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“La Divine:” Suzanne Lenglen’s Extraordinary Brand of Femme Moderne in Interwar France

Garrett Sauey

As a sophomore at Davidson, I have enjoyed taking and plan to continue taking courses in the English, History, and Spanish departments. I am definitely a “grammar nerd” who loves learning new facts, but usually facts from the humanities and other social sciences. Other than a Davidson student, I am an avid tennis player and follower of professional tennis. I enjoy reading and writing and would like to think of myself as cultural analyst, a critic of TV shows, movies, music, and pop culture of all types and standards. Garret’s work was produced in Professor Patricia Tilburg’s History 228: The Making of the Modern Body: Gender, Sex, and Politics in France.

“A simple game of tennis, yet a game which made continents stand still and was the most important sporting event of modern times exclusively in the hands of the fairer sex,” declared Ferdinand Tuohy, an observer of Suzanne Lenglen’s and Helen Wills’ February 16, 1926 match in Cannes, France.1 Helen Wills, the American prodigy, came to Cannes to take on (and hopefully take down) the reigning queen of lawn tennis, Suzanne Lenglen, La Divine. The American ended February 15th early to ensure she was rested and physically ready for the next day’s match. Lenglen, however, had a different night. Hers was full of uncertainty, confusion, and emancipation because she had separated from her domineering father, Charles Lenglen, the man who had taught her the game of tennis and who had meticulously managed her career until then. He had wanted her to withdraw from the match, for he feared a player of Helen’s talent would humiliate Suzanne and destroy her legendary reputation. “With or without Papa’s blessing,” though “she would play.”2 Lenglen was “trembling slightly” as she warmed up on the court; she was both the “Goddess” and the “villain.”3 The unusual duality Lenglen represented in this match exemplifies her different version of the stereotypical “modern woman,” a version with an unyielding and unstable personality and immodest fashion sense balanced with a disciplined, tasteful game and submission to an ever-present father.

I aim to add to Roberts’ work, to explain that Lenglen fully represented the values of the “modern woman”–independence, strength, idealism–but that she created a less threatening and disappointing version.

Lenglen’s France was different from the contemporary France. The government mandated girls receive physical education, but a limited version. Girls could participate only in dance, gymnastics, and lawn tennis; boys could play any existing sport. These activities “cultivated gender-appropriate moral qualities.”4 Boys and girls started physical education in separate programs because the French public wanted a hierarchy with women below men in case social institutions–economic, political, and religious–failed to separate the sexes. Former soldiers, exclusively male, developed a less physical form of the military’s gymnastics routine, which they taught to girls to prepare them for “bear[ing] better babies and rear[ing] better soldiers.”5 Women who expanded beyond their regulated domestic life and competed in “intense, competitive sports,” were seen to lose their femininity and were condemned as lesbians or masculine.6 Professional female athletes walked a tight rope of acceptability with their country: they could compete, but they had to maintain the female image of frailty, fragility, and grace or risk losing their femininity, and with it society’s respect. Lenglen walked this tightrope perfectly. She portrayed the necessary feminine qualities while also complementing them with more masculine qualities, such as speed and strength.

Professional female athletes, supposedly verging on lesbianism or masculinity, likely belonged to one of three female stereotypes, the “modern woman,” or femme lenglen "La Divine:" Suzanne Lenglen's Extraordinary Brand of Femme Moderne in Interwar Francemoderne, in interwar France.  Mary Louise Roberts reconstructs these three stereotypes in her Civilization without Sexes, a study of how France dealt with enormous losses and declining birth rates in the early twentieth century. The “single woman” “served as a symbol of rapid change and cultural crisis. . .[signaling] the passing of cherished ideals and social practices.”7 The traditional domestic mother had lost her husband in war, and as a result, a new generation was rebelling against custom. Short bobs and closer-fitting dresses stressed a slimmer body, more movement, and (the illusion of) emancipation. Modern French women no longer believed in marrying into submission, instead finding independence and self-sufficiency. They combined the “single woman” and the “mother” into a single entity, creating “a new notion of gender identity, a ‘synthesis’ of old and new,” the synthesis that Lenglen epitomized.8

I aim to add to Roberts’ work, to explain that Lenglen fully represented the values of the “modern woman”–independence, strength, idealism–but that she created a less threatening and disappointing version. I will focus on a single individual and her moderate contribution to the “modern woman’s” image. By analyzing Lenglen’s account of her trip to America and manual she wrote for the tennis community, I will explore her view of her game as well as her account of her relationship with her father. Media reports and editorials, as well as fellow players’ accounts suggest the conservatism of Lenglen’s game, but also indicate its masculine qualities: strength, speed, and athleticism. She managed to pacify the qualms France had with this type of woman so that her compatriots focused solely on her achievement in tennis. Her tennis dominance encouraged fellow citizens to direct their tensions, emotions, and trauma on the “modern woman,” but one for whom they could cheer rather than degrade.

