Barbara Walters arrived at Cipriani on 42nd St. just before 8 on Friday, Sept. 5, dressed in slimming black pants, a black sequined top, and a droll pair of hot-pink satin heels. Ms. Walters was there to present Billie Jean King—the guest of honor for the International Tennis Hall of Fame’s Legends Ball—with the 2008 Eugene L. Scott Award (Mr. Scott was the founder of Tennis Week magazine). Upon spotting her, the Daily Transom attempted to steer the conversation to the 2008 election.
“Oh, I’m not talking about politics tonight!” she said, frowning faintly and shaking her blonde, well-coiffed head. Instead, she discussed her friendship with Ms. King—”We’re always getting or giving each other awards”—who was just then milling about with Monica Seles and the first female president of the United States Tennis Association, Jane Brown Grimes.
“I watched the Bobby Riggs match,” Ms. Walters said, referring to the supremely-hyped 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” exhibition that Ms. King is best remembered for. She defeated and humbled Riggs, a former Wimbledon star-turned-hustler: he claimed the men’s game was vastly superior to the women’s. But this year, people don’t seem to care very much about the women athletes either. How depressing!
Ms. Walters didn’t think so. “That was an enormous occasion for women, and it changed women’s tennis for all time,” she said of the tournament. The View doyenne went on to mention that she feels this is the talk-show’s best year yet. “We’re all very happy. We’ve had the political candidates on in the past, and we’re going to have them again.”
Really? The ladies didn’t give a particularly blissed-out impression during the September 2 kick-off of their 12th season. In fact, they seemed pretty fed-up with each other, even after a vacation! Doesn’t it get extra-stressful at that varnished “Hot Topic” table, particularly during election season?
“It’s not stressful… It’s wonderful to be able to get on and argue about all the different candidates. I have to be a little careful, because I try to be somewhat impartial,” she said. “But everybody else on the program has very strong opinions, and that makes it fun.”
Inside the elegantly lit Bowery Savings building, dozens of guests circulated around the tables of charity auction items, including a private Andre Agassi hit session in Las Vegas that sold for $16,000. We found Ms. King calmly applying a last coat of lipstick in a small room off the edge of the ballroom, just before the presentation of her award. Given her blazing career of 39 Grand Slam singles, doubles and mixed doubles tennis titles and her own life-long fight for equal rights both in and outside of the tennis court, we wondered: What was her take on the media’s treatment of Republican vice-presidential hopeful Sarah Palin?
“Now we’re back to the experience. Remember how they were talking about how the experience for Hillary wasn’t necessary? Do you notice how they’re talking about experience again? I’m just cracking up. I’m just like, whatever!” Ms. King said. “I think Palin’s great. I think she’s awesome. I think she’s honest, I think she’s real.”
But would the Governor of Alaska have been so quick to release public statements about her family if her daughter Bristol was revealed to be gay, instead of pregnant? “That was one question I had in my mind,” said Ms. King, who was first prominent professional female athlete to come out. “I have no idea. Her, I think she’d embrace the child and then have to start thinking about the issue.”
As someone tapped her on the shoulder, Ms. King paused for one last question. We had to know how on earth Regis Philbin managed to win their amusing little Court 13 match, which had aired on Live: With Regis and Kelly that morning. Mr. Philbin seemed to be barely breaking a sweat and, post-win, appeared to fancy himself the next Roger Federer.
“He edited it the way he wanted it!” laughed Ms. King. “You always let the host win. Psychologically. Always. That’s what you’re supposed to do,” she said, nodding confidently as she glided out the door.
UPDATE: On Tuesday, Ms. King issued a statement to 365gay.com affirming her support for Barack Obama. The statement reads:
Last Friday, reporter from the New York Observer asked me what I thought about Sarah Palin. I told her I thought Sarah Palin was honest and real. I believe that. But, that in no way should be viewed as an endorsement of any kind. I oppose many of the positions of Sarah Palin, particularly those tied to the LGBT community. I am supporting Barack Obama and, in fact, I have lent my name to both Women for Obama and the Obama LGBT Steering and Policy Committee.