Defending U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Betty Jameson pulled up to the rambling wooden buildings of The Del Monte Lodge in her well-traveled little Dodge, her friend Carolyn Brown in tow. The air was heady with the scent of eucalyptus and the rising excitement of the 1940 Women’s Amateur. Time Magazine had sent a reporter, as had The New York Times.
Jameson was exhausted. She’d won the Trans-Mississippi in St. Louis, and after winning the Women’s Western Amateur, she had driven in from Seattle. Lethargic and lazy, Jameson believed she might oversleep and had asked Brown, a San Antonio friend since childhood, to make sure she made it to the first tee. Brown was so good at the task that Jameson called her “Little Napoleon.”
Brown, in turn, dubbed Jameson “Big Boy” after her favorite bird dog back in San Antonio. Barely as big as a minute, Brown suggested when the two went out at night that Jameson wear loafers while she wore high heels.
This Women’s Amateur would be one of golf’s last great dramas before World War II and the field was straight out of central casting: dancer Ruby Keeler and Vilma Banky, who had been Rudolph Valentino’s silent screen lover. Socialites Grace Amory, Mildred MacArthur and Peggy Chandler. And the poor, fated figures of Marge Ferrie, Marion Miley, Marion Hollins and Barbara Ransom.
They were the rich, the famous, the beautiful and doomed, some of whom travelled a self-destructive road that would lead to drink and death. Perhaps they were caught up in these last frantic days before the world blew apart. It was out there, the war. In 1940, however, they glided under the cypress canopy toward Pebble Beach in sleek Packards and sturdy little Studebakers, their strong hands tapping their steering wheels in time to Tuxedo Junction and Begin theBeguine.
In Europe, German tanks rumbled into the Netherlands and Edward R. Murrow spoke from London, interrupting the music on the radio with news of Nazi bombs killing as many as 600 Britons a day in The Blitz. The caldron of war bubbled, but the United States wasn’t in it. Not yet.
The war would change everything. While men fought overseas, some of these women would go to work, and their later feelings of vague discontent would lead to more working women, fewer heiresses and movie stars. Yet, within the ranks of this championship were troubling aspects of humanity that would spawn tragic deaths. But not yet.
On this sun-struck September day, the players rounded the last, long curve of 17-Mile Drive and all the green glory of Pebble Beach rolled out before them.
Of the 163 entrants, 80 were Californians. None of the players expected Marion Hollins to do very well. They were just glad to have her around. Her beloved Pasatiempo resort, awash in debt, had been sold earlier in the year. In 1937, Hollins’ convertible had been struck by a drunken driver. Despite head injuries suffered in the accident, she refused medical treatment. Hollins would never be the same. Now 47, she was ill, down on her luck and past her prime, but her appearance at Pebble Beach lent the championship the sheen of history. She had won the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 1921 and captained the first USA Curtis Cup team in 1932.
The heavyset, jovial Hollins had enjoyed a great life. A native New Yorker, she had marched with the Suffragettes, and drove a coach-and-four from Buffalo to New York City to raise money for Liberty Bonds. She gave away most of her riches and melted down her trophies to support the U.S. effort in World War I, and then had master-minded Pasatiempo and Cypress Point with golf course architect Alister MacKenzie. Her legions of friends included Mary Pickford, Will Rogers and Bob Jones.
Hollins’ exhuberant life nearly paled in comparison to that of Mrs. Rod LaRoque. The former Vilma Banky had been a seductive silent screen star who appeared with Valentino and Ronald Colman. “Vilma’s Personality Makes Love Scenes Before Camera Realistic and Charming,” said one Los Angeles Times headline.
A native of Hungary, Banky had married LaRoque, a former actor who played heroic roles, and their 1927 wedding was one of the most over-the-top celebrations in Hollywood history. More than 600 attended and thousands of fans streamed outside, hoping for a glimpse of the stars. Cecil B. DeMille was best man. The ushers included Colman and Harold Lloyd. Banky had to be dissuaded from hiring a department store window in which to display her wedding gifts.
Three years later, Banky virtually retired, helped her husband sell real estate and focused on golf. While she won a number of club championships, her game wasn’t of national caliber.
A fellow competitor was also an entertainer. The cheery hoofer Ruby Keeler, Mrs. Al Jolson, had starred in “42nd Street” and “Gold Diggers” in 1933. The woman that Hollywood claimed had “tap-danced her way into the hearts of millions,” was a dedicated golfer. LaRoque and Keeler had tussled in the 1938 Pebble Beach championship, with LaRoque winning.
Lesser-known Californians helped round out the field. Feisty little Betty Hicks had won two of the tournaments on the Florida winter tour, beating Jameson and Patty Berg. Dorothy Traung of San Francisco had been runner-up to Virginia Van Wie in the 1934 Women’s Amateur. Barbara Ransom was a long hitter out of Stockton. Quiet, gentle Marge Ferrie was a much-beloved player and the reigning California Women’s Amateur champion.
