SI Vault: The tale of two American tennis aces who survived the Titanic
This story appears in the April 2, 2012, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
The grass courts were green, the collars were white and, at least to the casual observer, the fourth-round match at the Longwood Bowl in Boston on July 18, 1912, was typical of that year's U.S. lawn tennis circuit. Richard Williams, a 21-year-old upstart from Philadelphia, faced Karl Behr, 27, a veteran from New York City. Though a "tennis generation" apart in age, the two men cut similar figures: handsome Ivy Leaguers of East Coast patrician stock. (Behr was a Yale man; Williams would enter Harvard that fall.) Both were at home at the tournament's venue, the Longwood Cricket Club, whose wealthy members often arrived in high style, piloting a new mode of transit: the automobile.
This was top-level tennis 100 summers ago: men in starched polo shirts, long pants, leather shoes and stoic expressions, using wooden rackets strung with beef or sheep gut to bat the ball around for hours in the afternoon sun. They might reconvene afterward in the clubhouse for a brandy, perhaps stopping first to call back to the office. In the era before prize money, many of the male players moonlighted as lawyers or bankers.
From the clubhouse the winners would repair to their rooms to prepare for the next day's matches; the losers would throw on seersucker suits and head for Newport (R.I.) or Merion (Pa.) or Chevy Chase (Md.), whichever moneyed enclave was hosting the next tournament. But in 1912 some of the losers at Longwood might have stayed on for a day to check out a baseball game nearby at newly opened Fenway Park.
The Williams-Behr match was full of precise shotmaking, savvy tactics and gyrating momentum. The lanky, dark-haired Williams brought his aggression and superior athleticism to bear and won the first two sets. Then the sturdier Behr, who wore wire-rimmed glasses and held back his sandy hair with a not-yet-voguish headband, surged and gradually wore down Williams's resistance. Over five gripping sets the veteran beat the newcomer 0–6, 7–9, 6–2, 6–1, 6–4.
It was a classic match by any measure, two future Hall of Famers exploring the limits of their talent. Fans ringing the court applauded lustily, and the other players toasted the two men as they walked off at the end. The following day's New York Times gushed that the match "was declared by old-timers to be one of the hardest fought tennis battles seen during the 22 years of tournaments at Longwood."
Something gave the encounter a deeper texture, however. Few press reports mentioned it, and those that did hardly played it up. Certainly neither Williams nor Behr discussed it openly. Nor did the fans at Longwood seem to be aware of it. But just 12 weeks earlier—and 100 years ago next month—the two players, traveling separately, had survived the most famous maritime disaster in history.
On April 12, 1912, to great fanfare, the RMS Titanic began its maiden voyage. The world's largest and most expensive ship—in fact, at that time, the world's largest man-made object—pushed off of a pier in Southampton, England, stopped briefly at Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland, and then headed west into the open Atlantic, destination New York City. More than half of the 1,317 passengers were consigned to steerage class, but above decks were some of the richest and most distinguished people on the planet. The manifest included millionaire investor and real estate tycoon John Jacob Astor IV and his pregnant 18-year-old wife, Madeleine; mining titan Benjamin Guggenheim; Macy's department store owner Isidor Straus and his wife, Ida; and Philadelphia streetcar magnate George Widener, who had traveled to Europe with his wife, Eleanor, and son Harry to purchase rare books and find a chef for the family's new hotel, the Ritz-Carlton.
The Wideners weren't the only prominent Philadelphians aboard. Charles Duane Williams, a great-great-great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin, had been a Main Line lawyer before he became ill and moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where he had easy access to spas and mineral baths. His son, Richard Norris Williams II, known as Dick, prefigured a future Swiss star, Roger Federer: He was a stylish and versatile tennis player who was always on the offensive and made the most difficult shots look effortless. He had carved up the Swiss junior circuit and become a European junior champion. He and his father had booked first-class passage to the U.S. so Dick could practice and play in summer tournaments Stateside before heading to college.
