Reading Julie Heldman’s new book—fittingly entitled Driven (A Daughter’s Odyssey)—I found myself thoroughly immersed in the story of her fascinating life. Navigating the pages of Heldman’s riveting autobiography/memoir, I wondered how she summoned the courage to write so forthrightly about the arduous and sometimes crippling campaign she has fought so valiantly against mental illness and the darkness of depression over the years. And yet, admirably, Heldman has confronted her lifelong struggles unswervingly.
Current tennis followers and players are largely unaware of Heldman’s multi-faceted achievements on the court. She was a singularly crafty match player who broke into the American women’s Top 20 at No. 16 in 1961—when she was only 16. Later, she played on two victorious U.S. Fed Cup teams, climbed to No. 2 in her country, won the Italian Open in 1969, concluded two years stationed among the Top 5 in the world, and reached the semifinals of the 1974 US Open.
Heldman upended one luminous player after another, from Billie Jean King to Margaret Court, Chrissie Evert to Evonne Goolagong, Martina Navratilova to Virginia Wade. None of these prodigious champions could let their guard down against the guileful and unbending Heldman; they could beat her with their talent, but she could sometimes outfox them with her nonpareil brain. After she left her playing days behind her in 1975, Heldman, always a polished writer, shifted ably to the broadcast booth, establishing herself as a uniquely insightful analyst for NBC, CBS, HBO and other networks. Her powers of analysis were unassailable.
And yet, no matter how much she accomplished on and off the court, Heldman was overshadowed by her “indomitable” mother Gladys, a woman of extraordinary intelligence and inexhaustible ambition. Gladys founded World Tennis in 1953, a magazine with the fitting motto: “written by and for the players.” World Tennis was the centerpiece of the Heldman family, an all-consuming endeavor for Gladys, and a sibling of sorts for Julie and her sister Carrie. In Driven, she writes, “The magazine was the most demanding child in the family.”
In the tennis community, World Tennis was a bible. Gladys—a modestly successful player who did not take up the game until she was 23, yet later competed in the U.S. National Championships— worked feverishly to make the magazine prominent and far reaching, and succeeded surpassingly. But as Julie grew up and found her own level of success, she had a mother who was unavailable in many ways.
Julie writes, “Mom’s ferocious World Tennis workload turned her priorities upside down. She was too busy to play tennis, too busy to have a social life, too busy to be with her family. The magazine sucked out every ounce of her energy.”
Gladys kept Julie essentially on an island of her own.
Julie writes, “For three years, from the ages of four to nearly seven, when I should have been skipping rope and laughing hysterically with kids my own age, I spent the vast majority of my time alone. My isolation from outsiders was impenetrable.”
Gladys Heldman, Julie's mother.
Elaborating on that theme, Heldman writes, “By the time we moved to New York City when I was seven, she had turned our family into the Cult of Gladys. Our family had many of the core characteristics of a cult: an exceedingly strong leader; isolation from the rest of the world; control, coercion and abuse by the leader; and, for the followers, total subservience. Everyone who met Mom was struck by the strength of her personality, a necessary characteristic of a cult’s leader. Yet no one outside the family could have imagined the control she exerted over our secluded family.”
That control exercised by Gladys Heldman over the entire family did not exclude her husband Julius, who won the National 18 Championships in 1936 and would later become a leading senior competitor. Julius’s parental influence was diminished by his wife’s overbearing presence. An aggrieved and tormented Julie would look for support from her father when Gladys smothered her with cruelty, but, invariably, Julius would dutifully stand by his wife.
Gladys tried to instill in Julie a quest for perfection as a player, but her message was muddled.
Julie writes, “Despite Mom’s fixation on the number-one ranking, she never seemed particularly happy when I achieved that goal. When I won the Canadian National 18s at age 12, the first thing she said to me when I returned to our apartment was, ‘Your hair is ugly. You’ll have to cut it right away.’ And when I won the U.S. National 15s, which would automatically give me the No. 1 ranking, she said, ‘Now that you can beat me, I’ll never play you again.’ After she witnessed me pull out an extremely tight semifinal in the National 18s, she didn’t hug me or say ‘Congratulations!’ She said, ‘That was too hard to watch. I couldn’t go through that again.’ She left without seeing me win the title and gain the Number One Ranking in the 18s.’“
Her mother’s self absorption left Julie with deep emotional scars in both her junior days and beyond.
In Driven, she points out, “At a minimum, Mom’s weren’t words of support. They were crazy, inexplicable, mixed messages. I hated losing, but if I won, there was always the possibility that Mom would undermine me, and I’d feel rotten. The upshot was that I was damned if I won and damned if I lost. I was trapped, straddling a razor’s edge.”
But, despite her own unbearable inner struggles, Heldman dealt honorably with the emotional extremes of her professional tennis career.
In the book, she recounts many of her proudest moments as a competitor, including the crucial role she played in leading the U.S. past Germany in the 1966 Fed Cup Final. Heldman took the opening match over Helga Niessen. Having lost the first set, she rallied from 3-5 down in the second to secure 10 of the last 11 games for an exhilarating 4-6, 7-5, 6-1 triumph. The U.S. contingent of Heldman, Billie Jean King and Carole Graebner prevailed 3-0 in the team series to claim international supremacy.
