Tennis Star Billie Jean King Is Sued for Palimony Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Tennis champion Billie Jean King was sued by her former lover Marilyn Barnett, who was seeking financial support from King under California’s landmark palimony decision in Marvin v. Marvin (1976). King first denied that she and Barnett had been lovers but admitted a few days later to their relationship. King also said that she never promised to support Barnett financially.

Summary of Event

By the time Billie Jean King’s tennis career was winding down during the mid-1970s because of her increasing physical problems, she was involved in a romantic relationship with her secretary, former hair stylist Marilyn Barnett. The affair reportedly lasted about two years, and at the end of that time King discontinued Barnett’s formal employment. The two remained friends, and Barnett continued to reside in King’s Malibu house, which Barnett rented. [kw]Tennis Star Billie Jean King Is Sued for Palimony (Apr. 28, 1981) [kw]King Is Sued for Palimony, Tennis Star Billie Jean (Apr. 28, 1981) [kw]Palimony, Tennis Star Billie Jean King Is Sued for (Apr. 28, 1981) Palimony King, Billie Jean Barnett, Marilyn Tennis Homosexuality;and palimony[palimony] Palimony King, Billie Jean Barnett, Marilyn Tennis Homosexuality;and palimony[palimony] [g]United States;Apr. 28, 1981: Tennis Star Billie Jean King Is Sued for Palimony[01940] [c]Law and the courts;Apr. 28, 1981: Tennis Star Billie Jean King Is Sued for Palimony[01940] [c]Sex;Apr. 28, 1981: Tennis Star Billie Jean King Is Sued for Palimony[01940] [c]Social issues and reform;Apr. 28, 1981: Tennis Star Billie Jean King Is Sued for Palimony[01940] King, Larry (lawyer)

Billie Jean King with her husband, Larry King, speaks to reporters about Marilyn Barnett’s palimony lawsuit.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Larry King, a lawyer and King’s husband since 1965, presumably did not know about the relationship with Barnett. In addition to staying at the Malibu house, Barnett had been using the Kings’ credit cards to pay many of her expenses. When the Kings tried to evict her from the Malibu home in 1981, Barnett revealed the love affair and sued Billie Jean King for spousal support, in this case, palimony.

Barnett’s suit, filed April 28, was the first major lawsuit involving a same-gender application of the palimony doctrine. This doctrine was reaffirmed by the California Supreme Court in a 1976 decision involving actor Marvin v. Marvin (1979) Marvin, Lee Lee Marvin and his former live-in lover, Michelle Triola. Barnett claimed in her own suit that she had been promised lifetime financial support, even though King had already offered to settle with her financially.

Long before the palimony suit, King had transformed tennis by campaigning tirelessly for equal treatment for women players. She had the clout of her championship credentials to back up her crusade. By the age of seventeen in 1961, she had won her first Wimbledon doubles tournament and five years later triumphed to win the first of twelve Grand Slam singles titles. These were great accomplishments for a woman who as a young player had been described as “short, fat, and aggressive” by a tennis coach.

Among the disparities King sought to address was a financial one. Male players earned far more in prize money than female players. To inspire change, King threatened to boycott the U.S. Open in 1973, and in 1974 the open became the first tournament to provide equal prize money to men and women. King’s other accomplishments include being the first female tennis player to win more than $100,000 in prize money in a single year (1971), organizing the Women’s Tennis Association, and founding the magazine womenSports (later Women’s Sports and Fitness). She also coauthored several books on how to play tennis. She also faced considerable negative publicity, however, for her longtime advocacy of cigarette-company sponsorship of women’s tennis, namely the Virginia Slims Tour, which she cofounded.

Marilyn Barnett in court in December, 1981, after being sued by the Kings to vacate their home.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In 1973, former Wimbledon men’s champion Riggs, Bobby Bobby Riggs had challenged King to a match, hoping to demonstrate that male players of any age were superior to women in the sport. At the age of fifty-five, he was some twenty-five years older than King and had already defeated a former women’s champion, Margaret Court. The media dubbed the match the battle of the sexes, and the game was watched by an estimated forty million people on television. King decisively defeated Riggs in three straight sets.

In a 1981 press conference, King first denied the romantic affair with Barnett, then she publicly admitted to being bisexual, thus making her one of the first major athletes to acknowledge any kind of gay or lesbian relationship. Prior to the press conference, however, King and her husband had been discrediting Barnett, at one time suggesting that she had been “in and out of institutions” and had attempted to kill herself. One particular accident from October, 1980, was interpreted by some people as a suicide attempt by Barnett. She had been found lying on the sand below the balcony of her Malibu home. She had a broken back, and the incident left her paralyzed below the waist. She began to use a wheelchair for mobility but could not work to support herself.

Barnett ultimately lost her palimony lawsuit when it was dismissed on November 19, 1982. The suit failed, in part, because she and King were not cohabitants in the sense outlined in Marvin. The court found no evidence that King and Barnett joined their finances. A related case, Jones v. Daly (1981) Jones v. Daly, was in the courts in 1981. In that case, a California appeals court ruled against gay palimony or, as it came to be known, galimony.

It was not until many years later that King finally admitted that she was lesbian. Many lesbians and gays had been disappointed and angered when she termed her affair with Barnett a “mistake.” They thought she was trying to avoid the question of her sexuality. She then added that the mistake was being unfaithful to her husband, not having an affair with another woman.


Citing high attorney’s fees to defend against the lawsuit, King, who was almost forty years old by this time, returned to the tennis tour. She remained active in the sport as a coach and in other capacities, and she regained the reputation she had prior to the scandal. However, by admitting her bisexuality in 1981, King lost millions of dollars in potential earnings as a product spokesperson and sportscaster, a job at which she already had been working. She estimated that the fallout from the scandal cost her about $1.5 million.

Barnett’s palimony suit initially forced the legal system to address several same-gender palimony cases, but many of the cases were not resolved successfully because no precedent existed for such cases. On a personal and social level, the palimony suit did not harm King’s future impact on lesbian and gay activism. King became something of an icon for many in the gay community, and she supported causes such as the Human Rights Campaign and the fight against AIDS. In 2001 she received an award from the influential media watchdog group GLAAD Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) for “furthering the visibility and inclusion of the [gay] community in her work.”

King has been quoted as saying that one reason she refrained from telling the truth earlier was that her parents were homophobic. Also, she feared disclosure would mean the end of her participation in women’s tennis. Her eventual openness about her own sexuality eased the way for other professional tennis players to come out as lesbian, notably Navratilova, Martina Martina Navratilova and Mauresmo, Amélie Amélie Mauresmo.

King and her husband divorced in 1987. He had publicly supported her, but their marriage was irretrievably broken by the revelation of her affair. The marriage apparently had been shaky since the early 1970’s. Palimony King, Billie Jean Barnett, Marilyn Tennis Homosexuality;and palimony[palimony]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">King, Billie Jean, and Frank Deford. Billie Jean. New York: Viking, 1982. A candid autobiography that helped to reestablish King’s reputation following the palimony scandal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lipsyte, Robert. “Prophets: Avery Brundage, Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King.” In The Gospel According to ESPN: Saints, Saviors, and Sinners, edited by Jay Lovinger. New York: Hyperion Books, 2002. With an introduction by Hunter S. Thompson, this collection of essays looks at the revered status of sports stars, including Billie Jean King. Lipsyte’s chapter examines how King brought gender equity to the sport of tennis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwabacher, Martin. Superstars of Women’s Tennis. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1997. A work that explores the world of women’s tennis, with a chapter on King’s career and her tennis legacy. Part of Chelsea House’s Female Sports Stars series.

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