One Man Played for His Country. The Other, Hounded by the Gestapo, Played for His Life. (Part 2)



Gottfried von Cramm on the cover of TIME Magazine, September 13, 1937.

Link to Part 1 of This Diary — One Man Played for His Country. The Other, Hounded by the Gestapo, Played for His Life. (Part 1)

Sometimes you need more than 280 characters to tell a good story.

This diary was mostly written over five years ago but I only now finished it a few days ago.  Before you read any further, you should know that by design, this is a very long, two-part diary as it is a complicated, wide-ranging, and interesting story that covers a great deal of historical ground.  It deals with some painful issues which are briefly referenced to provide context and background. To say that I’ve spent a fair bit of time researching and writing it is to state the obvious.      

Frequently and, at times, relentlessly, we obsess with the “here and now” of politics on this blog — often communicating and recording our thoughts by using as few characters as possible.  In the Age of Twitter, seeking instant gratification and a reaffirmation of our political views seems to be the preferred norm.  However, every now and then, it is useful to delve back into history with some effort to search for hidden lessons; hence, this diary.As a suggestion — and particularly if you are pressed for time — use the social sciences method of reading books and long articles, i.e., read the first paragraph or two, skim through the middle, and read the conclusion of this diary.  If you think you might like it, feel free to recommend it.  Come back and read the rest of the diary at a leisurely pace.  I hope you enjoy doing so.  Thanks.

What You Missed in Part I of This Diary – posted today AT 1:23 PM ET.

1937 Wimbledon champion Donald Budge.

The story revolves around four tennis players — two Americans, a German, and a Soviet immigrant to Berlin trying to avoid becoming a victim of vicious anti-Semitism.

Bill Tilden comes from an affluent Philadelphia family and is widely accepted as the greatest player of all-time but considered somewhat of a maverick by the tennis elite in the United States.  Baron Gottfried von Cramm hails from German nobility and is ranked #2 in the world.  The third man is the reigning Wimbledon champion from the United States, Donald Budge.  The fourth, a former top-ranked German player, has been banned from international tennis competition.  Distinctly secularist in how he conducted his life, Daniel Prenn’s only “crime” in Adolf Hitler’s Germany was that he was born Jewish.

In 1937, Gottfried von Cramm was ranked #2 in the world.

Their lives intersect against the backdrop of a world in turmoil and facing a growing Fascist threat in Western Europe.  In Nazi Germany, a brutally repressive regime is “cleansing” society by sending tens of thousands of undesirables to concentration camps. Homosexuals are the second-most persecuted group after Jews.  In 1934, Adolf Hitler has purged the Brownshirts — of which several leading members are gay — as a potential threat to his authority and consolidated power.  From then on, the Gestapo under Heinrich Himmler accelerates its reign of terror.

By the summer of 1937, Cramm and Budge are set to anchor their teams in the semifinals round of the prestigious Davis Cup in London, England.  The stakes are high, with the winner favored to defeat Britain in the finals. Importantly, two of the four men are guarding secrets which, if exposed, could have dire consequences for them.

The term “homosexual” was widely used in books and articles written about Gottfried von Cramm, Bill Tilden, and the interwar period discussed in this diary.  The more inclusive term “LGBTQI” has only been in common use since the 2000s.


Rejecting Hermann Goering’s Offer — and Incurring Adolf Hitler’s Wrath

It became known to Himmler’s underlings that another top Nazi, Hermann Goering, Commander of the Luftwaffe (Air Force), was enamored with the prowess of German athletes, a tennis enthusiast, and had been protecting Cramm.  In the 1935 Davis Cup semifinals match vs the United States team, Cramm voluntarily reversed a pivotal call by the referee, which contributed to Germany losing a critical match and overall defeat. The crowd applauded his sportsmanship, but Hitler had desperately wanted to defeat the Americans to prove his theory of racial superiority.

Something Cramm was not discreet about was his contempt for the criminals in charge of running his country.  He once referred to Hitler in a British newspaper as nothing more than a “house painter.”

Once again, Hitler, in particular, was furious — especially with Von Cramm.

Kleinschroth, the German captain, was apoplectic after the doubles defeat.  Germany had never won the Davis Cup, and Von Cramm’s sportsmanship had cost the fatherland a golden opportunity.  The Baron had apparently disgraced both his country and his team-mates. Kleinschroth sputtered with complete and utter rage. At this, the normally affable Von Cramm leveled his captain with a frigid stare…

He had already angered the Nazi regime by protesting about the banishment from Davis Cup play of Daniel Prenn but his popularity was such that Hitler’s regime were reluctant to move against him.  Now, however, his actions had cost his country a victory and that popularity was slipping.

