The incredible story of Baron Gottfried von Cramm, anti-nazi German tennis player

May 1, 2014, 12:00:00 AM

The incredible story of Baron Gottfried von Cramm, anti-nazi German tennis player
Gay, aristocrat, friend of the American jet set, opponent of the Nazi regime, prisoner of war... Discover the portrait of Gottfried von Cramm, probably the greatest legend of German tennis. On the courts, as well as outside.

Gay, aristocrat, gentleman, friend of the American jet set and very good volleyer: Gottfried von Cramm, tennis player of the interwar years, is probably one the greatest German tennis legend, on the courts, as well as outside. Opponent of the Nazi regime from the early 30s, he refused to use his athletic abilities as a propaganda tool before being imprisoned for his sexual orientation. "Hitler? For me he’s nothing but a house painter" he said. Portrait.


A wide lake, pine groves and every year many tourists. Tucked away in the Berlin district of Grunewald, the tennis club of Rot-Weiss and its 16 clay courts is one of the finest in the German capital. However, the place hasn’t always been this little piece of nature that has long welcomed the German stage of the WTA: destroyed during the Second World War after the aerial bombing of Berlin by the Allied forces, the country club owes its rebuilding to Baron Gottfried von Cramm, twice winner of Roland Garros (1934, 1936) and legend of interwar years tennis. Wealthy and spendthrift, this aristocrat loved the place so much that he financed its reconstruction. Today, a street leading to the clubhouse’s lobby is named after him and his medals adorn the trophy room. Even his portrait figures prominently... in the women's toilets. Distasteful? « We decided to remove it, ensures Wolfgang Hofer, Chairman of the premises, in a public speech for the centenary of the club. We felt that it was very distasteful, because everyone knows that Gottfried von Cramm was gay. Well at least, I hope. ». Burst of laughter in the audience. Yes, everyone seemed to know already. “I met him when I was 12 and there was no indication that he could be homosexual. But one day, while secretly listening to a conversation between him and, I think, one of his lovers, I discovered the truth” says Wolfgang Hofer, one of his oldest friends. “Already during the Weimar Republic, Berlin was a safe haven for the gay community. We called the city the “German vice”. All this to say that no one cared. And neither did the small world of tennis.”


« Traitor to the nation »


At that time, Gottfried was indeed a blooming young adult. Third son of Baron Burchard Cramm, noble descendant of one of the wealthiest German families in the nineteenth century, money wasn’t what motivated his desire for a sporting career. In 1932, at just 23, he formed with Daniel Prenn, a talented Jewish refugee from Russia, a formidable doubles team that reached the final of the Davis Cup interzone. A journey that remained, however, without future for the German team. The following year, on the 30th of January 1933 at noon, a former Austrian painter by the name of Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of the German government. Poor Prenn was then forced to emigrate a second time, this time to England. Orphan of his doubles pal, Gottfried then proved to be a great singles player and won in 1934, and in 1936, the French Open at Roland Garros. He wasn’t as successful in other Grand Slam tournaments, he was defeated three times in the final of Wimbledon (1935, 1936 and 1937), once at the U.S. Open (1937) and at the Australian Open in singles and doubles the same year (1938). "Gottfried was the best but also the most unlucky player that I have ever known," says the American Donald Budge, the first man to have won the four Grand Slam tournaments in the same year in 1938, and biggest rival of the German. More than an unfortunate fate, Gottfried had quite an excessive sense of justice and fair play. Unthinkable today: in 1935, during the Davis Cup final between Germany and the United States, von Cramm refused the ultimate decisive point of the competition, synonym of silver bowl, by notifying the Umpire of his mistake. On this last American return offline, Gottfried confessed to have touched the ball with the tip of his racquet, when nobody saw him. Result: another miraculous chance was offered to the United States who took it and eventually won. After the match, the German captain, Heinrich Kleinschroth head butted the wall of the changing rooms. Before treating von Cramm of « traitor to the nation. » The Baron, meanwhile, remained steadfast in his belief: « When I was a young man and chose to dedicate my life to tennis, I chose it because it was a gentleman's game, and that's how I’ve been playing since I’ve held my first racquet. On the contrary, I don’t think that I’ve failed the German people. In fact, I think that I've honoured them. »


« Hitler? A house painter »


