America's Don Budge, barely 20 and playing in his first Wimbledon in 1935, had just beaten the second-ranked player in Great Britain, Henry Wilfred (Bunny) Austin, in a quarterfinal match. Elated over his unexpected success, Budge was heading for the competitors' stand when he was approached by Baron Gottfried von Cramm.
The baron, then 26, was already something of a tennis legend. He had won the French championship the year before, and he was a favorite, along with the top-ranked British player, Fred Perry, to win Wimbledon. Von Cramm was an extraordinarily graceful player with a wicked serve and flawless ground strokes. But it was not so much his shotmaking skills as his elegant presence that captured the public fancy. A handsome man just under six feet tall, with perfectly groomed dark blond hair and penetrating gray-green eyes, he dressed for a tennis match—in a red-and-white-striped blazer and cream-colored flannel trousers—as if he were about to entertain at a garden party.
In the 1930s only Perry and Budge were Von Cramm's superiors as players. His record of 82 Davis Cup wins (in 102 matches) is the fourth best in the history of the competition. From 1934 through '37 the baron played a total of eight French, Wimbledon and U.S. championships, reaching the final seven times and winning twice. Three of the five final-round losses were to Perry, and two were to Budge. In that sense, said Budge much later in life, "Gottfried was the unluckiest good player I've ever known."
His luck was equally treacherous away from the court, for along with wealth and position he also experienced the humiliation of imprisonment by the Nazis, the horrors of war on the Russian front, and two failed marriages, the second to one of the richest women on earth. Through it all, though, he remained undaunted, supremely confident, and resolutely impeccable in dress and manners. He was quite simply the most dashing figure tennis has ever known.
"Everyone wore white then," says Billy Talbert, a top U.S. player of the '40s, "but somehow Gottfried stood out."
He was a German nobleman who could trace his lineage to the 12th century. But Baron Gottfried Alexander Maximilian Walter Kurt von Cramm, idol of the haut monde, was no snob. In fact, he habitually dropped both the Baron and the von from his name, and he was one of the most congenial, amusing and popular players on the international tour. He was considered the ultimate sportsman, as gracious in defeat as in victory. At the '35 Wimbledon, Budge, who had admired the baron from afar, was eager to meet him.
Von Cramm, however, was not smiling when he introduced himself to Budge, and after congratulating him on his quarterfinal victory, the baron took the younger man aside for a serious chat. "Don," Budge recalls him saying, "you were a poor sport out there today."
Budge was flabbergasted. The baron was considered the arbiter of court etiquette, and Budge, like most players of the time, sought to emulate him. Budge couldn't for the life of him imagine what he had done wrong. "Do you recall," Von Cramm continued in his perfect English, "that when the linesman gave Bunny a bad call on a ball that clearly hit the chalk, you deliberately double-faulted to compensate for it?" Budge did. It was common then, at a time when linesmen's decisions were seldom disputed, for a player to lose a point deliberately if he felt his opponent had been victimized by a bad call.
Mystified, Budge asked Von Cramm what was so wrong about that. "But you must see, Don," the baron replied, "that by doing what you did, you embarrassed that linesman in front of 15,000 people. It is unthinkable."
"After that," Budge said later, "I played the game the way it was called."
That dialogue is one not likely to be repeated anytime soon. But if Von Cramm's concern for the feelings of a tennis official seems incomprehensible today, what he did later that year in a Davis Cup tie between Germany and the U.S. would strike a modern player, weaned on the manners of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, as sheer lunacy. Actually, that was the way it struck the captain of the German team, Heinrich Kleinschroth. But Von Cramm had his own code, and he lived by it.
The situation was this: The German and U.S. teams were even after the opening-day singles competition, Budge having defeated Henner Henkel in a marathon, 7-5, 11-9, 6-8, 6-1, and Von Cramm having beaten Wilmer Allison in straight sets. In the doubles the next day Allison and John Van Ryn faced Von Cramm and Kai Lund, and the match went to five sets. At match point for the Germans, Von Cramm and Lund both lunged for a shot hit down the middle of the court. The baron fell short, but Lund got to the ball and drove it home for an apparent winner.
