© Ella Ling

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Tennis and the Titanic


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.


  • Wsegriffin

    The families of both Richard Norris Williams and Karl Behr find this book, Titanic: The Tennis Story to be inaccurate, unacceptable and distasteful. We are appalled that the author and publisher have hijacked our our relatives’ stories and created these misrepresentations and fallacies. As, Ms. Gibbs states, the families were never consulted for research purposes and were not involved. My question is, why would an author writing about real people and events not be interested in learning and knowing more about her subjects? Obviously accuracy and respect for these people did not figure highly in her process. The characters, their relationships, interactions and many events are all imagined and her fabrications, while spun on a bare scaffold of true events, bear no resemblance to the lives or personalities of real men and women. She has done a disservice to their memories and the families object to her speaking as an expert on them or their lives.

    • http://twitter.com/naughtyT ton skeel

      And yet the families have done nothing to ever bring the stories to the tennis watching public. Even tennis obsessives have never heard this tale. Gibbs states clearly that it is historical fiction and in no way deceives the readers. You seem just a tad ungracious to someone who has actually brought the name of your ( I presume) relative to a wider audience. 

      • Amfmashie

        FYI, this story has been told before. In 1987,
        on the 75th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, Toby Smith
        wrote about Williams and Behr for USTA Southwest, and in 1998 (the 80th
        anniversary) Curry Kirkpatrick (of SI Fame) wrote about them for ESPN during
        the US Open. There was also a video done for the telecast, narrated by Bud
        Collins. So people were aware of it. All of these were based on the facts, and
        all were fascinating. If this is supposed to be the greatest tennis story ever,
        why can’t it stand on its own tennis feats to be interesting? Why did Ms. Fibbs
        need to embellish the facts and conjure up a soap opera portrayal of the
        personal lives of Williams and Behr? (hint: $). Much was actually known about
        both Williams and Behr, if she had wanted to present a true story and consult
        their relatives, as each penned a family memoir. However, the author chose to besmirch
        and defame their reputation and personalities, as well as their families’, to
        juice up her book with creative license. The reader certainly doesn’t know when
        she is telling the truth and when she is making things up and bending the facts.
        Just because a person is no longer living and can’t defend their honor, you
        shouldn’t be able to falsely portray their characters as something they weren’t,
        just to help sell books. As Sgt. Joe Friday used to say, “Just the facts,
        ma’am. Just the facts.” I think even tennis obsessives would be upset if their
        grandparents and other beloved relatives were similarly unfairly depicted.

        • Wsegriffin

          Well said … The motive for this book is abundantly clear and the exploitation repugnant.