Meet Helen Wills, the Tennis Player Who Inspired Diego Rivera and Miguel Covarrubias

Writer, artist, pioneer, tennis legend par excellence. Helen Wills – born in Centerville, California in 1905 – is best known for winning 31 Grand Slam titles (including eight Wimbledon and seven U.S. singles crowns), holding the number one world ranking for eight years, and amassing a 180+ match winning streak from 1927 to 1933. She inspired awe in everyone who saw her grace a tennis court. In 1930, for example, Charlie Chaplin described “the movement of Helen Wills playing tennis” as the most beautiful sight he had ever seen.

It might come as a surprise to hear that Wills never considered the sport to be her career. Instead, she sought to perpetuate the myth that her true calling – her real vocation – was art. Tennis was a mere pastime, something that required minimal effort.

She sought to perpetuate the myth that her true calling – her real vocation – was art.

This was not the case, despite the fact that the art career that she so desired wasn’t completely out of her reach. Wills received a degree in fine arts from the University of California, illustrated her own articles for The Saturday Evening Post, published a book of poems (The Awakening), and painted throughout her life. She was a part of the New York World art staff, and a long-term contributor with The Newspaper Enterprise Association, where she wrote a series of articles on issues of interest to young women. But regular office hours quickly began to interfere with her practice time.

Photo via Gallery Hip
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Starting in 1927, Wills’ popularity rose tenfold. The public was head over heels in love with her. In an article for The New Yorker, Helena Huntington Smith boiled this obsession down to the fact that she “mastered the trade of amateur tennis with super skills, seems to have a huge time at the business of living, and is prettier every time she is snapped by photographers.” She was a stark contrast to flappers – an independent woman with power, strength, intelligence, and beauty, and was thus dubbed a rebellious icon for American womanhood.

She was a stark contrast to flappers – an independent woman with power, strength, intelligence, and beauty.

As her career moved forward, her nicknames followed a distinct progression as well, from “Little Poker Face” to “American Girl,” “Queen Helen,” “Ice Queen,” “Killer of the Courts.” She believed that she could do anything, and former U.S. senator James Phelan swelled her bubbling naiveté. His estate served as a meeting place for the budding star; despite the fact that she apparently didn’t have what it took to make it in the world of commercial movies, she inspired some of the most celebrated painters and sculptors of the time through these encounters. (British sculptor C.S. Jagger stated that she was “the perfect type of womanly beauty immortalized by Greek sculpture…the nearest living approximation of the old Greek ideal of perfection.”) Miguel Covarrubias and Diego Rivera were just two of the artists who were inspired by the legend.

Covarrubias, Mexican painter and illustrator, drew the following caricature of Wills in action for the cover of Vanity Fair in August 1932:

But the most celebrated portrait of the iconic athlete is “The Riches of California,” a two-story mural painted at the then new San Francisco Stock Exchange Club by renowned Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. After being approached by American artist Ralph Stackpole for a second time in 1930, Rivera was offered a $2,500 commission by architect Timothy Pflueger to paint the piece, the most he had ever been offered for a single work.

“The Riches of California”
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Locals were critical of the decision to commission a “once-avowed communist” to paint a mural at the physical heart of capitalism, but the decision was not easily overturned; after visa troubles that came about as a result of his rumored political affiliation, Rivera touched down in the U.S. in November 1930. He wasted no time in getting started observing life in California. Luncheons, lectures, football games – you name it. Rivera was there.

Her curves move with his vision of the state’s rolling landscape.

During one such event, Rivera was introduced to Helen Wills in the flesh. And in the same way that others had fallen entranced under her spellbinding beauty, he knew in that instant that he wanted to paint her. So he did just that, converting the writer, artist, pioneer, and tennis legend into Mother California looming over plentiful fruits, vegetables, petroleum, and gold. In Laura Baskes Litwin’s Diego Rivera: Legendary Mexican Painter, she states that “the mural reflects Rivera’s enormous pleasure at being in California and his approval of its booming industry. The effects of the Depression had not yet made their mark on the state.” Her curves move with his vision of the state’s rolling landscape. It is classically beautiful. But critics were quick to express their disapproval of the way Rivera used one person in particular to represent the abstract ideals that the mural was meant to portray, regardless of whether that particular person just so happened to be a beautiful, smart, and powerful tennis champion.

Photo courtesy of Tate Modern London.
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Her likeness was 30 feet high, exquisitely portrayed by a truly brilliant muralist. It’s no wonder people were a little jealous. So Rivera obliged, darkening her hair just a bit, broadening her eyes a tad, angling her jawline to assuage the qualms of his naysayers. Deep down, though, viewers know that it’s Wills he fell in love with. To him, she was the embodiment of all that was good in California.

Upon the mural’s unveiling, Wills and her husband invited Rivera and Frida Kahlo to tea. Hard to think of a more legendary group of people to celebrate with.