"Game, set and match to Germany," the umpire called.
But no. The baron lifted his hand in protest. The ball had ticked his racket before Lund had hit his shot, he told the astonished official. Therefore, the point should go to the Americans. It was one of five match points the Germans would lose en route to a disheartening 8-6 defeat in the final set. The U.S. would go on to win the tie four matches to one and then lose to Great Britain in the Challenge Round.
Kleinschroth was apoplectic after the doubles defeat. Germany had never won the Davis Cup, and Von Cramm's sportsmanship had cost the fatherland a golden opportunity. The baron had disgraced both his country and his teammates, Kleinschroth sputtered. The normally affable Von Cramm leveled his captain with a frigid stare.
"When I chose tennis as a young man," the baron said, "I chose it because it was a gentleman's game, and that's the way I've played it ever since I picked up my first racket. Do you think that I would sleep tonight knowing that the ball had touched my racket without my saying so? Never, because I would be violating every principle I think this game stands for. On the contrary, I don't think I'm letting the German people down. As a matter of fact, I think I'm doing them credit."
However, the Germany of 1935 was not the country Von Cramm and his kind had grown up believing in, and in his heart he knew it, which makes his stand all the more impressive. This was a Germany controlled not by Prussian aristocrats but by an Austrian demagogue whose idea of fair play was to murder political opponents, persecute ethnic groups and bully neighboring countries. The baron found himself on increasingly shaky ground. He had already angered the Nazi regime by protesting the banishment from Davis Cup play of his former teammate Daniel Prenn, a Jew. And he had refused to join the Nazi party, despite repeated invitations from Field Marshal Hermann G‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áring. In one of his pleas G‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áring had ostentatiously torn to shreds all the mortgages held on Von Cramm castles by Jewish bankers. "Now," the portly field marshal announced, "you are free."
The baron stared at the shredded documents and said icily, "All the more reason for me not to join your party."
Nonetheless, Von Cramm remained above censure, because among German athletes only the former heavyweight champion Max Schmeling could rival him as a national hero. And unlike Schmeling, who was unfairly regarded abroad as a Nazi standard-bearer (he was not, in fact, a party member), Von Cramm was perceived worldwide as a figure superior to and apart from the deeds of the Third Reich, a white knight among barbarians. He was often called "Germany's best ambassador."
At home the baron was obliged to play under the swastika flag and to observe the idiotic Nazi saluting rituals, for to do otherwise would cost him his tennis career. He was a proud German, but he was really more a citizen of the world who played under the red-and-white colors of his tennis club, the Rot-Weiss of Berlin. He also made no secret of his disdain for the Nazi government, once being quoted in a British newspaper as calling the Führer "a housepainter."
But no opponent of Hitler could remain invulnerable for long, and Von Cramm was never as immune from persecution as he might have thought. All the Nazis needed was an excuse to bring him down. In time Von Cramm's personal life would give them one.
By 1937 the baron was at the pinnacle of his career. He had won four German championships and, in 1936, a second French singles title, defeating the seemingly invincible Perry in the final. He had reached the final at Wimbledon in both '35 and '36, losing to Perry both times. Before the '36 match he had been slightly injured in a taxi accident on his way to the All England Club, and then he had pulled a leg muscle early in the first set. Typically, he insisted on continuing, and, limping badly, he was demolished in straight sets. He refused to use the injury as an excuse and praised the British champion profusely.
Perry, now 84, recalls Von Cramm as being an exemplar of "textbook tennis. If you wanted to learn how to make elegant strokes, he was your man. He had those long European swings. We had some great battles. But against me that day, I'm afraid, he was duck soup."
Perry turned pro in 1937, leaving the amateur field to Budge, the emerging titan, and Von Cramm, the wily veteran. Budge defeated Von Cramm in the Wimbledon final that year. Two weeks later, on the same Centre Court at the All England Club, the two men met again in the Interzone final of the Davis Cup—the winner of which would advance to the Challenge Round—and they played a match that is regarded by many veteran observers as the best in tennis history. In his 1969 autobiography Budge wrote, "I never played better tennis, nor did I ever play anyone as good as Cramm."
