Survivors remembered: ‘Tennis and the Titanic’

April 5, 2012

NEWPORT, R.I. — Like many of the R.M.S. Titanic’s approximately 2,200 passengers, Americans Karl Howell Behr and Richard Norris Williams II climbed aboard the ill-fated ship in search of their dreams — Behr was chasing love, and Williams striving for an Ivy League education and a successful tennis career. When the grand, “unsinkable” ship struck an iceberg late on April 14, 1912, the two were among the small, fortunate group of just 700 or so survivors. After meeting for the first time aboard the rescue ship R.M.S. Carpathia, neither man took their good fortune for granted, and they achieved great success as two of the best players in the history of tennis. Williams remarkably won the U.S. Nationals Mixed Doubles title just months after the Titanic disaster, and went on to capture several other major titles, and he was honored for his achievements with Hall of Fame induction in 1957. Behr, who was already an established player before the ship’s voyage, was ranked within the top-5 in the nation, and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1969.

As the world commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum in Newport, R.I. will pay tribute to these two remarkable survivors with a special exhibit in their honor, opening next week. Tennis and the Titanic will officially open at the museum on Thursday, April 12 with an exhibit opening at 5 p.m., a discussion with Behr and Williams’ family members at 6 p.m., and a special film screening of “A Night to Remember,” a 1958 film that chronicles the sinking, beginning at 6:30 p.m. The exhibit opening is open to the public, refreshments will be served, and reservations are recommended. Admission is free for Hall of Fame Members and $12 for Non-Members. Reservations may be made on or by calling 401-324-4074 or emailing [email protected].

“This has been a fascinating exhibit to develop. Our goal was to shed light on the interesting lives of two remarkable men who survived one of the most infamous catastrophes in modern history, but were able to go on to have elite careers as athletes and success in other areas of life,” said Doug Stark, museum director at the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum. “We are grateful to the Behr and Williams families for their support in developing this exhibit. We look forward to welcoming them to the exhibit opening, which will offer a unique opportunity to hear more about Titanic survivors and Hall of Fame tennis players Richard Norris Williams II and Karl Howell Behr from the people who knew them best.”

Tennis and the Titanic will feature dynamic imagery and narratives detailing Williams’ and Behr’s lives before, during, and after the ship’s sinking. In addition, it will feature various personal mementos as well as artifacts from their tennis careers. Highlights of the exhibit include personal letters that were in the pocket of Williams’ fur coat when he jumped overboard and rare photos of the two tennis greats together. Tennis memorabilia featured includes Williams 1914 U.S. Nationals Men’s Singles Championship trophy, which he won at Newport, where the event was played before moving to New York and becoming the US Open. In addition, his 1920 Wimbledon Men’s Doubles Championship trophy and an old-fashion racquet press that he used to carry his gear to tournaments worldwide, will be displayed.

American Richard Norris Williams II had been living in Europe and preparing for a collegiate tennis career at Harvard when he boarded the Titanic with his father. When they felt the collision with the iceberg, they believed there was some trouble but did not imagine the situation to be as dire as it turned out. The pair helped people board lifeboats, and worked out in the gym to pass time and stay warm. When they realized the ship was close to sinking, the men readied themselves to jump in the water. It was, however, too late, and at that moment the four massive funnels came crashing down and one crushed Williams’ father.

With no time to mourn his father, Williams jumped into the icy water and clung to a lifeboat for hours in frigid water. After he was saved, Williams realized that he had no feeling in his legs, and when he tried to stand or walk, the pain was unbearable. Doctors aboard Carpathia recommended his legs be amputated. Williams, however, was not willing to give up his dreams for a successful tennis career. To avoid amputation, he spent hours walking the decks to get the feeling back and save his legs.

Williams’ perseverance served him well. He went on to play at Harvard, and ultimately achieved a world ranking of No. 4 and a U.S. ranking of No. 1. Remarkably, Williams won the U.S. Nationals Mixed Doubles with Mary Browne just months after the disaster, and later won an Olympic Gold in mixed doubles with Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman. In all, he won a total of six major championships and was a member of five triumphant Davis Cup teams.

In a real life story that could be the basis for a movie, Karl Howell Behr, a dashing, successful businessman and established tennis player claimed it was a business trip to Europe that required him to be on the Titanic’s maiden voyage. In reality, he boarded Titanic to follow Helen Newsom, the woman he loved, but whose parents did not approve of him. After the ship struck the iceberg, Helen and her parents were hastily put into one of the first life boats. While the call was for “women and children only,” Behr was convinced to climb aboard to help row the boat.

Aside from the survivor’s guilt that plagued him all his life, Behr came away unscathed. Once aboard the rescue ship Carpathia, Behr became part of the Survivor Committee, helping to organize and assist the survivors. His role was appreciated by the survivors, and through the catastrophe, he also inadvertently proved himself worthy to Helen’s parents; the two were married in March 1913.

Prior to the Titanic disaster, Behr had a thriving tennis career, having been a doubles finalist at Wimbledon and a finalist at the U.S. Nationals, as well as playing on the U.S. Davis Cup. After surviving the ship, he continued to play competitively, achieving a career high ranking of No. 3 in the United States.

Williams’ and Behr’s first meeting was aboard the Carpathia. Prior to their encounter, Williams was an aspiring tennis player who had closely followed Behr’s tennis accomplishments. Two years after the Titanic disaster, in 1914, Williams was en route to his first U.S. National Championship in singles, when he came across a familiar face on the other side of the net at the tournament, which was hosted at the Newport Casino, now home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum. Williams’ quarterfinal opponent was Karl Behr, whom he beat in straight sets 6-2, 6-2, 7-5. The men played against each other a few others times in their careers and remained friendly, bound forever by their harrowing experience and their love of the game.

Tennis and the Titanic will be on display for approximately one-year in the Woolard Family Enshrinement Gallery at the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum in Newport, R.I. The International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the history of tennis and honoring its greatest champions and contributors. Induction to the International Tennis Hall of Fame is based on the sum of one’s achievements and accomplishments in tennis and is the highest honor a player or leader in the sport can receive. Since 1955, the International Tennis Hall of Fame has inducted 220 people from 19 countries.