OF JENKS AND JOEL – The Memoirs of Two Tennis Writers Celebrate Their Passionate Loves


Whenever Jenks enters a pressroom, the vibe improves. Professional, fast and calm, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Bruce Jenkins is friendly in a quiet way. A keen observer, he twice has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. The presence of tennis journalist Joel Drucker ensures a pressroom will crackle. Provocative, staccato whiplash chatter is his brand.

Jenks and Joel are my friends, and both are members of the “Bay Area 11.” The two of them, plus John Huston, Matthew Cronin, Ted Robinson, Brad Gilbert, Courtney Nguyen, Art Spander, Richard Osborn, Doug Robson and myself are part of a cadre of Bay Area-based media figures who long have played an outsized role in telling tennis’ story. Jenks and Joel were both reared in LA before moving to the Bay Area. They graduated from UC Berkeley, emerging as writers. They encouraged each other to move out of their comfort zones and go beyond sports writing. Now both have written intimate memoirs about their Michigan-based loves.

Jenkins’ “Shop Around: Growing Up With Motown In a Sinatra Household” is a culture wars tale of how he grew up in the shadow of his famous father, Gordon (aka “Gor”) Jenkins, Frank Sinatra’s favorite composer and orchestra leader. Jenks uses “Sinatra speak” to describe an era of “broads, bucks, booze, battles and bye-bye’s,” and “mournful, ‘Set ‘Em Up Joe’ ballads.”

A Sinatra record,” he tells us, “strikes the image of a well-worn fellow pondering his fate at some lonesome tavern.” He describes how his brilliant dad created “lavish string arrangements designed…to get people on the couch.” But the so-called king of schmaltz was repulsed by Elvis, the Beatles and the world of rock that left Sinatra in the rearview mirror.

Gor’s son Bruce had (and still has) Motown in his veins. In “Shop Around” we learn of race songs, girl singers and Otis Redding’s horn section, which “laid down some bad-ass rhythms that had racist grandmothers dancing in Nebraska.” Here were “a bunch of polished, supremely talented black artists, drawing on contemporary themes – lost love, dance away your cares, found my baby at last…Against America’s backdrop of hatred, the lyrics were innocent and endearing, full of hope…These were love songs unveiled with tenderness and compassion…Detroit had a rhythm to it.”

Jenks adored Smokey Robinson. He contends that nobody ever sang like him. “He had a way of turning single syllables…into rapid-fire five-note virtuosity. [He was] an absolute master of style and technique.’

Like his dad, Jenks values talent above all else. His book has a single word on tennis – McEnroe. Referring to Mac, he confides that he worships genius – and that “real talent must be tolerated.” McEnroe may have been a jerk and a bully, but who had a greater feel for the ball? Sinatra may have been a drunk and a womanizer with mob links, but Gor “was willing to overlook petulance…belligerence and other annoyances.”

Jenks provides engaging tales of Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland, Aretha Franklin and many more. He reminds us that Bob Dylan said Smokey was “America’s greatest living poet,” and that “Dylan and Sinatra [were] two outsiders, two supreme observers, two musical road warriors fascinated by society’s losers.”

Often on finals day at Wimbledon, as Jenks and I sat in the front row of the press box just 30 yards from Federer or Sampras, he’d tell me, “Today this is the only place to be.” Similarly, he writes, “I’d make a simple request…Put me in a corner of a Motown recording studio. Invisible, privileged beyond words.”

To Jenks, Motown is Michigan magic. To Joel, his great love, the Detroit-born Joan Edwards, was also Michigan magic. Joel’s touching memoir “Don’t Bet On It” is a celebration of his 28-year romance with an inventive, quirky, wonderful woman. It explores a couple’s love as they navigate a medical dystopia. His remembrance gives us literary references to “Ulysses,” a caring cameo visit by Billie Jean King, touching words from Emily Dickinson, and (this is true) a poetic insight from Jimmy Connors.

Drucker contends that “humor is the affectionate communication of insight.” For years Joan carried around a book of 143 off-beat jokes that “came…to epitomize [her] sensibility: clever, kind, silly, corny, and grounded in an early ’60s that had not yet become overtly contentious.” Joan was “private, creative, humorous, and subversive…The best joke was…a delicious wink between intimates. Call it the verbal kiss.”

