Before the premiere of a documentary about Renée Richards at the springtime Tribeca Film Festival, a reporter caught up with the 76-year-old transgender icon--and found that, like Greta Garbo, she wants to be left alone.
But the eye surgeon and former tennis pro did share some stories about her days in Newport Beach.
The trip down memory lane is contained in a long piece by ESPN's Michael Weinreb, who sat for an informal lunch with the 6-foot-2 redhead, a fellow eye surgeon at her Manhattan practice and Eric Drath, the director of Renée. She talked extensively about her amazing life, from her Jewish upbringing on the East Coast as Dick Raskind to her "outing" while playing for a Newport Beach club.
That was 35 years ago, in 1976, at a tennis club in Southern California named after John Wayne, which is where the doctor had gone to break away from her old self, from a life as Dick Raskind. When a television reporter dragged her into public view, she made a choice, and that choice has affected her existence to this day. And that choice does not directly correlate with the gender-reassignment surgery she underwent the year before, because for as long as she could conceive of such things, she'd always identified as a woman: It merely took her four decades to build up the courage and the knowledge and the confidence to make it official.
Richards goes on to clarify her "regrets," not for getting reconstructive surgery but for "taking the path of trying to play in the U.S. Open, rather than going back and reconstructing some semblance of a private life as Renée in Newport Beach."
Taking the path made Richards the most well-known professional women's tennis players of her era. . .
. . . and the sport's biggest target.
On regretting her leap into the limelight, Weinreb accuses Richards of, well, trying to have it both ways.
He quotes her saying, "I was the first one who stood up for the rights of transsexuals. I was the first one who came out in the public as a defender, or a pioneer for their rights. Because I insisted on my rights as a woman to do something that was so momentous."
For this, Richards gave up her peace and privacy.
Actually, it's more like they were taken from her.
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Such was the world into which Renée Richards was born, at age 41. The plan was to woodwork herself, to move to Orange County and begin a new life, to allow Dick Raskind and his once-promising amateur tennis career to sink quietly into obsolescence. She began playing tennis for leisure at a local club under the name Renée Clark; her friends advised her to maintain a low profile, but Richards, lulled into a sense of security, entered a tournament in La Jolla. Tipped off by someone in the crowd, a San Diego television reporter looked into Richards' past, outed her, and the story went national: WOMEN'S WINNER WAS A MAN. And it might have ended there if she let it go, if only the doctor had not been so enraged by the United States Tennis Association's declaration that, if she ever deigned to play in the U.S. Open, she was not welcome. Until that moment, she had no intention of playing in the U.S. Open. Until that moment, Richards, already a well-respected eye surgeon, insists she had never really dreamed of a professional tennis career.
Weinreb relates another story from the Newport Beach days involving the most colorful man in tennis at the time.
In her office, the doctor is recounting one of her final acts before she became a public figure. She was playing tennis in California, newly reborn, and Bobby Riggs recognized her as Dick Raskind, an old friend from the circuit. Riggs, an inveterate hustler, waddled his way toward the court and convinced her to accompany him to San Diego, to what is known as a "practice match." Doubles: A couple thousand dollars on the line. Riggs challenged two patsies, who demanded to see her in action before they agreed to the wager.
"Hit a few with them," Riggs whispered in her ear. "Not too good."
She did as she was told. They won the match, and Riggs said, "Renée, go get in the car." He collected his money, sprinted to the parking lot, and roared back up the freeway toward Orange County.
Could it have been karma from hustling the rubes that led to Richards' life changing forever after La Jolla?