An extract from ‘Titantic – The Tennis Story’, by Lindsay Gibbs, which tells the tale of the two survivors who would play each other in a US Open quarter-final.
Sitting in the cramped backseat of a Renault taxi, Dick Williams was having a hard time controlling his laughter. The car raced through the streets of Paris, dodging tourists and businessmen, cars and horses as it tried to keep pace with the identical and even more headlong-driven car right in front of them. On this early morning of April 10, 1912 Dick and his father Charles Duane Williams, riding in the car in front, were running very late.
Anyone who knows me could not suppose me
Gloomy, or glum, or sad!
Generally times are bad
I am always gay and glad!
A song from the opera his father had taken him to the previous night, The Count of Luxembourg, was stuck in his head and he found himself humming it out loud. The driver was giving him a perturbed look, but that only encouraged him. He checked his pocket watch and realized just how close they were cutting it – their train to Cherbourg, the port where they were to catch their ship, was scheduled to depart in just ten minutes. He still couldn’t bring himself to worry though – things like this always worked out. Of course his father, in the other taxi, would be in an entirely different mood.
The morning started off smoothly enough. Dick and his father had packed their trunks in their Paris hotel room, loaded them into matching taxis and headed off to the train station. Unfortunately, they had headed to the wrong train station. When his car pulled up, his father was standing outside the station flailing his arms about wildly, ordering the cabs to the other side of town. The image of his composed, dignified father flapping about like a bird had Dick in stitches.
His father had reason to be nervous of course. They were moving to America but were in great danger of missing their ship. Though they were American citizens, they had lived in Geneva, where Dick was born. Their family had settled in Switzerland due to his father’s delicate health. The fresh mountain air was supposed to revive him, but Dick suspected that wasn’t why they’d stayed. The endless blue sky, crystal clear lakes and picturesque mountains were certainly a luxurious environment for anyone. But more so than that, it was the people, and the minor celebrity status that they had been able to attain, that he thought had kept them in Switzerland for so long.
However, it was all about to change. They were headed back to America where they would reside with Charles’s brother (and Dick’s namesake) Richard Norris Williams in Pennsylvania for the summer until Dick went off to Harvard in the fall. Oh, and he was supposed to play tennis. Lots and lots of tennis. That was, of course, if they made their boat!
They booked passage on board what was supposed to be the finest ship ever made, the White Star Line’s RMS Titanic. Dick became fascinated reading about this ship in the papers when he came down with a bad case of the measles earlier that year. When the illness caused them to have to postpone their original trip in February, he lobbied his father hard to book tickets on Titanic.
It didn’t take much convincing, for being on the maiden voyage of such a grand ship would be a story to tell for a lifetime. The April departure was a bit later than Charles had hoped for, but Dick was sure that his father was thrilled with the decision. It was an honor to be a part of the debut of such a ship – some of the most prominent members of society would be on board, including millionaire John Jacob Astor IV and his wife, industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim, Macy’s owner Isidor Straus and Denver millionairess Margaret “Molly” Brown. He would be inconsolable if they missed the ship now, but Dick wasn’t too concerned. The Gare St. Lazare train station was in sight. He checked his pocket watch – five minutes to spare.
The taxi screeched to a halt and Dick threw some money at his driver while his frantic father colorfully instructed the porters with the trolley cart where to take the luggage. The two men then went dashing through the station to make their train.
He loved the Gare St. Lazare. It was one of the most beautiful buildings in Paris. It’s arched, vaulted ceilings had windows at the top and the way the light streamed through at certain times of the day made the entire station glow. When he had time to spare during his frequent travels, Dick loved to sit on a bench and watch the hurried travelers race by. Of course, there was no time to sit and observe today. They raced through the station, pushing bystanders out of the way and making quite a scene.
“One minute! We have one minute Richard Norris, hurry up!” Charles yelled from up ahead.
He hated when his father called him by his full name. He also hated the fact that his frail, fifty-one-year-old father was running faster than him.
As the train departure whistle blew, Dick went into a final kick, passed his father and made it to the train. He held the door as Charles limped up the stairs, completely out of breath. The doors closed immediately behind them. The whistle blew again and the train was off.
As soon as they got settled into their seats – in the back of the first-class car, on the right side, just like Charles always preferred – the moleskin notebook came out. As long as Dick could remember, his father carried around a moleskin notebook. He wrote nothing in them about the law, or finances, or even family. The moleskins were devoted to Charles’s number one passion in life – tennis. He had stacks of them, chronicling everything from the very first tennis match he had ever seen, to the playing patterns and styles of some of the most notable players in the world, to the plans he had to develop an international governing body for the sport.
Today the moleskin was fresh. New journey, new notebook. He peered over his father’s shoulder to observe the ritual. Charles bent the notebook to break it in faster, flipped through the pages, made a crease so it sat flat on the tabletop, and carefully wrote in the heading, “Road to the winning the U.S. National Singles Title.” He looked up at Dick with a huge grin on his face.