Said Walter Pate, the U.S. Davis Cup captain in '37, "No other player—living or dead—could have beaten cither man that day." Even the egotistical Bill Tilden, the dominant player of the 1920s, called the match "the most beautiful tennis I've ever seen."
That Interzone final had repercussions beyond tennis. Hitler badly wanted Germany to win its first Davis Cup. For its part the U.S., which had once dominated Cup play, winning seven championships in a row from 1920 to '26 thanks to Tilden, had since been reduced to perennial runner-up status by the French and the British. At a time when Europe seemed once more on the brink of war, the U.S. tennis establishment wanted to bring the Cup—donated, after all, by an American, Dwight Davis—back home.
"The greatest thing in our day was to play for your country in the Davis Cup," says Perry now. "It's hard to believe that is no longer true. I'm afraid what the) play now is monetary tennis."
With Perry gone, there seemed little doubt that the winner of the Interzone final would go on to beat Britain, the defending champion, in the Challenge Round, so tension was palpable as play began. In the singles competition on the first day Von Cramm defeated Bryan (Bitsy) Grant and Budge took Henkel. On Day 2, Budge and Gene Mako defeated Von Cramm and Henkel in a four-set doubles match. On the third day Henkel beat Grant in four sets, tying the teams at two wins apiece. The final singles match between Budge and Von Cramm would determine the winner.
By this time the two players had become close friends and mutual admirers. "Gottfried," Budge says today, "was always a joy to be with. Anyone who ever really knew him could not help but feel close to him."
The baron no longer felt the need to chastise the younger player for his manners, Budge having become virtually his mirror image in court behavior. Both were dressed in cream flannels, with Von Cramm in his Rot-Weiss blazer, as they were escorted from the players' quarters by Ted Tinling of the All England Club. Queen Mary was among the nearly 15,000 spectators. So were the German ambassador to Great Britain, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and the German minister of sport, Hans von Tschammer und Osten. Among the U.S. rooters were comedian Jack Benny and newspaper columnist Ed Sullivan, who would become better known in the television era as a variety-show host.
As the players approached the court, a locker-room boy intercepted them to say that Von Cramm was wanted on the telephone. Tinling protested that there wasn't time, that a queen was waiting. But the baron, unflappable as ever, said the call might be important. He answered it. Budge insists that he distinctly heard his friend say, "Ja, mein Führer." It's true that a call from Hitler urging a victory would not have been unlikely. Von Cramm said later, however, that the call was from someone else, although he never publicly revealed from whom. At any rate, the conversation was brief. The match began on time.
Budge broke Von Cramm's serve to lead 5-4 in the first set, but Von Cramm broke back with four winning returns. Four games later he again broke Budge's serve to win the set 8-6. The baron also won the second set, 7-5, with his own serve fairly crackling. "I was playing tennis as well as I ever had before," Budge wrote later, but "the fewer mistakes I made, he made fewer still."
Down two sets and sorely frustrated, Budge rallied to win the third set 6-4. After the customary rest break Von Cramm seemed oddly off his game, and Budge breezed past him 6-2. But in the decisive fifth set, the baron's touch returned, and he moved to a 4-1 lead. At this point Tilden—who, to the displeasure of U.S. tennis officials, had been hired to coach the German team—rose from his scat in the gallery and, looking past Benny and Sullivan, gave Henkel an "it's in the bag" signal with his thumb and forefinger. This tactless gesture so enraged Sullivan that he removed his coat and, shouting, "You dirty son of a bitch!" started for Tilden. With some difficulty Sullivan's friends restrained him as Tilden looked on impassively.
Budge, after holding serve to make the score 4-2, decided he must gamble to pull himself back from the abyss. The baron's serve, particularly his second delivery, tended to kick high off the grass and at a tricky angle. To nullify that high hopper, Budge moved a step closer to the net, hoping to catch the ball on the rise with his superb backhand, which may have been the best the game has ever known. Luck was also with Budge, for Von Cramm, in his eagerness to close out the match, began missing his first service. Only once in the critical seventh game did the baron get his first serve in, and that was the only point he won. Budge took each second serve on the rise and drove Von Cramm deep, setting up a volley.
