Organizing a big-time tennis tournament involves the diplomacy of a Kissinger, the blandishments of a Balanchine and a Hurok-style line of cash. But when it’s a pro-celebrity contest offering no money prizes to the participants—who even pay their own way—it takes far, far more. It takes, in fact, Ethel Kennedy—and a cause: the third annual Robert F. Kennedy Memorial tournament, whose purpose is to raise money for a complex of programs involving poverty-stricken Indians, young social workers and muckraking journalists.
On a recent weekend at Hyannisport, as the tournament program was about to go to press, Ethel decided the vignettes of the famous participants needed more bounce. The only writer who could punch up the prose, she decided, was old friend (and tennis hacker) Art Buchwald. “Artie,” she telephoned, “we can’t do without you.” He was much too busy, insisted Buchwald. He couldn’t possibly….
He arrived on the 12:15 p.m. flight. Buchwaldian volleys included an encomium to Shaft costar Lola Falana, whom he described as a player with “great strokes, excellent reflexes and a tremendous spin—and this is even before she gets on the court.” Of another amateur contestant, New Jersey Gov. Brendan Byrne, the columnist charged, “He rules New Jersey with an iron backhand.”
The Kennedy family, including top draw Senator Ted, will be entered, of course. Buchwald wrote of Ted’s sister Jean Kennedy Smith: “She thought she was marrying Stan Smith, but found out six months later when her game hadn’t improved that she’d married Steve.”
Though the program may prove more sizzling than some of the tennis, the RFK tournament will fill every court and seat at Forest Hills, N.Y. on August 24. The nationally-televised event is expected to raise $150,000 toward the $400,000 annual budget of the RFK Memorial Fund. Ethel raises the balance from outside contributors.
What attracts the big names and the big spenders is, above all, Ethel Kennedy, 46, a slight, incorrigibly cheerful widow who shows no outward signs of the tragedies that have dogged her life. In addition to providing an ever-lively home life for her and Robert’s eleven children and keeping alive the memory and causes of her husband she nourishes a devoted retinue of friends and supporters, nearly all of whom, unsurprisingly, play tennis. They comprise politicians (including Republicans Jacob Javits and Charles Percy), movie stars from Sidney Poi-tier to Charlton Heston (whom she calls “Chuckles”), TV stars (Andy Williams and Bill Cosby), journalists ranging from Walter Cronkite to Roger Mudd, Broadway luminaries such as playwright Neil Simon, athletes like Dave DeBusschere and Julius Erving, fashion designer Oleg Cassini—and, of course, just about every pro tennis player in the land. (The start of the U.S. national championships at Forest Hills two days after Ethel’s tournament puts most of the big name players right in her lap—another bit of her cleverness.)
She’s a girl who won’t take no. One Sunday morning on Cape Cod, one of her “pals” (she has no friends, only “pals”), producer George Stevens Jr., suggested that “Chuckles” Heston might be able to line up Australia’s Roy Emerson for this year’s tournament. “Well, kid, what are you waiting for?” Ethel demanded, and Stevens had Heston on the line. Ethel picked up the phone. “How are you, Chuckles? Now, listen, kid, if you both don’t come, you’ll have to give me a part in your next picture. And I don’t mean the role of the maid. I want to be in the love scenes.”