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Bill Tilden Trials: 1947 & 1949

Tilden Arrested

On November 23, 1946, two police officers in Beverly Hills saw a car driving erratically. The driver appeared to be an underage boy. An older man had his arm around him. When the officers pulled the car over, the man hurriedly changed places with the boy. The boy's fly was open. The police arrested Bill Tilden.

Tilden was numb from shock. He signed a confession without even looking at it. When he recovered, he asked for a lawyer. He wanted Jerry Giesler, who had achieved fame by defending Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn in suits resulting from their sexual escapades. Giesler wanted no part of him: he defended only heterosexual predators. Tilden finally engaged Richard Maddox, a young former prosecutor.

Maddox had a hard time convincing Tilden that he was in serious trouble. Maddox pointed out that the scandal sheets and rumor mongers would have a field day imagining tennis parties at the Chaplin estate—orgies with the Communist Little Tramp and "In Like" Flynn seducing the little girls while Queer Bill seduced the little boys.

The state's case was weak, the lawyer said. If Tilden repudiated his statement, the only evidence would be the boy's statement. The boy, a precociously dissolute 14-year-old, had been expelled from several schools because of his sexual activities and general delinquency. If Tilden pleaded not guilty, Maddox said, the boy's parents would not want him to testify. And they had said they didn't want Tilden to go to jail.

Tilden refused to plead not guilty. He said he must accept responsibility. "He was hung up on the sportsman thing," Maddox said later.

And Tilden was still convinced that with his celebrity and his famous friends he would get no more than a tongue-lashing and a fine. Dr. J. Paul De River, a psychiatrist who examined Tilden, told the court he was "impulsively weak … passive autistic with egocentric traits… in need of special psychiatric care." He said, "Any jail sentence would of necessity be limited and would not tend to work as a curative measure, and would probably bring … more harm." He concluded, "He is … in some ways quite juvenile.… This man should be regarded as someone who is mentally ill."

De River believed Tilden suffered from "an endocrine dysfunction so often seen during the evolutionary stage of life when the sex curve is on the decline."

Even District Attorney William Ritzi said later, "The poor man was a sick individual. We realized it then, and we realize it now. It's just that society treats it differently today than in those days."

At the sentencing hearing, Tilden compounded his trouble by lying to the judge. He said he had never been involved in a situation like this before. Judge A. A. Scott, like almost everybody in Beverly Hills, knew better. He sentenced Tilden to a year in jail. Tilden was so stunned Maddox had to lift him to his feet.

De River was right. Jail was no cure. Tilden was released after serving seven and a half months. Less than a year and a half later, he was arrested for groping a 16-year-old hitchhiker. He was sentenced to another year, but he got out after about 10 months. Shortly before he was released, American sportswriters voted him the greatest athlete of the half century.

Few others honored him. Chaplin had gone home to England and was barred from returning. Almost all Tilden's other acquaintances avoided him. Mentally, he was rapidly disintegrating. He stopped bathing and changing his clothes. When he visited Maddox, the lawyer's secretary complained that his odor was unbearable.

Tilden would not concede that he was finished. Sixty years old, sick and out of shape, he persuaded a former pupil to give him money for the trip to Cleveland for the U.S. Professional Tennis Championships. The day before he was to enter one more championship tournament, he dropped dead.

William Weir

Suggestions for Further Reading

"Big Bill," Time (June 15, 1953).

Deford, Frank. Big Bil/Tilden: The Triumphs and the Tragedy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976.

Tilden, William Tatem 11. My Story. New York: Hellman, Williams, 1948.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1941 to 1953Bill Tilden Trials: 1947 1949 - An Unlikely Champion, Out Of The Closet, Tilden Arrested