“All right, Richard Norris, let’s get started,” Charles said, not even bothering to contain his excitement.
The U.S. Nationals at Newport was the biggest tennis tournament in the United States. It was the national championship of the United States, started in 1881 by the newly-organized U.S. National Lawn Tennis Association. The lush green lawns of the courts at the Newport Casino – and the stories of the legendary players and great matches that were contested on them – was what significantly stoked Charles’s love of the sport.
As a child, Dick’s bedtime stories had been about famous tennis matches, the heroes the great players of the sport’s early decades – after all, lawn tennis had only been formally organized by Major Walter Clopton Wingfield in Britain in 1874. Dick started playing when he was five in 1896. By the time he was seven, his father was teaching him strokes and tactics. At nine, he began playing against much older players at the Avantes Lawn and Tennis Club outside Geneva. He was soon winning all the local tournaments for boys in Switzerland. In his late teens, he began traveling to other tournaments in Europe, rarely losing. He really loved tennis. He was a shy and awkward boy and the tennis court was one of the few places he felt comfortable. And like most young boys, he just wanted to please his father.
But he was no longer a boy and the rising expectations he faced as a tournament player made him uncomfortable. It began to feel like pressure. A lot of pressure. The game had come to define him and he wanted to explore who he was outside of a tennis court. He wanted to make friends with people who weren’t competitors and to figure out his own interests. He wanted to be his own person and find his own identity. He loved to play tennis, but he was not sure he shared the same passion for the sport that his father had. He was hoping that this move to America would be a time for him to start fresh.
The only problem was, he hadn’t been able to summon the courage to talk about his feelings to his father. In fact, he hadn’t talked to anyone about it. All of his friends in Geneva were tennis friends, his father’s friends, or his father’s tennis friends. He was so entwined in it all that he didn’t know if there actually was a way out. His father was excited at the talents of his young boy and he had big expectations, like any proud parent would have.
“I’m really hungry, Pops, I’m going to go to the dining car first,” he said, trying not to sound too exasperated.
“All right, son,” Charles replied, already scribbling away in the moleskin.
The first-class car on the Transatlantique was full of passengers heading to Cherbourg to board the Titanic. Some of the most powerful men in America and Europe, who were booked on the ship, were likely on the train. Society and social standing were foreign concepts to Dick. Perhaps it was because he grew up in Switzerland, or because he had parents who didn’t feel the need to display their wealth ostentatiously, but he just did not understand what the big deal was. Women’s fashion especially confused him.
For instance, even now while traveling six hours on a train ride that they must have known would be cramped and uncomfortable no matter how expensive the tickets, the women were dressed head to toe in the most lavish and uncomfortable looking garments he’d ever seen. Tight dresses that threatened to squeeze the breath out of them with skirts that were either so tight or so massive that it was impossible to walk like a dignified human being – even though they were dressing that way just so they’d be perceived as such. And forget about the hats! It seemed to Dick as if they should have booked an entire extra train car just for the hats.
And this was just the train ride. He tried to picture what the Titanic would look like – the dining room, the smoking room, the gymnasium. He hoped it was as good as the brochures and articles made it seem. He hoped the ship had a lot of space, endless corridors for exploring. He wondered what color the walls of his room would be and whether the stewards and stewardesses would be wearing the same uniforms as on his last ship ride. He was ten years old at the time and for some reason he had found the uniforms to be just the most fascinating things – they always looked so cleanly pressed!
Walking through the train, he had to dodge children, stray luggage and stewards alike. He felt like that morning’s taxi driver slaloming through the Paris traffic. As he crossed through to another car a man at the other end caught his eye. In the midst of the chaos he was standing perfectly still, propped up against the side of the car and gazing out the window. He looked deep in thought, as if he had found a secret way to drown out all of the bustle around him.
As Dick walked closer he began to realize that this man looked familiar – yes, he knew this man! It was Karl Behr, the great tennis champion from the United States. He could hardly believe it. Behr had been ranked in the top ten for several years and Dick’s father had often tried to get him to emulate Behr’s drive volley, which was one of the best in the game. Dick followed Karl’s career and was well aware of his exploits reaching the Wimbledon doubles final in 1907 and also being a member of the challenging U.S. Davis Cup team that year. Dick admired the stories he read of Behr’s aggressive and athletic play and regarded him as a paragon of athleticism and fitness as the winner of many extended five-set matches.
He wanted to go run and tell his father, but Charles would surely hound the tennis star for the remainder of the trip, so he decided against it. Behr looked to be enjoying his quiet and solitude. It was strange though – here Dick wanted a short respite from his father’s tennis talk and he ended up running into a famous tennis player. Dick laughed at the irony.