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September 27, 1973, Vol. XVIII, No. 39
You’ve come a long way, Bobby
by Joe Flaherty
Not since the ghastly revelation that Bella Abzug employs a housekeeper has the women’s movement suffered such a dark day as September 20, the date of the King-Riggs match. The contumely heaped on Riggs by women for his unprecedented contribution to their movement smacks of the ingratitude the Irish people leveled at Parnell for taking a sexual breather between battles. But then accolades are never the spiritual sustenance of saints and revolutionaries.
Pshaw! the sisters shout, Bobby was nothing but an old pork butt. The titular head of trichinosis! But I beg pause: put away your doctrinaire defenses, your suet syntax, and you will realize this male was sugar-cured. Let us consider cases.
If male chauvinism were looking for a club (or, in this case, a racquet) to humiliate women, would they choose a 55-year-old, half-blind tennis player who looks like a cross between Phil Silvers and a penguin to champion their cause? Indeed! The man hits the ball with the ferocity of a sorority sister in a dorm pillow fight and walks as if he is a perpetual shill for Dr. Scholl’s foot pads. If the much-maligned male were looking for a misogynist mismatch, would he not choose the number one of his gender — say, Stan Smith — to challenge the women’s finest, Billie Jean King? Even lesser luminaries such as Arthur Ashe, young Jimmy Connors , or, conceding age, that marvel of a middle-age athlete, Pancho Gonzalez? These names were never considered. The ancient Riggs was chosen not for pigdom but to be a sacrificial lamb to the altar at which we all worship.
Yet the misguided sisters never saw this. One blushed during the past week at the sisters’ lack of aspiration. Did they not ruminate what a victory over Riggs would really mean? In a prior match Bobby had defeated the other women’s great (this year’s winner at Forest Hills), 31-year-old Margaret Smith Court. In turn, he was defeated by the 29-year-old Mrs. King. Thus, could not a malevolent macho justly claim that the male species could spot the inferior sex 24 to 25 years but not 26? Did not the sisters see this insidious trap they laid for themselves? They set themselves up to suffer under the bullyboy yoke and joke that they were a quarter of a century behind their male counterparts. Could not one envision the articles in Playboy and the Teamsters’ newsletter on “The Genital Gap”? If my words have become smudged and unclear, it is only because of the tears that fall like Riggs’ lachrymose lobs upon my paper.
But at this jaunty juncture the sisters may demand just what it was that Bobby did for their movement. Well, I will set out to prove he took a sexual shambles and solidified it. To flush out this thesis, the sisters will not only have to exhibit patience but also suffer that most painful exercise, honest self-examination.
Over the last year the movement has been drooping like a pair of garterless nylons. In point of fact, it has been as flat as a pair of 1950 ballerina slippers from A. S. Beck. The Super Sisters have been savaging each other in print with Haley’s M.O. regularity. The NOW conventions with their sexual juntas make Warren Harding’s smoke-filled rooms look like an antechamber to Athens. Who should rule the rose (cock-a-doodle dandies never): liberated straights? switch-hitters? ladylike lesbians? radical lesbians? or those who opted for the convent of the cunt, trickless teetotalers?
And in these most avant-garde of cities the stud side presented in the mayoral primaries a field so dismal that the self-respecting male contemplated a gesture of gelding himself in protest. He looked in vain for a fabulous filly to (if one may be pardoned) bring home the bacon. But lo and behold, Gloria, Shirley, Bess, and Bella would not take the bit.
Then there was the campaign to have Congress pass an equal rights amendment. Was it defeated by a bevy of bourbon-swilling Senator Claghorns? Not so. The only rednecks involved were those mortified feminists whose bill was killed through the relentless campaign efforts of — gasp! — a woman. No, sisters, this has not been your season.
