later, he says that he can remember "almost the exact words that passed" between Aarons and himself:
"I.M. . Miss Aarons, supposing--appreciate, please, that I am only supposing--the committee find an offense proved, they would not wish to impose any penalty that might inflict a hardship disproportionate to the offense. What are your plans?.
Miss A. . When I get back, I am playing in the U.S. Championship..
I.M. . And after the U.S. Championships?.
Miss A. . I am going to take a rest..
I.M. . No other engagements? No other tournaments, night club shows, anything?.
Miss A. . No, I have had a hard season and irrespective of anything that happens here, I plan to rest "all summer.". "
So she was suspended, Montagu recalls, for a period of only "one month [sic]...after the conclusion of the [Apr. 1-4] U.S. Championships--which, if not precisely accurate (since the actual suspension was from Apr. 20-June 30), is perhaps close enough to the truth.
This suspension means, Zeisberg protests, that, unless the USTTA breaks off its affiliation with the ITTF, Ruth can't play in the Apr. 30-May 1 Eastern's--for each ITTF-member Association must acknowledge that the suspension is world-wide.
As it happens, however, Ruth has no intention of playing in the Eastern's, and, in fact, after the National's, would never play in a tournament again.
Eventually, the USTTA will offer to exchange apologies with the ETTA and will re-affiliate with the ITTF. Then, as Table Tennis Activity will report, the E.T.T.A. will "welcome" U.S. representatives "to London to compete in the [. 38] World Championships" and afterwards the English Open.
But though years, decades, will pass, Montagu on more than one occasion will be forced to correct misimpressions and misstatements of fact about both the Aarons-Pritzi disqualification and the Aarons suspension that would continue to appear in U.S. articles.
Montagu was right, for instance, to take exception when Laflin and Roberts, in one of their late 1940's "History of Table Tennis" articles in Topics, bizarrely suggest, without putting forth any explanation whatsoever, that, because England's "only chance for international success was in the women's division," England "had been prominent in depriving Miss Aarons of her title."
What had the last Woman's Singles match of the '37 World's to do with England's women winning anything? And what reason had the English to think that when Ruth's title was declared "vacant," or when her two-month, post-USTTA National's suspension was up, that she wouldn't be playing in the 1938 World's? She was never to make any statement that I know of that she quit tournament table tennis because of her stopped Singles final or her suspension. Anyway, she was definitely playing in the '37 U.S. National's.
The Women's Singles at the Apr. Newark, N.J. National's drew 44 entries--a very good turnout. Ruth advanced to the semi's through three rounds--playing nine games and giving up 98 points.
Joining her there was Mildred Wilkinson, the #6 seed; she'd downed the #4 seed, Anne Sigman, who'd been extended into the 5th by former U.S. World Team member Corinne Migneco. Both Sigman and Migneco were about to disappear from the tournament scene--Anne emphasizing that, with all the exhibitions she'd played, she'd just lost her desire to be competitive. Hence, partnered with Aarons, her -27, -19, -15 loss in the Women's Doubles final to Kuenz and Fuller, and, with Schiff, her straight-game loss in the Mixed to Aarons and Blattner.
In her semi's match against Mildred, it seemed that Aarons, like Sigman, was suffering from a recent lack of competition. Indeed, how could six weeks of "soft" but tiring exhibition play in England and Scotland, her appearance before the ETTA "court," and her long sea-journey home not take a toll on Ruth? If ever she was to be upset, this was the time. When Wilkinson, up at the table banging in forehands, won the 23-21 3rd game from Aarons to take a 2-1 lead, she "leaped like a happy jumping-jack into the arms of her delirious followers for the intermission while Ruth, unperturbed, conferred with her anxious board of strategy." Then, on their return to the table...
"...Ruth quickly demonstrated why she is World Champion. Finding her unparalleled defense unable to check Mildred's man-like hitting, she switched tactics and attacked with a dazzling mixture of chops and topspin drives, smacking the ball for kills, and what looked like a staggering upset became almost a routine rout as Mildred tired under the barrage."