On April 10, Charles and Dick Williams disembarked at the wrong Paris train station and nearly missed their connection to Cherbourg. They boarded the Titanic with only moments to spare. On the train Dick had done a double take when he saw Karl Behr, a well-connected lawyer and businessman, confidant of Teddy Roosevelt and member of the U.S. Davis Cup team. Behr, who had been ranked among the top 10 U.S. players four times, had reached the Wimbledon doubles final in 1907. He was, however, in Europe for reasons having nothing to do with tennis.
Ostensibly Behr had traveled abroad on business, but he was also there pursuing a romance with Helen Newsom, a friend of his younger sister, Gertrude. Helen, 19, had left her home in suburban New York to tour Europe with her mother and stepfather, Sallie and Richard Beckwith. Behr joined them on the cruise over, slipping away with Newsom to tour the sights when the ship docked in Madeira, Morocco and the South of France. They then parted ways, agreeing to reconnect when they were back in New York.
Newsom, like the Kate Winslet character in the James Cameron film Titanic, was a strong-willed feminist whose progressive sensibilities had, to the displeasure of her parents, only grown firmer during the trip to Europe. She sent a telegram to Behr, then in Berlin: SAILING HOME FROM ENGLAND ON TITANIC'S MAIDEN VOYAGE. Behr decided to surprise her, and, armed with a diamond ring, he settled into cabin C-148, not far from Dick Williams and his father, who were sharing a room on Deck D, near the Grand Staircase. Though Williams had recognized Behr on the train to Cherbourg, they had never met and would not make each other's acquaintance on the Titanic.
For the first few days of the voyage Dick Williams played on the ship's squash court, worked out in the exercise room and joined his father for meals, dining at the table of Capt. Edward Smith on the ship's last night. Behr spent the bulk of his time trying to ingratiate himself with Newsom's mother and stepfather. The Beckwiths were concerned about the couple's age difference, and Behr wanted to win them over before he asked for Newsom's hand in marriage.
"The love affair between Karl and Helen was very romantic, in many ways even more romantic than the story of Jack and Rose in the James Cameron movie," says Lindsay Gibbs, author of the forthcoming novel Titanic: The Tennis Story. "Karl crossed the ocean and back again to try and win the approval of Helen's mother."
At 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1,000 or so miles east of Boston and 375 miles south of Newfoundland, one of the Titanic's crewmen, Frederick Fleet, saw something protruding from the water, sounded a three-bell alarm and bellowed, "Iceberg, right ahead!" The first officer ordered a sharp turn, but it wasn't executed fast enough—no surprise given the Titanic's size.
Titanic versus iceberg was less a crash than a scrape—"as though we went over a thousand marbles," in the words of one survivor. Dick Williams would later recall that he and his father were initially jolted but not particularly worried. Charles Williams had been involved in a similar shipboard incident decades earlier, and the crew had successfully plugged the gash in the hull with cotton. He told his son that even if the Titanic had been punctured, it could float for 12 to 15 hours, plenty of time for a rescue. Likewise, Behr would write, "to our minds the idea of the Titanic sinking was preposterous."
At first the crew seemed to have been equally blasé. Behr would later testify at liability hearings that 35 or 40 minutes elapsed before the passengers received any warning of danger. As Dick Williams left his cabin, he saw a steward trying to pry open a cabin door that had jammed, locking a passenger in his room. Williams lowered his broad shoulder and rammed into the door, breaking it open. Instead of thanking Williams, the steward threatened to report him for damaging ship's property and charge him for the door's repair.
