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A Tennis Tale: Once Famous, 'Gorgeous Gussie' Dies In Obscurity

The news today of tennis star Serena Williams' upset lost to American teenager Sloane Stephens at the Australian Open, and word that at one point Williams took out her frustration on one of her rackets, reminded us we should note the stories this week about the death of Gertrude "Gorgeous Gussie" Moran.

The contrast between what shocked the tennis world more than 60 years ago — the "white silk jersey panties trimmed with two inches of open lace" that Moran wore while playing at Wimbledon — and what doesn't shock many today is remarkable. After all, Williams is just one among many who have been guilty of "racket abuse" and other such behavior in recent years.

You also might wonder at how risqué Moran's tennis togs were to many back in 1949 considering what Stephens, a rising star, Williams and other women wear today. Times, as they say, have certainly changed.

But the stories about Moran are fascinating on their own. They paint a picture of a woman who in the 1940s and '50s was a household name, as ESPN says, but by the time of her death on Jan. 16 was living in a "tiny run-down apartment in Hollywood." She was 89 when she died.

Moran was ranked as high as No. 4 among women in the world during her tennis career. Her fame — and famous figure — helped her land some acting roles, including in 1952's Pat and Mike starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

The thrice-married Moran, who never had children, ran into financial troubles in the mid-'80s.

AsThe Washington Post reports, "Moran taught tennis and contributed to tennis magazines [after her competitive career ended], but in 1986 she was evicted from her family's oceanfront home in Santa Monica after she was unable to pay taxes. She worked in the gift shop of the Los Angeles Zoo, moved to a small apartment, and ultimately lived on Social Security benefits and anonymous donations."

ESPNChicago columnist Melissa Isaacson writes today of when she interviewed Moran in 1988:

"Covering tennis at the time, it took me nearly a year to find her and talk her into an interview. Once one of the most photographed women in the world, Moran did not really want to talk and, now highly self-conscious about her looks, refused to have her picture taken.

"But she told me her life story that afternoon. And a more harrowing one I had seldom heard."

Moran's stories included an account of a rape in 1975, eviction from her family home in 1986 and the frugal life she then led.

"I guess you could say I'm treading water," Moran told Isaacson.

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.

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