Kathy Kemper, Playing the Stars To Advantage

By Stephanie Mansfield | November 17, 1983

THE snapshots tell the story.

They are everywhere. On her office shelf. Framed on her living room table. Encased in plastic with the yellowing gossip-column clippings on the wall. Kathy Kemper with John Warner. Kathy Kemper with Zbigniew Brzezinski. Kathy Kemper with Art Buchwald. Kathy Kemper with William French Smith.

Flip through her Rolodex and find numbers–home numbers–for senators and congressmen (Les Aspin, Max Baucus, Jeremiah Denton, Chris Dodd), Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke, socialites Michael Straight, Jamie Auchincloss, Ambassador and Countess Wachtmeister, Clayton Fritchey.

Glance at her phone messages and find more familiar names: Redskins star George Starke, television personality Charlie Rose, Nancy Reagan’s hairdresser Robin Weir (“Wednesday at noon is fine”).

She calls William French Smith “Bill,” Charles Z. Wick “Charlie” and Nancy Dickerson “Nance.” She has been linked romantically with Sen. Larry Pressler (before his marriage) and Sen. John Warner (after his separation), whom she told one acquaintance this summer she would like to marry, adding that she would make a “good senator’s wife.”

Kathy Kemper, 30-year-old tennis pro to the rich and powerful, has spent an extraordinary amount of time and energy courting celebrities. Literally.

“Everyone wants to play with a good player,” she says, fluffing her blond bangs over one of her two dozen color-coordinated sweatbands.

But Kemper’s best game has been off the court. In four years, she has risen from an obscure third-string assistant pro at a suburban country club to coach of the Georgetown University women’s team and head of two exclusive tennis clubs.

“She’s persistent,” says television sportscaster Glenn Brenner, who is often called by Kemper to participate in celebrity matches. He played with her once last year. “And she must have a Rolodex the size of the New York City phone directory.”

Kathy Kemper has done what others only dream of. And she has done it not only on the strength of her tennis skills and a bubbly disposition, but by exaggerating her credentials and background.

The story of Kathy Kemper is a tale of ambition and life in the capital’s center court. And how the past has a way of catching up.

“I knew sooner or later,” she says, confronted with her re’sume’ and its discrepancies, “somebody would ask me these questions.”

Kemper is sitting in her office at the National Cathedral School tennis courts. She is wearing a white polo shirt with an emblem over the left breast. White House Tennis Courts. On her wall is a framed Mailgram from Ronald Reagan, wishing her a happy 30th birthday.

Known as “Kemps” to her friends, she comes across as a savvy woman. A woman who knows the session dates for Congress as well as the smoked salmon rates from Ridgewell’s.

Friends describe her as warm, charming, upbeat. Kemper says she enjoys her life.

“I’m not a pessimist. I look at people and think what I like about them. I exude enthusiasm. I communicate that to them.

“So often people just, you know, find fault with themselves. They’ll complain about the way they hit a ball and not think of the great shot they had before that.”

Kemper caught on very early that to become a success in Washington, you must do something well. For Kathy Kemper, that something was tennis. Not competitive tennis, but celebrity tennis. Learning to flatter, to smile, to say “beautiful shot” eight times in a row with eight different inflections.

Those who have played with her say she has a talent for stroking egos–especially those of older men.

Which is why in Washington, where, as one insider says, “you can’t overestimate the power of tennis,” Kathy Kemper has risen so far, so fast.

She is seen at The Palm, Germaine’s, the White House tennis courts. She has a taste for the limelight, from throwing herself a 30th birthday bash at John Warner’s Middleburg farm last summer (“A lot of people thought he threw it for me, which was misleading.”) to handing out mimeographed copies of articles mentioning her name to suggesting during an interview that a reporter watch her give Nancy Dickerson a private tennis lesson at Merrywood, Dickerson’s sprawling estate in McLean. (“She won’t mind. She likes the publicity.”)

There is even talk of a new business venture: Kathy Kemper Tennis Shops.

But Kemper’s zeal for self-promotion backfired recently.

Last month, she called friend and former presidential adviser Joe Canzeri, now head of his own Georgetown public relations firm, to say that Sports Style magazine had picked her as one of the country’s top 10 tennis coaches.

