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UNSINKABLE
L. JON WERTHEIM
April 02, 2012
A CENTURY AGO, MORE THAN 1,500 PEOPLE DIED IN THE MOST FAMOUS SHIPWRECK IN HISTORY. TWO OF THE WORLD'S BEST TENNIS PLAYERS, RICHARD WILLIAMS AND KARL BEHR, SURVIVED THE DISASTER—IN VERY DIFFERENT WAYS
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April 02, 2012

Unsinkable

A CENTURY AGO, MORE THAN 1,500 PEOPLE DIED IN THE MOST FAMOUS SHIPWRECK IN HISTORY. TWO OF THE WORLD'S BEST TENNIS PLAYERS, RICHARD WILLIAMS AND KARL BEHR, SURVIVED THE DISASTER—IN VERY DIFFERENT WAYS

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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.

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