One ship, Two men, 1,517 deaths
Twenty-five years ago, I wrote an article about tennis and the luxury liner RMS Titanic. Titled "Titanic Disaster Holds Place in Tennis Lore," it marked the 75th anniversary of the ship’s sinking. The piece appeared in the April 1987 issue of Tennis USA, then the USTA’s newspaper.
Some months before, I had come across a brief mention that two very good tennis players were aboard the Titanic. Intrigued, I looked around for more information. Finding little, I gave up, only to return with renewed determination.
This hunt of mine occurred during the infancy of the digital age, so almost all the information I gained about the event came via telephone, the kind that sat on a desk and weighed 3 pounds.
My article completed, I forgot about it until 1998. While viewing the just-released hit movie Titanic, I remember experiencing a vague déjà vu moment when the love affair between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet unfolded on the screen.
As the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster approached this year, I grew curious. I crawled through the attic of my Albuquerque home in search of my article. By now, a few features about tennis and the Titanic had shown up in print and last month a book on the subject came out.
When I finally located my contribution, I crouched with flashlight in hand and reread it. I tried to remember what Tennis USA paid me or even if I was paid. Didn’t matter.
My pleasure then and now came in knowing I had provided a footnote to a catastrophe that continues to capture the world’s attention.
Here’s my story.
No tennis court graced the Titanic. Though at nearly 900 feet in length and 11 stories tall the ship certainly had room for a court.
There were, however, two fine tennis players aboard the ill-fated vessel. Neither knew the other well at the time yet each would lead remarkably similar lives, shaped to some extent by the world’s greatest maritime tragedy.
The passenger/players were Richard Norris Williams II, 21, and Karl Howell Behr, 26. Stars during the sport’s white flannel pants days, both men are enshrined in the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I.
Dick Williams was born in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1891. His father, C. Duane Willams was an American attorney who had moved to Europe to improve his health.
Named for an uncle, young Dick taught himself tennis by repeatedly aiming racket and ball at a spot on a brick wall outside his home. As a 12-year-old, he won the Swiss junior singles.
To prepare their son for Harvard University, Williams’ parents decided Dick needed a semester at Milton Academy in Massachusetts.
A husky young man with a shock of black hair, Williams had planned to come to the United States in February 1912, but he caught the measles. After Dick’s recovery, his father, feeling festive, booked passage for the two of them on the fancy new Titanic, due to leave Southampton, England, for New York, on April 10, 1912.
Karl Behr was born in 1885 in Brooklyn, where his father owned a sandpaper company. Like Dick Williams, Behr showed great promise early for tennis. At 14, he won the men’s singles title at a New Jersey club where his family summered.
As a student at Lawrenceville School, the trim, brown-haired and naturally coordinated Behr won the United States Lawn Tennis Association’s interscholastic singles in 1903, and the following year, the intercollegiate doubles, while attending Yale.
After graduation from Yale in 1906, Behr, a skilled volleyer, won a Wimbledon doubles runner-up title and scored a big doubles victory over Australasia, now Australia, in Davis Cup.
Behr continued to play competitively even after he entered Columbia Law School, where he earned a degree in 1910. By now, however, he had met a pretty young Columbus, Ohio, woman named Helen Newsom, a college friend of his sister’s. Newsom was six years younger than Behr and her mother and stepfather, the Richard Beckwiths, were not keen about such an elderly suitor.
Undaunted, Behr pursued Helen vigorously. When her parents took Helen on a European holiday in early 1912, a trip intended to turn her attention away from Behr, Behr followed, hastily arranging some sandpaper business abroad.
After shadowing Helen across the continent, Behr learned that she and her parents had book first-class cabins back to New York aboard the Titanic.
Behr bought a ticket, too.
A sudden jolt
More than 2,200 passengers and crew were on the largest ship afloat for her maiden voyage. Many passengers were extraordinarily wealthy and many played tennis. Indeed, the boat’s baggage room contained 30 cases of golf clubs and tennis rackets.
Dick Williams spent much of the trip with his father. The two were very close, for young Dick was an only child. Father and son often walked the Promenade Deck together and talked of college and how Dick might go on with his tennis.
Behr spent the voyage staying as close to Helen as her parents would permit. When Helen’s mother and stepfather weren’t around, the couple spooned on the Promenade Deck.
Karl Behr had returned to his cabin on Sunday evening, April 14, when at around 11:45 p.m. he felt a strange and sudden jolt: An iceberg had just torn a 300-foot gash in the Titanic’s hull. After quickly putting back on his tuxedo, Behr went down to the Beckwiths’ cabin and roused the family.
Behr and Richard Beckwith went below and found water fast filling the ship’s squash court. Still, no one seemed terribly concerned, even as the ship began to list to starboard. The idea that the mighty and massive Titanic might be in serious trouble seemed preposterous.
There were precious few people about—passengers or crew—when the Behr party arrived at the ship’s Boat Deck. In fact, historian Walter Lord in his book A Night to Remember, says that Behr and company were reluctant to get in a lifeboat until J. Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line, the ship’s owner, urged them.
Strong bodies were needed to row the lifeboat and the athletic Karl Behr was recruited. At 12:55 a.m., on April 15, Boat No. 5 was lowered into the North Atlantic.
