Helen Wills and the Great Berkeley Fire of 1923
September 17, 1923: Berkeley, California
The fire started at midday in the scrubland of Wildcat Canyon. Two hours later, it rolled down the dry North Berkeley hills and quietly slipped into some of the city's finest residences. Housekeepers washing up after lunch turned around in their kitchens to find flames reaching for the drapes like brazen cat burglars.
Regal, multistory houses lit up in beautiful orange puffs. The streets of the La Loma Park and Northside neighborhoods filled with spasmodic shouts and the clatter of footsteps.
Helen Wills was on campus when she noticed the acrid smell in the air. Life had only just begun to return to normal for the college freshman. At seventeen, she was the new Forest Hills champion, having crushed the longtime queen of American tennis, Molla Mallory. Three weeks earlier, a cheering throng and a band had awaited her at Oakland's 16th Street train station. After being waylaid time and again by fellow passengers on the cross-country trip -- she received all compliments with downcast eyes and a forced smile, her cheeks flushing -- she couldn't bear the thought of such a mob scene. Helen and her mother snuck off the train at an earlier East Bay stop and hired a car.
There was nothing Helen could do about the attention: she was a sensation. At the beginning of the season, the New York Times recalled, "women's tennis in this country seemed in a bad way. Mrs. Mallory held such absolute sway, defeating her opponents with such uninterrupted regularity, that little interest was taken in the matches." The pretty, stern-faced Miss Wills had changed that, upending the normally staid East Coast tennis scene. The comely new star lured in fans who were deemed "too partisan for courtesy." They grabbed and shouted at Helen as if she were Mary Pickford. They rapturously applauded errors by her opponents. Spectators simply couldn't help themselves. No one could quite get used to the idea of a beautiful woman athlete. Such a thing wasn't supposed to exist. "Women don't show to advantage on the track or in the field," sportswriter Paul Gallico wrote, expressing a widely held view. It was believed that women who excelled in sports did so because it was the only way they could get attention. Mallory -- "Iron Molla," with her fish lips and sourball eyes -- was a good example of the type. Six thousand spectators, "the greatest gallery that ever witnessed a women's tennis match," turned out to see if Helen -- "Helen of the Pigtails," "The Girl of the Golden West" -- could defeat the seven-time champion at Forest Hills. As it turned out, she needed just 33 minutes for the 6-2, 6-1 victory.
Helen's physical gifts -- and her mien, so unusual for a girl -- already were passing into legend. Sportswriter Grantland Rice wondered how the teen could be so "intensely serious, unemotional, stoical -- not only for a girl of her age, but for a human being of any age." Shortly before Helen's train arrived in Oakland, the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association announced plans to send the new American champion abroad to face the world champion, France's Suzanne Lenglen. Helen, however, wasn't sure she wanted to do it. She hated all the attention that came with tournament play. Her father, Dr. Clarence Wills, told reporters that the offer of a European tour was pleasing, but only if such a trip didn't interfere with his daughter's studies. The same day that she returned home from New York, Helen registered for classes at the University of California, just a few blocks north of the exclusive Berkeley Tennis Club where she had learned to play the game. She planned to study art. Tennis, she said, was "just for fun."
The fire continued to leap forward, sending out whistling yellow cinders to light the way. The electricity went out at homes west of the university -- including at Dr. and Mrs. Wills' residence -- before those inside had any idea what was happening. At window after window, a brownish-blue haze floated at eye level, as if one was looking out the porthole of a sinking ship. Screams from somewhere nearby, tittering along the top of the snapping wind, suddenly became audible. Wild-eyed women, gripped by panic, rushed into the streets.
The conflagration couldn't be kept secret any longer. The bells of the 13-floor Sather Tower, the centerpiece of the University of California campus, came to life in a sudden fury. The dean of students gathered up men on campus and harangued them to "give their services to the stricken city."
Dozens of students ran into the massive black cloud that billowed toward the university's front gates, but there was little they could do. The well-tended Cragmont neighborhood, favored by the university's professors, quickly fell to the fire, vaporizing personal libraries and research files and half-written books. "We were wading through ashes of scholarship and literature," said one soot-covered student.
