Sports and nationalism often clash, and did so memorably when Adolf Hitler was in power. The story of how the four gold medals won by non-Aryan Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics embarrassed the Fuhrer has often been told. Of somewhat lesser renown is the 1936 heavyweight fight between Max Schmeling and Joe Louis, of which a German radio announcer said, “It is every German”s obligation to stay up tonight. Max will fight overseas with a Negro for the hegemony of the white race!”
I am no sports fan, but I knew of these instances. I had not heard of another significant sports battle of the time, a tennis match in 1937 between American Don Budge and German Gottfried von Cramm. It is the subject of an exciting book, “A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, a World Poised for War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played” (Crown) by Marshall Jon Fisher. I still am not a sports fan, much less a tennis fan, but this isn”t really a sports story; it is a thoroughly riveting account of intense human endeavor.
There may be “three extraordinary men” in the subtitle and in the book, but Cramm is the one the book is really about. The others are Don Budge and Bill Tilden. Budge wasn”t extraordinary except in his capacity to play tennis. Fisher describes his dedication to running in training for his game, and the precision recrafting of his strokes to bring him to the top of competition. He had an overpowering backhand that one opponent said made you feel like “you were volleying a piano.”
He was a skinny redhead, son of a California truck driver, homely and unsophisticated. His naïveté was seized upon by an English journalist who took his wiping his forehead at the entrance of Queen Mary into Wimbledon as a wave to the Queen, a story that grew as it was retold over the years.
Bill Tilden qualifies more for being extraordinary. Not only had he been the world”s best player in the sports-mad 1920s, he was a flamboyant but closeted homosexual whose exploits were constantly bothering the American tennis bureaucracy. Tilden is part of this story because he was keeping his hand in the game by helping to coach Cramm and his German team. There was nothing illegal or unsporting about this, but during the climactic match between Budge and Cramm, Ed Sullivan was in the stands and was furious that the nearby Tilden was rooting for the Germans. Sullivan cursed him and lunged for him, only to be restrained by Paul Lukas and Jack Benny who had come to the game with him.
This is Cramm”s story, or rather the story of Gottfried Alexander Maximilian Walter Kurt von Cramm, born at his family”s manor near Hanover in 1909, and raised within the castle that had been the home of Otto the Great a thousand years before. He learned to play on courts that overlooked the castle. This sort of breeding would have made him the type of representative for the Third Reich the Nazis would have prized, except for those like Göring who hated aristocrats and thought they all should be executed.
Cramm was a gentleman, with a refined, thoughtful, but powerful game. He was the soul of honor; years before the main match described here, he lost an essential Davis Cup match because a ball flying out of the court had just touched his racket. The officials hadn”t seen it, but he reported it himself, and lost his point. He was handsome; one observer said, “Every year that von Cramm steps onto the Centre Court at Wimbledon, a few hundred young women sit a little straighter and forget about their escorts.”
Cramm was, however, a homosexual. This did not keep him from marrying, once to a woman to whom he remained a devoted friend long after their brief marriage ended (Cramm was an exemplary friend), and later in life to Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, who was infatuated with him. A friend explained that Cramm “didn”t really want to marry her but thought that he could help her.”
Cramm”s homosexuality was not much of a problem in Weimar Berlin in the early 1920s, but after that the Nazis were putting homosexuals into concentration camps. His homosexuality (even his taking a Jewish actor as a lover) was overlooked, as long as he kept winning.
He detested the Third Reich, and further gambled when he refused Nazi requests to praise Hitler when he went on tennis tours around the world. He even complained to the world press that a Jewish team member had been unfairly ejected by the party, or that mandatory military service was keeping young people from becoming athletes. He refused, despite Göring”s repeatedly inviting him, to become a member of the Nazi Party. “He could not help,” writes Fisher, “with his natural elegance, well-bred sophistication, and unsurpassed sportsmanship, but reflect well on the German people. But he would not directly defend a government he loathed.”
The match to decide the 1937 Davis Cup at Wimbledon is one of the many tennis tournaments described here. Fisher has woven parts of the match into the larger narrative of the book, and though the actual play isn”t as important as the larger story he has to tell, the battle between Cramm and Budge sounds as if it was a game no one in the stands would ever forget. Journalist Alistair Cooke was there, and wrote, “The two white figures began to set the rhythms of something that looked more like ballet than a game where you hit a ball. People stopped asking other people to sit down. The umpire gave up stopping the game to beg for silence during rallies.” James Thurber was there, too, and reflected on the end of the match that it had been “something so close to art that at the end it was more as if a concert had ended than a tennis match. The shouts of ”Bravo!” when it was over came out of an emotion usually reserved for something more important.”
Hardly anyone knew that, as Cramm put it himself, “I”m playing for my life.” As long as he kept winning, the Nazis were willing to overlook his unorthodox ways, and when Budge managed a last splendid shot, no one beside Cramm knew how much he had lost. But he was a real sportsman. Having lost the match, he went to Budge, clasped his hand, and said, “Don, this was absolutely the finest match I have ever played in my life. I”m very happy I could have played it against you, whom I like so much. Congratulations.”
Cramm had been right about playing for his life. Less than a year later, he was thrown into prison for “moral delinquency,” and afterward he was sent to the Russian front. He got frostbite in both legs, but after the war he returned to tennis, and took up cotton importing. He couldn”t visit the United States again; even if it had been a bunch of Nazis who had convicted him of a morals charge, it prevented him from getting a visa.
It could have been much worse for him; homosexuals liberated from the prison camps after the war were sent to regular prisons to finish their sentences. The law making them criminals wasn”t revoked until 1994. “A Terrible Splendor” is the astonishing, inspiring story of a sports hero who was not merely a heroic tennis player, but a genuinely heroic man.
Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]