This post by me first appeared in the Roswell Daily Record earlier this month…some selected portions of the text appeared previously on the now-defunct USA Today Happy Ever After blog…new material about the plays added at the end specifically for this post, however.
April to me is the month of Titanic, the luxury cruise ship which hit an iceberg on April 14, 1912 and sank with a terrible loss of life two hours and forty minutes later. Even though this month contains other events and family birthdays and even though we’re going through a deep and stressful crisis with COVID-19, April still brings Titanic to the top of my mind. There might even be some parallels between that tragedy and the one we’re currently living through but I’ll leave those analogies (loss of life, lack of advance preparation for the tragedy, failure of high tech, various modern day leaders compared to the ship’s captain, etc.) to the political pundits. Certainly the scale of what we’re living through now is overwhelming and heart breaking.
All that notwithstanding, Titanic has been a lifelong fascination for me, beginning with the family story of how we had a distant relative on my mother’s side, among the Second Class passengers, who actually survived. As an adult, able to conduct internet searches, I came to seriously doubt the woman was in any way related to us, despite the rather unique last name but by then it was too late – I was imprinted with the need to know everything there was to know about Titanic. I think in some ways my impression of the tragedy and the importance of not panicking in a crisis, to always be prepared, to take action rather than hang back which it left with me has informed a lot of the way I live life.
Numerous tragic ship sinkings happened before Titanic and many occurred afterward, yet this is the one people research, write novels about and depict in blockbuster movies.
Preceded by premonitions and ominous omens (the ship’s cat supposedly carried her kittens off at Southampton!), the sinking of the Titanic has all the elements of a classic tragedy. Overly trusting in their unsinkable technology, the ships’ officers sped across the Atlantic on a clear night that ironically made icebergs harder to see. Missing binoculars. So many people, too few lifeboats and a fear that overloading would crack the small craft in half, dumping the passengers into the freezing sea.
The wireless operators broadcasting the new signal SOS, electrifying a disbelieving world, but unheard by the off-duty operator on the Californian, sleeping in his bunk a mere ten miles away. His ship would have been able to save everyone, yet remained unaware of the tragedy until it was over. The captain of the Carpathia driving his vessel through the Atlantic, dodging icebergs at full speed, knowing he’d arrive too late despite his crew’s heroic efforts.
Women and children first, gallant husbands remaining behind while the doomed musicians play. Lovers separated. Or staying on board together to take their chances. The respected captain who’d never experienced a sinking situation. The ship’s builder traveling on her maiden voyage, called upon to estimate how long before she foundered. The chairman of the White Star Line who stepped into the last lifeboat, surviving only to spend the rest of his life internationally despised. The steerage passengers, waiting for direction, huddled below decks for too long. The rich, the famous, the children, even the dogs, priceless artifacts…the tragic events of the night are overwhelming and captured the world’s imagination, never to let go.
Titanic carried many larger than life personalities of the early 1900s – Molly Brown (who reportedly didn’t care for the nickname “Unsinkable”), John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim…the public was fascinated with them and all their doings, just as today there’s curiosity about show business celebrities. In fact, Dorothy Gibson, one of the early movie stars, was a First Class passenger. Less than a month after the sinking, her studio had shot a movie and rushed it into distribution, starring her, wearing the clothing she’d had on during her escape from the sinking ship. Unfortunately there are no copies of this movie known to exist.
In the 1950’s two movies reignited public interest in the sinking – “A Night to Remember,” which goes pretty much straight from the nonfiction book of the same name by Walter Lord. This film was so effective at recreating the events, one elderly survivor reportedly became upset and demanded to know why the camera crew hadn’t stopped filming to rescue people. The other, “Titanic”, was a big budget Hollywood sudser with Barbara Stanwyck, that used the sinking as a backdrop for the soap opera plot. And then of course in 1997, James Cameron released his epic version of “Titanic,” beautifully researched, framed by a fictional love story that could only have its Happily Ever After ending when his heroine Rose dies and rejoins Jack in the hereafter. I cry. Every time.
Hundreds of books have been written about Titanic, both fiction and nonfiction because another fascinating aspect of this sinking is that there are always new facts to be gleaned, new snippets of poignant detail from that cold night. There are books set on Titanic in every genre of fiction from Young Adult adventures (mostly about plucky boys and girls) to steamy romances to paranormal thrillers involving werewolves. Even Danielle Steele used the sinking as a backdrop for a plot in her 1992 novel No Greater Love (Delacorte Press). Full disclosure, I wrote an award winning science fiction novel loosely based on the sinking, Wreck of the Nebula Dream, set in the far future on a luxury spaceliner, which reviewers have called “Titanic in space…”.
One of my favorite nonfiction accounts is Lifeboat No 8: An Untold Tale of Love, Loss and Surviving the Titanic by Elizabeth Kaye, which follows one set of survivors who ended up in a lifeboat together. The book sheds light on the “real” couple whose romance might have inspired Mr. Cameron’s Jack & Rose. Jack Phillips, the senior wireless operator, and Roberta Maioni, the Countess of Rothes’ maid, apparently experienced quite the instant attraction when they met onboard the liner at the start of the ill-fated cruise. The Countess and her maid survived, Jack of course did not. It’s not generally known but he was absent from the wireless room for an unexplained time after the ship struck the iceberg. Some speculate he went to warn his beloved that the ship was going to sink and she needed to get into a lifeboat, which she did, carrying his photo, retrieved from her cabin at literally the last moment.