Hitler started to step up the pressure on the gentleman tennis player.

It is hard to describe the contempt with which Gottfried von Cramm viewed Adolf Hitler and other top-ranking Nazis. His family’s prominence and personal popularity due to his achievements in tennis afforded him that luxury.

Von Cramm was politely asked to join the Nazi Party by Herman Goring.  Equally politely, Gottfried simply refused.  Over months the pressure increased with Goring meeting Cramm again and again at times pleading with him to join the party and show support for Hitler and at the same time warning him that it would not be good for him or his family if he refused.  Again, the tennis player rejected the proposals from Goring. Eventually, despite these repeated previous “invitations” from Göring being refused, the Field Marshall stood in front of Von Cramm and ostentatiously ripped up all the mortgages held on Von Cramm’s castles and estates by Jewish bankers.  “Now,” the portly field marshal announced with a mixture of pride and menace, “you are free.”

Gottfried Von Cramm’s reaction to this gesture was to simply stare at the shredded documents and say icily, “All the more reason for me not to join your party.”

“The King, The Baron, The House Painter and Boris!,” Strandsky Tales and Stories, June 14, 2014.

This defeat would not diminish Cramm’s stature or popularity as a tennis player in Germany.  The real reason his team lost was not that he had “given away” a match because of good sportsmanship; rather, the absence of Prenn had made all the difference.  By then, Prenn had left Germany in 1933 and immigrated to Britain.  Given what would happen to Jews over the next twelve years in much of Europe, that fateful decision would prove to be prescient.

With his friends disappearing and his choices dwindling, Von Cramm started wondering if he could still continue a lifestyle he enjoyed.  In April 1937, two Gestapo agents knocked on his house door and took him in for questioning.  The visit had been prompted by a young hustler who had signed a statement denouncing Von Cramm for immoral behavior.  He denied it and the Gestapo released him but not without forcefully suggesting that he better shape up, or there would be more visits like it!  From 1933-37, he had taken every opportunity to compete abroad as other European cities were the only safe havens for him.  In the spring of 1937, his wife divorced him as she fell in love with another man, Gustav Jaenecke, Germany’s best ice hockey player.

With the facade of heterosexual “respectability” removed, Cramm was on his own.  In order to keep the Gestapo off of his tail, he simply had to keep traveling and winning tennis matches.  The alternative was unthinkable and the choice clear: excel on the tennis courts and survive, or be sent to a concentration camp.


“The Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played” — Participants, Listeners, and Spectators, including Gestapo Agents in the Stands at Wimbledon Tennis Center

A renegade and maverick, Bill Tilden had been at odds with the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) for all of his tennis-playing career.  Amateurs were not allowed to take financial advantage of the game.  Not that he needed the money, Tilden disregarded every rule and made money on the side by writing newspaper articles, authoring tennis books, playing exhibition matches, accepting undisclosed payments from endorsements, and other underhanded means. Such commercialism by amateur players was not only illegal but frowned upon by purists of the game. Moreover, as a player, he was known for abusing ball boys, linesmen, and umpires while making impossible demands of tournament organizers.  A complex person, he attracted controversy wherever he played tennis.

Ranked #1 in the world from 1920-1925, Bill Tilden hardly lost any tennis match of significance in that almost 6-year period. He was the “Face” of American tennis in the 1920s and the first American to be crowned Wimbledon champion in 1920.

Many in the tennis world also believed that he (probably) was a homosexual, with a preference for teenage blonde boys.  In an era when homosexuality was rarely if ever discussed in public, few on the outside were aware of Tilden’s sexual preferences. Certainly, no one ever wrote about it, although European journalists once tried to entrap and expose him at the French Open but did not succeed. By 1937, Tilden had visited Germany every year for a decade and had seen the character of that country change dramatically under the Nazis.  He had known Cramm since the German was a teenager and was very impressed with his tennis skills.  Was he physically attracted to Cramm when he first met him in 1927? Perhaps, but tennis was on his mind and as a rule, Tilden never, ever got involved with his proteges.  By all accounts, their close relationship was a professional one.

The USLTA frequently looked the other way as Tilden was the biggest draw in tennis, even after he had turned professional in 1930 and made large sums of money playing pro tournaments and exhibition matches around the world.  As far as the public was concerned, he was a tennis icon and showman extraordinaire.  For years, he offered his coaching services for free to the American Davis Cup team but was turned down every time.  The USLTA feared that the unpredictable Tilden would embarrass himself and his country at some point by getting entangled in some sexual scandal.

