The Iceberg Cometh

The RMS Titaic sank 84 years ago, but there's a new wave of interest in the great ship. See the mini-series, hum the musical, buy the cookbook!

WHEN EDITH BROWN HAISMAN last saw her daddy nearly 85 years ago, he was standing on deck, smoking a cigar and smiling at his wife and daughter. ""I'll see you in New York,'' he said confidently, as his family was bundled into Lifeboat No. 14. There had been no sense of urgency when the Titanic first struck an iceberg out there in the North Atlantic at 20 minutes before midnight. ""Everyone kept saying, "She's unsinkable','' recalls Haisman, now 100 and living in Southampton, England. She wondered why they were abandoning the most magnificent movable thing ever built, on its maiden voyage. Not until she was lowered into the 28-degree ocean did she see just how much of the 882-foot liner was underwater. Huddled together against the cold, saying almost nothing, Haisman and her mother watched as the band played a hymn, the lights flickered out and, in a thunderous roar, everything on the supership seemed to break loose. Grand pianos, brass beds, English china and the 29 immense boilers that fueled it lurched toward the submerged bow. The black hull tilted perpendicularly; its three great propellers reared against the heavens. And then it was gone, along with Mr. Brown and 1,522 other souls.

Walter Lord called it ""A Night to Remember'' in his classic 1955 best seller (now in its 65th printing). For Haisman and the rest of the 704 survivors, it was, as she still shudders, ""a night to forget.'' But the world has never let the night of April 14, 1912, pass into oblivion. Seventeen movies, 18 documentaries, at least 130 books and the ""rivet counters''--hard-core fans so obsessed with every detail they can account for all 3 million screws--have proliferated from the moment the New York Evening Sun declared, ALL SAVED FROM TITANIC AFTER COLLISION. And why not? It remains an incredible story--a colossal confluence of bad luck, bad timing and bad navigation. ""The three most written-about subjects of all-time,'' speculates historian Steven Biel in a new cultural history of the disaster, Down With the Old Canoe, may be ""Jesus, the Civil War, and the Titanic.'' Christ and Gettysburg changed the world--but a boat and a berg?

Now comes the latest outbreak of Titanic fever. Sure, the sinking was a calamity, but some of the commemorations have all the solemnity of a carnival. This week, Titanic, a four-hour mini-series, is airing on CBS; it stars George C. Scott as the ill-fated Capt. Edward J. Smith, who looks like he's been steering from the dessert table but otherwise does a fine ""glub... glub ... glub.'' In April, Titanic, the $10 million musical--yes, the musical--opens on Broadway, in time for the anniversary of the sinking (giving your play this title takes guts, sort of like GM calling its new sedan ""Lemon''). The biggest, most expensive show arrives this summer: Titanic, the $120 million movie, promises to be terrifying--think ""Jaws'' on ice--as well as tragic. The director is James Cameron (box), the fellow who gave us the terrifying ""Terminator.'' Cameron's titanic ""Titanic'' stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.

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And that's only, well, the tip of the iceberg. The story inspired English novelist Beryl Bainbridge in her latest book, Every Man for Himself, short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize. Then there are two museum exhibitions of artifacts recovered from the deep by George Tulloch. He's the treasure-hunter who founded the publicly traded RMS Titanic, Inc., which owns exclusive salvage rights to the wreck. One exhibit opens Nov. 27 at the Nauticus National Maritime Center in Norfolk, Va., the other in April in Memphis, Tenn. (A similar show last year in Greenwich, England, brought in 700,000 visitors, including Tom Cruise, who rented out the place for an evening.)