In 1982, Joan was Inside Tennis’ art director and Joel was our young Managing Editor. Unfortunately he made a serious ethical error. I had no choice but to let the promising 22-year-old go. Ironically, Joel’s departure stoked the couple’s already considerable passion. Two days after I dismissed him, the duo spent their first night together. The lovers were smitten: To them a day was “a trip to the beach, a movie, meals, treks across bridges. Traffic? Meaningless. And the bed, always the bed, complete with hours of pillow talk. I felt both afloat and grounded…This was all I ever wanted.’”

The elfin granddaughter of a copper baron, Joan was a cheerleader and a Cherry Princess who sang in choirs and preferred playful colors. She did cartwheels, burst into tears during wildlife shows, had 30 pairs of Crocs and “favored books set in nature, stories of repressed characters with deep inner lives and strongly sensual qualities…She had a childlike sense of wonder, an ability to always play.” She was a gifted artist who drew one of IT’s best original covers.

The girl from Traverse City, Michigan – she called it Traversity – became a woman who explored bookstores in Berzerkley. At its beginning, their romance had its bumps. There were fights, and even a breakup. Joan once asked Joel, “Do you want to see time fly? Watch this!” Then she smashed a clock in a rage. More than this, the lovers were challenged by Joan’s lupus and a Job-like string of ailments. Diabetes, sciatica, glaucoma, ovarian cysts, arthritis and dicitus – Joan called it a “s— buffet.”

She had a heart attack and took 287 pills a week. A doctor told Joel, “Your wife has so many issues, we don’t know where to begin.” Drucker agrees with M. Scott Peck, who wrote, “We build community when we share our wounds.” Joel contends,”[We] were akin to those couples who met in London during World War II, days and nights commingling with the Luftwaffe raining down bombs and…the relentless…threat of yet another air raid. Our love was laced with the heightened alertness of wartime footing – and the attendant joy in cherishing the moment…Bone marrow aspirations, needles, electrodes, spinal taps, MRIs and drugs…these Joan faced with stoicism.” To her, a 90-minute MRI was “a loud disco party.”

She confided, “I find myself living to die and dying to live.” Joel noted, “How unfair to wrap a life so much into its death…Must the taffy of our love be reduced to the institutional sterility of a medical textbook? Must the dead be defined by what brought them to death? I didn’t fall in love with an illness, a drug…[or] maps of human physiology.”

Joan told Joel, “Just listen to my heart. That’s all I need. That and a turkey sandwich and a Diet Coke.” But sadly, her existence was on its own dreary diet: ambulances, gurneys and surgeries. To shuffle 40 yards with a walker became a triumph.

Joel devotedly stood by his wife. The self-described “gregarious loner” had long yearned for an audience. Now, he’d come home from a tournament and Joan would say, “Regale me.” He had all the audience he needed.

Joel confides that for years his assumption was “that Joan’s health was much more important than… anything.” But Joan said, “You can’t fix me…Don’t try to be helping. Just keep listening.” She insisted he write down, “When Joan gets sick, I get angry,” and confronted him: “If you don’t do therapy, I’m out of here.” She taught Joel to be open to her love, while he came to understand that he also had to take care of himself.

Eventually Joel became resigned: “No more fighting. The war is over. No more tests, no more doctors, no more waiting, no more drugs.” They became subsumed by a Hindu-like sense of surrender. Drucker, who is obsessed with Jimmy Connors, lost his wife on September 2, 2010 – Jimbo’s birthday. Joel wondered, was this “some sort of mystical message, Joan’s cosmic link and wink?…[Now] there is no one to hold hands or history with.” To Joel, “Nostalgia is the sloppy drunk at the party…People want to forget, because life is too painful…[Still], you’re lucky if you find a soul mate…For twenty-eight years, I was a very lucky man.”

“Don’t Bet On It” gives us quirky humor, literary allusions, and philosophic koans. Questions of faith and transcendence emerge. Joel recalls his unofficial wedding on Easter Day. “No guests, no registration, no parties, no bone china, no legality. Just the two of us…A neighbor’s rabbit skipped through our yard. We put rings on [and]…we moved slowly to the song we’d adopted six years earlier as our anthem, ‘Young at Heart,’ sung by Frank Sinatra.”

Sung by whom, you say? Sung by Sinatra and arranged, we believe, by Gor – Bruce Jenkins’ beloved father Gordon.

It’s a small, wonderful world – yes?