The momentum had shifted, and Budge held serve to tie the score at four games apiece. But Von Cramm regained his composure and held his service as the score moved to 6-6. Budge broke the baron's service in the 13th game and was now serving for the match. On match point Von Cramm drove Budge back with a serve return and hit a winning volley for deuce. The game had gone five minutes by the time Budge reached his fifth match point, and, wrote Budge, "five minutes under circumstances like these are like a month of 3-2 counts in baseball."
"The brilliance of the tennis was almost unbelievable," wrote Allison Danzig of The New York Times in his book Budge on Tennis. "The gallery...looked on spellbound as two great players, taking their inspiration from each other, worked miracles of redemption and riposte in rallies of breakneck pace that ranged all over the court. Shots that would have stood out vividly in the average match were commonplace in the cascade of electrifying strokes."
Budge's 175th first serve of the day was a lightning bolt, but Von Cramm hit an equally crisp return. The two traded ground strokes until Von Cramm finally hit what appeared to be a perfect cross-court forehand. Budge chased the shot on a dead run and was pitching forward onto the grass when he finally caught up with the ball. Miraculously, he hit a solid shot as he fell, the ball slipping past Von Cramm's outstretched racket at the net and landing less than six inches from the corner. Budge heard the roar of the crowd as he lay facedown on the turf. He knew then he had hit "the one possible winning shot," he said.
The baron, a loser in the most important match of his life, approached the net smiling sunnily, looking for all the world as if he, not his opponent, had hit that impossible shot. "Don," he said, extending his hand, "this was absolutely the finest match I have ever played in my life. I'm very happy that I could have played it against you, whom I like so much. Congratulations."
Budge embraced the vanquished baron. "I think," he said later, "we both wanted to cry."
Von Cramm's graciousness in defeat only added to his renown as the game's premier sportsman in an age when sportsmanship was considered a prime virtue. But he had once more angered his Führer, a man who had little use for a gracious loser. The baron could not have known it at the time, but his fall from grace was already being orchestrated.
A month after the Davis Cup match, Von Cramm and Henkel left on a world tour. They won the U.S. doubles championship at the Longwood Cricket Club in Boston. Then the baron lost to Budge in another five-set match for the U.S. singles title at Forest Hills. From there the German players traveled to Chicago and then on to Los Angeles for the Pacific Southwest tournament.
There, a potentially ugly incident was narrowly averted. Apparently unaware of Von Cramm's steadfast opposition to Hitler's persecution of Jews—the baron's first wife, the former Lisa von Dobeneck, was part Jewish—a contingent of nearly 200 members of the movie colony, including Groucho Marx, had planned an anti-Nazi demonstration at the tournament. The demonstrators intended to stand up as one and walk out of the arena the minute Von Cramm walked onto the court. Yet when the baron appeared, the protesters stayed rooted to their scats. It was as if Von Cramm's mere presence held them fast. Afterward Groucho himself admitted that upon seeing Von Cramm, "I felt ashamed of what I had planned to do."
From Los Angeles, Von Cramm and Henkel sailed aboard the Japanese ship Tayo Maw for the Far East. When the baron was asked to give a speech in Tokyo, he pointedly did not mention Hitler. And in Australia, where Von Cramm played Budge in exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne, he spoke critically of his government. "He was an honest man," says Budge, "and he offered what he thought was constructive criticism."
There is no such thing, of course, to a totalitarian regime. Word of Von Cramm's betrayal reached Berlin, possibly through Henkel, who was by then an ardent Nazi. The players returned to Germany on March 4, 1938, and were told that a reception in their honor had been canceled. Von Cramm instead went to visit his mother at the family castle in Brüggen. The next evening a servant reported that "two gentlemen from the government" were at the door and wished to speak to the baron.
The "two gentlemen" were Gestapo agents. The baron was under arrest. He was taken to the Moabit Prison in Berlin and charged with "sex irregularities," specifically with having had a homosexual relationship with one Manasse Herbst, a Jew who had fled Germany for Palestine two years earlier. Additionally, Von Cramm was charged with sending money out of the country to Herbst.