Just who Ruth's opponent and, as it would turn out, relatively docile victim in the final would be was uncertain up to the 19-in-the-5th end of the other semi's. But the much improved Fuller, who'd gradually built up her confidence abroad, found just enough strength to end-game prevail over Purves.
For the fourth straight year, Aarons would head the Women's Ranking--but, with her absence in the Eastern's (won by Fuller), her tournament career had abruptly come to an end. On winning the English Open back in Feb., Ruth had said that she had "at most only seven more years to . live. " before she'd be "dead" as a champion table tennis player. Now, sooner than she'd thought--she was not quite 19--it was time to make the break. She'd live her remaining table tennis years as a professional entertainer, a class act, her unmatchable reputation intact. After she'd been given the whole front cover of the Feb. 22, 1937 issue of Life, she was not going to sully her past achievements, her box office name with the inevitable losses that would come under the pressure of competition.
Table tennis, she had said on her way to becoming the best woman player in the world, was "hard work." It meant she had "to forgo some of the films she would love to see, stay away from the night clubs she would like to . peek in at. ...[and forget about lolling] in bed until three in the afternoon after...[she'd] been to a dance."
Now, with her second and perhaps even more glamorous table tennis career as a night club and theater entertainer about to give her continued recognition, she could have as much night life as she wanted. Though forget those girlish fancies, show business would be a lot more work than fun:
"...When you play before a theater or night club audience you have to be careful to play at top speed at all time[s]. Each point must be a spectacular one or the crowd is disappointed."
Of course, just as when she was competing, she still had to keep herself fit--get "lots of sleep and [eat] next to nothing for meals sometimes." Performing was in her blood, and she wanted to look attractive and put on a good show.
Her partner for the summer of '37 was not Glancz, who was on a tour of vaudeville theaters with Bellak, but Barna whom the gossip-mongers had been saying for weeks was Ruth's fiancé--this despite her protestations that "I. m not getting myself married, well, for a good long time. And that's that. [She never did marry.]"
Ruth and Victor's first engagement--in the exclusive Rainbow Room on the 65th floor atop Rockefeller Center--certainly presented no problem, for, to the surprise of those in the business who'd said table tennis was just "a toy game" and patrons wouldn't pay to see it, Ruth and Sandor had been extremely successful there last summer. And very soon the theatrical magazine Variety was giving Glancz's successor what it considered his just due: "in her matches with Barna, Ruth Aarons is not winning by such a wide margin now, for Barna is steadily improving."
Theater engagements followed. In July, they played Washington, D.C.'s Earle Theater (Midnight Madonna," with Warren William, was being shown on the screen). And in August, Ruth, joined by a momentarily free Sandor, and their announcer, Ruth's brother, Lisle, shared the bill at the Baltimore Hippodrome with The Three Stooges. "Larry, Curly and Moe," wrote Ruth, "dashing around in the wings madly retrieving the balls which rolled off stage...invariably had us laughing so hard by the middle of the game...that the audience out in front must have thought we were mildly eccentric, to say the least." For 25 cents at the Hippodrome you could see the stage acts, the March of Time newsreel, and Ralph Bellamy and Betty Furness in "It Can't Last Forever."
In mid-Sept., after completing an engagement with Ruth at the Roxy Theater in New York, Barna left for home--with Bellak following a month later to serve an obligatory stint in the Hungarian Army. That left Sandor and Ruth free to resume their partnership. (Maybe he was her fiance?...No.)
A few months into the new '37-38 season, as U.S. Team members prepared for the 1938 January World's at Wembley, Ruth and Sandor, in red shirts and white slacks, were intently going through their nightly routine, swinging and swaying, as it were, with Sammy Kaye (his weekly salary: $1,250) at the Hotel Statler's Terrace Room in Cleveland, Ohio. Table tennis is popular with the "local swank set," wrote one reporter, and the Aarons-Glancz act "is appealing to class."