Born May 24, 1899 to a fairly wealthy family, Suzanne Rachel Flore Lenglen grew up on the outskirts of Paris, in Compiégne, France. The six-time Wimbeldon and five-time French Open champion learned the game from her father, Charles.9 He used a method similar to the military model for girls’ gymnastics, but one that required extreme, almost heroic, effort. M. Lenglen placed a handkerchief as a target across the net for her to hit. As she hit the target more consistently, he folded the handkerchief until it became small enough to replace with a coin; Mme. Lenglen met his superhuman standards, finally hitting the coin every time.10 Unlike the gymnastics routines for girls, M. Lenglen made no gendered exceptions with his daughter. Lenglen explains her dad’s method toward her game: “Only men’s strokes were taken. I was to learn, as far as possible, to play like a man. . . . but in my own way.”11 That Suzanne learned “only” from male players emphasized her dad’s demand she overcome the restricted female athletic standard. Her dad taught her to impart her own style on her game–not to copy completely–but she knew she could not physically equal her male peers (“as far as possible”). Her father saw Suzanne as a prototype in women’s sport, “the perfect union of athletics and art,” but he could only achieve that through his “unabashed solicit[ing] of the best male players on the Riviera to practice with [Suzanne].”12 While Mlle. Lenglen knew of the belief that women were physically weaker than men, but M. Lenglen did not let gender dictate success with tennis. He used whomever available–exclusively men–to make his daughter into a champion.

While playing tennis, Suzanne Lenglen brimmed with passion and temper, separating her from female tradition advocating modesty and emotional suppression. As multiple reporters and editorials put it, “Suzanne Lenglen [was] the greatest single ‘drawing card’ of the game.”13 The newspaper’s metaphorical comparison of Lenglen to a flimsy “card” degraded her physical strength, but it also singled her out from all other players as the biggest attraction, the ace. As a fellow tennis player and journalist claimed, her fiery personality and fierce tenacity made sure “there [was] no more colorful figure in woman’s tennis. . .than Suzanne Lenglen.”14 She was one of the first players to bring “color” or personality to the court–part of which was her rare lack of sportsmanship. Instead of simply marching out and robotically lobbing balls back and forth, she made the game breathe to people who had just seen it. Her peers did not totally acknowledge her physicality, but they did respect her charisma and commanding presence.

Suzanne Lenglen tapped into the separation of fan from player because “without precedent,” she always did something unthinkable.15 People’s interests peaked when seeing her because they never knew what she had in store for them. Fans saw a “divine goddess” when they watched her play. She had such an “intense” and “dynamic” personality–she could be “disagreeable,” “pettish,” and “bad-tempered”–on the court that one could not watch her “without taking sides.”16 Emphatic and extreme outbursts set Lenglen apart from more traditional players like Helen Wills, who brought no emotion or passion to the court. Instead of sitting docilely on the sidelines during changeovers, Lenglen would touch up her makeup and take a generous swig of the alcoholic beverage she had with her; she treated the match like a party, and she was the hostess.17 But adjectives like “bad-tempered” also reminded the spectators that the “Goddess” had emotions, weaknesses with which they could identify. “Taking sides” introduces militaristic imagery–armies on a battlefield–which bolsters Lenglen’s authority and implicitly compares her to generals like Napoleon. If fans bothered her, she would invoke her command, once glaring directly at a set of rambunctious spectators and shouting at them to be silent. Critics of the French modernist fashion movement attacked women’s “apparent lack of modesty,” and Suzanne’s character displayed that as well during her matches.18

