Muffin Spencer-Devlin Is the Best Lesbian, Manic-Depressive, Glass-Blowing Golfer of Them All
Golf is a game of etiquette and decorum: Respect the rules. Respect the course. Respect your playing partners.
But when you play a casual round with Muffin Spencer-Devlin, a tall and sleek 59-year-old, on her home track at the nine-hole Aliso Creek Golf Course in Laguna Beach, you're in Muffin territory. Hit a bad tee shot, and she offers you a Kotex. Miss a short putt, and she meows. She offers nonstop advice to complete strangers.
Meanwhile, the former pro drives every ball as though she's shooting an arrow from a bow. Spencer-Devlin displays a masterful putting touch. She rarely fluffs shots. And all the while, she's recounting tales about her years on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour: throwing wedges into the woods, blowing the last hole in the women's British Open, the fines she received for conduct unbecoming to the game.
You ought to despise the chattering magpie. Yet she displays such an infectious energy, disarming wit and joie de vivre that, by the end of the round, people who've never met her are beaming, hugging her, thanking her for one of the most enjoyable rounds of their lives.
"I can't help it," she says. "Up, down, whatever. I can't fucking stop talking."
She's putting it lightly. Before the Sports Illustrated article that rocked the sports world, before becoming a rallying point for gays and lesbians, before the $1 million she won on the LPGA Tour, before she blew every dime of that money, before the manic episodes and weeklong blackouts, before the crushing depression and mental agony, before the straitjackets and arrests, before the self-medication and burned bridges, before shaping a new life as a glass blower, Muffin Spencer-Devlin was just a girl.
A girl who knew that a long time before, she'd been King Arthur.
What does the head of the Knights of the Round Table have to do with a three-time winner on the LPGA Tour, current Laguna Beach artisan, and former poster child for outed professional athletes and victims of bipolar disorder? Well, nothing—and also everything. Just as she's lived a most non-ordinary life an an adult, she wasn't your typical kid swept up in the romantic allure of being a legendary figure. By fourth grade, she was absolutely convinced. That belief was affirmed for her years later when she studied reincarnation and past lives.
"Yep, I was King Arthur in a past life," she says. "You want to commit me? Go ahead."
Spencer-Devlin wasn't reticent about talking about her past life as King Arthur—or about anything else—during her 20-year stretch on the LPGA Tour. It was just one of the many idiosyncracies that endeared her to a media that, despite her volatile unpredictability, carried on a quasi-love affair with the charming, captivating, effervescent and—let's be honest—kind of wacky golfer. She was smart, sassy, sexy and unique.
But that wasn't the juicy stuff.
"She hasn't had a career; she's had an Italian opera," wrote Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray in 1986. "Her life story unfolds like the plot of one of those old Irene Dunne movies of the '30s, Theodora Goes Wild or The Bride Wore Black, the kind they advertised as 'wacky, zany, madcap.'"
Except, along with the slapstick comedy, there was a deeply tragic streak. As Murray wrote, after documenting an incident some 10 years earlier, when Spencer-Devlin showed up at the posh Waldorf-Astoria in New York City to book a suite without any money or identification, only to explode into a rage and wind up in a psych ward, "This is not celluloid hijinks. This is real life. Muffin Spencer-Devlin is not just playing a high-spirited, mixed-up young sub-deb from the Hamptons; she is really a sick girl. . . . This is manic-depression. Muffin's mood swings are not schoolgirl larks. They are dark ailments of the soul."
The public knew these stories as much as they knew her sweet swing. But in 1996, Spencer-Devlin made national news of a different sort when she revealed in the pages of Sports Illustrated what many sportswriters and most of her fellow LPGA pros already knew: She's a lesbian. A handful of professional athletes had already outed themselves, most notably Czech tennis star Martina Navratilova. But most were not known stars, or they did so after their careers were past their prime. No female American had taken the step, and no athlete had done so in the pages of America's top sports magazine.
But that was the easy part in a life that has been not only well-lived, but also well-survived.