Emphasizing to an interviewer that all you needed to play table tennis was an easy-to-set-up-and-take-down table, good lighting, and a level floor, Ruth said that she thought "the game owes a great deal of its popularity to its cheapness." Unfortunately, she was right. But it's not the game Zeisberg and Co. are trying to promote, it's the sport. And the all prevailing cheapness of those who want organized play without paying for it will be the bane of thesport forever.
After the '38 World's, where he won the Mixed Doubles, and after successfully defending his U.S. National's Singles title, Laci Bellak was the star of the Glancz traveling "Circus" troupe. Or well, alright, for one night only, the Apr. 8th Tour stop at the Boston Arena, maybe the co-star, maybe even the second banana. For at this performance, the troupe's "guest" was World Champion Ruth Aarons. She was giving what she called her "last sports exhibition"--except she hoped that there would be "a few more nite club and vaudeville engagements." Uh-huh.
Though it was a terrible night in Boston for anyone to go out, a night of "snow, sleet and rain storm," over 4,000 paid spectators attended--the largest crowd in the U.S. ever to watch a table tennis exhibition. And--with the help of Glancz, Lou Pagliaro, Johnny Abrahams, Les Lowry, and of course Bellak, what a show Ruth put on.
She took a back seat to no one. To wit: because "the second coating of green water-colored paint on the wooden flooring of the court had not dried sufficiently," Ruth slipped and fell three times. "Every time she fell she came up with her hands covered with green paint. The back of her [grey] slacks was smooched...but she laughed heartily."
Ruth was so much the focus of everyone's attention that reporters seemed to think she was the only player on court. And many a spectator too, for they would not only be talking about her but would be able to show living proof of her endearing uniqueness:
"A novel touch was added to the two hour and a half program when a special exhibition match was played purely for the benefit of the candid camera enthusiasts in this section. Under ideal lighting conditions almost 40% of said rabid fans gathered on the court to photograph Miss Aarons."
Ah, show biz--nothing like it.
Now that there'd be no tournament play for Ruth ever again, what did she plan on doing?
Well, "with the aid of the new Table Tennis Manufacturers. Association," she had already made, or soon would make, the Warner Brothers. Clem McCarthy table tennis movie short, "Table Manners," starring Eddie Foy and his strong supporting cast--1938 National Champion Fuller, runner-up Dorothy Halliday, Bellak, Glancz, and Pagliaro. Perhaps Ruth found the thought of performing before an estimated 30,000,000 as much fun as playing before an actual 4,000?...
"...I'm going to Hollywood, and Sandy is going, too,' she said. . This is the end for me. No more competition. I've won every title I wanted. I've traveled a lot while winning four American and two world championships. And now we. re heading for the West Coast. I have studied singing and can dance a little, and may be able to get into the movies.. "
Ruth won't be wowing them in Hollywood the rest of this spring and summer, but she and her partner, the "European Wizard"--that's Sandor--will keep busy. In mid-April, they'll be in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania--not trying to perform a windy exhibition on one of the 21 concrete tables enthusiast George Smith will make available for outside summer play in the area, but, far more sedately, giving some of the after-dinner entertainment at the 11th Annual Ladies Night of the Zembo Luncheon Club. A booking that suggests her popularity's on the wane? Don't be deceived. This Club considered itself the "Largest and Best Shrine Luncheon Club in the World." In May she and Sandor will be at Billy Rose's Cafe Manana with Frank Fay and Bert Wheeler. In June, with Barna as her partner, Ruth will again play the Rockefeller Center Rainbow Room, so informal in the summer that women can wear "clothes that don't necessitate a girdle."
July 1, 1938 promises a new beginning (but nothing more): Ruth will make her stage debut as Hilda Manney in the Saratoga Springs Spa Theater Players. production of "Room Service"--and, as if that wasn't enough without the Marx Brothers, she'll be asked by some patrons to entertain in between Acts; you know, bring out a table, a stand-in partner, and rally the audience as if it were a promotion of U.S. table tennis. Later in July she'll be on more professional footing with Barna at the Washington, D.C. Earle Theater.