She wrote, “WE ARE THE WORLD CHAMPS! I have won for my country. I have proved myself in a whole new way.”
Indeed she had, and she would do so time and again throughout her distinguished career. But her larger battle against bipolar disorder was a harder hurdle to overcome. Amidst all of her career pursuits, Heldman suffered through some gut-wrenching broken romances, including one with a fiancé who walked away from their planned wedding in cowardly timidity. After that demoralizing ordeal, she would attempt suicide in the early seventies.
Driven never drifts. Heldman makes certain of that by sweepingly covering the entire spectrum of her life. Because she was such a central figure in the sport, she knows its history as well as anyone. Her overview in the book on the start of the Open Era that commenced in 1968 is stunningly penetrating. Moreover, her first-hand account about the birth of a women’s circuit is equally far-reaching, lucid and gripping.
Naturally, it was the redoubtable Gladys Heldman who signed nine top women players to $1 pro contracts in September of 1970. Those audacious competitors included the indispensable Billie Jean King, Nancy Richey, Rosie Casals and Julie Heldman herself. Gladys brought them together and they played a Virginia Slims Invitational event in Houston. That landmark tournament led to a series of women’s events sponsored by Virginia Slims, who came into the fold thanks to Gladys persuading her close friend Joe Cullman of Philip Morris to step in. In 1971, a full-fledged Virginia Slims circuit was in place, and women’s tennis had been altered irrevocably. It grew astronomically from there.
Billie Jean King
Julie Heldman shines some essential historical light on how it evolved. Most compelling in Driven is the drama surrounding that first tournament in Houston 48 years ago, and a power struggle emerging behind the scenes. Billie Jean’s husband, Larry, who founded World TeamTennis with her in 1974, was interested in promoting the women’s tour. He attended a dinner with all of the players at Gladys Heldman’s house upon the completion of the Houston 1970 tournament, laying out his vision of a women’s tour that he would promote.
This proposal, of course, created an immediate conflict because the players all recognized what Gladys had done to bring them to this point, and where she could take them in the future.
Writing about that meeting with Larry King, Julie Heldman asserts, “My anger begins to boil. Larry came to the Heldman house as a guest with the goals of pushing Mom aside and running all of women’s tennis. Not cool. I leave the room to find Mom. She’s sitting alone in the living room. I tell her what Larry said, and I ask her to speak to the women. She looks stricken. Her words are agitated and frantic, showing she can’t function. ‘I can’t do it. I can’t do it. You’ll have to do it for me.’”
Julie Heldman realized she had no choice.
She writes, “Only Mom could have made this tournament happen through her creativity, her thoroughness, her connections, and her steel backbone. But at this moment, she’s shut down. From time to time throughout my life, I’ve had to do her dirty work. This is one of those occasions.”
Adding to the complexity of the situation was the fact that Gladys, in her frazzled state, could not advise Julie on what to say to the players. She left it entirely up to her daughter. Julie proceeded to persuasively laud her mother’s capabilities. The players paused to think about what to do. Nancy Richey, a two-time major singles champion, called her father, who told her to vote for Gladys. Other players reflected. After a while, all nine women were given pieces of paper to cast their votes for Gladys Heldman or Larry King. Heldman was the victor.
Only Julie Heldman could have presented that slice of tennis history so authentically. She was there. It involved her complicated yet inimitable mother. It was a critical turning point for the women as they embarked on an uncertain future. In the book, Julie Heldman commendably separates her personal feelings about her mother from how she looks at Gladys as a leader. The gap is wide.
Driven moves along smoothly. We follow Julie from the end of her pro career in 1975, through her commentary years, on to UCLA Law School where she graduated with honors, and into her marriage with the impossible-not-to-like Bernie Weiss. She gives birth to a daughter. Her relationship with her mother remains complex and fraught with difficulties.
In 1996, Julie’s bipolar disorder is diagnosed. Four years later, she is beset by a “cataclysmic” nervous breakdown that would alter her life for the next 15 years. In 2003, Gladys Heldman commits suicide, shooting herself to death after learning she had severely clogged arteries.
Julie writes, “Mom was strong minded throughout her life, and it was just like her to take charge of her own death. She went out on her own terms. Mom was a dynamo, blessed with a brilliant, creative and active mind, and seemingly boundless energy, she roared through life, leaving a trail of wide ranging accomplishments.”
The same can be said of Julie Heldman. Her life has often been harrowing, but she has bounced back from bruising setbacks others could never have survived, and triumphed with a frequency few could replicate.
Near the end of Driven, she tells her readers, “The book became a mainstay of my existence. It has profoundly contributed to my wellbeing.”
Driven is beautifully crafted, written stylishly, presented with utter clarity, leaving no stone unturned in explaining who she is, why she has persevered and how she has coped with the primary issues in her life so unflinchingly. I urge you to read it.