Bill Tilden (sitting) coaching Gottfried von Cramm in 1937 at the Rot-Weiss Club in Berlin, as German Davis Cup captain Heinrich Kleinschroth looks on. Tilden was the “unofficial” coach of the German team.

On this occasion, however, Bill would not be cloaked in the red, white, and blue of Old Glory, for he was a key adviser and occasional coach to the German team.  Though Bill’s position with the German Davis Cup squad was never officially stated, publicized, or even rumored at the time, there is little doubt he had become close to several of the players, especially Gottfried Von Cramm…

Tilden was a living legend and prolific tennis author, universally recognized as the greatest player to have played the game, and any nation would have jumped at the chance to have him coach or provide guidance and tactical tips to its players.  The Davis Cup Committee’s rejection must have stung back.  Taken aback, Tilden admitted he was “surprised” at the decision… Obviously, some of the old guard at the USLTA had it in for Bill.

Allen M. Hornblum, “A Burning Affection for the Game,” American Colossus: Big Bill Tilden and the Creation of Modern Tennis (Lincoln, NE, 2018), pp 365-66.

Donald Budge was coming into his prime in 1937.  Still considered to this day to possess one of the best shots in the history of the game, he used his devastating backhand (see brief video) to great effect — using it more as an offensive, rather than, defensive weapon.  Fresh from his straight-set victory over Cramm in the Wimbledon finals, in which he had won 6–3, 6-4, 6-2, Budge felt confident about his team’s prospects.  Not since Tilden had led his team to seven straight victories from 1920-26 had the Americans been successful.  France’s Four Musketeers — Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon, Henri Cochet, and Rene Lacoste — had an uninterrupted run of victories for six years from 1927-1932.  Fred Perry, the Wimbledon champion from 1934-36, and Bunny Austin had helped Britain dominate and win the Davis Cup for four straight years from 1933-36.

Budge felt confident that he could bring the Davis Cup back to where it belonged — in the United States.

Gottfried von Cramm (left) and Donald Budge had a great deal of respect for each other as tennis players.

By the time, the two friends and rivals walked onto Wimbledon’s Centre Court (shown right), Budge and Von Cramm were clearly the two best tennis players in the world.  Tilden thought that Cramm was the better player; he  based his analysis on “sheer stroke equipment and brilliance of execution.”  After Daniel Prenn’s departure, he won the German National Championship four times from 1933-36 and also claimed the French Open title in both 1934 and 1935.  At Wimbledon, he had reached the finals three years in a row, losing twice to Perry in 1935-36 and then to Budge the following year.  Cramm’s motivations were clear even as his position had become increasingly precarious.  He simply had to win and avenge his recent losses to Perry and Budge; otherwise, something sinister and dangerous awaited him back home.

The personal and professional bond between von Cramm and Budge was elevated to legendary levels when the pair squared off in the deciding match of the 1937 Davis Cup played on Centre Court at Wimbledon.

Gottfried von Cramm was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1977.

Von Cramm’s worldwide appeal was so magnetic that after the match, he was featured on the September 13, 1937 cover of Time Magazine.  Pre-Davis Cup match prognosticators predicted an easy victory for Budge, especially given the ease in which he defeated von Cramm previously.  The match oozed with political overtones.  Budge was the American who stood for democracy and von Cramm, the aristocrat born into nobility, who “represented” Nazi Germany, despite his repeated refusal to join the party.

The U.S. had not won the Davis Cup in 10 years, and Budge felt a huge responsibility to bring the cup back home.  German dictator Adolph Hitler was obsessed with winning the cup, allegedly phoning von Cramm [before] the match to dispense some encouraging, or threatening, words.

“Baron Gottfried Von Cramm,” International Tennis Hall of Fame. 

In addition to celebrities from around the world, another special spectator in the stands who was “clapping harder and harder throughout the match” was Cramm’s old friend, teammate, and mentor, Daniel Prenn.  Migrating to England soon after he was banned from tennis by Hitler in 1933, he had become quite a successful businessman.  

Deep down in his heart, he felt that he should have been playing on the German team with Cramm. Surely, they would have won together but it wasn’t meant to be.

Not that he regretted his decision to move to England.  Lucky as he was in getting out of Germany, Prenn didn’t forget that most other Jews left behind would have loved to have exchanged positions with him.  

Life for them was becoming unbearable under the Nazis.

What did the Racist and Anti-Semitic 1935 Nuremberg laws do?

The Nuremberg Laws were two race-based measures depriving Jews of basic human and civil rights. It put the notion of Aryan superiority into practice.
  • Stripped Jews of their civil rights and property if they tried to leave Germany.
  • Deprived German Jews their citizenship and prohibited marriage between Jews and other Germans.
  • Forced Jews over 6 years of age to wear Jewish stars sewn to their clothing.

