A Disaster of Titanic Proportions – by Charlotte Canelli

Read Charlotte Canelli’s column in the April 13 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin or listen to the podcast on SoundCloud. Podcasts are archived on the Voices from the Library page of the library website.

While both halves the 20th Century saw incredible growth and achievement, Americans endured terrific losses in the first half. It seemed like ancient history to me as I was growing up, but World War II ended less than ten years before my birth. The beginnings of the Holocaust and the meteoric rise of Adolph Hitler occurred only fifteen years before I was born in 1952. The black days of the stock market crash only twenty-three.

Put in that perspective, it isn’t hard to wonder why my parents and grandparents lived such a frugal and conservative lifestyle, always afraid of another world disaster that might strike.

In 1912 my grandparents’ first child was born, my mother’s eldest sister. It was also the year the Titanic sank.

The massive cruise liner took over five years to build before it literally rolled down the slipway and into the River Lagen in Belfast Harbour. Engineering, designing and planning the cruise liner began in 1907 and it took twenty-four months to physically build the ship in 1910-1912. RMS Titanic was enormous, she was luxurious and she was, they said, unsinkable.

American and British elite, responding to massive marketing targeted at their egos and bank accounts, were caught up in the incredible hype surrounding Titanic’s maiden voyage. Some of the world’s richest people were passengers on the ship. Isador Strauss, co-owner of the Macy’s chain of department stores was sailing home with his wife, Ida. Industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim, John Jacob Astor, IV (the richest man on board) and his young wife, Madeleine were also sailing home. On board were the cruise liner’s managing director, J. Bruce Ismay and Titanic’s designer, Thomas Andrews.

For many passengers, the cruise was simply a ‘cool’ way to sail to New York. Among those were nouveau riche Molly Brown, silent film actress Dorothy Gibson and fashion icon to the celebrities and wealthy, Lady Duff Gordon. Others, those in second class and those in third, or steerage, booked their voyage at the last minute but many more planned their trip for months. Some of those passengers only wanted a way to America where they would start a new life. Of the 2,240 people aboard the ship, 1,517 perished either by drowning or by freezing to death in the frigid North Atlantic waters.

It was a disaster of titanic proportions. Within weeks of Titanic’s sinking, actress and survivor Dorothy Gibson starred in a short silent film about the disaster. Sadly, that film no longer survives but theatergoers flocked to see it in 1912. One of the first books written, “The Sinking of the Titanic” by Logan Marshall, was reprinted many times and was again re-published in 1997, abridged and edited by Bruce M. Caplan. Marshall’s narrative, packed with survivor accounts, raised many questions about the disaster.

Another classic book written about the tragedy, “A Night to Remember” by Walter Lord, was published in 1955 and the book and movie based on it were incredible hits. Lord interviewed many of the survivors forty years after the disaster and for the first time readers fully realized the horrifying statistic that 53 of the 76 children in steerage perished while none of the children traveling in first or second class died. Walter Lord’s second act, “The Night Lives On: New Thoughts, Theories, and Revelations about the Titanic”, was published in 1976 as a companion volume to his first.

Now new books on the Titanic disaster are available just in time for the 100th anniversary this week. “Titanic Tragedy: A New Look at the Lost Liner” by John Maxtone-Graham opens with an entire chapter devoted to the fascinating and detailed accounts of two marvels of the 18th and 19th centuries that ensured the survival of the 706 passengers and crew. One was Samuel Morse’s tapped code, uncanny precursor to today’s text messages and the other was Guglielmo Marconi’s wireless telegraph. Without both inventions, a nearby ship, the Carpathian, could not have responded to the Titanic so quickly and rescued the near-frozen lifeboat occupants from the elements.

“Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived” by Andrew Wilson focuses on the lives of the survivors in the century after the sinking. (None of them are alive today; the last survivor, Millvina Dean, died in 2009, at age 97.) Many of the survivors lived to endure troubled lives, culminating in many divorces and suicides. One tragic figure, disgraced White Star Lines’ corporate executive J. Bruce Ismay, became a recluse on the coast of Ireland for most of his life.

“Voyagers of the Titanic: Passengers, Sailors, Shipbuilders, Aristocrats, and the Worlds They Came From” by Richard Davenport-Hines, tells the story of many of the ship’s second class passengers who included artists, authors, tourists, academics, shopkeepers and clerks. More accounts are from steerage, or third class, most of them stories of immigrants. Another group, the ship’s crew, included stewards and stewardesses, stokers and firemen and many of them went down with the ship, including Captain Edward Smith and ship designer Thomas Andrews.

Another new book centered on the tragedy is one of historical fiction. “The Dressmaker” by Kate Alcott includes pieces of the action and colorful characters of period. It also stitches in just enough romance to make it a compelling read. I found myself engrossed in the story of Tess, a fictional seamstress who gets a lucky break on the Southampton dock to become the personal assistant to famous designer Lady Duff Gordon. Tess survives the doomed voyage and winds up her shipboard romances on shore with more than one marriage proposal. Many characters of the non-fiction accounts circulate in and out of Alcott’s story, including politicians and press once the passengers are safely returned to shore.

If you would like to reserve any books in the Minuteman Library System please call the Reference or Information desks of the library, 781-799-0200 or reserve them in the Minuteman Library catalog.

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