The Frenchwomen’s fashion, “honest, carefree, and liberating,” at once expressed and dictated the behavior they exhibited.19 Lenglen’s tennis clothing and her bobbed hair further blurred gender boundaries.20 She continued contemporary fashion trends with her “swirling, open mink coat” covering “delicate silk. . . sleeveless calf-length dresses and plunging necklines.”21 Her mink coat immediately caught lenglen "La Divine:" Suzanne Lenglen's Extraordinary Brand of Femme Moderne in Interwar France the audience’s eye, drawing attention away from her opponent on upon her. The silk fabric underneath clung to her body, calling attention to her breasts and hips; the absence of sleeves exposed her arms, which again emphasized her immodesty. She upheld the Victorian tradition of covering her ankles, but she refused to wear a hat, instead choosing a “pure silk colored scarf round her head.”22 The center of attention, Langlen reflected her bright personality with her colorful scarf. Where other women’s outfits seemed overtly masculine to critics, Lenglen’s did not. Their short hair, combined with pants and closer fitting, shorter garments, shocked traditionalists who wanted them to dress more conservatively and appear more fully clothed. Lenglen struck a balance with her clothing. While she did mostly reveal her arms and legs during a match, she covered her bob with the “colorful scarf.” As soon as she finished (sometimes during a match), she put a sweater or mink coat over the silk tennis-wear, thus balancing her unconcealed and immodest self during the match with conservative, harmless apparel afterwards.

Lenglen’s on-court personality rebelled against the old-fashioned tradition in tennis. Her game, though, aligned most closely with tennis’ disciplined and rigid approach. “Lenglen’s strokes do not particularly impress the average onlooker, but they are most depressing to her opponents.”23 As most her fans were “average onlookers,” Lenglen’s strokes did not fascinate the crowd because they did not visibly overwhelm or demolish; they subtly wore down her adversary. Her opponents became “depress[ed]” playing her because she “[kept them] running frantically back and forth. . .until [they were] completely exhausted.”24 Attrition, not efficiency, was the hallmark of her game, which came from her relentless consistency and perfect placement of the ball. As fellow star of the 1920s stated, “she is just the steadiest player that ever was. She just sent back at me whatever I sent her and waited for me to make a fault.”25 The star’s use of “ever” to describe her consistency seems hyperbolic, but when juxtaposed with her following sentence, Lenglen’s steadiness is both believable and astounding. As for her placement, “Suzanne seem[ed]. . .to place the ball exactly where she want[ed] it.”26 Viewers of her game only “seemed” to comprehend her play because it was so complex that no one ever truly grasped its nuances. Juxtaposing Lenglen with the verb “want” boosts her authority. She controlled the ball and the opponent responding to it; her whimsical and ever-changing desires were the ball’s commands. This uncanny ability drew millions of spectators. The discipline her father forced Lenglen to develop facilitated her deadly accuracy that won her matches quickly and prevented unnecessary physical exertion. Her game contrasted powerfully with her personality on the court because it did not flash impatience; instead, it allowed Lenglen limited physical movement for her angelic poses, and it was consistently accurate.

Ironically, though, her style of play was the most “masculine” part of her, both in news reporters’ and her fellow players’ minds. News articles compared Lenglen’s game favorable with players on multiple levels. One article claimed, “she is said to. . .play with a dash comparable to that of a masculine expert.”27 The writer’s use of “masculine” regarding “dash” or speed admits that Lenglen’s footwork and foot speech while playing with equivalent to the male tennis stars of the time. By juxtaposing the “masculine” claim with “expert,” the writer put Lenglen above most males, for she had perfected speech and footwork to a level above even the practiced male amateur. A fellow female player, Mary Browne, declared: “her remarkable control over the tennis ball. . .I dare say, is not equaled even by Tilden.”28 Alluding to Bill Tilden, considered the best male player of Lenglen’s era, Browne proved that Lenglen controlled a tennis ball better than any player, male or female, and placed her atop the tennis hierarchy. Browne knew her statement was daring, for she qualified it with “I dare say” to note people traditionally believed men had more physical abilities than women.

Many of France’s critics attacked women for the intensely excessive dieting that their new styles inspired.29 Feminists in particular felt that women hurt themselves dieting and never achieved anything when they did. Suzanne, however, did achieve the desired body. Many players, especially Helen Wills, found Lenglen’s body physically fit and thin, but not excessively so. Wills admired her build, finding Lenglen to be a “well-proportioned young woman, strong and wiry, yet slender. . . . [She] had developed no ugly muscles. . .[and] possessed a form to be envied by any woman.30 Wills juxtaposes “woman” with “strong” to emphasize physical strength, yet she did not extend it to an extreme muscle-bound state because she qualified her adjective with another, more “feminine” adjective, “slender.” To Wills, Lenglen was attractive because she combined physical strength with thin wiriness; she did not revert to the thin skeleton that critics condemned as boyish for women sporting the bob and tailored jackets.31 With her aerial movements and balletic poses after striking the ball, Lenglen gracefully presented the body people admired. Lenglen’s dieting, though, was not excessive; she considered “[her] diet. . .quite normal” and her body a predictable product of that.32 Her gracefully, showy moves materialized the belief that contemporary outfits allowed women wearing them to walk and run more easily, and her strong yet lithe body realized the body many Frenchwomen desired to achieve with their diets.

