AUGUST 6: Helen Jacobs (1908-1997)


Tennis star Helen Jacobs was born on this day in 1908! In
her heyday, Helen was the World No. 1 player in women’s tennis and one of the
sports world’s biggest celebrities.

Helen Jacobs photographed in 1935 (x). 

Helen Hull Jacobs was born in the small town of Globe, Arizona on August 6, 1908. Her father was a wealthy business who was a major investor in a copper
mining company called Miami Copper. Roland Jacobs’s business dealings ruled the
family and in 1914, when Miami Copper went under, the whole family packed up
and moved to San Francisco. It was there where Helen first started playing
tennis and entering local tournaments. When a young girl who Helen recognized
from the East Coast tennis circuit, Helen Wills, won the U.S. Open in the
summer of 1923, Helen was inspired and began to take tennis more seriously. She
decided that she too could use tennis as her way to freedom, out of her father’s
influence, and out of San Francisco – a city she despised.

Helen Jacobs in her revolutionary tailored shorts at Wimbledon with the Wightman Cup, 1934 (x).

Helen eventually graduated from the University of California
at Berkeley and began a professional tennis career in 1929. In 1932, she would win her
first U.S. singles champion title and for the next three years she would also
dominate in the U.S. doubles championships. Helen became the Wimbledon women’s
singles champion in 1936, but would go on to be a Wimbledon finalist six times
in her career. At her very last Wimbledon appearance, she made history as the
very first woman tennis player to wear shorts in a major tournament! As fate
would have it, Helen was often compared to her athletic inspiration, Helen
Wills, and lost 10 out of 11 matches against Wills, but, despite being known as
“the lesser Helen,” she would retire having won 9 Grand Slam titles.  

Helen (left) sits with her girlfriend Henrietta Bingham (right) and their mutual friend Nancy Walker (center) in Long Creden, England (x). 

After retiring from tennis, Helen served as an intelligence
officer for the U.S. Navy during World War II. She would eventually rise up in
the ranks and become one of the only 5 women to ever achieve the rank of commander.
Helen’s penchant for publishing short stories, which she had been doing since
the 1920s, also became a full second career during this time. She published her
autobiography Beyond the Game in 1936
and her first fiction book, Storm against
the Wind
, came out in 1944; six other novels would follow.  An out lesbian, Helen dated the publishing heiress
Henrietta Bingham for 10 years, but her eventual life partner was a woman named
Virginia Gurnee. She and Virginia ran a farm on Long Island for almost 30 years
before Helen passed away from heart failure on June 2, 1997. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1962 and the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame in 2015!