By Martha Smilgis
March 12, 1979 12:00 PM

Arthur waited to marry until he was at the top; he was smart,” figures photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy, 27. “I was immersed in my career. It was not a good time for me.”

That may sound like the analysis of a divorce, but in fact Moutoussamy is discussing her altogether healthy marriage to tennis star Arthur Ashe. It is a marriage in which neither partner ignores the tension of trying to fit two sizable egos into one relationship.

“The first year,” Ashe says, “it was the process of integrating my world into hers—the art world. Artists seem to be temperamental, selfish in ways.”

Tennis players can be difficult too, Moutoussamy adds: “It’s difficult for two people in high-powered positions to live together. We are both strong. And when I’m angry it is hard to be logical; I shoot from the hip.”

The road to domestic relations court is strewn with such bluntness, of course, but Moutoussamy says, “Our arguments don’t last. We’ve found it better to deal with problems head-on.”

They have taken that kind of collision-course approach toward each other since they met two and a half years ago. Then an NBC still photographer and graphic artist, Moutoussamy, wearing jeans, was snapping pictures of Ashe at a United Negro College Fund benefit. “You can’t help but notice her,” recalls Arthur, 35. “I said, ‘Gee, photographers are sure getting cuter these days.’ She thought that was corny and ignored me.” (“It is not easy for a well-known person to choose the right words,” he reflects. “Women always think you have ulterior motives. They also think you’re conceited.”)

The next evening they ran into each other again and Ashe offered her a drink. This time he got a better reception. “We talked about the coral beads he was wearing,” recalls Moutoussamy. She also noticed that Ashe “was surrounded by all these women until Walt Frazier came in. Then half of them left.” Although Moutoussamy declined a ride home, they had dinner the next night. Five months later they were married by their friend the Rev. (and now Ambassador) Andrew Young in the United Nations chapel.

Ashe had been deliberate about his courting. “Marriage is very difficult for anyone,” he says. “You better pick your partner almost cold-bloodedly.

“I’m sure a lot of women went out with me because I was Arthur Ashe,” he continues, “but that is human nature. I had no problems with it, because I wasn’t interested in getting married.” He dated white women as well as black, Ashe says: “My wife didn’t have to be black. I wouldn’t make a lifetime commitment because of pride in some race. That is a crazy reason.”

Moutoussamy was hardly desperate to become a Mrs. and did not change her name when they married: “I asked him, ‘Would you be Arthur Moutoussamy?’ Some wives play the passive role—Veronica Ali is the stereotype—but all of us are not like that.”

For example, she wanted to stay in New York while he was on the tennis tour; he urged her to join him. They compromised: She travels with him occasionally, and he has gone with her on a couple of assignments—as the wealthiest photographer’s assistant in history.

In recent years, Ashe’s career has had difficult moments. Although he had won the U.S. Open in 1968 and Wimbledon in 1975, he sank to 257th on the tour by 1977, largely because of a foot injury. Heel surgery in February sidetracked him for virtually the whole year. In 1978 he climbed back to 13th, earning $260,000 in prize money alone. (This year he was runner-up to John McEnroe—15 years his junior—in the $400,-000 Grand Prix Masters in January.)

Moutoussamy’s career has moved along too (if not quite so spectacularly). In 1977 she did the photographs for their children’s book, Arthur Ashe/Getting Started in Tennis. Last year she exhibited her pictures of South Africa in New York City, many taken while Ashe was narrating a documentary there in 1977. This June she will have another show in Paris—”My Life on the Tennis Tour,” portraits taken in cities on the pro circuit. “I go out and peddle my portfolio while Arthur’s playing tennis,” Jeanne explains. “A lot of wives just love to watch their husbands play match after match. I get tennised-out.”

She has become a good casual player, though she only took up the game after meeting Ashe. Born in Chicago, she is Creole and Irish. Her father, John Moutoussamy, is an established architect. At 8 she studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, then went on to an all-girls Catholic high school and Mundelein College, which she abandoned after a semester. “If you are at all ambitious, you go to the most gamey place and that’s New York,” says Moutoussamy. She enrolled at the Cooper Union School of Art, a prestigious Manhattan college, and, in her senior year, began working full-time for WNBC-TV in New York.

“Everybody is after the same thing,” she recalls of covering court cases. “You’re knocked down, you get elbows in the chest. Wearing a skirt can be a liability.” She learned that in a tumble down the courthouse steps.

Ashe is the oldest son of a Richmond, Va. cop who bought a house next to a public tennis court. “I was athletic, but not big,” says Arthur. “Tennis was the only thing I could do.” He had an A average and majored in business and economics on a UCLA tennis scholarship. He turned pro in 1969.

He has been criticized by separatist black friends for spending too much time with whites. His answer is that black radicalism fosters white backlash. “It has forced an attitude, ‘We’re the majority. Let’s stamp these mothers out,’ ” he reasons. Criticism of his seven visits to South Africa perturbs him. “I admit the South Africans could use my trips to say, ‘Look how liberal we are,’ ” he has said. “But when I’m there, I go where I want and say what I want.”

Ashe and Moutoussamy live in a swank Manhattan co-op and share the cooking—”He puts oregano and allspice on everything,” she moans—or send out for Chinese. Their friends include the Howard Cosells, Alex Haley, Gordon Parks (an ex-suitor of Jeanne’s) and the Andrew Youngs.

Both Arthur and Jeanne want children, but she insists on solidifying her career first. (“I can’t handle another commitment right now. When I have a baby I want to take a year off.”) Recently she completed a short film on childbirth for UNICEF to mark the International Year of the Child.

Ashe estimates he has three years of professional tennis left. Financially comfortable from shrewd investments, he hopes to make films and has already flirted with the idea of a political career.

Moutoussamy thinks her husband could make it as a politician. “He has an enormous amount of energy. He’s interested in what makes the world tick. And he can talk forever, especially after a match.” She has no doubts about their own relationship, either. “Marriage dampened my career,” she admits. “But I would be at a loss if I hadn’t done it. It will work out.”