Titanic’s Wake: Shipwreck of the Century Retains Its Grip

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Icy waters awaited those who couldn’t elbow their way to safety. Matthew Polak / Sygma-Corbis

The broken halves of RMS Titanic had barely settled on the ocean floor, 12,600 feet below the surface of the Atlantic, when the craving to see it at the movies began.

The one-reeler Saved From the Titanic, made by Éclair American Co. at its super-modern, glass-covered Fort Lee studio in New Jersey, was released 29 days after the liner sank and took 1,517 lives with it. In one respect at least, the 10—minute movie will never be bettered for authenticity, since its main attraction, the heavy--lidded, cushion-lipped, 22-year-old Dorothy Gibson—star of Revenge of the Silk Masks and It Pays to Be Kind, and cover girl of countless magazines—was a survivor from Lifeboat 7. Starting work a few days after landing back in New York off the rescue ship RMS Carpathia, Dorothy had only to play herself, which she apparently did with frightening aplomb. But then Gibson was one tough cookie. Before she died in 1946, she had killed someone while driving the car of her married lover (the studio financier Jules Brulatour), turned enthusiast of fascism, switched to the resistance in time to be arrested and incarcerated by the Gestapo in Milan, from where she finally escaped as a heroine. And you thought Kate Winslet was interesting? Silly you.

Precisely a century since the calamity of the four-funneled Titanic, the ship still holds us and our shared culture in its icy grip. The spectacle of luxury punished for its own vanity, the delusions of the unsinkable power brokers, the chill hand of extinction catching the arrogant in the midst of their own sumptuous festivities—all of it reminds us of the biblical destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah or the writing on the wall appearing to Belshazzar’s party people. Fifteenth-century Europe, chastened by unpredictable visitations of the plague, invented, in sculpture and painting, the genre of the Dance of Death, in which the grinning skeleton sweeps up with his scythe all manner of men and women: kings and bishops, knights and damsels, merchants and peasants. Somewhere inside that iceberg rising 50 feet above the Atlantic on the night of April 14, 1912, stood Death with a trident.

Very quickly, press reports and the Senate subcommittee hearings that began in New York a week after the disaster took on the tone of an ancient morality tale played out in modern dress. A cast of the living and the dead, in all the available human types and conditions, passed before the public gaze as if still in their evening glamour or steerage caps and skirts. There were scoundrels (if not fall guys): above all, J. Bruce Ismay, the director of the White Star Line, who unlike Capt. Edward Smith and the ship’s guilt-stricken designer, Thomas Andrews (who was the first to realize that Titanic was doomed), got himself into a lifeboat with the women and children and never lived down the obloquy. Among the plutocracy there were stylish stoics—most notably Benjamin Guggenheim, traveling with his valet, chauffeur, and (clandestinely) his mistress, the singer Leontine Aubert, and her maid. Guggenheim saw the women into a lifeboat and then returned to his cabin to don his tuxedo. “We have dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen,” he reportedly said, adding, “if anything happens, tell my wife I have done my best in doing my duty” (not mentioning that he did it by Leontine).

As if to compensate, there were paragons of endearing marital loyalty: the 63-year-old Ida Straus, who refused to leave her husband, Isidor, the magnate of Macy’s (“We have lived together many years; where you go, I go”), and who were last seen settling down in deck chairs to await the final wave. There were stories of unbearable heartbreak, like that of Bess Allison (wife of the Winnipeg property tycoon Hud Allison), who got separated from her infant, Trevor, in the chaos. Her husband, dressed in his buffalo coat, set her and her 3-year-old daughter into a lifeboat, neither of them knowing that the family nursemaid had got the baby boy safely into another boat. Unable to bear the strain of not knowing where her son was, Bess took little Loraine in her arms, clambered back on board, and perished in the wreck.

“Women and children first” was not a Titanic myth—although the chances of it being observed depended on which class of passenger you happened to be. Shockingly, only 30 percent of steerage children survived. But the age of the colossal machine (whether financial or industrial) was, paradoxically, also a time in which the American plutocrats who dominated the first-class passenger list wanted something more than raw riches. They wanted to be respected for a code of honor they imagined had clung to the pedigree of ancient nobilities. That’s why, when quizzed a few months after the Titanic’s loss, its ultimate owner (head of the International Merchant Marine, J.P. Morgan) claimed “character” was the quality he most hoped to cultivate in business. And this was why, whatever the industrial monopoly muscle or the banking shenanigans that had made them rich, Morgan’s class built baronially, went shopping for European masterpieces, applauded their sons’ exertions on the muddy football fields of the Ivies, and sent their daughters abroad for a French finish.

Plenty of the dollar dukes went down like gents on the Titanic: an Astor, two Wideners, and a Thayer. But its real heroes were often among the crew, none more stirring than Second Officer Herbert Lightoller, who had survived one shipwreck and a cyclone before getting his position on the Titanic. He had gone off watch when the ship struck the iceberg but was the most energetic and resourceful in getting as many women and children as he could into the boats, which he knew very well would only have room for around half of the passengers and crew even when fully loaded (and many weren’t). Told at the end to get in one himself, his reply, without irony, was “not on your life.” Attempting to make the last “collapsible” lifeboat usable, the rush of water swept him away. The force of an engine explosion brought him back to the surface, where he managed to struggle to the capsized collapsible to which 30 men were desperately hanging. Such was the brutal frigidity of the -water—28 degrees -Fahrenheit—that hypothermia did half of them in during the night. Eventually transferred to another lifeboat, Lightoller was the very last of the survivors to board the Carpathia. He went on to serve in the First World War and took his converted yacht Sundowner to Dunkirk, where he got 130 off the doomed beach.

