SI Vault
 
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
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
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

View CoverRead All Articles

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.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5