The students quickly realized the extent of the danger they faced. The heat was suffocating, the sound like a freight train somehow coming at you from every direction. Flying sparks threatened to set anyone or thing on fire at any moment. "Falling transmission lines created a tangle of wires on the streets," wrote one correspondent. The reporter watched in awe as "the giant trees lining the streets burst into flame." Mammoth oaks in the area "crashed to the pavement and formed impasssable barriers to automobiles carrying firefighters and relief workers." Until now, many homeowners had stayed with their houses, intent on warding off the flames with garden hoses and rakes. But a series of explosions, cracking open the sky like an artillery barrage, jump-started a mass exodus. It wasn't possible to be in denial anymore. The fire, hopping rapidly from building to building, was completely out of control -- and larger than anyone had thought possible.
Less than an hour after the tower bells had called students to action, buildings right across the street from campus were aflame. Roofs broke apart, sending red-hot shingles spinning into the air like skeet. Men and women, bewildered and unbelieving, loitered just yards from houses that were collapsing in on themselves. A man in a peaked cap, looking like he'd dressed in a rush, strode away from the flames carrying his belongings in a pillow case. Others hefted trunks, tables and platters out of burning houses; late-arriving firefighters didn't know if the men were residents or looters.
Rumors of a horrifying death count rushed through the city even faster than the fire. "The city seemed doomed," the Daily Californian would report the next day. "Flames broke a fiery, red path to the region around Euclid Avenue. Soon the entire area from Hearst Avenue north to Rose Street, and south to Oxford was a flaming mass of crackling ruins."
Even with black smoke pressed down over the campus like a cap, Helen could see the conflagration for herself. Sorority Row stood directly in the path of destruction; flames blasted into the sky just a few blocks away. (Her Kappa Kappa Gamma house would survive. The nearby Delta Zeta Tau and Alpha Sigma Delta houses weren't so lucky; both burned to the ground.) But instead of retreating -- her parents' house was on Shattuck Avenue, west of campus and likely out of danger -- she hurried to the front lines. Along with other coeds, she threw herself into "the thick of the fight," ferrying drinking water and coffee to exhausted firefighters and escorting rescued residents to makeshift relief stations. Just as she always did on the tennis court, Helen remained calm, focused. The crisis reduced life's problems down to a few simple decisions. That was how she liked it. Late in the afternoon, she and a clutch of sorority sisters climbed a hill to track the progress of both the fire and the fight against it. Sparks danced around them, as they had all day. All at once, Helen's right eye -- and then her whole head -- sizzled. She jerked backward and yelped in pain, hopping and tugging at her eye, the other girls screaming uncontrollably. She stamped right out of her shoes. At last, the invading cinder popped free.
At around 3:30, the Berkeley Fire Department, overwhelmed and unable to raise a response from nearby Oakland officials, called for assistance from San Francisco. The larger city across the bay responded with four 750-gallon engines, two hose wagons, two "chemical companies" and a 7-man fire boat. But the reinforcements didn't arrive in Berkeley until after 5 p.m., at which point the fire had been raging for hours. Still, better late than never. San Francisco's Engine 12 "worked two 1,000-foot lines from Shattuck and University avenues until 10:00 p.m.," a city report later stated. "Engine Company 2 was sent to the Durant avenue fire station .... Chemical Company 4, after extinguishing several roof fires, was stationed at the Regent street fire station." Firefighters from San Francisco, Berkeley and other municipalities drained the East Bay's water supply and used dynamite to slow or divert the flames. But they couldn't stop the runaway fire. Only when the winds shifted and softened in the evening, and humid conditions took over, did the fire ease up enough for the exhausted crews to collar it. The devastation ended right at the university's gates.