However, Germany in 1935 was very different of the country that Gottfried once knew. Two years after Hitler came to power, the German government decided to use its best athletes to showcase the National Socialist ideology to the world. Already opposed to the exile of his former teammate, Daniel Prenn, the Baron refused to join the Nazi party, despite repeated and persistent invitations of Hermann Göring, future Minister of Defence of the Reich. As that day when Göring went to von Cramm’s house to tear up in front of him loan agreements that were linking him to Jewish bankers on some of his castles. « Now, Göring told him, you are free. » To which the Baron answered « One more reason not to join you. » Despite his utter contempt of Hitler, whom he called "the house painter", the Baron had to fall in line. At each of his matches, always the same ritual: he had to wear a white shirt stamped with a swastika on the heart and make a Nazi salute to the crowd before the first ball. Stranger yet, in 1937, the Führer himself called to encourage him five minutes before what would become the match of his life. "The best I've ever seen," even said the legend Bill Tilden. In the final of the Davis Cup against England, new country of his friend Don Budge, Gottfried was defeated and left in tears, but with honours, following a marathon match in five sets of rare intensity. His courage and mental values only increased his fame. Conversely, the match irritated Hitler, who couldn’t see further than the defeat and bad publicity for German sport. A year later, on the 4th of March 1938, an official reception was held in Berlin and all German athletes were requested to attend. All but Gottfried. The deserter had indeed planned to visit his mother in Brüggen’s Castle. The next night, two Gestapo agents disrupted the family dinner and Gottfried von Cramm was arrested. His mistake? « Sexual irregularity with the enemy. »


Drugs, attack and Palestine


Accused of being gay – a very convenient crime at the time to get rid of an opponent - Gottfried was immediately judged and incarcerated. Even more reprehensible than his sexual orientation, the identity of his lover. Gottfried would indeed have engaged in a relationship with a Jewish actor, Manasse Herbst, exiled in Palestine. It is besides the only known gay relationship of Gottfried to this day. For the rest, his marital status shows two marriages, including one with Barbara Hutton, An American socialite hooked on alcohol and drugs, and nicknamed « the poor little rich girl » because of her hectic life. "Gottfried became her sixth husband after a first baron, two princes, Gary Grant and the famous Dominican diplomat and playboy Porfirio Rubirosa, even remembers the former American player Bill Talbert in Sports Illustrated. It wasn’t a cover, I think he really loved her. But Gottfried was first and foremost an angelic person who wanted to help people. He didn’t want to get married but in doing so, he thought that he could help her. » Nevertheless, the word "homosexuality" was enough to ban the German from all competitions, after almost a year of imprisonment. «This faggot should be thankful to be free, » even said the director of the Queens.


« He didn’t want to die in the hospital »


Worse, in 1944, when he was sent, despite his title of nobility, as a simple soldier in Russia, and was once again imprisoned. The reason? Complicity in an assassination attempt against Hitler. The Gestapo interrogations got tougher. Wounded in the forehead, he finally owed his release to King Gustav V of Sweden, a monarch passionate of tennis who intervened to the Nazi authorities in order to obtain the grace of several imprisoned tennis champions such as the French Jean Borotra. The latter also happened to be Gottfried’s opponent in 1953 during a lost Davis Cup quarterfinal against France. German players being banned from all international competitions, 16 years had passed since Gottfried had last participated in the prestigious team event. As fate would have it, it was to be his very last match. After his career, Gottfried went into exile in Egypt where he spent the last twenty years of his life exporting cotton to West Germany, hanging out with the rich local bourgeoisie and taking care from afar, of Berlin tennis club. Until the 9th of November 1976, when he died in a car accident in Cairo with his driver, hit by a truck at the exit of a gas station. Wolfgang Hofer, who replaced him at the head of the tennis club Rot-Weiss after his death, recalls: "I don’t remember seeing him sick. Except, perhaps, during the war. He told me once that he wasn’t afraid to die, but he didn’t want die in the hospital... He died in the ambulance that was taking him there. » Before going back in history: « historically, most homosexuals were persecuted by the Nazi regime during the Second World War, after the Jews. Normally, Gottfried should have been executed or deported like the others, but by leaving him safe and sound, Hitler and the Nazis showed that they were willing to put their Aryan ideology aside to enjoy the glory and fame he brought them with his sporting achievements (...) After the war, there even were rumours that the Führer liked « manly friendships » and had feelings for his favourite tennis player. Hitler gay? This moustache should have alerted us earlier... »


By Victor Le Grand