The Saints Go Marching In

Earlier this year I suddenly felt like it was 1979 and I was on Lexington and 86th Street. In Washington I had drinks not once but twice with Harry Saint and Nancy Gengler. The Saints were in town to play in a court tennis tournament (they live within fifty feet—or fifty yards, I can’t remember, it could have been fifty meters—of Queen’s Club in London) and to visit family, including Tim Saint, the former Haverford College star, who is now in the Marines at Quantico.

Nancy was a top player in the late seventies. She won the national intercollegiates in 1976 while at Princeton and worked as a pro at Uptown. In 1983 she reached the finals of the women’s nationals in Boston where she played Alicia McConnell. Gengler, described by Jean Strouse in the New Yorker as “a willowy twenty-six-year-old redhead who moves with the lithe grace of a dancer,” almost beat McConnell, who was defending champion. After splitting games, Gengler was up 14-12 in the third. McConnell won the next two points and Gengler, sensing this was her opportunity, went for a third game point by calling no-set. McConnell crushed a backhand cross-court, out of Gengler’s reach. And then won in four. It is a pretty good what if—if Gengler had won the third game and then gone on to win the match. Instead, McConnell rolled out seven straight national titles.

Harry was the brilliant entreprenuer who single-handedly changed the course of U.S. squash history by opening up three public squash clubs in Manhattan. The most famous of which—and the only one that survives, though in a drastically reduced form—was the Uptown Racquet Club on 86th & Lex.

Harry eventually sold the squash clubs and wrote a novel in 1987, Memoirs of an Invisible Man (Atheneum). It was a brilliant book that did very well. Expectations were low, with just a $5,000 advance, but as soon as people read it, there was an explosion of interest. It had a 100,000 first printing and was a huge seller. ”The prose is so elegantly knowing,” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt said in the New York Times.

The Dell paperback did very well, too; it cost $4.95 (those were the days). For squash fans, it was partially set in a combination of the University and the Racquet & Tennis clubs in New York, and many people enjoyed a parlor game of guessing who he had modeled characters after.

Saint sold the movie rights to Warner Bros. for $1.3 million (the same amount he paid to buy the Uptown building). In 1992 John Carpenter (Halloween, etc.) made it into a film starring Chevy Chase as Nick Hollaway. The film got panned hard. “Where’s the wit? It fades into invisibility while you’re watching it?” said the LA Times. It remains a footnote in film history mostly because Shirley Walker became the first woman to compose an entire Hollywood movie’s music.

The world has been waiting for his second novel. Saint told me that he was working on a couple of projects but nothing was finished.