* * *
Sitting on a bench in the sycamore-lined canyon at Aliso Creek, waiting for two of her playing partners to tee off, Spencer-Devlin talks about the disease that has plagued her for the past 40 years. "When you're in that manic phase, you don't want to come down," she says. "The only way to do it is to admit yourself into a hospital. And there's no way I'd do it myself."
She smiles, more than a touch of mischief dancing in her sparkling blue eyes. "It's a very cunning disease."
Her condition led her to professional golf. And being honest about her bipolar disorder was a crucial factor in her decision to out herself.
Hellene Harrington Spencer was born Oct. 25, 1953, in Piqua, Ohio. Her father was a successful salesman in the newspaper-blanket industry (basically, rollers used by printing presses to dry ink on newspaper pages), and her mother, Pat, was a terrific golfer, winning an amateur championship in Western Pennsylvania. "Muffin" was a nickname given to her by her grandmother, who thought the tiny impressions on her infant head from the forceps used to pull her out of her mother's birth canal resembled marks on a muffin. Her parents divorced, and her mother married a Wall Street executive (Devlin was her stepfather's last name); the family moved to Long Island when Muffin was 7. She played some junior golf and in high school, but Spencer-Devlin never considered it as a career.
After high school, she spent a year studying in Switzerland, and then enrolled in Florida's Rollins College, a prestigious private institution. It was the early 1970s, and along with the books, there was plenty of drugs and alcohol to pass the time. In her first three months at Rollins, Spencer-Devlin switched majors three times: first to English, then anthropology, then sociology, and finally settling on theater. Her first big theater-related project was designing period costumes for William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. In the weeks before then, Spencer-Devlin recalled feeling out of sorts, sleeping a lot and hiding from people. Little did she know that manageable bout of depression was the precursor to the first of many manic episodes that would nearly derail her life.
"I had all these costumes to make, and I didn't know how to use a sewing machine, which is the main reason I agreed to do it, since I thought it'd be a fun thing to learn," she says. "But that also led me into my first manic episode."
Spencer-Devlin wound up not sleeping for days. She completed the job, but something wasn't right. She left college after three years, and then suffered her first full-blown manic episode. The details are sketchy to this day, but she remembers waking up not remembering the past few weeks and trying to piece together what she'd been doing by checking her flight receipts.
Her parents immediately took her to a doctor, who diagnosed manic depression and put her on lithium. She hated it.
"I couldn't stomach the idea of taking a pill for the rest of my life," she says. "I felt that my body had betrayed me, my mind was betraying me, and the only control I had was to take this pill."
Along with the sobering realization of her mental fragility, there was another reason Spencer-Devlin didn't like the lithium: She dug the mania.
"Yes it's very self-destructive," she says. "You pick fights with people, your temper is short, but you're also full of energy, have all these crazy ideas to do things, these grandiose thoughts. I didn't want to give up that amazing feeling."
But, as the mania lingered, she began to feel as though there was "a tornado or whirlwind in my chest cavity, so I'd look to quiet or quell that through alcohol, pot, any kind of downers."
And then, of course, there was the soul-sucking void of the depressive phases (which, for Spencer-Devlin, usually foreshadowed the manic phase), something that led, at best, to sleeping for days and, at worst, to attempts to kill herself. She tried to deal with the disease for two years after being diagnosed—sometimes on lithium, other times self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. A move to New York in hopes of acting or being a talent agent didn't work out, save for making her realize she was a lesbian. "It was the early 1970s, and there were a lot of couples-swapping parties," she recalls. "One night, I kissed a woman for the first time, and that was electrifying, one of those 'ah-ha' moments."
Sometime around 1976, after traveling with her parents to attend an LPGA tournament, another light bulb went on in her frenetic head: Why not try golf?
Spencer-Devlin thought that if she could dedicate herself to a game that took so much focus, concentration and regimentation in terms of practice and discipline, maybe she could get a handle on her illness. But she encountered a major obstacle when deciding to turn professional and whip her game into competitive shape on mini-tours. "There's a mind-body connection in everything creative and physical like, say, violin playing," she says. "Golf is the same. And I couldn't get that connection on lithium. There's a feel that you need in golf, whether it's cutting a drive, or hitting a delicate chip shot. There's a translation point from what your mind knows what it wants to do and when your body takes over. With lithium, it felt like that process was blocked."