I suppose there was a smidgen of solace to be found. Gloria in her aviators and grimacing smile, looking like Smilin’ Jack’s Downwind Jaxon, was always good for another radical press conference at the Russian Tea Room. Or Ti-Grace might question the virginity of Mary, which was a shocker to the Buckley girls, but a yawner to dark ex-Catholics in Brooklyn in Queens. (In their midnight moments they are known to give you chapter and verse on how the deflowering occurred.) And there was the celebration of Susan B. Anthony’s birthday in Washington that drew a crowd slightly smaller than is needed for an orgy in a Toyota. Of course, Ms. Magazine, like methadone maintenance, could always be counted on to exhume that necrophiliac combo (their version of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance). Zelda to Marilyn to Sylvia. And Billie Jean this year, after 19 years of campaigning, got Forest Hills to award the same prize money to women winners (a paltry $25,000) as to men. An achievement, to be sure, but not the millennium. (Speculation is that for cohabiting the court with Riggs this year she will earn a munificent half-mil.) To put the gorilla on a crew who think vociferous protest is a low, hidden, behind-the-hand whistle at a linesman who looks and acts like Alistair Sim is hardly Up Against the Wall, Fatherfucker!
Into this breach came Robert Larrimore Riggs. In a matter of a few months he coalesced a floundering, splintered movement into an Amazonian Armada. It bespoke the genius of sending the work crew on the Tower of Babel to Berlitz. Did Riggs deserve this bile? Well, not only the sisters thought so but male sportswriters as well. But the latter are to be forgiven, since for the most part they possess saccharine brains. Evidence is their infantile mania for nicknaming everybody and everything, the latest being “Triple Sec” for Secretariat — ugh! How unsophisticated has the nation become that prattle about how women should be back in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, etc., is taken to heart!
No, sisters, the real porkers use thornier and hornier arguments, such as where are your Michelangelos, your Einsteins, your Freuds, your Napoleons, etc.? Riggs as a chauvinist is a sweat sock that won’t wash. Perhaps, you say, but he did it for money, a ripoff of our ruptured romance. It is prudent here to remind that Riggs was once married to an heiress and could have lapped from luxury to his dying days. The time has come to spring the confession of the ages, a fact hitherto known only to the carnal cognoscenti — Bobby leapt the net volleys ago, he is actually a champion of the movement.
He devised his master plan, because he was heartsick at the lethargy he witnessed in the struggle. Some say (though it can’t be substantiated) that his mother was an early and formidable influence. The same sources claim (again no proof) that he attributes his flukey backhand to his mother’s perverse penchant for nursing him with his head upside down, his wee bandy legs over her shoulder. Like Christ before him, he joyously took up his cross. The slight difference being that the Messiah, a traditionalist, preferred wood, and Bobby toted steel into the Astrodome. How happily he accepted the slur “hustler” (read here the mocking “King of the Jews”), thus liberating Xaviera Hollander and a score of suburban sluts from that appalling appellation.
It was learned by this corner that Bobby based his plans on two political precedents. The first — when Earl Long was approached by blacks demanding jobs in Louisiana hospitals, he told them he would secure the jobs but that they would not like how he went about it. Long then made a series of pseudo-racist speeches, pointing out that white women, “the flower of southern womanhood,” were being demeaned by the act of “Handling and washing black bucks.” Needless to say, jobs opened in abundance. The second — Jack Kennedy’s response to a southern Congressman who asked him to campaign for him. Kennedy said he would praise or damn him, whichever would help most. Riggs realized a standard match between a man and a woman (it’s been done before) minus vitriol would be no boon to the movement. So with these lessons in mind, the cunning codger accepted his crucible.
Moreover, it was his style of play that was most soul-cleansing for the sisters. By playing the baseline and allowing Billie Jean to be aggressive with booming serves and charges to the net (in and out), Riggs, like self-sacrificing romantics before him who allowed women to mount them while they passively lay back on the pillow, afforded women everywhere a practical exercise to dispel Freud’s most despicable theory — penis envy.
So though it be true you came a long way, baby, you still have miles to go before you sleep unless you pay homage to Robert Larrimore Riggs’s deliberate bow to love. Sisters, I plead, deep in your catgut don’t let this prophet pass without praise. See him for what he truly is, the Samuel Gompers of future generations of cuddly little things in pink rompers.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 27, 2011