Lenglen’s body and poses epitomized the emancipation that many women in 1920s France hoped to achieve. However, she submitted to one man in her life unquestioningly, her father. Discussing her tour of America, during which she starred in exhibition matches, Lenglen reminisces about her battle against her father: “There was so much insistence that my mother and myself decided to go in spite of my father’s advice. An evil day for us!”33 Lenglen strongly feared her father’s reaction and power so much that she used the passive construction (“there was”) in order to diminish self-blame and place blame on an unknown intimidator. Furthermore, she juxtaposed her mother with her choice to strengthen her defense and justify her choice. When referring to her father, she did so indirectly (“father’s advice”) because she still feared his anger. The final exclamation point emphasized Lenglen’s desperation after defying her father, as does her connection between “evil” and “us” (herself and her mother), for she blamed herself for her father’s actions. On the sidelines, “he seems to control the situation. . . .When she is left [alone]. . .Suzanne is likely to fall to pieces.”34 M. Lenglen commanded the ambiguous and all-encompassing “situation.” He was the puppeteer, and Suzanne the puppet. Without him holding her up, her strings snapped and she fell “to pieces.” Like a newborn infant, she could not function without him, the highest level of dependence. Suzanne rarely spoke publicly of her relationship with her father, perhaps fearful of his reaction. When on the court, she reigned over the ball, her opponent, and, most importantly, herself. But when her father entered the equation, she submitted to him, lapsing back to an earlier paternalism.

Portions of Lenglen’s submission to her father fell away on February 16, 1926. As Wills admits in her autobiographical articles, “Mlle. Lenglen was responsible for more tired feet in queues than perhaps any other player, male or female.”35 She metonymically utilizes “tired feet” to represent attendees, but also uses “feet” to stress the excitement and jitters spectators had just waiting to see Lenglen play. La Divine entered the match very much the villain, the obstacle in the exciting new prodigy’s path. Her nerves were tested, once by a restless and belligerent crowd who she quickly hushed into silence, and again calmed by a confusing line call on match point, but they remained steady and guided Lenglen to victory.36 Once she achieved victory, she dropped to the ground and wept, for she had cemented her place as the undisputed queen of lawn tennis after defeating arguably her toughest foe.37

Her unique, balanced, and unthreatening brand of the femme moderne,  along with Vichy France’s ideology demanding female wellness to produce healthy babies for the state, pushed more girls than ever before to participate in sports.38 A complicated celebrity, Leglen had multiple parts to her persona. Her feisty personality exemplified the rebellious nature of the “new woman;” her on-court fashions flaunted the new ideal female body, while also clinging to previously conservative trends; her regimented and acutely precise game echoed the traditionalists who hoped that women would confine themselves to traditional rules; and her relationship with her father epitomized the paternalistic institution from which the old-school critics came, and the one which they hoped would continue. These varied aspects of Suzanne’s public character, both on and off the court, modified the seemingly radical and rebellious femme moderne taking over much of Europe. Her domination over all women’s tennis players–she lost only one match out of 270–allowed France to find success in one of its women, their representative to the world.39

She pushed the limits of what France found acceptable, but her background in and tendency to retain certain Victorian traditions mollified her more radical aspects.  In some respects, Lenglen’s particular embodiment of the “modern woman” is indicative of a larger cultural uncertainty regarding France’s global future.  The shock that others felt regarding the transformation of Frenchwomen from Victorian complacency to incipient feminism was folded into anxieties over the threat of future war and domestic issues, but she tempered shock while still changing tradition. Lenglen presented an interesting balance between tradition and change, fashioning in the process a non-threatening “new woman,” one that assured her nation its success in at least one global arena. To her country, La Divine was truly divine.

Bibliography

Browne, Mary K. “Suzanne Lenglen: A Critical Estimate of the French Prodigy Who Has Recently Turned Professional.” Vanity Fair 27, no. 2, October 1926, 79 and 102.

Commire, Anne and Deborah Klezmer, eds. Dictionary of Women Worldwide: 250,000 Women Through the Ages. Detroit: Yorkin Publications, 2007. http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?&id=GALE%7CCX2588813937&v=2.1&u=&it=r&p=GVRL&sw=w (accessed May 7, 2010).

 Engelmann, Larry. The Goddess and the American Girl: The Story of Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Hawthorne, Fred. “Commercialization of Tennis.” The North American Review 223, no. 833 (1926-1927).  http://www.jstor.org. (accessed April 13, 2010).

Lenglen, Suzanne. Lawn Tennis for Girls. Edited by Eustace E. White. London: George Newnes, 1920.