Out went the lithium. Her game improved, but the manic episodes returned regularly—and with a vengeance. In a one-week period in 1977 or 1978 (she can't remember which), she was arrested twice for drunk driving and again for reckless driving. Shortly before qualifying for the LPGA Tour in 1979—at the relatively advanced age of 26—a friend turned her on to a doctor in Palm Springs, who told Spencer-Devlin he suspected the disorder wasn't mental as much as it was physical; it was, he said, a rather complicated sugar imbalance. He prescribed a combination of a rigid diet involving axing all the fun things to eat, drink and smoke, plus a regimen of nutritional supplements, including amino acids.
"The diet-and-vitamin thing was amazing as long as I kept my end of the deal," she says. "No white bread, no chemical preservatives, no recreational drugs, organic produce as often as possible. It took a lot of mental discipline, but as long as I stuck to it, it was manageable."
But any time she slipped, the potential for another episode was there. And when she slipped, she slipped hard.
* * *
"The England one is one of the best," Spencer-Devlin recalls. In early 1990, she thought she'd give the Women's European Tour a go. But dealing with the recent death of her stepfather was playing havoc with her emotions.
"I was invited to play in the Ford Classic in Woburn, England," she recalls. "The mania was coming, although I don't know if I was aware of that. The pro-am dinner the night before the tournament was in this fancy-shmancy, stately place. You were given a place to sit, but I was table-hopping and talking to someone at the head table, and they asked me to sit there. So I did. Then, one of the officials came up to me and said I couldn't sit there. That precipitated some screaming and yelling on my part."
Reports from English newspapers at the time said Spencer-Devlin "made an entrance . . . in the grand manner, dressed like a '20s cabaret star." When she was told to sit at a predesignated table, she reportedly slammed her fist on the table and said, "I am an American, and I am not to be treated this way. . . . Nobody tells me what to do. I am not going to keep quiet. I am an American and know how to behave."
"The next day, I was at the range getting ready to play, and an official brought a letter disqualifying me," she says. "I remember hanging around most of the day, giving some press interviews, with some pretty inflammatory quotes. I wound up in a hospital for a while and had an affair with the head nurse. . . . That was a good one."
In her time as a touring professional, Spencer-Devlin participated in tournaments in both manic and depressed phases. "The manic one I remember was in Italy. I was wearing knickers and a tie and playing while listening to headphones and singing songs. A depressive one came in Jamaica, not long after my stepfather died. I had a great caddy, and I remember telling him, 'You got to lead me around; I'm in really bad shape.' He led me to a sixth-place finish, but all I could think of was getting on one of those glass-bottom boats and slipping off the end without anyone noticing. Sometimes, it seemed that suicide was the only thing possible that could end the pain."
Instead, Spencer-Devlin jumped into the nation's 1990s culture wars when she decided to come out publicly in the pages of Sports Illustrated. She recalls the idea stemming from a reporter-player relationship cultivated with SI reporter Amy Nutt. "We had the disease in common," Spencer-Devlin says. Nutt was a bipolar fast cycler, someone who could experience three manic episodes in a day; Spencer-Devlin was a slow cycler, whose manic and depressive mood swings could last weeks, if not months.
"That was our common thing. And Amy was one of the few people [with bipolar disorder] who I would talk to about it whose eyes didn't glaze over when I brought up how I dealt with it. She came up with the idea [to come out in the magazine]. My first reaction was 'You're fucking crazy.' I didn't want that notoriety, but then I thought about it for three, four, five months and decided to do it."
The decision was sealed, in large part, by the fact she'd been so open about her manic-depression, Spencer-Devlin says. Since arriving on the tour, she'd not only talked openly about the disorder with the media, but she had also adopted raising awareness of it as a crusade.