Neither the once considerable influence of the Von Cramm family nor even the intervention of G‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áring could stay the course of Nazi "justice," and after the baron signed a confession, he was sentenced on May 18 to serve a year in the Lehrterstrasse Prison in Berlin. There was no mention of Von Cramm's arrest in the Nazi-controlled German newspapers, but The New York Times printed the story, and it soon spread worldwide. Budge immediately organized a protest, and 25 U.S. athletes, including Joe DiMaggio, signed a petition urging the baron's release. It, too, had no effect. Gottfried von Cramm, international tennis star, was to be jailed as a homosexual.
Homosexuality was not then, nor is it now, alien to the tennis community or to international society. And it was certainly not uncommon in the Nazi party. Hitler's close comrade from the days of the failed Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923 had been the homosexual Ernst R‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áhm. But in 1934, when the Führer was persuaded by G‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áring and Heinrich Himmler that R‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áhm, by then the commanding officer of the brutish storm troopers, might try to overthrow him, he ordered R‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áhm assassinated along with most of his top associates. Afterward Hitler announced that the party had been cleansed of traitorous perverts.
The charges against Von Cramm may have been trumped up and politically motivated, but there seems little doubt that he did, in fact, have an affair with Herbst, an actor he had met in a Berlin nightclub. It was commonly accepted by his tennis colleagues that, like Tilden, Von Cramm was homosexual. However, unlike Tilden, Von Cramm was always discreet. "We were all aware that the baron was homosexual," says Fred Kovaleski, an American tour player of the '50s, "but I do not recall a single untoward gesture from him."
"Gottfried was a very private man," says 83-year-old Ladislav Hecht, who first played Von Cramm when they were juniors in 1929. "We knew he was homosexual. He always seemed to have an entourage of young men around him. But none of us ever gave it much thought. Gottfried was such a kind man, a gentleman in every sense."
Von Cramm was, in fact, such a private man that Wolfgang Hofer, a friend for 40 years and the baron's successor as president of the Rot-Weiss club, had no inkling of his sexual preferences. "I first met him when I was 12, and he never gave me the slightest inclination that he was homosexual," says Hofer. "Later I heard the talk, and he did have men around him, but women also. He was a great friend of my wife's. He was my daughter Marian's godfather."
Berlin, in the licentious atmosphere of the Weimar Republic, had become such a haven for gays that homosexuality was then jokingly referred to as "the German vice." But Von Cramm was never a part of that life. The Nazis simply needed an excuse to punish him publicly. It could well be that if he had beaten Budge and brought the Davis Cup to Germany, the baron would have been such a national hero that not even Hitler would have dared bring him down. Budge has often speculated on how different his friend's life might have been if he had won their famous match.
The baron was released from prison after serving five months of his year's sentence. He quickly accepted an invitation from another old friend, King Gustav of Sweden, to live in his country, and he resumed his tennis career under Swedish auspices, acting as if the humiliation he had endured in Germany were a minor inconvenience.
In June 1939, Von Cramm won the Queens Club tournament, a Wimbledon tune-up in London, easily defeating the young U.S. star Bobby Riggs 6-0, 6-1 in the semifinals. But as a convicted felon, even one convicted in a Nazi court, the baron was prohibited from playing at Wimbledon, a tournament that, without Budge, who had turned pro the previous year, Von Cramm would have been heavily favored to win. As it was, he was destined never to win Wimbledon, at which he had been a finalist three years in succession. In a last, bitter irony, the 1939 Wimbledon champion was Riggs, whom the baron had just beaten so convincingly.
In September of that year, Germany invaded Poland and plunged Europe into bloody conflict. Von Cramm may not have been a Nazi, but he was a loyal German, and he returned home. In May 1940, deprived by his criminal record of his reserve commission, he was drafted into the army as a private. In the winter of 1942, he fought as a machine gunner in the gruesome battle raging outside Moscow. According to his German biographer, Egon Steinkamp, the baron, by then a sergeant, anticipated a Russian victory, and he urged the eastern Germans in his company to seek refuge after the war at his Bodenburg Castle in western Germany. (And when, as he had predicted, the Russians overran eastern Germany, many of those soldiers did find their way to Bodenburg.)