The scene belowdecks was more desperate. The squash court where Williams had spent so much time had started to flood. More important, so had the ship's boiler rooms. Behr, who had been awake when the Titanic sideswiped the iceberg, went to Deck A, saw other passengers fastening life belts and then roused the Beckwiths. Behr and Richard Beckwith quickly recognized the severity of the situation. According to an account by Behr's son Karl Jr., the men ordered Helen and Sallie to change into warm clothes and leave all their possessions behind except for their jewelry. Richard Beckwith escorted his wife to a lifeboat, with Behr and Newsom trailing behind them. Adhering to the women-and-children-first tradition, the men expected to deposit Helen and Sallie in the boat and then remain on the deck. But J. Bruce Ismay, managing director of White Star Lines, which owned the Titanic, allegedly told Behr and Beckwith to get in the boat, too, because men were needed to help with the rowing. Behr would later claim that there were 45 or 50 passengers in the lifeboat, but it "could have accommodated 15 or 20 more." Ismay boarded the next to last boat to leave the ship, which was indeed meant only for women and children. He left his two male assistants to fend for themselves as the scene on board descended into chaos.
Dick and Charles Williams walked the deck. They tried to stay warm by riding stationary bikes in the exercise room. Finally, as the letters of the ship's name on the bow were about to slip underwater, they decided to abandon ship. They stood near the rail, an infirm man and his only child, and said their goodbyes. As they were speaking, one of the ship's enormous smokestacks came crashing down. Dick darted out of the way. Charles was crushed, instantly killed. At that point Dick jumped into the ocean. In 28º water, swathed in a raccoon coat, he began to swim for his life.
"I was not under water very long," Williams would write to a fellow survivor, Col. Archibald Gracie IV, "and as soon as I came to the top I threw off the big fur coat. I also threw off my shoes. About 20 yards away I saw something floating. I swam to it and found it to be a collapsible boat." It had canvas sides and a wooden bottom, but it had not been assembled, so the bottom floated slightly underwater. "I hung on to it," Williams would write, "and after a while got aboard and stood up in the middle of it. The water was up to my waist. About 30 of us clung to it." Nineteen of them would freeze to death.
For as long as three hours Williams waited in the partially submerged lifeboat. He watched as the body of the Titanic cracked and the stern belly flopped into the ocean. By 2:45 a.m. on April 15 the ship had sunk to the bottom of the sea.
RMS Carpathia, a steamer from the rival Cunard line, had been en route from New York City to the Adriatic when it received the distress signal at 12:20 a.m. Chugging through the North Atlantic and slaloming around the ice fields, it arrived at around 4:10 a.m. at the spot where the Titanic had gone down.
The Carpathia crew rescued 712 Titanic passengers and crew, fewer than one third the number of people on board. They were in various states of distress. Behr, Newsom and the Beckwiths moved without trouble from their lifeboat to the steamer. But the exhausted Williams was hoisted aboard the Carpathia looking cadaverous, his body on the verge of collapse. Had he not been young and in peak physical condition, he might well have died.
Once on board Williams, whose legs had turned reddish-purple, tried warming himself by standing near an oven and a galley wall. Eventually he was examined by a doctor, who told him he was suffering from hypothermia, and that to prevent an onset of gangrene he should consider having both legs amputated. "I refuse to give you permission," Williams said politely. "I'm going to need these legs." Instead he walked the deck of the Carpathia, trying to restore circulation, feeling as if a thousand needles were piercing his skin.
It was on the Carpathia that Williams and Behr finally met. Williams would later say Behr was one of the rescued passengers who was particularly nice to him. (Quincy Williams, Dick's grandson, gave SI access to his grandfather's memoirs on condition that they not be quoted directly.) Behr, too, would write about the meeting, noting that Williams had "had a harrowing experience" in the water.
The mood on the Carpathia was grim. Grief and shock were setting in. The London Independent quoted Behr as saying, "Although the sinking of the Titanic was dreadful ... the four days among the sufferers on the Carpathia was much worse and more difficult to forget." Behr was one of a seven-man ad hoc survivors' committee that organized passengers and advised them not to speak with reporters.
On the night of April 18 the Carpathia passed the Statue of Liberty and docked at Pier 54 on the West Side of Manhattan, five berths south of where the Titanic was to have ended her maiden voyage. Thousands of New Yorkers had gathered to watch in morbid curiosity as the survivors disembarked but also to hand out food, blankets and clothes. Keeping his sense of humor, Williams remarked that for once he breezed through customs.
