Our marriage started out just like anyone else’s.
For Larry and Billie Jean King, who will celebrate their 16th wedding anniversary in the fall, the last three weeks have been a cruel undoing. For much of their married lives, they had devoted themselves to the cause of women’s tennis. He was the organization man and entrepreneur, she was the symbol, the star, the foremost female athlete of her time. Her achievements had gone far beyond her record 20 Wimbledon trophies and her 12 Grand Slam singles titles and all the other prizes her sport had heaped on her. With Larry’s business savvy, she converted the game of women’s tennis from a nickle-and-dime sideshow into a $10 million circuit, along the way organizing a players’ union (the Women’s Tennis Association), starting a magazine (womenSports) and underwriting a professional women’s softball team. The parity with men’s tennis and the lucrative endorsement contracts women players now enjoy could not have happened except for the trailblazing Kings.
And then the unthinkable happened: the sudden emergence of an embarrassing bit of wreckage from their all but discarded private lives. It was served up to the press in the form of a titillating lawsuit from Marilyn Barnett, 33, Billie Jean’s former hairdresser and secretary, who claimed to have had a seven-year lesbian relationship with her boss that entitled her to the Kings’ Malibu home and half of Billie Jean’s earnings during their years together, estimated at more than $1 million. Brandishing scores of love letters in support of her charges, Barnett thus brought the clamor of spectacle to a subject on which silence has long been the most pragmatic policy. In doing so, she left both Larry and Billie Jean King feeling the indignity of public exposure, the pain of a former intimate’s betrayal—and the fear that their formidable achievements and hopes for the future had been gravely jeopardized. The WTA refused to accept Billie Jean’s resignation as president when the scandal broke, and NBC stood by its commitment to employ her as a sportscaster; indeed, at Wimbledon this summer she would be the first woman commentator on the men’s matches. But how solid her endorsement contracts were (with Nike shoes, Yonex rackets and others) remained to be seen. Nor were the angels of the women’s tour—Avon and Toyota among them—willing categorically to reaffirm their support. “The Moral Majority is out there in force these days,” as one longtime observer of the circuit put it last week. “This is all Billie Jean and women’s tennis need right now.”
At the bottom of it was a woman scorned. A graduate of Beverly Hills High, the only daughter of a studio publicist, Marilyn Barnett first met Billie Jean in 1972, when she was recommended by a friend to cut King’s hair. Soon Barnett accepted a job as her personal assistant and ad hoc road manager. She kept Billie Jean’s schedule, bought her clothes, chauffeured her to appointments—and, after the two women became lovers, shared her hotel rooms, often with Larry staying just down the hall. In 1974 Marilyn went back to work as a hairdresser with the Jon Peters Beauty Salon in Beverly Hills and her duties for Billie Jean decreased. Billie Jean denies Marilyn’s assertion that the affair continued, but the perquisites of friendship clearly did: In 1974 Marilyn convinced the Kings to buy a $135,000 beach house in Malibu. There Marilyn set up housekeeping and continued to enjoy a luxurious life, in part with the Kings’ credit cards.
She was far from a trouble-free houseguest. In the last two years she has been rushed to the hospital at least three times for apparent drug abuse. Last October she jumped 25 feet off the deck of the house in Malibu onto the beach in an unsuccessful suicide attempt. The others had left her uninjured. This one fractured her spine. “The doctors have told me that they don’t know if I will ever be able to walk again,” says Marilyn, who has applied for Social Security benefits. At the time of the accident, the Kings claim, they were already pondering ways to nudge Barnett out of their lives and the Malibu house, at one point offering her half of the substantial profit they expected to make on its sale. Plainly, that was not enough.
Perhaps most astounding was the fact that Larry King admitted that he had known of his wife’s relationship with Barnett all along—and had even accepted it, submerging his jealousy in his and Billie Jean’s overriding ambitions for the sport and for the empire they were building around it. As their shock wore off, the Kings sat down with PEOPLE senior writer Cheryl McCall, a longtime friend and former managing editor of womenSports, and reflected with moving candor on how Barnett’s revelations have affected them and their marriage. Billie Jean (BJK) opened the interview.
