A Terrible Splendor by Marshall Jon Fisher

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This is the story of how the Nazis persecuted one of the greatest tennis players of the 1930s, Roland Garros champion and three-times Wimbledon finalist Gottfried von Cramm, because he was gay, his boyfriend was Jewish, and he’d refused to join the Nazi party and had courageously spoken out in protest at the treatment of his Jewish friend and doubles partner Daniel Prenn.  American spelling of “splendour”! It also tells something of the wider story of the persecution of Jewish sports players – as a result of which one German Jewish tennis player, Nelly Neppach, was driven to commit suicide – and gay people in Nazi Germany.  Members of the tennis community, including King Gustaf V of Sweden, spoke out in support of both von Cramm and Prenn.  Both men thankfully survived the horrors of the Nazi era.  So many other people didn’t.

Following the recent controversy over the Twitter account of surprise Australian Open quarter-finalist Tennys Sandgren, John McEnroe gave a magnificent speech, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, about the prejudices faced by some of the great players of the past, and their struggles to overcome them.  The names of Arthur Ashe, who fought against racism, and Billie Jean King, who fought against sexism, are well known.  That of Gottfried von Cramm, Fred Perry’s opponent in the 1935 and 1936 Wimbledon finals, is much less so; and I was rather pleased to find that there was a book about him.

The book itself isn’t actually that great, it has to be said.  Some of the prose is really quite poor, some of what’s included isn’t particularly relevant, and it jumps backwards and forwards across time and between different themes and settings in a rather bitty and confusing way.  But it’s worth persevering with, because it’s a very interesting story.

It intertwines the story of von Cramm, and to a lesser extent that of Prenn, with the stories of Americans Don Budge and Bill Tilden, and a present tense description of the 1937 Davis Cup semi-final deciding rubber between von Cramm and American Don Budge.  That match, staged on the Centre Court at Wimbledon in front of a packed crowd including Queen Mary, is generally regarded as the greatest Davis Cup match ever played.  Some people say that it was the greatest tennis match ever played, but, come on, that was the 2008 Wimbledon men’s singles final … not that I’m biased or anything, of course 😉 .  I was in tears at the end of that 2008 final, between the stress of it all and the happiness at the result.  Oh dear, I’m getting off the point already.  Back to 1937!

Anyway, Budge won, 8-6 in the final set.  The relevance of the match is that it was shortly after von Cramm’s defeat that he was imprisoned.  He’d lost three Wimbledon finals in a row – two to Fred Perry, the second of which, during which von Cramm was injured and unable to compete effectively, was, of course, to be the last time a British man would win the Wimbledon men’s singles until Andy Murray’s triumph in 2013, and the third, in 1937, to Budge – and Germany had failed to win the Davis Cup, and so his credit with the Nazis as a shining example of German success was weakening.  And he’d already been taken in for questioning in relation to homosexuality in April 1937, three months before the Davis Cup match, although he’d been released without charge.

Himmler, who was, to use Marshall King’s words, “a murderous homophobe”, and who also disliked the aristocracy, had probably been ready for a while to move against him, but Goring was known to be a fan of sport and the arts and reluctant to attack any of the big names in either field – as long as they were bringing glory to the Third Reich.  There’s even a story that Hitler had phoned von Cramm before the match, and that that showed what a big deal it was.  The phone call story was probably untrue, and the Nazis would probably have arrested von Cramm anyway, but the book, whether for the sake of dramatic effect or whether because the author actually believes it, takes the approach that he was literally “playing for his life”.

However, I’m not sure that the juxtaposition of the details of the match and the story of what went on off the court really works that well.  One minute you’re reading about how the Nazis arrested thousands of gay men and sent them to prisons or concentration camps, and the next minute you’re reading about how well someone was serving and volleying at break point down … it’s just a bit too much of a contrast.