Canzeri issued a press release headlined “Local Tennis Celebrity Nets National Honor.” Jeff Harper, a Canzeri assistant, says they were hoping the publicity would help promote a charity tennis tournament this winter at Georgetown that Kemper is organizing and Canzeri is promoting.

But the “National Honor” did not materialize.

A senior editor at Sports Style, a Fairchild publication, said the tennis story, written by a freelancer, had been “killed.” In fact, the magazine ceased publication this month.

Another honor recently turned out to be premature. When Kemper participated in a Washington conference sponsored by the Women’s Sports Foundation two weeks ago entitled “The New Agenda,” she listed in her credentials a position on the board of directors of the Washington Area Tennis Patrons Foundation. Henry Brehm, executive director of the association, says Kemper is a nominee for the 1984-1985 board of directors, but has not been elected yet.

She was nominated for the post, he says, because “she has tremendous contacts. She is more successful in getting a senator to play in celebrity tennis tournaments than even another senator would be. At first I was taken aback. I thought she was somebody trying to sell herself. But she’s been nothing but a help. She’s never asked for any pay or reimbursement for expenses.”

While some may criticize Kemper’s hustling ability off the court, others have nothing but praise for her.

“I think people are jealous,” says Robin Weir. “I get the same kind of thing. When you’re in business, you have to maintain some kind of profile.”

Weir says he admires her personality. “She just bubbles.”

“She is a bright young woman,” says Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke. “I think she’s going to go far. She has one of the main ingredients most people lack. Namely intelligence.”

Friends say she has a unique ability to pull people together on the court, calling senators to play with ambassadors, journalists with White House staffers.

“She is very valuable,” says writer and socialite Ina Ginsburg. “When you’re busy you can’t spend your time arranging your tennis games.”

But sometimes her celebrity relationships, though she implies otherwise, don’t extend beyond the court.

“She’s very agreeable and plays lovely tennis,” says Polly Fritchey. “I really don’t know any more about her than that.”

Kemper recently rated local celebrity tennis players for Dossier magazine. One of the “fiercest competitors” Kemper chose was Ethel Kennedy.

“I don’t know who she is. The name doesn’t sound familiar,” says Ethel Kennedy. “Wait a minute. Is she the one who puts together those tennis things? Well, I don’t know her.”

And many who know her off the court say they don’t know very much about her.

John Warner has not seen Kemper since her birthday party last summer.

Charlie Rose, who has dated Kemper and played tennis with her once or twice, says, “I don’t know very much about where she’s from.”

Sen. Larry Pressler, whom Kemper counts as one of her closest friends, says, “I don’t know too much about her background.”

Although Kemper routinely tells friends and has stated on job applications that she attended Princeton University, majoring in philosophy, the college has no record of her being registered.

Kemper says she only sat in on classes at Princeton and was not registered and received no grades or diploma. She says she feels there is no harm in telling people otherwise.

“What is wrong with people thinking I went to Princeton?”

Kemper also has told people and put on her re’sume’ that she attended Georgetown Law School.

But Georgetown has no record of her either.

In an initial interview, Kemper said she spent her junior year abroad at the Sorbonne. In a second interview, she amended that to say she had only sat in on classes while her then-husband was a graduate student there.

A spokesman for the Georgetown University Athletic Department says Kemper’s re’sume’ also included information that she turned pro at the age of 19, won “several” state regional titles and toured with the women’s Virginia Slims circuit. He understood that to mean she was a professional player.

An official with the Virginia Slims tournaments says Kemper worked for one year as assistant tour director, but was not a player on the pro circuit.

Kemper says that she had not been a pro. “I participated in events on the woman’s pro tour but I was not a professional.”

Kemper also stated on several job applications that she served as assistant coach of the Princeton women’s tennis team. Not true, says David Benjamin, director of racquet sports and men’s tennis coach at Princeton. Kemper merely helped out with the women’s tennis team for several months from 1976 to 1977. “It wasn’t a formal job. She wasn’t hired or given a title. Basically, we asked her to just hit balls with the girls,” Benjamin says.

Asked to explain the discrepancy, Kemper responds, “People have a tendency to exaggerate” previous work experience.

When she applied for a job as assistant pro at the Chevy Chase Club in 1979, she told a club official that she had previously worked as a head pro at a country club outside Chicago. But none of the clubs Kemper listed in an interview last week checked out. One club, North Side Country Club in Northfield, Ill., confirmed that a Kemper had been head pro there. But it was Michael Kemper, Kathy’s older brother.

