The Inns of Court

Mort & Ruth Needelman talk tennis

Ruth and Mort Needelman: Oral History Excerpts

MN: Mort Needelman, RN: Ruth Needelman

Q – OK. Let’s talk about the tennis courts. You are a tennis player, Mort, right?

MN – Yes, at least until recently. My tennis days are probably over because I have a torn rotator cuff. In 1969 when we moved here, it was not yet the height of the tennis phenomenon, but it was coming up fast. Stan Smith was the big tennis star then. I had never played tennis before. In the 1970s there was a ten-year boom in tennis that has never been matched in this country. There was MacEnroe, Connors, and it carried over to local courts. The tennis courts at Lafayette became the center of a lot of things. Controversy also. A center for friends. We developed friends on Lafayette tennis courts, who have been with us all the rest of our lives. We were a very closely-knit group.

RN – They hogged the courts.

MN – It was called the Lafayette Tennis Club, but people who were not members called it “The Hogs.” In fact, there were two groups. There were The Hogs and there were those who were trying to get on the court. And then there was Chico of Lafayette. When Chico died, there was a mass for him, because he was a hugely popular guy. The mass at Blessed Sacrament was crowded, because every parent who ever sent their kid to Chico for lessons was there and all the tennis players were there. Besides, the tennis players adopted Chico. Chico never paid a cent in taxes. So, we had to create a huge superstructure of lies to get him into Medicare. Or Medicaid. We had to get him into a home when he became disabled. We had to have lawyers from big downtown firms threaten the Social Security Administration that we were going to sue them if they took away Chico’s benefits. In any event, when Chico died, the padre gave this long, long sermon. A fine man. He contributed some of the major lies to get Chico Social Security. And he went on at length about how Chico was this marvelous tennis teacher. Actually, he was a terrible tennis teacher, but he went on and on about tennis. I was one of the pallbearers at Chico’s funeral. Another pallbearer sitting next to me was Sal Arrigo. I said to Sal Arrigo “if this guy goes on another five minutes there is going to be a riot in this church, because there were those two groups—the Lafayette Tennis Club and those who could never get on the courts. We called it the Lafayette Tennis Club because of an incident that happened. One of the players was Karen Bopna. I believe he played as a blue at either Oxford or Cambridge. He went back to India. He worked for one of the big Indian corporations. He applied for membership in the fanciest tennis club in Bombay and he put down for his affiliation “Lafayette Tennis Club”—Al Ortlieb, my friend from across the park, “Al Ortlieb, Manager. “ When they looked at this they said “OK, that’s fine, we’ll take him.” After that we decided to call ourselves “The Lafayette Tennis Club.” Now, when Al Ortlieb died, he died on the tennis court. He died while I was playing with him. The Washington Post obit notice read “Al Ortlieb, a captain in the nuclear submarine corps, and beloved member of the Lafayette Tennis Club. “ It was a very close group. To this day we tell stories about Al Ortlieb and we all miss him.

Q – So, this was an entirely ad hoc group?

MN – I wrote a history of the Lafayette Tennis Club, which I will not give to you to spare you its rich stream of obscenities. It was written to a friend of mine—it was a personal thing, not to be published.

Q – But you could tell us some of the highlights?

MN – I can do that. The Lafayette Tennis Club was pretty much founded by Jack Nazarian, a pretty important guy, in the neighborhood. Jack was a rug merchant. I don’t know if his store still exists, near Pearson’s liquor store in upper Georgetown. I understand that Jack applied all sorts of political pressure, and he used a lot of political know-how, to get the tennis courts built. The courts were built before we moved here. They have since been rebuilt and resurfaced many times. So, Jack is known as the father of Lafayette Tennis Club. His argument was that the courts would be great for the kids of the neighborhood. Of course, there were very few kids in the neighborhood then. Once the courts were built, Jack’s main function was to shoo the kids off the courts. (laughter) So, Jack was the father of the club. The mother was Marie Russell. Marie Russell was a legendary person who used to dominate the courts. She would assign who could play and who could not play. In the midst of the tennis boom, when twenty people were always waiting to get on the courts, she would be down in the lower left court – on the rotting benches down there. People were playing doubles, rotating in. Other people were waiting to get on a court. If she spotted one of her friends, she would say, “oh, come on down: we’re going to rotate in.” Those waiting wanted to kill her.