However, the book’s worth reading, for the stories of Gottfried von Cramm and Daniel Prenn, and also that of Bill Tilden.  There’s a fair bit of historical background detail too.  The point’s made that, unlike in Britain, sport was not a big thing in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – but was promoted by the Nazis.  Something that is now such an important part of the culture of Germany and most other countries carried, at the time, some nasty connotations of building a super race and proving racial superiority.  On a completely different note, there’s a lot of description of the nightlife and social life in liberal Berlin in the 1920s and early 1930s – the Berlin we know from the musical Cabaret, the most gay-friendly city in Europe in those days.  It’s also pointed out that Germany had also been seen as a welcoming destination for refugees escaping from the Russian Revolution, including the Prenn family.

Going back to Gottfried von Cramm, Baron Gottfried von Cramm, his name might sound like it belongs to a cartoon baddie but no-one seems to have had a bad word to say about him.  He was a real Boys’ Own hero – the perfect gentleman, the perfect sportsman, a wonderfully elegant player, handsome and charming.  I’ve got a thing about tennis players: I’d probably have had a major crush on him if I’d been around in the 1930s!  He belonged to an aristocratic family who could trace their ancestry back eight centuries, were fabulously wealthy and lived in a castle.  He looked like the perfect specimen of the master race, tall and blond.  He was incredibly popular both in Germany and elsewhere, and the Nazis would have loved to have had him as a pin-up boy.  But he wanted nothing to do with them.

He and Daniel Prenn formed the backbone of a German team that had a real chance of winning the Davis Cup, but, in 1933, the “Reichssportfuhrer” (and what a horribly creepy word that is) declared that Jewish players were to be barred from representing Germany.  The ITF did nothing, but it’s quite moving to read about the efforts made by individuals.  Britain’s Fred Perry and Bunny Austin wrote a letter of protest to the Times.  King Gustaf V of Sweden, a keen tennis player who’d played with most of the sport’s leading lights, went to Germany on a state visit, had to dine with Nazi officials and then, straight afterwards, went off to play tennis with Daniel Prenn.  For the monarch of one country to have made such a public gesture about his disgust at the internal politics of another is really very something.  Sadly, neither his gesture nor Perry and Austin’s achieved anything, but Daniel Prenn was able to move to Britain, thanks to the support and sponsorship of Manchester (let’s just get the local connection in there!) businessman Simon Marks, and lived out the rest of his life in peace in London.

Gottfried von Cramm was also later to speak out against the treatment of Prenn.  Not only refusing to join the Nazi Party but publicly setting himself against its policies was particularly brave because the Nazis had something on him – his relationship with a Jewish actor called Manny Herbst.  Von Cramm was married, but had been involved with Manny Herbst for several years, until Herbst had managed to leave the country after the introduction of stringent anti-gay laws in 1935.  He’d been unable to take his money with him because of the restrictions on Jews taking money out of Germany, so had left it with von Cramm, who remained in touch with him and was sending the funds on to him in stages, which was strictly illegal under Nazi law.

From 1936, the year before this particular Davis Cup match, the persecution of gay men –gay women were not targeted to the same extent – intensified.  Many people whom Gottfried von Cramm knew “disappeared”.  This, a tennis book, says more about the witch hunt against gay men in the Third Reich than most history text books do.  As with the Spanish Inquisition, the Terror during the French Revolution, Stalin’s reign of terror in the Soviet Union, etc etc, any sort of denunciation was seized on by the authorities: people who were just living their lives in peace were at the mercy of anyone who had any sort of grudge against them and was spiteful enough to act on it.

This is an under-reported part of the Nazi terror.  Magnus Hirschfeld, a Jewish doctor who became an advocate for gay rights (and also for women’s rights) after becoming aware of the high rates of attempted suicide amongst his gay patients, and was the first person to prevent statistical evidence showing that rates of depression and suicide were higher amongst homosexual people than heterosexual people, went into exile in France: his scientific institution in Germany was closed down, and the irreplaceable works in its library destroyed.  Around 100,000 men were arrested under the Nazi anti-gay laws, of whom around 50,000 were sent to prison and up to 15,000 sent to concentration camps.

Obviously, reading about this, as with reading about anything connected to the evils of the Nazi regime, is very intense and extremely distressing.  And then, right in the middle of it, the book suddenly witches to the life and career of Don Budge.  Budge was a wonderful player, and I was interested to read that his dad had played for Rangers, but it was just a common or garden story of a middle-class all-American boy who made it to the top of his chosen sport and became pally with several leading celebrities.   I was very emotionally caught up in the stories of von Cramm and Prenn and what was going on in Germany, and suddenly to be reading long descriptions of tennis matches and Californian pool parties instead was just very strange.  Maybe the contrast was meant to be effective in some way, but it didn’t really work that well for me.