Eve Kraft, former women’s coach at Princeton and director of the U.S. Tennis Association’s Education and Research Center in Princeton, knew Kathy Kemper at Princeton. She says her son was a good friend of Kemper and her then-husband and that the Kraft family was shocked when it learned that Kemper had not been a registered student.

Says Eve Kraft: “She has fooled a lot of people along the way.”

On a crisp fall afternoon, Kemper sits in her office in the Georgetown gymnasium. She changes from her tennis togs to a deep purple wool suit. Asked if it is a designer outfit, she shrugs, saying it’s an Albert Nipon. There’s a Giorgio Armani blouse left hanging on the rack. She glides on Revlon Superfrost Super City pink lipstick and winds her hair into hot rollers for a few minutes.

Then she walks to her shiny new, silver blue Datsun, fluffing out her hair, and climbs behind the wheel.

She pulls at the left sleeve of the jacket. There is something there. She tugs at it, taking it into her hand, and drops it on the dashboard.

It’s the price tag.

At Germaine’s, she orders cranberry juice. The waiter says they don’t have any. She asks for grapefruit juice and sips it through the straw.

She says she doesn’t like to cook. “You know, I have a maid who does the shopping or you can even have the food delivered. I usually have six people for beef or cheese fondue or salad things. Almost like a salad bar.”

Kemper says she eats out “every night” and frequents Morton’s, Dominique’s and Vincenzo’s. Jean Louis, the Reagan in-group’s favorite for nouvelle cuisine, is “a little too precious.”

Kemper says she grew up in Winnetka, Ill., and attended Marillac Academy there. Although there is no Marillac Academy, there is a Marillac High School in Northfield, which confirmed that Kemper was a member of the class of 1971. She was captain of her basketball team (her father coached the team) and a pompon girl. She says she began playing tennis at the age of 11 under the tutelage of her father, a sports buff. She wears his college fraternity ring on the third finger of her left hand and says when he died in 1980 she lost her “best friend.”

In the fall of 1971, Kemper enrolled at Marymount College in Boca Raton, Fla., on a partial tennis scholarship. She left in the spring of 1972 to work for the Virginia Slims circuit as assistant tour director.

In 1974, she moved to Princeton, giving lessons at a community tennis program. She met a graduate student, Jim Healy, and the two were married. They spent six months in Paris, then moved to Washington.

They divorced two years later and Healy moved to New York. She says the break-up was “partially” because Healy discovered what she had said about being a student at Princeton.

It was then Kemper found that tennis would be a sure way up the social ladder. She discovered the Chevy Chase Club, a bastion of wealth and prestige, and began giving lessons.

“She seemed overqualified for the job, at least remembering what was on her re’sume’,” says Lee Adams, tennis director of Chevy Chase. Kemper was the No. 3 assistant. At the end of the summer, he told Kemper there was no room for her to move up, and she left.

“I distinctly remember being impressed by her re’sume’,” says Adams. “I do recall her saying something about law school. And that she had been on the women’s pro circuit. And also, she said she had been head pro at a club outside Chicago.”

Adams says Kemper was popular at Chevy Chase. “She had a vibrant personality. People liked it.”

After leaving the Chevy Chase Club, she applied for a job at Mount Vernon College in October 1980 as head of its summer program, and later was hired. One Mount Vernon source recalls Kemper’s re’sume’.

“She said she had gone to Princeton, had a bachelor of arts in philosophy and politics and had graduated summa cum laude.”

When the source called Princeton to confirm this, the college could find no record of her.

“She also said she was a pro, had been ranked 29 in the 18-and-unders. We could not verify that. She also said she had competed against Chris Evert Lloyd and Billie Jean King. We could not confirm that either. After that point, I didn’t continue checking. I could see right through this.”

Kemper, who was hired nonetheless, says she does not remember what was on her re’sume’.

“She’s very well-liked,” says Mount Vernon business manager Bill Stemmler. “She’s doing a good job.”

Stemmler says Kemper has organized round-robin tournaments and promoted the Mount Vernon club socially. “She does have quite a bit of activity going on there. The club members seem to like that.”

The Mount Vernon connection led to Georgetown University. When the coach of the women’s team quit just before the 1981 season, the university hastily looked for a replacement. Kemper’s name came up.

The Georgetown official who hired her says they did not check her background, since the position was only part time.