It was in Nuremberg, officially designated as the “City of the Reich Party Rallies,” in the province of Bavaria, where Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party in 1935 changed the status of German Jews to that of Jews in Germany, thus “legally” establishing the framework that eventually led to the Holocaust

In 1933 Jews were denied the right to hold public office or civil service positions; Jewish immigrants were denaturalized; Jews were denied employment by the press and radio, and Jews were excluded from farming.  The following year, Jews were excluded from stock exchanges and stock brokerage.  During these years, when the Nazi regime was still rather shaky and the Nazis feared opposition from within and resistance from without, they did nothing drastic, and the first measures appeared, in relative terms, rather mild.  After Germany publicly announced in May 1935 its rearmament in violation of the Versailles Treaty, Nazi party radicals… wanted to completely segregate them from the social, political, and economic life of Germany…

At their annual rally held in Nuremberg on September 15, 1935, Nazi party leaders announced, after the Reichstag had adopted them, new laws that institutionalized many of the racial theories underpinning Nazi ideology.  The so-called Nuremberg Laws, signed by Hitler and several other Nazi officials, were the cornerstone of the legalized persecution of Jews in Germany.  They stripped German Jews of their German citizenship, barred marriage and “extramarital sexual intercourse” between Jews and other Germans, and barred Jews from flying the German flag, which would now be the swastika.

Fisher, A Terrible Splendor, pp 157-59. “The Nuremberg Laws,” Prologue Magazine, Winter 2010, National Archives. Not coincidentally, in 1945 Nuremberg was the site where several prominent Nazis were put on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.  The “Nuremberg Laws” were signed by the top Nazi brass and resulted in 12 death sentences, including Hermann Goering, and life or long sentences for other Third Reich leaders.  With the original documents missing, the allied prosecutors were forced to rely on published images of the laws.  Decades later, the originals were found at the California home of US Army General George S. Patton, Jr. and transferred to the National Archives in 1999.

In the 1930s, winning the Davis Cup was considered far more prestigious than winning any of the four major tennis tournaments.

In the 1930s, the Davis Cup was considered the most prestigious event in tennis, far more so than the four major tournaments — French, Australian, US, and Wimbledon.  The trophy had been donated by Dwight Davis, a member of Harvard’s tennis team in 1900.  A total of 24 teams had entered the 1937 Davis Cup.  The best-of-five format included four singles and a doubles match. The match was broadcast live on NBC Radio and BBC Radio.  Many listeners tuned in and even traders on the New York Stock Exchange stopped proceedings from following the match.

Over 15,000 spectators packed Wimbledon’s Centre Court, with most fans cheering for the German team.  By 1937, Fred Perry had turned professional and the British team was not as strong.  Many felt that Britain had a better chance of defending the Cup against Germany as Budge and his American teammates looked unbeatable.  By the time Budge squared off against Cramm in the fifth and final match, both teams had won two matches each.  Their match would decide the outcome and the winner would play defending champion Great Britain in the finals.
Paul Gittings, “Hitler, the German Aristocrat and ‘The Greatest Match in History,” CNN, August 5, 2011.  Gittings wrote that Fisher had carefully researched and studied tennis history for his book.  Given the stakes, and after examing all evidence, Fisher still thought this was the greatest tennis match ever played.


1937 Davis Cup, US vs Germany — The Deciding 5th Set of the Final Match

On July 20, 1937 — the final day of the Semi-Finals Round of the 1937 Davis Cup played in London, UK — the score stood this way: tied 2-2 in four matches played so far and in the deciding 5th match between Donald Budge and Gottfried von Cramm, it was also two sets all.  

The stage was set for the deciding and final fifth set to propel the winner into the finals against Great Britain.


Players Singles or Doubles Match Result
Match #1

Bryan Grant

(United States)


Gottfried von Cramm



Cramm won 6-3, 6-4, 6-2
Match #2

Donald Budge

(United States)


Henner Henkel



Budge won 6-2, 6-1, 6-3
Match #3

Donald Budge and Gene Mako

(United States)


Gottfried von Cramm and Henner Henkel



Budge and Mako won 4-6, 7-5, 8-6, 6-4
Match #4

Bryan Grant

(United States)


Henner Henkel



Henkel won 7-5, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4

Match #5

Donald Budge

(United States)


Gottfried von Cramm


Singles The match was tied at two sets each.  Cramm won the first two 8-6, 7-5.  Budge took the 3rd and 4th sets 6-4, 6-2.
The German team included Gottfried von Cramm and Henner Henkel. Edgar Dettmer and Hans Denker were the reserves.  The American team was represented by Donald Budge, Bryan Grant, and Gene Mako. Frank Parker was the reserve player. The team winning three out of five matches would move to the Finals Round against Great Britain.