By the day's end, more than a thousand houses had been damaged, with at least five hundred completely destroyed. Fifty city blocks had been transformed into black, desert-like terrain, dotted by "a ghostly forest of chimneys." Twenty-five persons had been reported missing, and more than twice that injured, but so far there were no known fatalities. Women sat outside their wrecked homes, tears rolling down their faces. One man was so traumatized by the devastation that he suffered complete amnesia. Now, with darkness, a different kind of dread settled on the city. Berkeley Police Chief C.D. Lee deputized hundreds of citizens, including university students, to police the destroyed neighborhoods. They were spelled midway through the night by seven hundred Army and National Guard soldiers, who were given orders to shoot looters on sight.
The next day, Helen, with a large bandage taped over her wounded eye, stepped out of her parents' house and surveyed the blasted-out neighborhood just across Live Oak Park. A reporter from the Los Angeles Times caught up with her. Helen had walked into an emergency room late the previous evening to be treated for blistered feet and eye pain. News of the tennis champion's admittance quickly spread among hospital staff, leading to speculation that she "had suffered an injury that would result in the loss of the sight of one eye." Helen, always shy and awkward around strangers, laughed at the rumor. Her physician, she said, told her the pain would pass and her eye would heal. Helen didn't say so, but of course she knew this was just an opinion -- albeit an expert opinion -- and not a certainty.
On the other side of the park from the Wills home, dozens of sightseers and displaced homeowners sifted through wreckage. The pitted, denuded landscape reminded war veterans of their time overseas. Helen, who was taking French lessons at Cal, had to wonder where in Europe the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association wanted to send her, just five years after the cataclysm of the World War. If Paris still looked anything like Berkeley did today, she didn't want to go.
The devastation went on block after block. A young woman, probably another student, sat down at a piano that had cratered in the middle of the street. The woman, stylishly turned out in a flowing, shapeless dress, began to play. The tuneless plink-plonk of the keys made the intrepid pianist giggle and then throw back her head in a guffaw. Helen, surveying the damage all around, surely had to wonder if her beloved courts at the Berkeley Tennis Club would be in a similar wrecked condition. She preferred the Berkeley club to Forest Hills, and was confident she would prefer it to the All-England Club, too. She got a kick out of playing against the men there, the golden Berkeley hills rising up around them, the afternoon sun heavy on her shoulders. New members always would "laugh at the idea of playing a child and a girl at that," and then she would whip them, sometimes without the loss of a game.
When she first became serious about tennis, at fourteen, Helen would take on the role of American champion "Little Bill" Johnston while she practiced. As she swung into the ball, she would silently chant, "Now I'm Johnston, now I'm Johnston." But she no longer needed to use her imagination as a crutch. Now she was Wills, and the real Johnston came out to Berkeley to hit with her. Her eyesight might be in danger, but her inward sight always had been the true source of her power. Safely inside herself whenever on court, she was as happy and fulfilled -- and as indomitable -- as any young woman could be. Eleanor Carroll of the New York Post marveled at her "firm brown arms that ripple with power" and, more notably, her calm expression in the midst of extreme exertion. For three weeks after winning at Forest Hills, Helen had repeated her father's diktat: She would pursue her studies; tennis was nothing but an avocation, something that was "fun." But when she found her way to the Berkeley Tennis Club and saw that it had survived the fire, her joy surprised her.
All she wanted, she later realized, was a "sunny day, white balls, fresh white tennis clothes, a good-natured opponent, and a brisk game." She knew of only one way to describe such a perfect confluence of desires: "heaven." In the weeks ahead, her college studies would quietly drop down her list of priorities. She had decided to become the best tennis player she could be -- and to go to Europe to face Mademoiselle Lenglen.
-- Douglas Perry
© 2011 Douglas Perry
Author's note: Helen Wills' eye healed nicely and she went on to become arguably the greatest female player in tennis history. She won 19 major singles championships -- eight at Wimbledon -- and brought home two gold medals from the Paris Olympics. From 1927 to 1933, she reeled off 180 consecutive match victories. Her lone match against the great Suzanne Lenglen, won by Lenglen in 1926, was among the most ballyhooed sporting events of the 1920s.
Photo: Helen Wills (left) and Molla Mallory in 1922, the year before Wills displaced "Iron Molla" as the American champion.