24 MAY 1986, Page 36

High life

Two Franks


rank Shields was one of the best- looking men to ever play top tennis, certainly the handsomest Wimbledon final- ist ever. In the 1932 semi-final against Borotra, Shields won the final game of the fifth set literally on one leg. He had to default the final due to injury. In 1932 he was ranked numero uno in the world, yet the biggest headlines came about when in 1933, in the middle of a Davis Cup tie against France, Shields failed to show up at Roland Garros Stadium after having won his singles on the first day. 'SHIELDS DIS- APPEARS, FOUL PLAY SUSPECTED' and `TENNIS PLAYER DROPS FROM SIGHT IN PARIS, FRENCH CHANCES GROW' were two of the more colourful captions that accom- panied his sudden exit from the tie. Was it foul play by the pernicious Frogs? Of course not. What happened was that Shields, a man after my own heart if there ever was one, put on his dinner jacket and went out on the town immediately follow- ing his victory. The date was 3 June, and the city of light did not get dark until ten that evening. By that time Shields had already picked up a beautiful woman and was having a drink with her when she informed him that she had a boat to catch. He was not about to let a Davis Cup rubber get in between a lady and him. So he followed her to Le Havre, got into bed with her aboard the luxury liner SS Presi- dent Harding, and when he awoke found himself 100 miles out on the Atlantic.

Needless to say, Shields could have been the greatest ever if he had trained on the tennis court rather than in the boudoir. Yet despite the womanising and heavy booz- ing, he still remained among the world's top ten for nearly 20 years. Having done some boozing and chasing myself, and never even having reached the top level where tennis is concerned, I know what a really extraordinary achievement his was. He was ranked even higher by the fairer sex. Although he never volunteered such facts, Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer and Marilyn Monroe were some of his para-


Shields married three times, and his second wife was Princess Marina Torlonia, a legendary beauty of the time. But his looks did not help his marriages. Women could not stay away from him, and men would not let him go home at night. Such was his charm and magnetism, that his male friends interfered more than the countless women. I remember him in the late Sixties, still very tall and erect, still looking great, holding court in the bar .at Clarke's buying everyone drinks and rais- ing hell. He was the most popular man of his time.

The reason I am reminiscing is that last week his second son, Willy Shields, pub- lished lished a book about Big Frank. Its title s Bigger than Life, a hell of an appropriate name for its subject. I went to a party for the launching, and some of the old tennis guard were there. They make these ghastly and ill-mannered wimps of today look like, the midgets they are. Afterwards I dined with Frank Shields, his elder boy, and the father of Brooke the actress. Young Frank, as he was known while Big Frank v/as, alive, has been a friend of mine for 2) years. In fact, I played with Brooke when he was born in 1966. Young Frank is as good-looking as his dad, and has been known to have the occasional drink. Need- less to say, we got very drunk and to!! stories of the trouble we've managed to get, into in the past. Next to us was Michael Thomas the novelist, and the man who wrote the foreword to the Shields book. When I went over to speak to Michael an enormous magnum of champagne arrived. Thomas opened it and we drank it in a jiffy. Then I returned to. my table. Later on, after Shields had left, a man approached me and asked me why Frank had not thanked him for the champagne that Thomas and I had drunk. 'Oh, Shields is known for never thanking people who send him champagne,' I volunteered. What had happened was that the man told the waiter to send a magnum to the gentleman dining with Taki, and the waiter brought it to the table I had stopped by for a moment. That incident kept us going for a while longer, but the sender did not seem at all amused. But it was a grand night, and as Michael Thomas so aptly put it in his foreword, it reminded me of nights past, when having fun was considered legiti- mate, indeed, a crucial part of living well'.