In Aug. (and for months, years, to come) she'll continue to stay at the top of her profession. She and Sandor will perform at Boston's Ritz Carlton Roof with Eddy Duchin and his Orchestra. After being challenged there by patron Jimmy Foxx of the Boston Red Sox, she'd say, "Jimmy has excellent timing and a good eye but he has no idea of this modern table tennis and the importance of spin."
The '38-39 season was another winner for Ruth--though in Apr., at the Windy City's Chicago theater, in between showings of Errol Flynn's "Dodge City, " Ruth "stumbled into the orchestra pit in an attempt to return a difficult shot." But perhaps she recovered quickly enough to later join Sandor in offering, as part of their engagement, "free instructions to patrons on the lower promenade of the theater." It was all part of the job, and, as reporter Bob Considine somewhat ambiguously said, of Ruth making about as much money "as a so-so big league ball player."
But sing no sad songs for Ruth--not yet anyway. This summer of '39 she and Sandor were again celebrities among celebrities at the Rainbow Room taking on all comers. Edgar Bergen would win a bottle of champagne for Charlie McCarthy, and Gloria Swanson's 14-year-old son would win...well, an orangeade, and a bottle of the bubbly for Mum.
This summer, too, Aarons, retired but not retiring, was favored as a semifinalist in the Gold Star Mothers. "Typical American Daughter" contest. But Ruth, golfer Patty Berg, and songstress Cobina Wright, Jr. were all runner-ups to Hollywood's Priscilla Lane.
The weeks, the months go by, and occasionally Ruth has a partner other than Glancz--is on the Astor Hotel Roof with Intercollegiate Champ Bernie Grimes. She and Sandor continue to play theaters--before Pearl Harbor, the 1941 Bob Hope/Dorothy Lamour movie "Caught in the Draft" is playing for laughs at the Loew's theater in New York's Times Square, and there on stage is Ruth, trading quips with Georgie Jessel who'd be helping to build up her act with running gags.
Publicity she knew how to get (and give what in return?). Here, almost four years after her retirement, is an excerpt from a Jan., 1942 Colliers feature article on her that's sycophantic:
"Miss Aarons is not only the greatest table tennis player in the world--she is also beautiful and streamlined. She possesses all the glamour of a besweatered Hollywood starlet. In a game which features lanky, wizened males, and chunky, horse-faced females, she stands out like Betty Grable in a Home for Aged Spinsters."
Ruth also played that Loew's theater with Chuck Burns, 1942 runner-up to U.S. Champion Lou Pagliaro. During the War, Burns's "trick knee, acquired while sliding in a baseball game in the late 1930's...kept him out of military service." But in 1945 he joined Aarons, who'd been touring in USOC camp shows with other partners, and for eight months their travels took them to such faraway places as "West and North Africa, the Persian Gulf, India, and Palestine." An Oct. 11, 1945 publication put out by "Hq. Port Service, Khorramshahr, Iran" speaks of the activities of "USO Unit #612." In the troupe was an impersonator, a puppeteer, a tap dancer, and...
"Ruth Aarons and Chuck Burns, the table tennis experts, put on a good show for the crowd, with Ruth demonstrating that the fair sex isn't always the weaker sex. Chuck, however, was hindered by a bad leg and couldn't play his usual driving game [uh, yes, especially since he favored stiff pushes and a backhand flick].
After the War, Ruth who'd earlier dabbled in dramatics at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater in New York, and also tried her hand at writing songs, now abandoned table tennis and became a booking agent. Eventually, she "guided the careers of Shirley Jones, Sean and David and Jack Cassidy, Janis Paige, Celeste Holm, and Oscar-winner George Chakiris."...
Much later, in the last decade of her life, her interest in the sport surfaced. She wrote a letter urging sponsorship of Wendy Hicks to the '71 World's; continued to keep in touch with her old friend Sandor until he died in 1974; turned up at the 1977 Hollywood U.S. Open ("First time I ever had to pay to see table tennis," she said); and in Las Vegas in 1979, the year before she died, was honored at, and honored us by attending, the first Hall of Fame Awards Banquet.