Von Cramm suffered frostbite in both legs that winter in Russia and was taken to a hospital in Warsaw. He was awarded the Iron Cross for bravery and then promptly given a dishonorable discharge from the army. An aura of mystery remains about his unexpected release. His nephew, Burghard von Cramm, believes that Gottfried was let go because he was suspected of conspiring with the enemy.
"My uncle was one of 500 aristocrats dishonorably discharged by Hitler in 1942," says Burghard, the current Baron von Cramm. "It was common knowledge he was against the Nazi regime. It was known that he had been in touch with underground leaders. And it was suspected that he was at least on the periphery of the group plotting against Hitler's life. He knew about some of those assassination attempts before they took place. I think the only thing that saved his life was his friendship with the king of Sweden. Hitler wanted to do business with Sweden, and my uncle knew all the important people there."
Von Cramm spent the rest of the war commuting between Bodenburg Castle and Sweden, where, his nephew says, he conspired with underground leaders. Once, at Bodenburg, he rescued a U.S. pilot who had been shot down nearby. "Why are you helping me?" the American asked.
"Because," the baron replied, "I once played tennis with Don Budge."
"Oh," said the pilot, "then you must be Gottfried von Cramm."
After the war Von Cramm returned to Berlin, where he and Hofer, who had been a prisoner of the Russians, set about rebuilding the demolished Rot-Weiss club. "We started with nothing," says Hofer. "Gottfried was amazing. He seemed absolutely untouched by the war. He never talked about the horrors of the Russian winter. He never talked about being in jail. To do so would have been out of character for him. He just worked hard to get this club going again. Or rather, he'd say to me, 'Wolfgang, you do the work; I'll find the money.' And he could do that, you know. He had so many connections." Within three years the baron's beloved Rot-Weiss was hosting tournaments again.
In April 1951, Von Cramm surprised many of his friends by actually getting a job. He had played tennis so often in Egypt before and after the war and had made so many contacts there that he was persuaded by an Egyptian cotton magnate to start a company in Hamburg to import Egyptian cotton for West German mills. "What he did in tennis," says Hofer, "he did in business."
Yet Von Cramm continued to play in tournaments, winning the German championship in 1948 and '49. In 1951, at age 42, a fledgling business tycoon, he returned to Wimbledon for the first time in 14 years. Obviously nervous and certainly not the player he had been, he lost his first-round match in straight sets to 1949 finalist Jaroslav Drobny, but only after extending the younger man to 9-7 in the first set.
Still, Von Cramm created a stir at Wimbledon, not so much for the brilliance of his tennis as for having as his companion the Woolworth heiress, Barbara Hutton. The baron and the "poor little rich girl" had been friends since 1937, and though he discouraged any intimacy, Hutton "was crazy about him," says Budge. "She couldn't rest until she got what she wanted."
"She liked having a good-looking guy around," says Talbert. "And in dinner clothes, who looked better than Gottfried? He was a beautiful dancer. He had great charm. And he was an international figure. He was the perfect escort." Hutton was addicted to alcohol and drugs, and many of her friends told Von Cramm that only he could save her. "I loved you from the first time I laid eyes on your face," she wrote him. Uncharacteristically, Von Cramm did discuss Hutton with friends. He had no wish to marry her, he told Hofer, but he did want to help her.
"Gottfried was an angelic man," says Hofer. "He wanted to help all of his fiends. When Kai Lund, his old doubles partner, came back from the war missing an arm and a leg, Gottfried bought him a small hotel near Baden-Baden. The baron constantly gave money to former servants to get them started in business. He opened up his castle to those East Germans. I think he really believed he could help Barbara Hutton by marrying her. Some people would say he married her for her money, but that's not true."
Von Cramm became Hutton's sixth husband on Nov. 8, 1955. He was her first baron, following two princes, a count, Cary Grant and the notorious Dominican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa. (She had one more prince to come, her seventh husband, Raymond Doan Vinh of Laos.)
Once acquired, the baron, of course, quickly lost his allure for Hutton. She divorced him in January 1960, leaving him $600,000 as a going-away gift. Von Cramm had little use for the Hutton fortune. His business was prospering, and he divided his time between his office in Hamburg and his suppliers in Cairo and Alexandria. He played tennis in Cairo at the lush Gezira Sporting Club, often with Kovaleski, who was working for a soft-drink company there. A bit paunchy now in middle age, the baron still cut a dashing figure on the court.
