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Stoking the Ashe

Jeanne Ashe keeps her husband's legacy alive



Douglas Foulke

Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, wife of the late tennis great Arthur Ashe, was sitting at a sidewalk café in Kent, her new hometown, nibbling crab cakes on a sunny Saturday, watching people pop in and out of restaurants, galleries, and shops. “Arthur would have loved it here,” she says. “There’s a vibrancy; a friendly energy downtown. And he would have gone crazy for the fishing and the golf. And the views—the views from my place—you can just see him there meditating, writing, thinking of how to make the world better.”

Moutoussamy-Ashe recently completed building a three-story, 3,200-square-foot home on seven acres in South Kent, land she purchased 18 years ago when she became smitten with Litchfield County. Moutoussamy-Ashe does more than muse on her heroic husband’s memory. She is keeping his legacy alive through a new, state-of-the-art, interactive exhibition called the Inspirational Tour, being created now through an organization she founded in 2008 called the Arthur Ashe Learning Center. The Inspirational Tour will travel to different spots around the country starting in July, celebrating Ashe’s contributions not only to tennis—he was the first and only African-American male to be ranked number-one in the world; the only black male to win Wimbledon (1975) and the 

U.S. Open (1968)—but also to his intense commitment to fostering public awareness about civil rights, health, and education. 

“Arthur really was the embodiment of courage and grace and goodness,” says Moutoussamy-Ashe, a photographer who chronicled her husband’s last year of life in the book Daddy and Me, from the perspective of their daughter, Camera, now 26.

Arthur Ashe died in 1993 of AIDS, which he contracted from a blood transfusion after a heart bypass operation ten years earlier. The family had lived in Mount Kisco and Manhattan, and Moutoussamy-Ashe bought the Kent property in 1995 after finding it with her father, an architect. Using her father’s preliminary drawings, she built the home over the years, and moved in full-time this year.

“Arthur grew up poor, in the segregated South,” says his widow, who will be 62 on July 9. “His mother died when he was six, and he was raised by his father who loved him deeply, but was very demanding and drilled into him the importance of self-reliance, discipline, decency, responsibility, respect.

The Inspirational Tour will feature a walk-in dome that engages visitors with memorabilia, educational games, and interactive photographs. She says it will use an augmented reality platform that will enable people who have the app to point at a photo of Ashe, “and it will come alive,” she says, her green eyes widening with the thought. “You’ll be able to talk to him, ask him questions. It’s beyond amazing.”

The first stop for the Inspirational Tour will be July 10, which would have been Ashe’s 70th birthday, in Richmond, Virginia, where he was born and raised. Then it’s on to New York from August 24 to September 8, to commemorate the 45th anniversary of Ashe’s winning the U.S. Open. It will move to the Aetna visitor’s center in Hartford in October.

When the Tour is not on the road, Moutoussamy-Ashe hopes it will reside at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, being built on the Mall in Washington. “The timing is unbelievable,” says Moutoussamy-Ashe, adding that 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Besides the Inspirational Tour, the Arthur Ashe Learning Center (arthurashe.org) is an online resource to find “all things Arthur,” Moutoussamy-Ashe says. “A lot of people think it’s an actual physical place, but it’s not; it’s a way to connect through the Internet to Arthur’s history.” 

The actor Alec Baldwin says he agreed to serving on the AALC board after meeting Moutoussamy-Ashe at the U.S. Open. “She’s lovely and kind, and heart-stoppingly beautiful,” Baldwin told me. “I never had the privilege of meeting Arthur, but he always represented to me sort of the pinnacle of athleticism and kindness. Arthur was a guy who could’ve been a prince, anywhere, anytime.”

AALC board member Charlie Pasarell, the tennis star and commentator, said he met Ashe at the Orange Bowl tournament in 1956 when they were around 12, and they wound up rooming together at UCLA. “Arthur was my best friend,” Pasarell says. “I think of him every day. Whenever I’ve got a difficult decision to make, I say, ‘What would Arthur do?’” Pasarell is attending the Tour kickoff in Richmond, then will head to Newport on July 13, where he will be inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame, and will be introduced by Moutoussamy-Ashe.

After her crab cake lunch at J.P. Gifford Market & Catering Co., Moutoussamy-Ashe walked over for a wine-tasting event at the Morrison Gallery. “This is what I love about this town,” she says, smiling. “All my friends are here. Everyone gets the bigger picture.”

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