Imagine the Titanic sinking not in 1912 but in 2012. Passengers' Twitter feeds and Facebook posts would describe the disaster in real time as they were rescued. Cable networks would provide round-the-clock coverage, complete with theme music, a catchphrase—Catastrophe at Sea!—and digital animation of the sinking. Morning shows would book survivors, literary and film agents would hustle story rights, class-action lawyers would troll for clients. Just see the media frenzy that followed the sinking of the Italian luxury cruise liner Costa Concordia earlier this year.
Now consider a scenario in which two of the survivors were dashing, world-class athletes in the same sport, destined to face off against each other many times. The hype surrounding those matches would be immeasurable. After their playing careers, the two men would be bracketed together—the Ralph Branca and Bobby Thomson of the sea—perhaps cowriting a book, then hitting the speaking circuit.
A century ago the culture was different. Look-at-me sensibilities were considered gauche. Many passengers lucky enough to have ended up on the Carpathia struggled with what today would be diagnosed as post--traumatic stress disorder. This was especially true for the men, whose survival was seen by some as evidence of cowardice. Ismay, the White Star director, was pilloried in the British newspapers. Ostracized by London society, he moved to Ireland and spent the remaining 25 years of his life out of the public eye.
Behr, according to family members, suffered profound survivor's guilt. His granddaughter Helen Behr Sanford, known as Lynn, spent 10 years meticulously researching his story and recently published Starboard at Midnight, a fictionalized account of Behr's experience on the Titanic. "He wished he had saved someone from the water so that at least an act of heroism could have resulted from his survival," she writes. "He was crushed by [an] inarticulate sadness beyond anyone's understanding."
In part to assuage his guilt, Behr testified in court on behalf of a group of steerage passengers who were part of a class-action suit against White Star. Behr recalled that Ismay gave orders to officers and acted in the role of supervisor—contradicting the defense's contention that Ismay was aboard the Titanic only as a passenger. Behr's testimony contributed to the plaintiffs' winning their suit and recovering $663,000 for loss of life and possessions.
Behr sought out the press for one reason only: to dispel any suggestion that he took a spot on a lifeboat that could have gone to a woman or a child. LIFEBOAT NOT FILLED, KARL BEHR DECLARES, screamed a headline in the April 20, 1912, edition of New Jersey's Newark Evening News. In the story Behr says, "One of the ladies asked Mr. Ismay whether the men could go with her. I heard Mr. Ismay reply quietly: 'Why, certainly, madam.'"
Behr's sense of guilt was compounded by his relationship with Helen Newsom. Eager to find a silver lining in the tragedy, the press sensationalized the "Titanic couple," who, papers reported, got engaged on the lifeboat. "The idea that my grandfather proposed to my grandmother on a lifeboat while people around them were dying?" says Lynn Sanford. "No, that wasn't him." The couple waited almost a year to marry.
Afterward Behr rarely spoke of his ordeal in April 1912. Neither did Williams. The irrepressible tennis historian Bud Collins met Williams several times before learning his backstory. "He was almost secretive," says Collins. "He wanted no publicity."
Williams didn't even discuss the Titanic with family members. "Today people say, 'Get it out. It will make you feel better,' " says Quincy Williams, a Philadelphia antiques dealer. "[Back] then it wasn't like that. You put things in a [mental] compartment. You tried not to dwell. You got on with your life."
That's what both men did. After arriving in New York, Williams moved in with an uncle outside Philadelphia. His body healed, and within weeks he was back to playing tennis. His legs were deeply discolored from his ordeal in the water, but the long pants he wore when he played concealed them.
That summer Williams beat a promising local teenager, Bill Tilden—who would go on to become the greatest player of his era—en route to winning the 1912 Pennsylvania state championship. To the pleasant surprise of the Harvard tennis coach, Williams finished that summer season ranked No. 2 in the U.S. After a successful freshman year, Williams was chosen for the 1913 U.S. Davis Cup team. If boarding another transatlantic ship gave him any pause, he didn't mention it. In July he sailed for London to play in the Davis Cup Challenge Round at Wimbledon, where he contributed to the U.S.'s 3--2 victory over Great Britain by beating Charles Dixon in a tight five-set singles match. By his senior year at Harvard the school had opened the Harry Elkins Widener Library, financed with a contribution from Eleanor Widener, the Titanic survivor, and named in honor of the son who had, with his father, gone down with the ship.
