Freddie Botur – Retired NY tennis entrepreneur with deep Czech roots

Freddie Botur, photo: Henri Richter Werner

Freddie Botur, who was born Vratislav Botur, fled Czechoslovakia in 1948, shortly after taking part in a student march to Prague Castle aimed at preventing the Communists from seizing power. The ambitious young émigré eventually ended up in New York, where he became a successful developer and owner of tennis clubs, including the well-known Tennisport on the banks of the East River.

Freddie Botur,  photo: Henri Richter Werner
Today, a few months before his 90th birthday, Mr. Botur is preparing to bring out an autobiography looking back over what has been a remarkable life. I met him when he made a recent visit to Prague.

“I was born in Moravia, in Místek, which is very close to Ostrava, in 1922. We never had electricity until 1928 or ’29. At that time there were petro-lamps and we heated with coal.

“My mother was a concert violinist and my father was a butcher and was in meat wholesale in a big way. He was very successful.”

Was it a happy childhood?

“Well, it was a difficult childhood. I lived most of the time with my grandmother and grandfather, because my father left when I was two years old. He came back, and mother too came back, when I was about 10.

“He was like a monarch. He was typical of the Austro-Hungarian times, because he was born in 1888. Then he became the director of the biggest meat-packing and sausage factory in Vienna. They must have met probably in Vienna, when my mother was playing.”

You were a teenager in the 1930s. Did you sense the atmosphere changing as the Second World War approached?

“Let me explain it to you. At that time in Czechoslovakia, the Germans had their own schools and we had our own schools, and the hatred was building already between Czechs and Germans.

“Sometimes after school when we saw the German students, the boys, we threw stones at each other, and had fights.

“At that time it was part of…growing up. It was in you. That’s why my mother later could never understand how come I could have married a German [laughs].”

What kind of a war did you and your family have? What were your experiences during World War II?

“I remember, as if it were in front of eyes today, I was with my mother at the opera in Ostrava. In the middle of it the director came on the stage – everything stopped – and he said, the Germans have just driven in, we have been occupied.

“The musicians played the national anthem, Kde domov můj, and everybody was crying. It was a very sad time…We were not obliged to go to the army, only volunteers, but we were obliged to go to the labour camps.”

In 1948, when the Communists took over in Czechoslovakia, you were a student – and an anti-Communist student.

“Yes, I was a member of the National Socialist Party, and also a Friend of the USA – I still have the membership card. My mother must have kept it…”

You were a member of the organisation the Friends of America?

“The Friends of the USA…They were looking for us, after we demonstrated and marched on the Hrad [Prague Castle]…”

So you were one of the students who took part in the famous demonstration?

“Yes, the famous demonstration. After that, our leader Emil Ransdorf said we’d better leave, because they have spies among us – they will know our names.”

February 1948 in Prague
“I went back to Ostrava and my father said, you’d better leave. Because there is no future here anyway, and they’ll probably arrest you and who knows what will happen. You’ll have more opportunities in the West.

“He gave me the addresses of his former colleagues, who he used to work with in Germany, in Frankfurt and in Fürth.

“This is what I describe in my book, the details of those stories. Because it was a very interesting time – and there was hunger too! I learned how to really appreciate food.”

To jump forward a long way in time now, you eventually ended up in America – after some time in Australia – and you became a kind of owner and developer of tennis clubs. How did you get into that business?

“Now, this is a very fine story. In Frankfurt I was desperate, and I was walking around in a park, Palmengarten. In the middle of the Palmengarten I see six red tennis courts, and a man comes out of the clubhouse and says, Mister, do you play tennis?

“Since I had played tennis already in Czechoslovakia as a hobby I said, yes. He said, do me a favour, there’s a gentleman, an American captain, who would love to play tennis and doesn’t have anybody – would you play with him?

“So here comes a short, baldheaded gentleman, and we played for almost an hour and I was fainting from hunger [laughs]. And he loved it. In the end he came in and gave me two scripts.

“The scripts were army dollars. With the scripts you could go, like the army, into the PX [post/base exchange – an army shop], and for 80 cents you got a full meal, you ate like a pig.

Tennisport courts,  photo: Henri Richter Werner
“With the rest I bought a carton of cigarettes. I took them on the black market and sold them for 30 marks, meaning I got my two dollars back again.

“He asked me to play again, he told his friends, and then even the high commissioner for Germany, John McCloy, started to play with me. This was the beginning of my tennis career.”

During all your decades in the tennis business in the States, I know you did a lot to help young Czech and Slovak people who arrived in New York.

“It [information about Mr. Botur’s willingness to provide jobs] was like a radio out there, between the Czechs. They had small groups, and the word spread. Once they found out that I had a tennis club, whether it was West Park Racquet Club, or the Armory, or on 59th St, or in the end Tennisport, they started to come and say, could I have a job?

“There were a lot of Czechs, including a famous Czech, Pepa [Josef] Maleček, who was a national hero in Czechoslovakia as an ice hockey player. I gave him a job and he taught tennis at my club.”

My final question is, how is for you coming back here today, at the age of nearly 90 years old?

“I’ll be 90 in three months [laughs]…It’s wonderful, I love to come. But you know, it’s a different way of life. You become accustomed to the Western, American way of life.

“It’s more beautiful here, there’s history here. But still it is not home any more, because my children were born there.

“And of course I cannot call it home, because 90 percent of my friends are not here any more, they are dead. I have only a few friends left here.”