—. “My Tennis Adventures in America.” Je Sais Tout, December 15, 1921.

“Mlle. Lenglen Victor.” The New York Times, July 16, 1919.

“Mlle. Lenglen Wins from Mrs. Mallory.” The New York Times, June 6, 1921.

Pollard, Miranda. Reign of Virtue: Mobilizing Gender in Vichy France. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Roberts, Mary Louise. Civilization without Sexes: Reconstructing Gender in Postwar France, 1917-1927. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
 
Stewart, Mary Lynn. For Health and Beauty: Physical Culture for Frenchwomen, 1880s-1930s. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
 
Werle, Simone. Fashionista: A Century of Style Icons. New York: Prestel Publishing, 2009.
 
Wills, Helen. “My Life on the Courts.” The Saturday Evening Post, June 17, 1933.
 
—. “Tennis Impressions.” The Saturday Evening Post, April 4, 1931.
 

 

  1. Ferdinand Tuohy, Cannes, (1926), quoted in Larry Engelmann, The Goddess and the American Girl (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988): 154. []
  2. Larry Engelmann, The Goddess and the American Girl: The Story of Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988): 155. []
  3. Engelmann, The Goddess, 164. []
  4. Mary Lynn Stewart, “Gymnastics, Sports, and Gender,” For Health and Beauty: Physical Culture for Frenchwomen, 1880s-1930s (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001): 158-159. []
  5. Stewart, “Gymnastics,” 155. []
  6. Stewart, “Gymnastics,” 164. []
  7. Mary Louise Roberts, Civilization without Sexes: Reconstructing Gender in Postwar France, 1917-1927 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 10. []
  8. Roberts, Civilization, 11. []
  9. Anne Commire and Deborah Klezmer, eds.,”Lenglen, Suzanne (1899-1938),” Dictionary of Women Worldwide: 25,000 Women Through the Ages. (Detroit: Yorkin Publications, 2007): 1115 http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?&id=GALE%7CCX2588813937&v=2.1&u=&it=r&p=GVRL&sw=w. (accessed May 2, 2010. []
  10. Engelmann, The Goddess, 10. []
  11. Suzanne Lenglen, Lawn Tennis for Girls, ed. Eustace E. White (London: George Newnes, 1920), 15. []
  12. Engelmann, The Goddess, 10-11. []
  13. Fred Hawthorne, “Commercialization of Tennis,” The North American Review 223, no. 833 (December, 1926-Februrary, 1927): 620  http://www.jstor.org. (accessed April 3, 2010). []
  14. Mary K. Browne, “Suzanne Lenglen: A Critical Estimate of the French Prodigy Who Has Recently Turned Professional,” Vanity Fair 27, no. 2 (October 1926): 79. []
  15. Browne, “Suzanne Lenglen,” 79. []
  16. Browne, “Suzanne Lenglen,” 79. []
  17. Simone Werle, Fashionista: A Century of Style Icons (New York: Prestel Publishing, 2009), 118. []
  18. Roberts, Civilization, 69. []
  19. Roberts, Civilization, 82. []
  20. Roberts, Civilization, 69. []
  21. Werle, Fashionista, 118. []
  22. Werles, Fashionista, 118. []
  23. Browne, “Suzanne Lenglen,” 79. []
  24. Browne, “Suzanne Lenglen,” 79. []
  25. Molla Mallory, quoted in “Mlle. Lenglen Wins from Mrs. Mallory,” The New York Times, June 6, 1921. []
  26. Browne, “Suzanne Lenglen,” 79. []
  27. Mlle. Lenglen Victor,” The New York Times, July 16, 1919. []
  28. Browne, “Suzanne Lenglen,” 79. []
  29. Roberts, Civilization, 83. []
  30. Helen Wills, “Tennis Impressions,” The Saturday Evening Post, April 4, 1931, 70. []
  31. Roberts, Civilization, 71. []
  32. Lenglen, Lawn Tennis, 13. []
  33. Suzanne Lenglen, “My Tennis Adventures in America,” Je Sais Tout, December 15, 1921. []
  34. Browne, “Suzanne Lenglen,” 102. []
  35. Helen Wills, “My Life on the Courts,” The Saturday Evening Post, June 17, 1933, 25. []
  36. Wills, “My Life on the Courts,” 81-82. []
  37. Wills, “My Life on the Courts,” 82. []
  38. Miranda Pollard, Reign of Virtue: Mobilizing Gender in Vichy France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998): 87. []
  39. Commire and Klezmer, “Lenglen”, 1115. []
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