The rivet counters will love two new interactive CD-ROMs, a Web site where for $25 you can purchase your very own chunk of Titanic coal and--this just in--the revolutionary Sonicare-toothbrushing system. ""If sonic technology can find the Titanic two miles below the ocean,'' asks a back-page ad in a recent issue of The New Yorker, ""why not use it to reach plaque bacteria just below the gumline?'' Why indeed? Also in the works: a glossy children's book next June called Inside the Titanic, with cutaway illustrations and stories of real kids on the cruise, and the posthumous memoirs of Violet Jessop, the star-crossed stewardess of the White Star Line who, unbelievably, was on board both the Titanic and its sister ship, the Britannic, when it also sank (as well as the third sister, the Olympic, when it collided with another vessel). Most riveting of all may be Last Dinner on the Titanic, a cookbook due in April. On the fateful day, quail eggs with caviar were served in first class, beef ragout with pickles in steerage. Everybody got chilled water. Hyperion plans to launch the cookbook at the Titanic Historical Society's annual convention on the Queen Mary. Bring life jackets, just in case.

Through such commercialism, the allure of the Titanic endures. We know the ending for sure, but we're transfixed nonetheless. It's an irresistible tale--of tragedy and irony, mystery and money. Prince Philip's a buff. So are William F. Buckley and moonwalker Buzz Aldrin. ""It's a moment in time that encapsulates what life is about,'' says Tulloch, of RMS Titanic, Inc. The Titanic wasn't annihilated in an instant like the Challenger or TWA Flight 800. It took two hours and 40 minutes to sink, during which people--rich and poor, young and old--had to make choices, whether to save themselves or go down with the ship. Can anyone listen to the story and not ask, ""What would I have done?'' ""It's a script no one would believe if it hadn't happened,'' says Tulloch, ""a drama that would do Shakespeare proud.''

Each generation ascribes its own meanings to the sinking of the Titanic--the hubris of technology, the evils of wealth (farewell, John Jacob Astor IV and his airedale Kitty, too), the dawn of modernity, the end of chivalry and the good old days (Benjamin Guggenheim, traveling with his mistress, changed into fine evening clothes before going down). There's the legend of Molly Brown, the rags-to-riches millionaire who took over Lifeboat No. 6 and became a national heroine. And the wrenching obituary of Ida and Isidor Straus, the owners of Macy's, who could've saved themselves--he was old and she was a she. But he refused to get off and she would not go without her husband. The folks at Harvard won't forget the Titanic because if streetcar magnate Harry Widener had not been among the victims, Mrs. Widener never would've dedicated the big library on campus to her son's memory. And the school's been trying for decades to dispel the myth that its former swimming requirement had something to do with the Titanic. Even the insurance claims are poignant: one family in steerage put in for a $50 sewing machine they said was their livelihood. The musicians weren't so lucky. The heirs of one were not only denied money for his violin, but bill collectors demanded 15 shillings for the dead man's uniform.

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It's a morality play about conspicuous consumption, a biblical warning to those who would dare to challenge the Almighty, a nice addition to the lexicon (""rearranging deck chairs...''). Early commentary said the doomed liner was a testament to the superiority of men, all the proof necessary why women shouldn't get suffrage. By contrast, in this week's TV movie, the Unsinkable Molly Brown (Marilu Henner) proclaims herself an ""emancipated woman.'' Kathy Bates should have a field day playing Molly in Cameron's big-screen version.

By next summer, Tulloch hopes to raise enough money for a second attempt at bringing up part of the wreck from its resting place 380 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. The previous try, last August, made quite a splash; Tulloch booked two cruise ships of gawkers (at up to $6,000 a berth), but the salvage was also called grave-robbing. ""The debate over recovering artifacts is noble,'' says Robert Ballard, the oceanographer who finally located the Titanic in 1985, ""but I don't want to carry it on with someone who went out with Love Boats.'' Maybe Ballard's sore that the on-board gift shops didn't carry his book, ""The Discovery of the Titanic,'' which has sold 1.3 million copies.

Edith Brown Haisman thinks well of Tulloch. In 94 dives so far, he's brought up 4,000 items, from a silver soup tureen to a $5 bill. None, though, was more precious than the engraved pocket watch of Haisman's father that Tulloch presented to her. ""I should like to be left alone with the watch for a while,'' Haisman said. Buried 12,000 feet beneath the sea in total darkness, gone from a world it momentarily defined, the Titanic refuses to die.

The Iceberg Cometh | News