Then it was on to Bill Tilden, the number one tennis player of the 1920s, who fell out with the American tennis establishment because they disapproved of his working as a tennis journalist, and, by 1937, was coaching von Cramm, and therefore in the strange position of being an American coach helping out the Germans in a Germany versus the USA tie.  Shamateurism and all the horrendous hypocrisy of it is an interesting saga – and it was still going on in rugby union as late as the 1980s – but this book wasn’t long enough to cover that as well as Nazi Germany, and including bits about it just made things seem very disjointed.

Anyway, eventually, it was back to Nazi Germany, and a lot of talk about the Max Schmeling-Joe Louis boxing matches and the Berlin Olympics.  This, although something everyone’s heard umpteen times before, was interesting, and helped to set the scene in terms of the relationship between the Nazi authorities and sport, but, again, the jumping about between times and places made things seem quite incoherent, and I kept wishing that the author would just stick to the main point, about the persecution of tennis players.

Also, the author insists on using “English” where he should be using “British”, and makes some cracks about the British upper-classes being pro-Nazi.  The Davis Cup format was different in those days.  Britain, as defending champions, would play the winners of the semi-final in the championship match.  With Fred Perry – Stockport’s finest 🙂 – having recently turned pro and therefore being ineligible for selection, our chances in the final weren’t great.  Germany were considered easier opponents than the US, and so the British crowd – mainly upper-class, at Wimbledon in those days – were mainly cheering for von Cramm.  The author does acknowledge that that was the reason, but also trots out the old chestnuts about the upper-classes admiring Hitler.  Some of them certainly did, but it’s not very fair to generalise – and it wasn’t even relevant to the book.  He also talks about Charles Lindbergh being pro-Nazi – well, he may well have been, but, again, it just wasn’t really relevant to the subject matter.  Stick to the point!!

Having said all that, to be fair to the author, it wasn’t his fault that I’d only bought the book because my attention had been caught by what John McEnroe had said about von Cramm, and that it was von Cramm I wanted to read about.  So maybe I’m being unfair.

Anyway.  Eventually, we got back to the Davis Cup tie, even if we did get an interlude concerning Bill Tilden’s finances just as Don Budge was about to serve for the match.  Budge won, the US beat Britain in the final, and Gottfried von Cramm then spent a further eight months away – first in America, then in Japan, then in Australia.  Returning to Europe in the spring of 1938, he thought he was going to spend some time with his family and then head off to Paris, to play in the French Championships and to enjoy a reunion with Manny Herbst, who was living there.  Instead, he was arrested and charged under “Paragraph 175”, the Nazi anti-gay law.  He was also charged with breaching foreign exchange rules for sending Herbst his money.  And, like many other men, he was also charged on completely fabricated evidence of having a relationship with a man he’d had nothing to do with, this second man being someone whom the Gestapo paid to tell a pack of lies to help bring about convictions under Paragraph 175.

He got a much lighter sentence than many, one year in prison.  That was largely because he claimed that Herbst had been blackmailing him over the money – they remained friends, and it’s likely that Herbst, safely out of Germany, was only too happy to have been used as a scapegoat if it saved von Cramm from a longer sentence – and, by some bizarre logic, because his partner was a Galician Jew and so that apparently didn’t matter as much as if he’d been involved with an “Aryan” who was in need of protection from him.  But it was bad enough.  In protest, Don Budge organised a petition signed by several leading sporting names including himself, Helen Wills Moody and Joe DiMaggio.  King Gustaf V also protested against von Cramm’s imprisonment.  As with the support given to Daniel Prenn, it sadly did nothing to change the laws, but the fact that they stood by their friend really does say something.  Homosexuality was illegal in both the US and Sweden at the time, but these people still spoke out.

