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Marilyn Barnett, tennis player, sports reporter and confidante of the stars, dies at 97 | News

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Marilyn Barnett, a tennis player, disc jockey and pioneering sports reporter who befriended a galaxy of celebrities as public-relations director for a series of upscale New Orleans hotels, died Sunday at her New Orleans home. She was 97. Although she met the entertainers at the hotels where she worked, Barnett maintained years-long friendships with many…

Marilyn Barnett, a tennis player, disc jockey and pioneering sports reporter who befriended a galaxy of celebrities as public-relations director for a series of upscale New Orleans hotels, died Sunday at her New Orleans home. She was 97.

Although she met the entertainers at the hotels where she worked, Barnett maintained years-long friendships with many of them — their letters to her filled several scrapbooks — and often invited them to her Uptown home.

“When I’d walk into her home, I’d see Rosemary Clooney or Rose Marie, sitting on the floor playing jacks,” her nephew Robert Barnett said. “Or there’d be Danny Kaye, telling stories you can’t put in a newspaper. It was a sanctuary for these people because they could be themselves.”

She took Pearl Bailey to the West End for crawfish and crabs, stood on Eartha Kitt’s shoulders to rescue a baby blue jay in Audubon Park and drove Peggy Lee to an emergency room. Françoise Gilot, one of Pablo Picasso’s lovers, sent Barnett some of her paintings.

A lifelong New Orleanian, Barnett graduated from the Isidore Newman School and Hood College in Frederick, Maryland.

Barnett, who stood 5 feet, 5 inches tall, was always impeccably turned out. She commanded attention by speaking precisely, enunciating every carefully chosen word in a cello-like voice that rarely rose above a murmur, and she always signed her notes “MB.”

“She was a class act,” Barnett said. But, he added, her soft-spoken nature and outward gentility masked an inner toughness. “She’d take your arms off if you weren’t looking. She wasn’t mean about it; she just commanded that respect.”

That trait was an asset throughout her variegated life, starting in 1935, when, as a 12-year-old, she was watching people play tennis during a family excursion on the north shore.

“It didn’t look so hard,” Barnett told Marty Mulé in a Times-Picayune interview. “Someone asked me if I wanted to try to hit a ball, so I did. ZAP! It was, somehow, almost perfect.”

That was the start of an all-out love affair with tennis that lasted until her last tournament in 1980. During her years on the tennis circuit, she won more than 70 trophies, her nephew said, racking up 13 titles and a ranking of No. 10 in women’s doubles in the South.

During her early years on the tennis circuit, Barnett talked Fred Digby, The New Orleans Item’s sports editor, into letting her write a tennis column, which was called “Drop Shots.” When she was playing in tournaments, she covered them, too.

“I don’t know if there were other women sports writers there at that time or not,” she told Mulé. “I never, ever saw another woman reporter.”

Appreciating her talent and hustle, editors assigned Barnett to stories beyond tennis, although she wasn’t allowed inside the men-only press boxes. Nevertheless, she scored interviews with the likes of the New York Yankees immortal Joe DiMaggio, the jockey Eddie Arcaro and the prizefighter Primo Carnera, and she wrote about blinded World War II veterans at Charity Hospital.

In 1994, she was inducted into the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame.

Barnett also was a classical-music disc jockey for WTIX-AM with a show called “Waxing Eloquent” that she changed to “Afternoon Symphony.” As the publicist for the New Orleans Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra from 1954 to 1960, Barnett was known as “the typewriter timpanist.”

In 1960, she moved on to do public relations for hotels, starting the phase of her life for which she was best known. Her first client was the Royal Orleans (now the Omni Royal Orleans). During her time there, Barnett befriended Arthur Hailey, who was researching “Hotel,” a novel set in New Orleans that drew on the St. Charles and Roosevelt hotels, and she read the galley proofs to ensure accuracy.

Hailey repaid the favor in his novel “Airport” by basing Tanya Livingston, the main character, on Barnett. He gave Livingston one of Barnett’s character traits: She typed in lower case.

After 10 years at the Royal Orleans, Barnett went to the Fairmont (now the Roosevelt Hotel), where she handled bookings, in-house advertising and publicity, and tended to celebrities and their needs.

Ever attentive to details, Barnett stocked Marlene Dietrich’s room at the Fairmont Hotel with yellow and white flowers and bottles of Dom Perignon Champagne. She lent her coat to a chilly Imogene Coca, a pioneering television comedian, and she danced with the mob boss Frank Costello.

Barnett also worked at the Royal Sonesta Hotel, the Hotel Iberville (now the Westin Canal Place) and the New Orleans Hilton, where she was inducted into its Walk of Fame.

In addition to her hotel duties, Barnett wrote a column for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. It was called, with a nod to Dr. Seuss, “Oh the People You’ll Meet.”

She explained her philosophy in an interview: “Good public relations mans that nothing is too much trouble, either for your guests or your property. Whatever is needed, it can be done. It also helps if you bring a certain graciousness or élan to the work, and, of course, you should really like what you do.”

Survivors include her brother, William Barnett, of New Orleans, and nieces and nephews.

Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements, which are incomplete.

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