Fifi Lifur of Riviera and Leona Pressler Cheney had been amateur stars but both were a little past their prime. Cheney’s first husband Harry Pressler, one of America’s most noted teachers, polished her game. While Time Magazine noted that Leona was “less powerful than clever,” she’d won the Women’s Western Amateur twice and was runner-up to Glenna Collett in the 1929 U.S. Women’s Amateur.
The bevy of socialites gracing the field included Mrs. Arthur McArthur, the former Mildred Yorba, who was Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s sister-in-law and descended from Spanish settlers for whom Yorba Linda, Calif., was named. A pillar of Orange County society, Mildred MacArthur hosted teas, launched ships, wrote books and unveiled statues, but she had also won the Pebble Beach championship.
Peggy Lewis Chandler of Dallas was a fierce competitor, but she also had a wild side. “I never made a putt but I never missed a party,” she claimed. Chandler befriended writers Paul Gallico and Grantland Rice, knocked out Cole Porter tunes on the piano and was a great raconteur. In 1935, Chandler lost to Babe Didrikson in the Women’s Texas Amateur final. It was an upset, and Chandler didn’t like it one bit. According to Betty Jameson and noted amateur Polly Riley, it was Chandler who prompted the loss of Didrikson’s amateur status for having appeared as a professional in other sports. Now Babe cooled her heels in non-amateur limbo, waiting out probation before returning to the amateur ranks.
The USGA Women’s Committee was well-represented in the field by Chandler, Mrs. Calvin “Calley” Tilden and Mrs. Joseph C. Dey Jr., the former debutante Rosalie Knapp who was president of the Women’s Metropolitan Golf Association and the wife of the USGA’s executive director.
At the top of the social heap was Grace Amory of Glen Head, N.Y. Reporting of that era jars contemporary sensibilities, but an unnamed author laid out his opinions in a story in Life magazine, writing that most good woman golfers “look like fireplugs. They’re squat and stolid with pudgy round faces and piano legs…they have almost no sex appeal.” The exception, he wrote, was Amory, “the vision of loveliness whenever she steps out on the course.” A photo layout of the 1940 Women’s Eastern Amateur champion accompanied the article.
Amory may not have had the stomach for tough international competition. As the only American in the 1935 British championship, she played French champion Francine Tollon. On the 10th green, Amory flopped on the ground, saying, ‘Oh my, how exhausting the tight matches are.” She lost on the 17th.
A couple of noteworthy Southerners rounded out the field, Jane Cothran of Greenville, S.C., and Marion Miley of Lexington, Ky. Miley was a Curtis Cup player whose dark charisma captured the fancy of spectators. But golf writer Darsie L. Darsie penned that Miley, “when in the mood is one of the finest tournament players in the world. Out of the mood, she’s just another golfer.”
So the colorful crew of the great and grand assembled for stroke-play qualifying. Pebble Beach was playing fast on Sept. 23. Fog had disappeared from its summer encampment over the aqua glint of Carmel Bay and a hint of crisp autumn was in the air. Sweater weather. Their club shafts flashing in the sun, the players made their way around the 6,548-yard course. Thirty had handicaps of 3 or less.
Ruby Keeler and Rosalie Dey failed to qualify. San Francisco’s Dorothy Traung was medalist with a 78. Jameson was safely in with 84.
Capable Dot Kirby ended Vilma Banky LaRoque’s dreams in the first round, 5 and 4, and then defeated Ransom in the second. First-round casualties included Louise Lengfeld, the Los Altos, Calif., matron, who went to the sidelines courtesy of Jameson, 7 and 6. Fifi Lifur ended Marion Hollins’ last great sojourn, 2 and 1.
By the start of the third round, Leona Pressler Cheney, Marion Miley and Betty Hicks were out. Amory, MacArthur and Traung went down in the fourth as did Mary Morse, the petite Stanford University coed who was the niece of Pebble Beach developer Samuel F.B. Morse. Lifur played well but sprained her ankle and limped through the quarterfinal encounter with Jameson, losing, 6 and 5.
Intriguing semifinal battles now shaped up between Jameson and Clara Callender, with Cothran facing Ferrie.
Ferrie didn’t look like much of a golfer. Quiet and modest, Marge floated through tournaments, picking up the elite Midwinter Invitational title at LA Country Club and the California Women’s Amateur. Some doubted she had the toughness to advance at Pebble Beach. There wasn’t much killer instinct there. “Golf is just a passing game,” she once said, “while kindness and consideration are a part of one’s permanent character and have a lasting effect on one’s happiness.”
Ferrie’s husband Jim, a top player in his own right, seemingly doted on her and followed every shot.