“And besides,” the official said, “she had been recommended by Mount Vernon.”

Steve Hurlbut, sports information director, says Georgetown got “a glowing” recommendation from Mount Vernon.

“We’re very pleased with what she’s done on the court,” he says.

Kemper’s team has finished second in the Big East Conference for the last two years, and she is credited with leading Suzanne Kulhman to the National College Athletic Association Division II title last May.

“We’re very, very pleased with what she’s done,” says Hurlbut. “The kids on the team like her very much.”

Jeanne Weiland, senior and cocaptain of the tennis team, says she is impressed by Kemper’s “ability to motivate us. She sees inside people’s games. She delves into the strategy, not only the skill.”

In the spring of 1983, Kemper was hired by the National Cathedral School to head its summer tennis club.

Kemper also raised her rates for private tennis lessons from $28 to $36 an hour.

“I think it might be on the high side,” she says.

Kemper finishes lunch and heads for her apartment to change for her 3:30 tennis lesson with Nancy Dickerson.

She says she is only interested in politics “because of friends. If I didn’t live in Washington I probably wouldn’t be interested in it. I’m more interested in world affairs.”

Such as?

She thinks for a bit. “Satellites, you know? What’s going on up on the moon. Things with more significance than who wins the next election.”

She receives “invitations to things I really don’t understand” and is often seated next to the high and the mighty. Does she ever get tongue-tied? “Actually, no one ever asked for my opinion.”

But she has found a way to draw her partners out. “I can ask good questions.”

Her most embarrassing moment, she says, was the night she rode to the Kennedy Center in Vice President Bush’s limousine.

“I was on the jump seat, you know. And he was telling some funny story about him and another head of state jogging. I said, ‘You guys should have sprinted the rest of the way.’ “

Her cheeks flush. “Then I thought, ‘Oh God you just don’t do that. Call the vice president “you guys.” ‘ “

Sometimes, she says, “I think I should tone it down.

“Sometimes I’m so innervated by the end of the day I think, ‘Why can’t I just relax!’

“When I was working on my senior thesis, I don’t know whether you’ve heard of this French writer, Albert Camus? Well, he wrote a book called ‘Sisyphus’ and it’s about pushing a rock up the hill and never getting there. The nobility was in the push. That’s what keeps me going. You’re never going to get to the top of the hill. There’s always more.”

She shakes her head. “A lot of times I think I work too hard. I think maybe I’ll take time off to do something. Like go to brunch.”

On the window ledge of Kemper’s small apartment in Kalorama is a row of books: “U.S. Senator From the Prairie” by Larry Pressler; “Power and Principle” by Zbigniew Brzezinski; “While Reagan Slept” by Art Buchwald; “Speak Up With Confidence” by Jack Valenti.

The books are warmly inscribed by the authors.

“A lot of them I haven’t read,” she says. “But you’ve got to support your friends and go to the book-signing parties and buy the book.”

She changes from the Nipon suit to a new lavender warmup outfit, complete with matching rolled sweatband. Then she returns to her car and steers though the narrow streets of Northwest Washington and on to Virginia.

Merrywood sits beyond a forest of trees off Chain Bridge Road in McLean. Kemper drives down the long, winding driveway and parks her car in the back courtyard. She pops a Velamint into her mouth and heads for the door.

She decides to wait outside for her client, who appears after a few minutes in white tennis togs and a black, red and white cardigan.

“I always play better with Kathy,” Dickerson says, slamming the ball.

“Good shot,” Kemper shouts.

Dickerson takes a swing.

“Beauuuutiful shot,” Kemper says. “That’s good extension.”

Dickerson pulls out a drop volley.

“Beauty. That’s good.”

Dickerson can do no wrong.

“Perfect. Nice and deep,” the tennis teacher says. “Good. These have nice depth to them.”

The sun’s warmth is fading and the crisp fall air has turned to a chill. The women’s voices rise through the trees, Dickerson’s “Oh hecks” and Kemper’s “Beautiful shots.”

Dickerson is asked to explain Kemper’s secret of success.

Kathy Kemper, she says, “gives you confidence.”

Back in the car, Kemper drives through the afternoon traffic. She would like to stay in Washington and never go back to the Midwest.

“All my friends there are married and have kids and belong to the country club,” she says disdainfully. “I don’t want to do that.”

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