"That definitely was a thought I had," she says. "There's a place when you want to be honest about everything. There weren't a lot of people in the press or among my friends who didn't know, but the stand-up-and-be-counted part became very important to me."
"It was definitely a big story," recalls John Garrity, the reporter who wrote the story, along with Nutt. He flew to Laguna Beach in early 1996 and met with Spencer-Devlin and her then-partner, a music composer. "She'd be the first LPGA golfer to step forward. It was an extremely sensitive topic at the time and, honestly, a subject that was hurting the LPGA in a lot of ways. There were rumors that suggested the sexual orientation of LPGA players was entirely off the spectrum, and even though Muffin said the number of actual lesbians on tour was significantly less, the perception at the time was that a lot of sponsors weren't backing events because they didn't feel it was promoting the so-called 'wholesome family image' and they didn't want their brand names associated with that."
It wasn't an easy decision. Spencer-Devlin had to deal with how her sponsors, such as Callaway Golf, would react, not to mention her fellow players, LPGA fans and the general public. And, of course, there was the LPGA Tour.
The story ran in early April. Spencer-Devlin didn't lose any of her sponsors. Media outlets across the world picked it up. America's leading gay magazine, The Advocate, followed with a cover story. She started speaking up for equal rights for gays and lesbians, even serving as grand marshal in gay-pride parades.
The reception among straight players on the tour was also supportive. "They were like, 'Oh, man, well-done,' but the gay players were freaked-out—at least that's the way it seemed to me," she says. "None of them wanted to talk about it. At the time, I kind of felt alone."
Six months later, Spencer-Devlin received an email from a gay player on tour. It said something similar to "Look, we didn't know what was going to happen, and we were kind of freaked-out," she says.
The only significant fallout, in terms of outing herself, happened four years later. In 2000, around the time she was considering retiring from the tour due to back pain, the LPGA announced it was starting a Legends Tour, allowing players 45 and older a chance to compete against golfers in their age range.
But Spencer-Devlin realized she wasn't welcome—at least not at the first event. Apparently, a key sponsor was closely affiliated with the Mormon Church. And, she recalls, a friend in the meeting between that sponsor and the LPGA heard the sponsor didn't want her involved.
Personally, it stung. "If there hadn't been that issue, I might have geared up and played that tour. But because it did go that way, I kind of thought, 'Fuck it' and disappeared from golf for a few years," she says. "But, you know, I was ready for life after golf. So who knows? Maybe it all helped me."
This was also around the time her last major manic episode came; it was in New York and toward the end of a long-term relationship. Among the highlights were spending $20,000 in a shopping spree at a ritzy department store (two custom-made suits, a dinner jacket, a velvet three-quarter blazer, various ties and cuff links, and a couple of cashmere sweaters—all of which she still owns, by the way), being arrested for trespassing at the United Nations' headquarters and, the next day, trying to kick the back windshield out of a police car while being transported to Bellevue Hospital Center, 25 years after her first stay there.
After retiring in 2001 (she mounted a semi-comeback in 2004-05), Spencer-Devlin ended her designer diet and went back on lithium, primarily because "Dude, I wanted to eat chocolate and smoke a cigarette again."
Looking out for red flags (she knows that if she sleeps less than eight hours it's time to increase her medication, legal or otherwise), taking her meds, and relying on her close network of friends in and outside Laguna Beach has kept her disorder in key. A fitting testament to that reality occurred two months ago, when her mother passed away. In the past, emotional upheavals might have precipitated a manic episode, but Spencer-Devlin took this one in stride.
"If people suffering from bipolar disorder want advice, I'd say this: 'Take your meds, listen to your doctor and have at least two people—like [the seconds] they used to have in gun duels—who you can reach out to when you need to,'" she says.
* * *
The most inept of the three men who comprise her foursome at Aliso Creek has no game. He dribbles his first tee shot, four-putts the first green and, by the third of the canyon course's nine holes, has lost three balls. Finally, he hits a drive that catches some air.
"Dude, if I had your swing tempo, I'd have won a million dollars every year on the tour," says Spencer-Devlin, without a hint of irony. And, damn, wouldn't you know that by the end of the nine holes, the guy says this was the most consistent round he'd ever played.