Another heartbreaking nonfiction book is Titanic Love Stories by Gill Paul, which gives the true stories of thirteen honeymoon couples sailing on the ship, including their photos. Mr. Paul includes many heart wrenching details of the events of the sinking, and gives rare glimpses into the survivors’ lives.
Over the years, not much attention has been paid to the Third Class passengers, who lacked the glamour, resources and name recognition of First and Second Class. The steerage story is told eloquently in a novel, The Girl Who Came Home by Hazel Gaynor. The book was inspired by true events relating to a group of fourteen Irish passengers from one small village, who sailed together on Titanic. Ms. Gaynor weaves a riveting novel of why the group chose to emigrate, the sinking, the aftermath and the lingering effects on those who survived the tragedy and their descendants. She made Third Class come alive for me in a way no other account has ever done, and I was on the edge of my chair, waiting to see who in the little group would survive and how. The author portrays the chaos and confusion below decks on Titanic as if she’d been there herself.
A romantic suspense novel that put a different spin on the sinking was Titanic The Lost Child by Bonnie Dune. Starting with the fact that one First Class child perished, and perhaps also influenced by the existence of an Anastasia-like claimant to that girl’s identity (and the family fortune) in later years, Ms. Dune wove a purely fictional tale. Her novel flashes back and forth in time between the account of a young girl travelling with her family on Titanic and the efforts to unravel the mystery by a modern woman who might be her descendant.
Titanic: Psychic Forewarnings of a Tragedy by George Behe collects many accounts of dreams, visions and other psychic phenomena associated with the sinking. Some of them gave me chills to read and it was certainly another aspect of the events to consider.
I have quite a library of books on all aspects of the Titanic and her passengers. I’m always looking for anything new and actually found several books this year that added to my understanding of the situation.
Most recently I read The Ship of Dreams by Gareth Russell, a fascinating account focusing on six well known First Class passengers and using their lives and the sinking itself as a frame to explore the end of the Edwardian era and a number of underlying forces at work in the world at the time. I’d never really considered these people in any other context than their few days on board the ship, the hours of stark terror and perhaps a bit of their life story afterward, if they survived. I found it very eye opening to read about their lives leading up to the sinking, and the events which shaped them as people. The book provided me with an entirely new lens for viewing the events surrounding the sinking of the Titanic.
This year I also read On a Sea of Glass: The Life & Loss of the RMS Titanic by Tad Fitch, J. Kent Layton and Bill Wormstedt. This book delved more deeply into the construction of Titanic and the lives of the builders, as well as covering the sinking and then conspiracy theories (yes, they existed even in those days!) about the ship and the events of the tragic night. I picked up some further insights, particularly into Thomas Andrews, the shipbuilder who went down with his new ship.
If you enjoyed the Downton Abbey television series, created by Julian Ffellowes, I highly recommend his 2012 Titanic miniseries. Similar to the dramatic approach taken on Downton Abbey, the four episode series takes an “upstairs and downstairs” look at the Titanic’s voyage and sinking. Blending fictional characters with real people in a very effective, believable style, the miniseries was put together in a Roshoman-effect, where the same events are seen from different points of view. One dinner in First Class, for example, is told from the POV of the extremely wealthy diners and then later from the standpoint of the Italian steward. Over the course of the series, the viewer has met members of First Class, Second Class, Third Class, servants, officers and crew and seen them all reacting to the sinking. Some of the political and corporate maneuverings that went on before the Titanic was even launched are touched upon. Just remember this is all based on the true story and don’t expect much in the way of an HEA ending, however gorgeously it was filmed.
I think it’s important to note that while for most of us Titanic is an exciting, romantic, sad story, there are families all over the world for whom the losses were personal and are still reverberating down through time. More than 1500 lives were lost in the cold Atlantic that night, which makes it one of the largest maritime disasters ever to occur outside of a war.
Subsequent to the publication of the Roswell Daily Record post, I received a message from Mr. Luke Yankee, author of the play The Last Lifeboat, which is about Bruce Ismay, Chairman and Managing Director of the White Star Line, who of course famously helped load lifeboats while the ship was sinking and then took that fateful step into the last one. I must confess I hadn’t been previously aware of the play but wanted to include it here. There’s a trailer and more information on the play’s web page. Here’s a portion of the blurb for the play: THE LAST LIFEBOAT is the untold story of J. Bruce Ismay, the owner of the White Star shipping Line when The Titanic sank, whose decision to save himself rather than go down with the ship made him the scapegoat for one of the greatest disasters of all time. This epic tale explores not only the tragedy itself, but the sensationalized trials and aftermath of the night that changed the world forever.
Personally of course I always viewed Ismay as quite a villain – Officer Lightoller was my favorite person on the ship when I was growing up, as portrayed heroically by Kenneth More in the movie “A Night to Remember”. (I have read Lightoller’s biography Titanic and Other Ships, which was fascinating.) But I can certainly see the tragic nature of Ismay’s life after the sinking! The play has been performed in numerous venues, more than 50 productions in North America alone, per the Facebook page.
This also reminded me of the musical “Titanic,” which debuted on Broadway in 1997, and won no less than five Tony Awards®. There’s an excellent documentary film about how the Serenbe Playhouse theatrical company staged a revival of this play in a lake in Georgia (I kid you not) in 2018. The film is short, and isn’t the entire musical itself obviously, but fascinating nonetheless. I can only find it on youtube.
And now, dear reader, I’m going to leave the subject of Titanic for this year….other than this little graphic with a couple of review excerpts for my science fiction book, below!