Did Hitler really call Von Cramm and threaten him before the match?  The evidence is somewhat sketchy and Von Cramm never talked about this incident in detail with anyone else.  He was a very private person and it would be out of character for him to burden others with his problems. However, Tilden’s and Budge’s recollections many years later strongly suggest that the incident did take place.

Other writers and players have suggested that Cramm hated using excuses as an alibi for poor performance on the court.  Admitting that his game had been negatively affected by Hitler’s phone call, that admission would have significantly detracted from Budge’s achievement.  Given tennis etiquette and sportsmanship required of all players in that era, doing that would have been simply unthinkable to him.

It is very likely that Adolf Hitler threatened Gottfried von Cramm with “consequences” if he were to lose the tennis match to Donald Budge. Budge did say later that contrary to his usual calm demeanor,  Cramm “looked ashen” after the phone call.

As the players approached the court, a locker-room boy intercepted them to say that Von Cramm was wanted on the telephone.  [“Player Liason” Ted] Tinling protested that there wasn’t time, that a queen was waiting.  But the baron, unflappable as ever, said the call might be important.  He answered it.  Budge insists that he distinctly heard his friend say, “Ja, mein Führer.”  It’s true that a call from Hitler urging a victory would not have been unlikely.  Von Cramm said later, however, that the call was from someone else, although he never publicly revealed from whom.  At any rate, the conversation was brief.  The match [would resume] on time…

Later, Budge would tell the story that just as the two players were about to enter the Centre Court arena, Von Cramm was told that there was a telephone call for him which he took there and then in the presence of Budge.  Whilst Budge states that he did not hear the voice of the person who was on the other end of the phone, nor was told who the caller was, he has gone on record as stating that he is certain Von Cramm addressed the caller as “Mein Fuherer” and that once the call had finished the normally calm and immaculate Von Cramm looked ashen. 

”The King, The Baron, The House painter and Boris!,” Strandsky Tales and Stories.  Fisher, A Terrible Splendor, pp 186-87, speculates that while the whole truth may never be known, it cannot be ruled out that the call was indeed made by Hitler.  

International royalty and many celebrities were present in the stands as the Davis Cup was widely considered to be the “World Championships” for tennis, a source of enormous athletic pride for the winning country.  Also present among the crowd were members of the Gestapo and Nazi hierarchy in charge of using sports as a propaganda tool for Adolf Hitler’s regime.  

By the summer of 1937, there was no doubt that the Nazis were looking for an excuse to punish Cramm.  All Cramm wanted to do was win and live to fight another day.  

This video of the 1937 Wimbledon Men’s Final match will give you somewhat of an idea of the players’ style and level of play.  The Davis Cup match, however, was much closer than their meeting at Wimbledon.  Budge had won the Wimbledon finals 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 over Cramm.


The baron no longer felt the need to chastise the younger player for his manners, Budge having become virtually his mirror image in court behavior.  Both were dressed in cream flannels, with Von Cramm in his Rot-Weiss blazer, as they were escorted from the players’ quarters by Ted Tinling of the All England Club.  Queen Mary was among the nearly 15,000 spectators.  So were the German ambassador to Great Britain, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and the German minister of sport, Hans von Tschammer und Osten.  Among the U.S. rooters were comedian Jack Benny and newspaper columnist Ed Sullivan, who would become better known in the television era as a variety-show host

Budge broke Von Cramm’s serve to lead 5-4 in the first set, but Von Cramm broke back with four winning returns.  Four games later he again broke Budge’s serve to win the set 8-6.  The baron also won the second set, 7-5, with his own serve fairly crackling. “I was playing tennis as well as I ever had before,” Budge wrote later, but “the fewer mistakes I made, he made fewer still.”

Down two sets and sorely frustrated, Budge rallied to win the third set 6-4.  After the customary rest break, Von Cramm seemed oddly off his game, and Budge breezed past him 6-2.

Ron Fimrite, “Baron of the Court,” Sports Illustrated, July 5, 1993. The above video is of the 1937 Wimbledon Men’s Finals. Their Davis Cup match was filmed, but I had no luck finding the video.

The fifth set started ominously for Budge as Von Cramm raced to a 4-1 lead in games.  Both men were pushing each other to their limits and Budge was desperate.

Gottfried von Cramm congratulating Donald Budge after their epic 5-set tennis duel.