By the time Williams graduated, he was among the best players in the world. Allison Danzig of The New York Times, the dean of 20th-century tennis writers, would say of Williams, "On his best days he was unbeatable by any and all, always hitting boldly, sharply for the winner. He did not know what it was to temporize." In 1914 and '16 Willliams was the U.S. men's singles champion, in '20 the Wimbledon men's doubles champion and for years a U.S. Davis Cup stalwart both as a player and captain. At the '24 Olympics in Paris he and Hazel Wightman won the gold medal in mixed doubles.
After that match at Longwood in the summer of 1912, Williams and Behr would play each other at least twice more. In '14 they met in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Nationals—what would later become the U.S. Open—in Newport. Taking advantage of his opponent's fragile psyche, Williams beat Behr 6--2, 6--2, 7--5. Again, little was made of their remarkable backstory. Even the Ayres Lawn Tennis Almanack, the authoritative annual guide, made no mention of the shipwreck in Behr's bio, and Williams's write-up gives it one sentence—"traveled to America in ill-fated Titanic in 1912, when his father was lost"—before returning to his tennis results.
While Williams and Behr took pains to downplay their common bond, echoes of it followed them for years. In 1915 a German U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania—the British ship that had been positioned as the Titanic's rival—killing 1,198 of the 1,959 people aboard, including 128 Americans. The sinking sparked outrage in the U.S. and turned American public opinion sharply against Germany in World War I. In one of Behr's proudest achievements he helped organize the Citizens Preparedness Parade along Fifth Avenue in '16, an event The New York Times called "the greatest civilian marching demonstration in the world." The procession of 135,000 men and women inspired an "expansive and energetic movement for defense" in the event the U.S. was pulled into the war. But when the U.S. did enter the war the following year, Behr was rejected for military service; he suspected it was because of his German heritage. The stress of that setback, combined with his survivor's guilt, would lead him to spend a brief spell in a sanitarium in western New York in 1917. He was eventually allowed to serve just as the war ended.
Williams was conscripted for duty in the Army and was dispatched to Europe in 1917. One of the ships in the convoy was the Carpathia. "My grandfather wondered," says Quincy Williams, "if he was going to have to climb the Carpathia's decks again." Williams served with distinction in the second Battle of the Marne in July 1918 and was awarded the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur and the Croix de Guerre by the French government after the war.
Following their retirement from tennis, both men made small fortunes as financiers, Williams in Philadelphia and Behr in New York City, where he served on the boards of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company and the National Cash Register Company. Deeply committed to public service, both men were philanthropists and civic leaders. Though Williams was reluctant to discuss his experience in one of the seminal events of the 20th century, he was enthralled with history and, in his early 50s, left finance to become president of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Williams was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1957 and Behr, posthumously, in '69. Behr died in '49 at age 64, Williams in '68 at 77. Their surviving family members have never met, but they characterize the two men similarly. Lynn Sanford calls Behr "a good man, modest and delicate." Quincy Williams says of his grandfather, "He was a good, very humble man who didn't like to talk about himself."
This is amply supported by a story Dick Williams told in his memoirs. In middle age he went to England on business. One night he dined in a picturesque country town. Verdant trees bordered a winding stream; a lush valley spread in the distance. Williams praised the view to his dinner companion. The other man agreed and then said the village had been "the home of a man you, of course, never knew and probably never heard of. He was Captain Smith of the Titanic, which struck ice and went down with such appalling loss of life some years ago. You may recall that disaster?"
There was so much Williams, who had dined with Smith aboard the doomed ship, could have said in response. But judging from the account in his memoirs, he didn't reply at all.
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