RN – And she got away with it, I don’t know how…

MN – They would complain to the police, who responded to the complaints with the advice, “we don’t screw around with that mother.” (laughter) The only reason she ever allowed me in was that there came a point where she had to use our bathroom. She knocked on the door. What happened was people used the bushes near the courts. But Captain Ortlieb’s house overlooks the tennis courts. Dressed in full Navy regalia and peering with spyglasses, he called out “Marie! I see what you are doing!” (laughter) Captain Al Ortlieb was a legendary figure in this neighborhood. We continue to tell stories about him. Here’s a typical story about Captain Ortlieb. One year they were resurfacing the courts. So, we went to play at the Naval base. He signed us up for an hour. When the hour was not quite up, these two high-ranking Naval officer nurses appeared and queried the party: “when are you gentlemen going to get off?” Ortlieb: “what do you mean get off? We still have 15 minutes. Did you sign up for a court?” The Navy nurse said, “yes, we did. But the people over here are overstaying their time.” Ortlieb: “Well, tell them to get off.” The nurse said, “come over here and look.” She pulls the curtain to afford a view and it’s the secretary of defense and the chief of Naval operations. Ortlieb yelled “Fellows! I think your time is up.” And they got off. (laughter) That’s Al Ortlieb. He died on the court.

RN – I was off on some errand and came back, not knowing what had happened. There were fire engines and a commotion. I asked what had happened and somebody said someone had died. I asked who was playing. They said “a big guy.” But was it big TALL or big HEAVY? I didn’t know who it was until I found Marie Russell, who told me it was Al and Mort had gone with him in the ambulance.

MN – I made a list of the members. Practically all of them are dead now. A wonderful, colorful group of people. We used to meet socially all the time. To this day one of my closest friends is Frances Ogg --, who no longer lives here. She now lives in Potomac MD. There was Chico, Al, George Ogg, Jeff and Evelyn Cohelan. Jeff and Evelyn lived in this huge house across from the Broad Branch Market. It used to be a single house; now it is two. Jeff was a former Congressman. Jeff and Evelyn’s family are very well known in California. A very active, liberal political family. Very well known in the San Francisco area. Jeff was a wonderful, courageous liberal-Democratic Congressman, who lost his seat in Congress by taking on the Hearst papers. He challenged the Hearst papers in a field I was involved in—the Newspaper Preservation Act. I had been involved in newspaper preservation cases. Evelyn is a legend in the nursing field in Washington. She was the founder of the George Mason University nursing school. I believe she was also one of the founders of the League of the Washington Hospice.

Q – Is she still alive?

MN – No. Everyone I am now talking about has died. There was also Clay Mitchell. Remember his father, Henry Mitchell? The gardening king. Burt Dunne-a very colorful guy. Burt used to hang out with a group from Kuala Lumpur. Somehow that group thought Burt was a countryman of theirs, so they allowed him to play tennis in their group. I don’t know where they got that idea. Lorenzo - my friend, Lorenzo Vellocorte. - an artist and art teacher. A very close friend of mine. He died a couple of years ago. Lambert Joel, an extremely colorful guy. The worst tennis player in the area, but a brilliant mathematician. Laura Robinson. Now, Laura Robinson couldn’t care less about the huge real estate business she had, which her daughter now runs. Laura Robinson was the dominant real estate person in this area. But she only cared about tennis. She would have traded the entire real estate business for a good backhand. I already talked about Jack Nazerian. These two Indian guys should still be alive—Bakshi Singh, another mathematician, who went to Canada, don’t know where, and Karein Bopsa, who I mentioned before. And of course in the later years we had Cheryl Douglas.

Q – Let’s return to Chico for a moment. Did you say he lived at the school?

MN – Yep. He lived in the basement of the school. That was his home. And our garage was his pro shop.

Q – And was he there a long time?

MN – Many, many years. Chico was a boxer, I understand, when he was a young man. He could never have been a tennis player. He was the world’s worst tennis player. But Chico only charged a quarter. You know what they charge now? It’s $20 an hour. Everyone loved Chico. He was a great old guy. The neighborhood all banded together for Chico. He had all kinds of medical problems. We banded together to make sure he was taken care of. Medicaid sent him once to this terrible house on the other side of Georgia Avenue. We got him out of there and into the Washington Home.

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