One writer described the tennis as “winners hit off of balls which themselves appeared to be certain winners”.  James Thurber wrote that the level of play was an “inspired brilliance, amounting to almost physical genius…” Walter Pate declared years later “No man living or dead, could have beaten either man that day.”

In the final set, to Budge’s dismay, von Cramm pulled out to a 4-1 lead.  Budge re-grouped and stormed back to a 6-6 tie. Point after point late into the fifth set became an epic duel, a “heroic and sustained” effort “with such gorgeous shots.”  It all ended at 8-6 in the fifth, after five match points, on a screaming running forehand winner to the crowd’s thunderous cheers.

Gary Bala, Book Review: A Terrible Splendor, November 20, 2009, Timeless Tennis.

The poem has come to represent “keeping a stiff upper lip” — a virtue and character trait associated with the British people.

The two players epitomized the highest levels of sportsmanship and on-court behavior throughout the match.  Friends for many years, they hugged each other after the hard-fought match was finally over. Budge had triumphed 6-8, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, and 8-6.  A calm Cramm said to Budge: “Don, definitely, this was the best match that I have ever become a participant in.  It was an honor for me to face you. You are my favorite tennis player.”

Famously, many of you probably know that two lines from Rudyard Kipling’s legendary poem “If” are posted on a plaque at the end of a walkway at the All England Tennis Club.  It reminds all tennis players about the ups and downs of daily life and how to deal with adversity as they leave the locker rooms and are about to enter the Centre Court Wimbledon’s tennis stadium.


The Aftermath — What Happened to the Four Men in This Story

Any discussion of the greatest tennis players ever has to include “Big Bill” Tilden. His affluent background and controversial personal actions aside, few players in the history of tennis did as much to popularize and democratize the game as he did.

Babe Ruth, Jack Demsey, Bobby Jones, and Bill Tilden were the legendary quartet of the “Golden Age of Sports” in the 1920s.  They transformed their respective athletic disciplines and captured the imagination of a nation.

The indisputable force behind the emergence of professional tennis as a popular and lucrative sport, Tilden’s on-court accomplishments are nothing short of staggering.

The first American-born player to win Wimbledon and a seven-time winner of the US singles championship, he was the number 1 ranked player for ten straight years.

Allen M. Hornblum, American Colossus: Big Bill Tilden and the Creation of Modern Tennis.  In a superb biography of Tilden published in 2018, Hornblum describes him as arguably the best American player ever to play tennis. In December 1949, an Associated Press poll voted him as the greatest athlete of the first half of the twentieth century in his sport by a very wide margin.  He received ten times more votes than his nearest challenger.

A few weeks after his exhausting match with Donald Budge in the Davis Cup, Gottfried Cramm traveled to the United States to compete in the US National Championships in New York, now called the US Open.  He played another thrilling 5-set match in which Budge narrowly bested him 6–1, 7–9, 6–1, 3–6, 6–1.  But Cramm and his doubles partner, Henner Henkel, got their revenge in the men’s doubles finals.  The pair beat Budge and Gene Mako in straight sets 6–4, 7–5, 6–4.

After New York, Cramm was headed to Los Angeles, California for the  Pacific Southwest tournament. A representative of a country (Germany) that was making life hell for its Jewish citizens was (erroneously) thought to be sympathetic to those racist policies.  Many had falsely assumed that Cramm was a stooge being used by the Nazis — after all, the 1936 Berlin Olympics had been a powerful public relations coup for Joseph Goebbels and the Nazi propaganda machine.  More than anything else, the Berlin Games “tried to make its brutal treatment of Jews, political opponents, and others seem benign.”

Appearances can be terribly deceiving.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.  

“Baron Gottfried von Cramm, the German tennis star of the Hitler era was a sportsman without peer.”

Left-Right: Fred Perry, Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx, and Ellsworth Vines. Both Chaplin and Groucho were huge tennis fans and invited tennis greats Perry and Vines to an exhibition match in Hollywood, CA. Chaplin would frequently invite Bill Tilden to play tennis with him and his friends at his private tennis court.

There, a potentially ugly incident was narrowly averted. Apparently unaware of von Cramm’s steadfast opposition to Hitler’s persecution of Jews — the baron’s first wife, the former Lisa von Dobeneck, was part Jewish — a contingent of nearly 200 members of the movie colony, including Groucho Marx, had planned an anti-Nazi demonstration at the tournament. The demonstrators intended to stand up as one and walk out of the arena the minute Von Cramm walked onto the court.  Yet when the baron appeared, the protesters stayed rooted to their scats.  It was as if Von Cramm’s mere presence held them fast.  

