Broken Promise

Once the poster boy for Ping-Pong diplomacy, Glenn Cowan saw his dreams of glory fade away

AS SOON AS HE LANDED IN L.A., Cowan sought to capitalize on his fame. With guidance from Bob Gusikoff, a longtime friend who became his promoter-manager, he published an instructional book, promoted a Double Happiness line of Chinese-made paddles, and gave exhibitions at county fairs. With a straight face he told the L.A. Times, “I could mediate between Zhou Enlai and Nixon quite easily.”

Then, nothing. Cowan made the pilot for the variety show, but the deal fizzled, as did the Ping-Pong chain idea. He soon found that, far from being the savior of the sport, he couldn’t earn a living as a player or coach. Instead, he enrolled at UCLA and became a junior high school teacher. The adjustment to normality proved daunting. “After China, everything seemed to be useless,” Tannehill says. “How could you do better than world peace, you know?”

Cowan’s mother began to notice signs of mental illness. Friends say drug use exacerbated his problems. Danny Goodstein, a buddy from Boczar’s club, remembers seeing Cowan at a Rolling Stones concert. “Glenn believed he had this connection with Mick Jagger,” Goodstein says. “He’d say to me ‘MGM.’ That stood for ‘Mao, Glenn, and Mick.'” During the 1972 visit by the Chinese, Cowan became so anxious that he had to be taken home before making it to the White House. He was diagnosed, variously, as being bipolar and schizophrenic. When he didn’t take his medication, he behaved erratically and had to be institutionalized; when he did, he gained weight. Eventually he had to undergo bypass surgery.

Cowan was married for a brief time, but mostly he lived alone in a small apartment in Culver City. After he stopped teaching, he sold shoes. When he was in his mid-thirties, he started to train again, hoping to make a comeback at a local tournament. His entry check bounced.

Former junior player Bob Bisno hadn’t spoken with Cowan for three decades when he received a call. “Glenn said that he was in a hospital and that he was going to escape,” says Bisno, a Century City-based developer. “He wanted to know if I would pick him up.”

Several months later, the 52-year-old Cowan suffered a heart attack and never recovered. He died on April 6, 2004-33 years to the day that he and his teammates were invited to China. He was laid to rest with his father in the veterans’ cemetery in Westwood. None of the newspapers or magazines that had published front-page stories about him mentioned his passing.

THE TAPESTRY THAT ZHUANG Zedong gave Glenn Cowan hangs in the dining room of the Westwood apartment of Cowan’s mother. Fran says it reminds her of “a good time” in her son’s life, when “there was hope for the future.” She acknowledges that she didn’t understand its significance until several months ago, when she and members of the 1971 U.S. team flew to the People’s Republic to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Ping-Pong Diplomacy. Fran befriended Zhuang, who had survived imprisonment and banishment during the 1970s and ’80s and was now a coach. He escorted her throughout the New China, one in which Yao Ming outshines Mao and Wal-Mart factories have supplanted agrarian communes.

On the last night of the visit, the Americans and the Chinese gathered at a restaurant for a farewell banquet. When the karaoke got cranking, Tannehill, Boggan, and the others paid tribute to their old friend by serenading his mother with a rousing rendition of “Let It Be.”

This feature was originally published in the August 2006 issue of Los Angeles magazine