Decades before Serena Williams and Anna Kournikova appeared at center court in skin-tight tennis outfits, before Florence Griffith-Joyner ran in the Olympics wearing earrings, lipstick and long, painted fingernails, there was “Gorgeous” Gussie Moran.
In 1949, Miss Moran was a leading tennis player from California who was looking to make a memorable impression on the game’s biggest stage, the Wimbledon championships in England.
With a close-fitting blouse and lace-trimmed underwear peeking out from her short skirt, Miss Moran brought a vibrant jolt of sex appeal to women’s sports. She became an instant sensation and was the most glamorous tennis player of her time, if not necessarily the most talented.
Miss Moran died Jan. 16 of colon cancer at her apartment in Los Angeles. She was 89 and spent her final years in poverty. The Los Angeles Times first reported her death.
She was gossip-column fodder for years, but the spotlight eventually faded, and Miss Moran was living in obscurity by the time younger tennis stars began earning millions while wearing far skimpier outfits than she ever dared.
“Gussie was the Anna Kournikova of her time,” tennis Hall of Famer Jack Kramer told the Los Angeles Times in 2002. “Gussie was a beautiful woman with a beautiful body. If Gussie had played in the era of television, no telling what would have happened. Because, besides everything else, Gussie could play.”
In 1948, Miss Moran was the fourth-ranked women’s tennis player in the world and won the U.S. indoor championship. But she was overshadowed by other stars of the era, including Pauline Betz Addie, Louise Brough and Margaret Osborne duPont.
At Wimbledon in 1949, Miss Moran abandoned her customary loose-fitting shorts for a short skirt, under which she wore, according to an Associated Press report, “white silk jersey panties trimmed with two inches of open lace.”
Whenever she leaped or stretched for a shot, spectators caught a tantalizing glimpse. Photographers lay prone on Wimbledon’s fabled grass court for a better view.
“With her beauty and lace-trimmed panties, she brought a spice to Wimbledon that had been lacking in the postwar years,” AP reporter Bill Macklin wrote at the time.
“The world went mad,” Miss Moran’s clothing designer, Ted Tinling, told The Washington Post in 1989. “None of us expected it.”
On the court, Miss Moran — indelibly dubbed Gorgeous Gussie — lost in the first round of the women’s singles competition. But she did reach the finals in women’s doubles, along with Patricia Todd, only to lose to Brough and Osborne duPont.
When Miss Moran returned to Wimbledon in 1950, her wardrobe was even more revealing, showcasing “a pair of delicately scalloped filmy briefs.”
“There was no question about anyone seeing them,” an AP reporter wrote. “Gussie’s short tennis frock was so sheer that the scalloping underneath was visible from the topmost seats in the stands.”
She made the women’s semifinals, but it was the last time she saw Wimbledon. The tournament’s governing body said she had brought “vulgarity and sin” to tennis and passed rules requiring more sedate attire. Officials at what is now known as the U.S. Open in Forest Hills, N.Y., soon followed suit.
Late in 1950, Miss Moran signed a professional contract, which made her ineligible to compete in major tournaments, then open only to amateurs. She toured the country with Addie and other players, playing in front of disappointing crowds. (Addie, a longtime Bethesda resident, died in 2011.)
By the time Miss Moran appeared in the 1952 Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn movie “Pat and Mike,” she had retired from competitive tennis. She still had star power, but she was somewhat rueful over her place in the sport’s history.
“It was hard on her because she regarded herself as a tennis player,” tennis journalist Bud Collins said Friday in an interview. “I think she was saddened that her tennis wasn’t the focus, rather than her bottom and her legs.”
Gertrude Agusta Moran was born Sept. 8, 1923, and grew up in Santa Monica, Calif. Her father was a sound technician at a Hollywood studio, and Miss Moran sometimes played tennis at Charlie Chaplin’s estate. (She was widely known as “Gussie,” although she preferred the spelling “Gussy.”)
After her tennis career, she was a sports broadcaster in Los Angeles and New York. She launched a line of tennis clothing in the 1960s, but the venture failed.
Gossip columns chronicled her 1956 marriage to Thomas J. Corbally, which was annulled after three weeks, and her later marriages to Edward J. Hand and Frank “Bing” Simpson, which ended in divorce. She had no children.
Miss Moran taught tennis and contributed to tennis magazines, 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.
In rare interviews, Miss Moran said she had been injured in a helicopter crash while on a USO tour of Vietnam in 1970 and alluded to having been raped in her 50s and having abortions. She refused to be photographed in her later years.
After the sensation of her debut at Wimbledon, Miss Moran decided to wear more conventional tennis garb at the U.S. Open in 1949.
“I know I will disappoint the crowd,” she said at the time, “but I can’t concentrate on my game when people are staring at my panties.”