"You’ll be the laughingstock of this ship tomorrow morning," someone called to Behr.
When Dick Williams and his father learned of the collision, they spent the next hour helping people into lifeboats and then wandering the ship. At one point, Dick stopped to listen to the Titanic’s band play a medley of cheerful tunes.
Shortly after 2 a.m., when the last of the lifeboats had been cut loose, Williams and his father went up on the captain’s bridge. The big ship was now sinking rapidly; water soon lapped at their feet.
"Jump!" Duane Williams told his son.
Dick did so. He dropped 40 feet into the 20-degree ocean, where he grabbed a piece of floating debris. Holding on to it, Williams looked up to see a tilted smokestack where his father had stood. Lights on the ship continued to glow as the "unsinkable" Titanic slid beneath the water’s surface.
At 2:20 a.m., the Titanic disappeared. More than 1,500 people, including C. Duane Williams, perished.
Waiting for help
Dawn had barely broken when Behr’s lifeboat, only two-thirds full, was picked up by the liner Carpathia. For the occupants of Boat No. 5, the night had been a cold, black, confusing time.
Not far from Boat No. 5, Williams had clung to his makeshift life preserver, accompanied by a half-dozen others.
Eventually he found a lifeboat and climbed in.
As the hours passed and the frigid water wore down people alongside him, Williams watched in horror as travelers dropped away and vanished into the sea.
Eventually, Williams, too, was rescued by the Carpathia. His legs were frozen, but he was otherwise OK. When a physician aboard the Carpathia suggested amputating both of Williams’s legs, Dick Williams shook his head with great resolution.
"I’m going to need these legs," he reportedly said.
Williams recovered and the next fall entered Harvard. A year after that he was runner-up in the U.S. singles championship. Behr went back to practicing law and playing tournaments when he could. Almost a year to the day after the Titanic went down, Behr wed Helen Newsom.
If the Titanic disaster signaled a decline in Behr’s tennis achievements, it put Williams on a brilliant course. A daring, risky player who never temporized, Williams won the national singles in 1914 and 1916, and the national doubles in 1925 and 1926. The USLTA ranked him No. 1 in 1916. In all, Williams captured 11 national titles and the 1924 Wimbledon doubles. He played on seven Davis Cup teams.
Alison Danzig, the veteran tennis writer for The New York Times, said of Williams (pictured - right), "At his best he was unbeatable, and more dazzling than Tilden."
Williams and Behr played tennis far into retirement, though Williams was bothered more and more by circulatory problems in his legs, the result of five hours in the ice-choked Atlantic.
Surviving the Titanic disaster and playing world-class tennis were not all Williams and Behr had in common. Both men enjoyed extremely happy marriages—Williams wed Sue Gillmore in 1930—and both fathered three sons and a daughter.
Both men later worked as investment bankers.
Most coincidentally of all, both men almost never talked of the Titanic.
A pair of varied lives
Only after their children encouraged the two to write an account of what happened did the men address the disaster. Before he died of cancer at age 64 in 1949, Behr published privately KHB, his life story. Behr told in the book how he had prospected for silver in Mexico and the he’d once been nominated for governor of the territory of Alaska. Mostly Behr declared a profound love for his wife, Helen, who died in 1965.
The couple’s relationship, some Behr family members believe, was cemented forever by the Titanic episode. "My father was like Teddy Roosevelt, whom he greatly admired," says Behr’s son, Peter, who lives in Inverness, Calif. "He was full of exuberance and animal energy and he was adventurous and devoted to his family. But where the Titanic was concerned, he rarely looked back."
Williams died of emphysema in 1968. He was 77. Like Behr, Williams led a multifarious life. A highly decorated Army officer in World War I, he also was a superb gardener. For 22 years he directed the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Shortly before he died, Williams published a brief memoir titled CQD, the radio call for "Come Quick Disaster." The work was an enormously restrained account for someone who had witnessed his father’s death and whose own survival bordered on the miraculous.
Some family members feel the Titanic ordeal gave Dick Williams a determinedly carefree approach to life.
"Dick was the most modest man I ever knew," says his widow, who lives in Wayne, Pa. "You’d never even know he played tennis if you talked to him. Dick didn’t try to hide what happened that night. But he didn’t dwell on it, either."
Of the half-dozen or so times Behr and Williams met in tennis competitions, Williams came out on top most often. Perhaps the biggest match between the occurred Aug. 14, 1915, when Williams beat Behr in four sets to win the then-important Achelis Challenge Cup at New Jersey’s Seabright Lawn Tennis and Cricket Club.
The following day, the Sunday New York Herald Tribune devoted a full column to that contest—nearly every rally was analyzed, and mention was made that Secretary of War Lindley Garrison had been a spectator. Included with the write-up was a photograph of Williams and Behr posing together. Nowhere, however, was there any mention that both finalists had endured the tragedy of the Titanic.
In later years the two men and their families vacationed near each other at Rumson, N.J.
Curiously, Williams and Behr never became more than casual friends. It was if getting too close might remind them of something they wanted to forget.
COUNTERPUNCHER is an online exclusive series written by former Albuquerque Journal reporter and USTA Southwest Marketing Committee member Toby Smith. Smith has been writing on tennis for more than 40 years.
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View past Counterpuncher stories HERE.