BJK: The day the news of Marilyn’s suit broke I went into shock. I just screamed. I paced back and forth in my bare feet in the apartment holding my racket and I think I wore a trail into the rug. I had to keep moving, I couldn’t sit still. Larry was the only one for admitting it right away. I was worried about my parents, but I still have to live with myself first.
LK: Billie Jean’s first reaction was to pack. I had just landed at the airport and I called to say I would be there in an hour. She said she was going for a massage and would meet me in the room. When I got there all the bags were packed. I wondered what was going on.
BJK: I told Larry, “I’ve got to get the hell out of here. This is it. This is going to ruin so many things I’ve worked for, so many dreams I’ve had for tennis.” I knew Iowa City, Iowa wouldn’t be thrilled. I knew the reporters would be right on my doorstep, and sure enough they were. You don’t get much warning on these things.
LK: I knew Marilyn was threatening two days before that. Our lawyer called and said the agreement Marilyn wants is the house and financial support for the rest of her life. Basically they said, “Pay this money or we’ll sue you.”
BJK: I said, “You’ve got to be kidding! That’s blackmail.” I told Larry I wasn’t going to live the rest of my life being blackmailed. It’s not worth it. She’s got all those letters and she’d use them to get more money when she ran out. She kept every letter. I guess she just thought it through better than I did. When I admitted the affair with Marilyn I expected the absolute worst and decided anything beyond that would be fortunate. But I really get upset when people make generalizations about the other women on the tour. This is my fault and I don’t want it put on anybody else. Telling the truth about it is worth it to me right now, but I feel terrible about everybody else having to deal with it.
LK: Everyone’s biggest concern is that somehow Billie Jean will be proselytizing other players to be gay, and that’s not the way she is at all. It’s not contagious. I didn’t catch it.
BJK: I hate being called a homosexual because I don’t feel that way. It really upsets me. I particularly like working with children and motivating them, and we had a lot of ideas about programs for junior tennis. Now I think they’re probably going to bag it and say, “I don’t want this creep around my kids.” I don’t know why they bring this up when they talk about gay people, like they’re all perverts who go after children. Being gay can happen in any walk of life, in any world. If you have one gay experience, does that mean you’re gay? If you have one heterosexual experience, does that mean you’re straight? Life doesn’t work quite so cut and dried. You can say or do something in a moment that you don’t mean at any other moment in your life—like in a fit of anger or depression or if you’re trying to make somebody feel better about themselves.
LK: I think when Marilyn induced Billie Jean to write the letters she had this lawsuit in the back of her mind. In her relationship with Billie Jean, Marilyn always came out on the high side of the exchange.
BJK: We’ve been trying to help her for years. I never promised Marilyn any of the things she claims in the suit. She said she gave up everything. But she got paid as a secretary. She’s a terrific hairdresser and I always let her do haircuts for other players so she could make extra money. She went around the world with me and had a good time and got paid. I was more than generous, if I may say so.
LK: That’s what I don’t understand. We were trying to give her half the profits from the Malibu house—and get her out of Billie Jean’s life and on her own. She started living there in 1974 and she’s only paid rent maybe four or five times. She hasn’t paid $1,000 total for a house that would rent at $1,500 a month.
BJK: But it didn’t matter to me. We tried to help her out up to the last minute. Before, I didn’t think of it in terms of blackmail. To me, it was just helping a friend. Marilyn’s not that stable, and what do I care? It’s just money. She lives and lived a heck of a lot better than Larry or I ever did as far as standard of living. She’s the one who had a Porsche. It was a millionaire’s lifestyle on the pocketbook of a hairdresser. Basically she just spent what she wanted for the house and sent the bills to Jim [Jorgensen, the Kings’ business manager]. But then she started to want more and more money and I said to Jim that we had to get her on a budget.
LK: She became more and more of a hassle, always wanting more. Billie Jean talked to Marilyn’s therapist before the suicide attempts and he told her to get out of Marilyn’s life, to get as far away from her as possible.