Possibly because of all the publicity, von Cramm was released early, after seven months.   He was lucky, if that’s the right word.  The book describes how many other gay men in Nazi Germany were transferred to concentration camps, identified there by pink triangles on their uniforms, given the worst jobs and savagely beaten by guards.  It was very upsetting to read, and it was very strange to be reading it in amongst descriptions of serves, volleys, lobs and groundstrokes.  And, almost unbelievably, those who survived were, when the camps were liberated at the end of the war, sent back to ordinary prisons to complete their sentences.

Paragraph 175 was not removed from the German law code until 1994, and it was only last year, 2017, that it was agreed to pay compensation to those convicted under it.

Von Cramm returned to playing tennis after his release.  He won Queen’s in 1939, but was unable to compete at Wimbledon – reports conflict as to why  – and was unable to compete at the US Championships after the American authorities refused him a visa because of his conviction for “moral turpitude”.  Incidentally, the book also notes that the US Lawn Tennis Association did not at that time allow black players to compete in its events, and that many American tennis clubs did not admit black or Jewish people as members.  Some of that sort of thing was still going on in the 1980s: I remember Tom Watson, one of world’s leading golfers when I was a kid, speaking out against it.

Despite everything that the Nazis had done to him, and despite the offer of Swedish citizenship, von Cramm felt obliged to join up when war broke out.  He returned to playing tennis after the war, and was later involved with the German Tennis Federation (and having been divorced from his first wife in 1937, was briefly married to Barbara Hutton for a time in the 1950s), before tragically dying in a car crash in 1967.  Tennis writers in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s included him as one of the leading players of all time.  His name isn’t very well-known now.  Maybe John McEnroe’s wonderful speech will ensure that it becomes so again.

At the end, we got a round-up of what happened to everyone else.  Daniel Prenn continued to play tennis after moving to Britain, and then became a very successful businessman, living on into his eighties.  Being a tennis player saved his life, really, because being banned from playing in Germany drove him to leave the country.  Tragically, though his widowed mother, who’d moved to Poland, and his younger sister, who’d moved to Czechoslovakia, were both killed in the Holocaust.  Don Budge won the Grand Slam in 1938.  He was sadly never the same player after suffering a shoulder injury during the war, but remained involved in tennis and lived a long and happy life.

Bill Tilden’s story was tragic, though.  He was also gay, and was convicted on two charges of indecent activity with under-age boys, probably trumped up by the homophobic Californian police.  California might have a liberal reputation now, but it didn’t repeal its homosexuality laws until as late as the 1970s.  He’s the only man other than Rafa and Roger to have reached ten finals at one Grand Slam event, and is regarded as one of the greatest tennis players ever.  But he didn’t get the support that von Cramm did, got into severe financial difficulties, developed mental health problems, and died of a heart attack at the age of 60.   In 2016 – yes, 2016, just two years ago – proposals to put up a plaque dedicated to him in his home city of Philadelphia were rejected.  A new biography of him’s due out very shortly, but it costs £31 to pre-order it on Amazon, so I won’t be reading it just yet.

Don Budge and Gottfried von Cramm remained friends, and played a number of exhibition matches in Germany, but were unable to play each other in America as the US authorities never allowed von Cramm back into the country – on the basis of a conviction handed down by a Nazi court.  So the US immigration authorities basically said that they agreed with a judgement made by one of Hitler’s courts.  That’s beyond appalling.   We’ve still got a way to go, but the huge backlash over the Tennys Sandgren Twitter affair hopefully shows that most people in tennis and in general are disgusted by racism and homophobia, and that’s encouraging.

The name of Gottfried von Cramm isn’t very well-known now.  It would be nice to think that John McEnroe’s very impressive speech will make it more so.  This is not a particularly good book – it’s disjointed, and the style of writing leads a lot to be desired – but it’s worth reading because of the subject matter.  As McEnroe said, people need to be aware of what went on in the past; and this book’s got a lot to tell its readers, whether they’re tennis fans or not.

5 thoughts on “A Terrible Splendor by Marshall Jon Fisher

  1. Chris Deeley

    What a great review! Thank you! I have a request: could you read and review Washington Irving’s “A History of New York”? It made Sir Walter Scott laugh till his ribs ached.

    Like

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