"He was an incredible player in his 40's," says Dick Savitt, the 1951 Wimbledon and Australian champion, who played Von Cramm in a tournament in Cairo in the spring of '51, "and he dressed so well that I hated to walk out on the court with him. The other thing was, my being Jewish, I wasn't sure how he'd react to me. I needn't have worried, because he went out of his way for me. In fact, he sent me a telegram when I won Wimbledon. The baron didn't care what a person's background was. He just cared how people acted."
"He loved Egypt," says Kovaleski. "He knew everybody in Cairo, all the very rich and every important member of the diplomatic corps. He was a much-loved foreigner there."
"In fact," says Savitt, "I don't think I've ever seen a man more revered in a foreign country than the baron was in Egypt."
Von Cramm was seemingly impervious to pain, either physical or emotional. But he did have a dread of hospitals. "I can't recall him ever being ill, except, of course, during the war," says Hofer. "He told me once that he had no fear of being injured or even of dying. Then he said, 'But Wolfgang, I will not die in a hospital.' "
And he did not. On Nov. 9, 1976, Von Cramm arranged for a car and driver to take him from Cairo to Alexandria on business. He planned to leave at one in the afternoon, but another driver appeared at 11:30 a.m. and offered to make the trip. The baron agreed to the earlier start and, as always, joined the driver in the front seat. Sitting in the back was unnecessary ostentation, he thought. Besides, he enjoyed talking with his drivers.
The two-lane blacktop road was, says Kovaleski, "as straight as an arrow, with very few intersections." It also was never busy; a driver could go miles without seeing another car. On this day, though, a military truck coming from the opposite direction suddenly swerved out of control into the wrong lane, apparently after turning too late toward a gas station, and collided with Von Cramm's car. The baron's driver was killed instantly. Von Cramm, true to his wishes, died not in a hospital but in an ambulance taking him to one.
"His death," says his nephew, "hit the family like a stroke from hell."
The once famous "tennis baron" is scarcely remembered today. When Boris Becker won his first Wimbledon, he announced in all the innocence of his 17 years that perhaps his victory would give the sport a needed boost in his country, because "in Germany, we never had an idol before in tennis." Becker's victory came on July 7, 1985, which would have been Von Cramm's 76th birthday.
It is true also that the code of sportsmanship the baron so scrupulously observed is no more applicable to today's tennis than his wooden racket or long pants. "Gottfried would have been shocked at the way some of these animals behave," says Talbert.
"We were much more disciplined," says Perry. "Yet we had so much fun. We were not loners."
"We were a world family then," says the 86-year-old Austin. "We were all good friends. Today, I'm afraid, the players are not. It's sad."
There is one place where Von Cramm's memory is secure. The Rot-Weiss club, fully restored to its prewar grandeur, is nestled among groves of trees in the fashionable Grunewald section of Berlin, overlooking the glistening Lake Hundekehle. The club owes its recovered beauty, in large part, to Von Cramm's determination to rebuild it from the rubble of World War II. The baron loved this place, and he is everywhere, even in death. Photographs of him adorn the walls of the clubhouse. His memorabilia are preserved there. A plaque donated by Perry celebrates a memorable Davis Cup tie between Britain and Germany at the Rot-Weiss in 1932—won by the Germans. The short street leading past stately homes to the club's entrance gate is called Gottfried-von-Cramm-Weg.
In club president Hofer, Von Cramm has a faithful disciple dedicated to keeping his name alive. In his office Hofer, 68, points to a photograph of Von Cramm hitting a sweeping backhand. "He was not a father figure to me," Hofer says, "although he was older. And he was not like a brother. What he was, was a true friend, one who always did his best to help. A true friend. How many of those do you have in a lifetime?"
Hofer steps from behind his desk to look out over the Rot-Weiss center court, where the baron once heard the cheers of his countrymen. "We perpetuate his name here," he says. "This, you see, is Gottfried's club. It always will be."