Afterward, Groucho himself admitted that upon seeing Von Cramm, “I felt ashamed of what I had planned to do.”  

[von Cramm] remained above censure, because among German athletes only the former heavyweight champion Max Schmeling could rival him as a national hero.  And unlike Schmeling, who was unfairly regarded abroad as a Nazi standard-bearer (he was not, in fact, a party member), von Cramm was perceived worldwide as a figure superior to and apart from the deeds of the Third Reich, a white knight among barbarians.  He was often called “Germany’s best ambassador.”

Howard Berkes, “Nazi Olympics Tangled Politics and Sport,” National Public Radio, June 7, 2008.  Ron Fimrite, “Baron of the Court,” Sports Illustrated, July 5, 1993.  Budge would later say that Cramm “was the unluckiest player in the history of tennis” for without the numerous off-court pressures on him, he (Cramm) would have won many more tennis major championships.  “The King, The Baron, The House Painter and Boris!,” Strandsky Tales and Stories, June 14, 2014.

Tennis player Bill Tilden, left, actors Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and player Manual Alonzo in 1923.
Tennis player Bill Tilden (left), actors Charlie Chaplin (horizontal), and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. along with player Manual Alonso (far right, from Spain).

He would dominate the tennis professional ranks in the 1930s and into the 1940s.  In 1946 — and again three years later in 1949 — he was arrested for incidents involving young boys and charged with “contributing to the delinquency of a minor.”  He served time in jail on both occasions.  Only through the generosity of high-society friends like actor Charlie Chaplin was he able to eke out a living giving lessons on private tennis courts.

Was he the victim of a homophobic society that, to a large degree, still hasn’t come to grips with the issue of homosexuality in sports? Undoubtedly. It is also true that his numerous accomplishments were overshadowed by his personal behavior.  But, as author Allen Hornblum said in his 2018 biography of Tilden, that shouldn’t detract from his role as perhaps the single most influential figure in the history of tennis.

Shunned by the tennis world the last few years of his life, Tilden died on June 5, 1953, due to a heart attack in his apartment in West Hollywood, CA.  He was alone, and “his rackets were found beside his bed, packed and ready to go to the 1953 US Championships.” 

He was sixty years old.

Even as Daniel Prenn achieved financial success in England, he didn’t forget his less-fortunate Jewish friends left behind in Nazi Germany. Most suffered harassment, imprisonment, torture, and perished in concentration camps.

Once the Nazis came into power in 1933, Prenn knew his days were numbered in Germany.  Jews like him were increasingly being treated as outcasts and sinister plans were being made at the highest levels to annihilate them as a race.  Prenn had no choice but to move to London.

A loan from retail magnate and tennis enthusiast, Simon Marks, had allowed him to start his own company, Truvox Engineering, which manufactured audio equipment.  Living only a few miles from Wimbledon, Prenn would occasionally play social tennis with Marks and others while still competing in a few tournaments, including Wimbledon.  He was fully aware that his competitive tennis days were behind him.  He became a British citizen, and with his business growing and his family growing, he spent most of his time addressing work and family demands.

By the time he died in 1991 at the age of eighty-six, he had been a successful businessman for several decades.


One of the all-time greats in men’s tennis. Source: National Portrait Gallery.

After becoming the first player to achieve the tennis Grand Slam — winning the Australian, French, Wimbledon, and the US Open championships all in 1938 — Budge turned professional when he was only twenty-three years old.

The skinny, red-haired California kid, son of a truck driver, who learned the game on Bushrod Park public tennis courts in North Oakland, is still regarded as one of the greatest players in tennis history. Power and consistency defined his game. How great was he?  From 1937 to 1938, he “won 92 matches, 14 straight tournaments, including all the majors and 10 Davis Cup matches.”  In both years, he was selected as the best American athlete by sportswriters.

He suffered serious injuries in a car accident in late 1999 and died on January 26, 2000, in Scranton, Pennsylvania when he was eighty-four years old.

​American socialite and heiress Barbara Hutton (left) with her husband, Gottfried von Cramm.​

In the years after the match, von Cramm was eventually arrested by Gestapo agents, imprisoned under the moral charge of homosexuality, and banned from tennis.  He was also later drafted and served in the German Army on the Eastern front, a campaign that saw two of his brothers killed in action.  His doubles partner, Henner Henkel, was a committed Nazi and was killed during the Battle of Stalingrad.  Following World War II, after numerous tennis fans from around the world protested his tennis ban, he returned to play at Wimbledon in the 1950s.

