The Forgotten Faces of Titanic series: The Story of Richard Norris Williams II

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One fateful night 107 years ago, a ship on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City, struck an iceberg and began its long journey into the annals of maritime history. Passengers and crew members came from all corners of the world, including close to 300 Americans. Richard Norris Williams II was one of those traveling on board Titanic

At just 21 years old, Richard Norris Williams II was already an accomplished tennis player and was studying at Harvard University. Richard and his father were heading home to play in a tournament and came aboard as first-class passengers in Cherbourg, France. As first-class passengers onboard a White Star liner, they enjoyed all the amenities that the ship had to offer, including barbershop, daily newspaper, gymnasium, heated pools, elegant meals, and more.

After striking the iceberg, many of the passengers were finding their way to the main deck. Confusion ensued as the lifeboats were lowered into the water below. Some were not even completely full. Richard and his father were among those who jumped into the frigid water, clinging to the side of a nearby lifeboat. Richard was rescued by R.M.S. Carpathia, but sadly, his father was lost. 

While aboard Carpathia, Robert was given the devastating news that his legs would have to be amputated due to hypothermia. However, he profusely refused this treatment. It took some time but Robert eventually regained the use of his legs.

People in life jackets
Women and Children First, ca. 1912-1915
Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum and Park

Just two months later, Robert was playing in a tournament outside Boston against Karl Behr, a tennis player who also survived the sinking. From 1913 to 1926, Robert’s tennis career intensified, winning the following championships:

  • Intercollegiate Singles titles in 1913 and 1915
  • Doubles titles in 1914 and 1915
  • US Nationals Men’s Single Championships in 1914 and 1916
  • US Mixed Doubles Championship with Mary K. Boone in 1912
  • Men’s Doubles at Wimbledon in 1920
  • Gold Medal winner at 1924 Olympics in Mixed Doubles with Hazel Hotchkiss (Wightman)
  • US Men’s Doubles in 1925 and 1926
Man at tennis match
Image of Richard Norris Williams (1891-1968) at the 1916 U.S. National Championship held August 28-Sept. 5, 1916 at Forest Hills, New York.
Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-22703

In between winning tennis championships, Robert joined the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. Because he served with distinction, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor. After the war, he came back to the world of tennis and was later inducted in the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1957. Once his playing days were over, he became an investment banker in Philadelphia and served as president of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Robert Norris Williams II died June 2, 1968, from emphysema. He is interred at St. David’s Churchyard in Devon, Pennsylvania. 

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