Spencer-Devlin doesn't play golf much anymore, having settled into what passes as normal life for her. In 2006, she decided to get married again. (The first marriage was a civil ceremony that ended in 2000.) Although that union has since ended, it led her to the latest phase of a life marked by a bewildering number of phases.
"When you get married, you split the responsibilities up, and one of my tasks was getting gifts for the wedding's guests," she says. "We'd invited 160 people, so there were a lot of gifts to consider. I looked at the usual things, such as candles and stuff like that, but nothing seemed right."
For two years, she had watched her best friend, Megan Eckstrom, apprentice to master glass blower John Barber. Even though Spencer-Devlin has a natural penchant for acting (or acting out), she had never considered herself artistic. But, she figured, what the fuck? She asked Eckstrom to help her create paperweights as gifts.
Spencer-Devlin caught the glass bug. Hard.
"I absolutely caught it," she says. "In the beginning, it was like hitting a three-wood to an island green out of the rough. It was like golf in that you had to be single-minded, and I realized the same things that helped me in golf, such as focus, helped me in glass, and the same things I struggled with in golf, such as impatience, hurt me. Plus, I was making my living using my body again."
Something else was intoxicating for a person who had long danced on the edges of mental and physical extremes (among her many experiences, Spencer-Devlin counts parachuting, bungee jumping and fox hunting): It was dangerous.
"You're standing in front of a 2,100-degree oven, and if you don't pay attention, it's pretty easy to burn yourself," she says. "So having to pay attention the entire time was just as exciting for me in glass as it was in golf."
She learned the basics of the craft quickly, apprenticed for two years with Barber and, today, is a proud "glass-hole," a member of the dozen or so Laguna Beach artisans, such as Gavin Heath, whom she rents studio space from, and his longtime associate Jerome Underwood, her mentor in the craft. She exhibits and demonstrates her technique at the Sawdust Festival, as well as displaying her wares at craft-guild shows on Laguna's Main Beach twice a month. She also creates custom pieces, including trophies for LPGA Tour events, and just received her first five-figure commission from a high-rent company looking for some artsy bling for its awards banquet.
Today, the once jet-setting, headline-producing, eccentric personality seems perfectly at ease in a life that finds her living in a one-room apartment next to the studio where she refines and works at her craft. And she wouldn't change a thing.
"If I would have known how to not have my manic and depressed episodes at the time, I wouldn't have had them," she says. "But the fact that I did, I think, is a reason for my happiness today. I know how to offset a possible manic episode and how to offset a possible depressing one. It's simplicity. Jet-setting and all of that is great, but, man, it's hard. It's impossible to set a routine, and for someone who has a mental illness, routine is so imperative.
"Plus, today, I'm imbedded in a passion, one I never thought I'd have," she concludes. "And I couldn't be more content."
Maybe this is just the latest weird chapter of a trippy woman's story who could go off the deep end—high or low—at any point. But spend an afternoon with Spencer-Devlin in her Laguna Beach studio or play nine holes with her, and one conclusion is hard to deny.
"There's no one like Muffin. That's the bottom line," says Kris Tschetter, a former LPGA player and longtime friend. "She is so open and honest and thinks outside the box and has such a real heart. You know how when you meet someone new, and you immediately connect with them? That's how I always felt about Muffin."
"She has always been her own person and walked her own path," says Amy Alcott, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame and one of the sport's great ambassadors. "Not having walked in her footsteps, I can only imagine what all her adventures were like. But the ability to reinvent yourself, to find a new passion and to basically shape your own life? That's something that makes me think even more highly of her than when she was on tour, and she has been my friend for so many years.
"She went through so many experiences and crossed over and came out of it smelling like a rose," she concludes. "What's not to admire about that?"
This article appeared in print as "The Greatest Lesbian, Manic-Depressive, Glass-Blowing Golfer of Them All: Muffin Spencer-Devlin made history when she came out while on the LPGA Tour—but that was the easy part."