This piece comes from Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame, edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy, and published this week by Twelve.
Before Renée Richards became a star of the professional women’s tennis circuit, she was a nice Jewish boy—the puritz, or prince, of her household. Richards was born in 1934 as Richard Raskind, known to everyone as Dick. The child of two doctors in Forest Hills, Queens, Dick spent weekends fetching tennis balls for his father on dirt courts by the Long Island Railroad tracks.
In public, Dick was a self-assured athlete, captain of the Yale tennis team and one of a small number of Jews picked for his fraternity. But he had begun surreptitiously dressing up in his sister’s clothes at age 9. In the privacy of his college dorm, he shaved his legs and disguised his genitals, urgently trying to give life to his female side. By this time he’d named her Renée, French for “reborn.”
Dick went to medical school and became an ophthalmologist specializing in highly skilled surgery on the muscles of the eye. He joined the Navy as a lieutenant and won all its tennis championships. But enlisting meant that Dick had to shave off the beard a psychoanalyst had encouraged him to grow to stanch fantasies of Renée. Depressed and lonely, near the end of his stint in the service Dick found a psychiatrist who treated transgender people. He started receiving injections of progesterone and estrogen. His body softened. He took pictures of himself as Renée, looking beautifully feminine, graceful, and long-limbed.
After living as a woman for months in a small pension in Paris, Dick traveled to Casablanca, Morocco, for sex reassignment surgery, which he could not get in the United States. He brought $4,000 in hundred-dollar bills to the clinic. But he’d heard stories about unhygienic conditions from people who’d had the surgery. As a doctor, this spooked him, and in the end Dick went home without it. He also stopped the hormone therapy.
Everyone who knew Renée was shocked that Dick had stuffed her back into the closet. At the apartment of a friend who often tried to introduce him to women, he met a fashion model he thought was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Dick was smitten. Maybe his friend was right, and all he needed was the right girl. He married her six months later, and their son, Nicholas, was born in 1972.
The marriage fell apart three years later. Dick went back to his psychiatrist, who told him that at 40 he’d been tormented long enough and it was time to let Renée live. Dick’s sister tried to talk him out of the surgery. His friends worried about the impact on Nicholas. But as Richards said, in Eric Drath’s excellent 2011 documentary Renée, “I didn’t have any choice.”
In becoming Renée, Richards left her home in New York, where her son remained. She restarted her ophthalmology practice in California—and began playing in amateur women’s tennis tournaments. She wore size 12 shoes with minidresses (later adding a mezuzah necklace when she saw many players wearing crosses around their necks). Her friends warned Richards that she’d be found out: A great 40-year-old tennis player doesn’t drop from nowhere. And indeed, when she won the La Jolla championship in 1976, a reporter started digging. The story broke nationally: Women’s winner was a man.
The United States Tennis Association responded with a preemptive strike: Richards would be barred from playing professionally. Furious at the implication that she wasn’t a real woman, Richards filed suit, demanding entry to the U.S. Open. “After 30 years of apologizing to myself and to the world in general, I was through apologizing,” she wrote in her memoir. “It was time for a savvy lawyer.”