Jameson wasn’t yet at the top of her game. “I had played a little better golf the week before (in the Western),” she said. “But I had gotten to a marvelous peak. Playing Clara Callender, I was the defending champion. I didn’t concede anything to her. I was impressed with her.”
More than six feet tall, Callender towered over Jameson. At 21, she was rangy but graceful and had a mop of curly brunette hair. Callender had a big following. Her father had been the Monterey Peninsula C.C. pro and she was raised on Pebble Beach, where she owned the course record of 74. But the wind came up. Callender didn’t have the little punch shots that scooted beneath the wind and her long arc produced towering shots and little control. Jameson was 3 up after nine.
“Her ball just went flying, but I hit the ball on a lower trajectory,” said Jameson. She closed out Callender, 5 and 3, with a sensational eagle on the difficult 15th, which was playing as a par-5 during the championship. Jameson was 1-under-par and the Associated Press dubbed her “the odds-on choice to retain the national crown.”
The other finalist was Cothran, known as “Smilin’ Jane,” who made a hit with the gallery in her match against Ferrie. “With a bit more speed, she would have been running between shots,” said one newspaper.
The final was a spectacle, with the slender bespectacled Cothran racing down the fairway while Jameson, who was a deliberate player, to put it kindly, lagged behind. The second nine of the morning round determined the outcome, and Jameson was 9 up at lunch. She threatened to set a record in her margin of victory, but on the 22nd hole, Jameson holed a 20-foot birdie putt for an apparent win, then told officials her ball had moved and was penalized a stroke.
Betty Jameson won the Women’s Amateur title, 6 and 5. The trophy presentation was on the 18th green against the gorgeous backdrop of Carmel Bay. Jameson shivered in her light sweater and when someone handed her a dozen red roses, she stared down at the flowers, pensive and solemn.
There would be one more Women’s Amateur, in 1941, before championships were suspended for the duration of the war. But never again would the Women’s Amateur have the flourish of the 1940 field.
During the war, Jameson returned to San Antonio to drive trucks for the U.S. Army. Barbara Ransom became “Rosie the Riveter” in Oakland and her photo – plain-faced, dark eyebrows slashing her forehead, a bandana around her hair – appeared on national news wires.
Grace Amory wed the wealthy Allan A. Ryan and lived in Palm Beach. She later married Herbert Pulitzer, son of Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of The New York World. She had two children and her son Peter was married to fashion icon Lilly Pulitzer for many years. Grace Amory Pulitzer died in 1989.
Helen Lengfeld mobilized golfers to work with wounded servicemen in Swing Clubs, an organization she founded under the aegis of the United Voluntary Services, which she also headed. Lengfeld visited every veterans hospital in the United States. Beginning in 1949, she published the magazine, The National Golfer, for 21 years.
Oddly, several in this field met tragic fates.
After returning from playing in the 1941 Women’s Amateur, Marion Miley was murdered by intruders who broke into her mother’s home.
Marge Ferrie won three California Women’s Amateur titles and the 1957 Trans-Mississippi Women’s Amateur. Her seemingly idyllic marriage broke apart and in 1964 she suffered a fatal heart attack while driving up the sloping driveway of her home in Bel-Air. She was 44.
Barbara Ransom battled alcoholism late in life, losing her Sacramento apartment and all of her mementos, including a scrapbook of her life in golf. She died in San Andreas at the age of 62.
In 1941, Marion Hollins played one last great round at Cypress Point. In the club championship, torrential rains and near-cyclonic wind buffeted the famous course. Hollins wore no hat and no windbreaker. She used a 2-iron for nearly every shot, allowing for 40 to 50 feet of drift in the winds. Of 40 contestants, only four finished and Hollins was the only one to stagger in under 100 with a 91. Three years later, forgotten by her family and friends, she died alone in a nursing home in Pacific Grove. She was 52.
Childless, Vilma Banky LaRoque endowed a foundation with more than $1 million for the education of children. In the 1980s, she became ill and spent the next five years in a convalescent hospital in Los Angeles. She died in 1991. Some said she was 90 years old. Embittered that she had been forgotten by her friends and had no visitors, Banky refused to allow her lawyer to announce her death for a year and a half.
After she won the Women’s Amateur for a second time, Betty Jameson was nearly impoverished and lived in a one-room apartment until she gave in to offers from Spalding, accepted a salary and turned pro. She had loved the challenge of match play and the thrill of amateur golf, she said, and while she won a number of tournaments, including the 1947 U.S. Women’s Open, she was indifferent toward her professional career.
Her later years were mostly happy, but she was often strapped for funds. She lived in Boynton Beach, Fla., had a number of friends and was sometimes asked for autographs. When she talked of the Curtis Cup team, a team on which she would never play because the Match was discontinued during the war, her voice broke with emotion and regret. Jameson died in 2009. She was 89.
Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. E-mail her with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.