Lightoller gets some of his due in an upcoming ABC miniseries, which also spends some time below decks visiting the steerage passengers, albeit sentimentally and sensationally. A better sense of their world can be gotten from the biographies compiled by the exhaustive online Encyclopedia Titanica. A dive into its depths brings up steerage worlds much more fascinating and poignant in their loss than anything the big and small screen have yet contrived. Although the Titanic was memorably characterized by Walter Lord in his classic A Night to Remember as a “small town,” it was in fact made up of villages from an astonishing diversity of cultures. There were whole communities of Lebanese and Syrian peasants and townspeople, many on their way to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where some of their countrymen must already have settled. A community of Flemish sugar-beet farmers were headed to Ohio to work in the fields for American sugar companies. There were also Croatians and a big contingent of Finns, Swedes, and Danes.

Many had come from worlds embittered not just by poverty but by brutal class conflict: strikes, strike-breaking, and quasi-military industrial lockouts. Some of this acrimony touched the White Star Line directly and the crew closest to steerage—the stokers, firemen, and stewards—knew it. Titanic’s original master during trials at Belfast—one Captain Haddock (yes, honestly)—faced a strike precisely over the inadequacy of lifeboat accommodation on the liners: the very thing that condemned 1,500 to death.

Chillingly, the shortage of lifeboats was due to shipboard aesthetics, the concern not to clutter the promenade deck of first class. But it was supposed by the likes of Ismay that a full complement of lifeboats would not be needed because of the sophistication of that “unsinkable” technology: the Marconi wireless equipment that in the event of an accident would send out distress messages so quickly that other vessels would be on the scene well before the ship could founder. But on the Sunday of the disaster the radio was malfunctioning almost until the iceberg hit. That might account for so little attention being paid to multiple warnings sent by a number of ships about the danger of the ice-field encountered further south than anyone could remember. The SS Californian, a mere 17 miles away from the Titanic when it hit the berg, could not come to the rescue because it was motionless in the water, surrounded by ice. Or rather its master chose not to try.

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Modernity is only as good as its weakest link. Titanic boasted electrically operated steel doors that with a throw of the switch could be lowered to seal compartments below the waterline. But with seawater pouring through gaping holes in five adjoining compartments, the doors were useless. It was a pitifully brief two and a half hours from the first onrush of water into the boiler rooms to the disappearance of the broken ship.

The Titanic might have avoided the iceberg altogether had one piece of technology been better suited to the monstrously sized ship. The rudder wasn’t up to moving the vessel with the speed it would need in an emergency. When Captain Smith had to turn the liner hard to starboard to try to avoid the berg, it took a full 37 seconds between the tiller’s command and the rudder changing course.

Titanic Scoundrels and heroes: Businessman J. Bruce Ismay, left, and Second Officer Herbert Lightoller. Universal Images Group-Getty Images (left) ; Mary Evans / Everett Collection

In all of the filmed and dramatized versions of the disaster, including James Cameron’s mostly brilliant film (which is being rereleased in 3-D on April 4), two appalling moments are missing. First there is the terrible climax when the broken ship took its final plunge, preceded by the immense roaring sound of the engines, loosened from their stays, crashing through the ship, some of them exploding. This was then followed by the horrifying wails of more than a thousand souls as they were thrown into the night, hitting the water whose frigidity would kill them in minutes if not seconds. In the lifeboats looking on in horror, wrote Carla Jensen, a young Danish woman, “we sat like stone figures ... What was even worse than the screams was the deadly silence that came after.”

And then there was the scene on the Carpathia, which demonstrates the difference between a rescue and a happy ending. It was only then that survivors realized who among their family—husbands, wives, parents—they would never see again. And since, disproportionately, it was women who survived, it was they whom Jensen saw “some just sitting apathetically staring out into air ... others wandering around screaming their men’s names. Some were lying around just crying, and others could not handle the event, and several times we saw canvas-covered bodies being lowered over.”

Of course, the supposedly unsinkable liner that is global capitalism recently hit an iceberg, and its name was Lehman Brothers. And lo, in the twinkling of an eye there was much screaming, and the fanciest and most sumptuous vessel looked as though it would slide right into the deep. Now, too, it is steerage that gets the short end of the stick, just as it did in 1912. Will we ever learn that the best systems, the most money, the cleverest engineers, and their most infallible designs are of no avail when it’s that imperfect thing—the human being—that drives them at a reckless speed? Forgive me if I doubt it. But as we sail on into that dark ocean of the future where who knows what perils lurk in the darkness, is it too much to ask that there be at least enough bloody lifeboats for everyone—for us in third class as well as the ladies and gents living it up in the state rooms?

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