In 1955, he married American Barbara Hutton, a prominent socialite, and heiress to the Woolworth fortune,  and became her sixth husband.  The marriage ended in divorce in 1959 and Cramm said later that he had married Hutton to “help her through substance abuse and depression but was unable to help her in the end.”

In addition to managing his family estate in Wispenstein, Lower Saxony, Cramm had become very successful in business as a cotton importer.  On November 8, 1976, he died in an accident in Egypt when his car collided with a truck on a desert road while returning from Alexandria to Cairo on a business trip.  He was sixty-seven years old at the time.


One Final Note on Cramm’s Nazi Tormentors

Of Cramm’s four major tormentors among the criminal Nazi elite, no one outlived him.

When the end came, instead of bravely facing the world to answer for their crimes against humanity — ones that sent tens of millions of innocent people to their deaths, many in the most barbaric fashion — not one of these sadistic monsters showed any remorse for their inhumane actions or was man enough to face the truth.

Illustrator Ed Vebell drew many sketches at the 1945 War Criminals Trials in Nuremberg, including the one above of Hermann Goering.  You can click on this link to hear Verbell recount his experiences at the trials. Source: Gurney Journey.  

Take away the displays of false bravado, the comfortable settings where leaders live under their delusions, and strip away the means of communication by which they routinely spout nonsensical statements.  Subtract the hyper-nationalist displays of military power, and obsession with one’s feeling of superiority.  Do away with the glorification of political violence, and state-sanctioned terror, and stop fantasizing about a golden age that never was.  Refrain from banishing the disloyal from your political party and demonizing the opposition for real or imagined causes.  When few followers are left to be misled, what else remains in the toolbox of Fascists?  

What one is left with are cowards like Hermann Goering still living in an alternate reality — even when confronted with irrefutable proof of their crimes.

Hermann Goering’s Hearing at Nuremberg

The trial and condemnation of Goering, second in line to Hitler, is perhaps the most significant of the Nuremberg trials… Through his whole defense Goering maintained that he was a peace loving man and was unaware of many of the killings;  the prosecution was able to turn his defense around on him every time.  As second in line after Hitler, Goering carried a lot of the guilt because he had the power to stop orders.  His outlandish claims of being unaware and only working for the state and the economy could not mask the destruction and cruelty he imposed on millions of people (Gilbert 202-216).

Goering’s defense was not enough to diminish his responsibility.  Throughout the whole regime he was Hitler’s wing man and an active part of the entire Nazi movement.  Goering was also responsible for the creation of the cruel Gestapo and the concentration camps, even though he claimed in his defense that they were instated to regulate the communists.  He was also the ringleader in the Austrian Anschluss, responsible for getting Blomberg and Fritsch removed from the army, for conducting the Roehm purge and much more.  Goering used threats and force to get other leaders to coincide with the Nazis actions, and was intense on his use of slave laborers everywhere (Gilbert 437).  Such actions were considered Crimes against Humanity.  The way Goering treated the Jews, and his obsession with the German economy, his primary concern, were completely inhumane.  He is even quoted as saying, “I wish you had killed 200 Jews and not destroyed such valuable property” (Goering November 1938) right after the Kristallnacht riots November 9-10, 1938.  It was after this that he began the mass executions of Jews in Germany and in all conquered territories.

You can read more about Goering at the Nuremberg Trials here — Douglas O. Linder, “Cross Examination of Hermann Goering,” Famous Trials, University of Missouri, November 2003.

Adolf Hitler had promised that the Third Reich would last a thousand years.  It lay in smoldering ruins after only twelve years.  Egomaniacal to the end, and before he died, Joseph Goebbels declared, “We shall go down in history as the greatest statesmen of all time, or as the greatest criminals.”  

Lest there be any doubt in anyone’s mind, it was the latter.

  • Adolf Hitler — With the Soviet Army closing in on his bunker in Berlin, Hitler first took a cyanide capsule, then shot himself.  His wife, Eva Braun, also committed suicide on April 30, 1945.  

  • Hermann Goering — the second most powerful person in Germany, Goering committed suicide on October 15, 1946, by swallowing a cyanide pill two hours before his scheduled execution.  He had been sentenced to death by hanging for war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials.
  •  Joseph Goebbels — On May 1, 1945, Goebbels, the chief propagandist for the Third Reich, had his six children poisoned and then, had himself and his wife, Magda, shot by a SS guard.
  • Heinrich Himmler — the head of the feared Gestapo, the Nazi secret state police, and in charge of Nazi concentration camps, Himmler was captured and before he could be put on trial at Nuremberg for his many crimes, committed suicide a couple of days later on May 23, 1945.

Gottfried von Cramm had survived this gang of criminals and barbarians.  He outlived them all by over three decades.

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