BJK: He said not to try to help her anymore, to disconnect. He told me she had to go forward on her own. He told me I must think of my suffering as a gift to her. I’ll always remember that. It’s been over for a long, long time, but try to tell Marilyn that. It’s been over for years, since 1975 or 1976. She’s obviously had a lot of other people living there with her, and even during our affair she was seeing other people. She tries to act like she was true to me, and I was still seeing Larry anyway. She tries to act like she was Simon Pure or something. Marilyn didn’t like anybody who took my time.
LK: Actually, when Billie Jean wasn’t around, Marilyn and I got along famously. I would say that at some point in time I may have been jealous about Marilyn, but by and large, I never had any animosity towards her. I tried to help her out the best I could. Billie Jean and I seriously thought about divorce in 1973 or 1974, but neither one of us could get the energy up. I love Billie Jean and I would say that ultimately, if she could be happy then I would be happy. That may be too philosophical or too detached for most people, but that’s how I feel. Love is not possession, it’s caring for your mate and wanting her to be happy. It’s not owning her or possessing her time necessarily. It’s enjoying the relationship. I guess I’m different from most other people. I make Billie Jean angry sometimes because she’d like me to be more possessive. She’d like me to get mad.
BJK: No two people know when they marry how things are going to happen or how they’re going to work out. You’ve got to be flexible. We’re totally flexible. Larry and I have been through so much together, and that in itself can bind you.
LK: I think we’re astounded we’re still married.
BJK: When Larry and I were in college [Cal. State, L.A.] and didn’t have a dime between us, we used to just sit and talk about our dreams for tennis. When you’ve had that kind of goal in your mind for years, you become driven when you finally have the opportunity to make it happen. We just killed ourselves. Our goals and dreams took over our whole lives. We paid a very big price personally to make it happen. We gave up a lot of time together. He couldn’t just be a tennis husband. But it was also very gratifying.
LK: Marilyn was Billie Jean’s road manager for only a year and a half, but it was probably the most hectic time in both our lives. I was running three major businesses—womenSports magazine, World Team Tennis and WTT Properties—and publishing the league’s programs and promoting three tournaments on the women’s tour. I had an incredibly busy schedule which was very fulfilling for me but not so fulfilling for Billie Jean, who was running around playing tennis.
BJK: In 1973 there was the Bobby Riggs match, I was playing on the Virginia Slims tour and we founded the Women’s Tennis Association at Wimbledon. I have never understood how both of us got through that time.
LK: Our marriage turned into something totally different from what I expected 16 years ago. When we were first married our goal was to settle down as soon as I got out of law school and have three kids and start a tennis team. In some ways Billie Jean and I are both disappointed. Life is not what we perceived it to be and what we’d been led to believe in our childhood. There are parts I’d like to remedy—I’d like to have three or four children, for instance. My biggest disappointment is that we don’t have any children. In retrospect, when I got out of law school we should just have settled down and had a family. Once you opt out of that, anything could happen—and anything did happen. Billie Jean doesn’t feel that she’s gay, and she’d like to have a child if she can work it out for time.
BJK: If I want to have a baby, I better get this show on the road. Physically it’s still possible. Didn’t Yoko Ono have one when she was 42? I do like children, but I’ve been a career woman and that’s one of the things career women have to deal with. I had to wait to have a career. The Virginia Slims circuit didn’t start until I was 27. So Chris Evert, for example, has been playing pro tennis almost as long as I have and now she’s 26. She’s won all these titles and she can sit back, everything in her life can be very planned. But that’s because she wasn’t the pioneer. Larry and I are pioneers, and I think people have to realize that pioneers do go through more trying times. I don’t like the word sacrifices. I made choices women now don’t have to make. Whatever happens now, I still have my titles, my wins. That’s one thing they can’t take away from me. I may lose my endorsements but I still have me, my self-esteem, and I’ll start over.
LK: And you still have me. I’ll support you.
BJK: You could afford me. All I like is Big Macs. I’m not too tough. We can go back to $90 a week and do fine. Everybody will survive, I’m sure. The sport is bigger than I am and the sport is bigger than the issue we’re discussing. I just hope people will have a little understanding.