A hundred years to the day after the Titanic struck an iceberg, we talk to the author of a new book, ‘Titanic – The Tennis Story’. Lindsay Gibbs tells the story of two tennis players, Dick Williams and Karl Behr, and how they survived the sinking of the Titanic and went on to play each other in the quarter-finals of the modern-day US Open, with the winner achieving a big upset in the final.
What inspired you to write this book?
First of all, I am a huge tennis fan and have been since I was young. After I was done with NYU Film School (where there weren’t many sports fans, let alone tennis fans) I got very involved with the online tennis community through blogs and twitter. That’s when I met Randy Walker, the publisher of New Chapter Press. He knew about the story and presented this opportunity to me. I was just blown away that I hadn’t heard about the stories of Karl Behr and Dick Williams before and thought it would be a fascinating project to dig into.
Why do you consider this to be the greatest story in the history of tennis?
Just think about it – two future tennis Hall of Famers both survive the sinking of the Titanic, one of the most famous events of last century, meet each other on the deck of the rescue ship Carpathia, and then two years later become teammates on the U.S. Davis Cup team and then face off in the quarterfinals of the modern-day US Open.
On top of that there’s an intriguing love story and the fact that one man miraculously survives the night in the freezing water, almost has his legs amputated and then goes on to stage what the New York Times called “one of the greatest upsets of the age” to win the modern-day US Open. It’s just a remarkable story through and through.
Is this an era which has always appealed to you?
I wouldn’t say that I’ve always been drawn to this era, but there are so many intriguing things about it. I often found that time period at the beginning of the century- before WW1- referred to as the “Happy Years.” There was a general sense of hope and affluence – yet there was such a great class divide and women didn’t even have the right to vote. It’s always interesting to explore the similarities and differences between different time periods.
You describe this as a novel. How much is based on your own imagination? Why did you decide to take that approach to writing the story?
We wanted to approach the book as a historical fiction novel and tell it like a story so it could have a broader appeal and be a different kind of “history” book so to speak. A lot of the very important details about this story are unknown since there is no documentation and all of the people involved have been dead at least 40 years, so creative license had to be taken. For example, perhaps the most remarkable situations in the story is when Dick Williams and Karl Behr met on the deck of the Carpathia is largely undocumented outside of the fact that they met and Karl was helpful. Certain scenes needed to be created, as with any work of historical fiction, to help fill in some gaps.
Tell us more about the research you did? Did anything surprise you? Did the families help you with diaries, letters and photographs? Have you been working on this book for several years? Has this been a long process?
I worked for over a year researching this project. A couple of things really shocked me. When you think of the night when the Titanic sank, most people think of chaos and pandemonium – but the truth is, for at least an hour and a half after the iceberg hit, things were completely calm. Nobody truly believed that the ship was going to sink until the final moments.
Also, I was surprised by the lack of coverage of the stories of Dick Wiliams and Karl Behr. Today, if Davis Cup teammates had both survived such a tragedy, it would certainly be known, but the mentions in the tennis match reports of Dick and Karl’s Titanic connection were few and far between. It wasn’t even mentioned in the New York Times coverage of their 1914 U.S. Open quarterfinal match.
For the research I read many, many books and articles from the time period, but I was particularly aided by the New York Times historical archives, “A Night to Remember” by Walter Lord, the Titanic Inquiry Project, Encyclopedia Titanica, and The Art of Lawn and Tennis Guides from 1907-1914. All of the people that Dick and Karl interacted with on the Titanic- and afterwards- are real people from the Titanic and tennis history (though of course conversations and personalities are imagined).
For both men the most extensive documentation came from the night the Titanic sank. We spoke with representatives of both families but their involvement in that case was very limited. The families are not endorsing or involved with the project at all.