Eighteen years ago, two TV producers and two directors at NBC were having a drink when Jim Silman mentioned his latest discovery in Washington. It was a memorial to the men on the RMS Titanic who had surrendered their places in the liner's too few lifeboats so that women and children could be saved when the great ship went down on April 15, 1912.
The memorial, at a seldom-visited site on the Washington Channel near Fort McNair, had been erected in 1931 by "the women of America" in the spirit of "lest we forget," with a program of annual wreath-layings on the anniversary of the Titanic's sinking. But the women had forgotten, Silman said. Now nobody remembered those brave men. Hell, you could barely even find the memorial.
The anniversary of the Titanic's sinking was just days away. Maybe we should go down there, the men decided, and drink a toast to the stuff those guys were made of.
Sunday night the Men's Titanic Society, its numbers now swollen to 15, gathered once again on the anniversary of the ship's sinking to once again honor "those brave men."
Dressed in black tie (Titanic passenger Benjamin Guggenheim, realizing death was inevitable, had donned evening dress in order "to die like a gentleman"), they ate a ceremonial dinner mimicking the last consumed in the Titanic's first-class dining room. Then, in the early morning hours when the great ship foundered, they adjourned to the Washington waterfront with champagne to wistfully toast the sort of manhood Alan Alda wouldn't recognize.
"Chivalry, gallantry, bravery and grace -- in these times those ideals seem to have all but disappeared," said writer David Blomquist, raising his glass in the darkness to the floodlighted statue with its outstretched arms. "But by our remembrance they are born again. And in our lives they can live again."
If those words aren't the sort you hear much on radio or television these days, maybe that's part of the point. Most members of the MTS are TV producers or directors from more ambitious days in the broadcast news industry, and there's a faint wagon-circling quality to an organization that meets just once a year, is more social than historical and views its annual observance as more a private commemoration than a public event.
"I think that first year it was a kind of tongue-in-cheek thing for the four of us," said Don Elder, now a TV producer with the Federal Trade Commission. "The anniversary fell on an Easter Sunday, and we picked up some daffodils across from WRC and went down there in the afternoon with a glass of champagne."
But like so many others, they found that the closer they got to the Titanic story, the more it started to mean to them. The next few years their toast to "those brave men" occasioned a preliminary lunch at Hogate's or the Flagship. Soon they had added a few members and were contemplating a more authentic, time-appropriate wreath-laying at night. In dress that Benjamin Guggenheim might approve of.
"It has to do with so many of us being directors," mused Chris Cavas, an independent formerly with NBC. "It's become theater without an audience. We don't take it too seriously. Or rather, we take the sacrifice of the men on the Titanic seriously, but we don't take ourselves very seriously. Except at the memorial. Oh, who knows why we do this. Maybe you'll figure it out and tell us."
"All I know is I always leave feeling much better," said Bob Vitarelli, formerly of CBS. "And not just because of the wine."
The wine in question was a 1992 Leoville Barton St. Julien -- a chateau (if not a vintage) that might well have been aboard the Titanic. It was served up with reverence in the Riverview Room of the Watergate Hotel, at a table stunningly arranged around a small model of the Titanic, with an extra place set at the head in honor of "those brave men."
The menu -- oysters on the half shell, asparagus vinaigrette, tournedos with artichoke bottoms, foie gras and truffle periquet sauce, pommes Anna Courton, seasonal vegetables and French vanilla ice cream -- was preceded by a very excellent Piper Heidsieck Brut champagne.
"There were other choices in the Titanic's first-class dining room that last night, of course," said Silman. "We choose what's available. But not everything. One of their available desserts was peaches in Chartreuse jelly. We're not having that."
Among the dozens of organizations around the world fixated on the metaphoric resonance of the Titanic as the last symbol of human extravagance and hubris before the global reckoning of World War I, the Men's Titanic Society may be remarkable for its relative lack of interest in Titanic trivia and politics.
No one at the meeting could be found who cared much one way or the other about the recent marketing of Titanic coal lumps dredged up from the ocean floor, or of purported plans to launch luxury cruise ships to witness the salvage of a portion of the great liner's hull.
"I happen to be a ship buff," said Cavas, "but that's not really what this organization is about. It's about courage and sacrifice and grace under pressure. And about who remembers and who forgets."
Conversation at the dinner was what you might encounter at many Washington dinner parties -- touching on politics, and media second-guessing, about wine prices and the maddening layout of some Washington suburbs ("Arlington's actually a verb: `This street doesn't lead anywhere. It just Arlingtons' ").
But shortly after midnight, Bob Asman, executive producer of the Commission on Presidential Debates, took the podium for his annual reading of the Titanic story. He told how the great liner was 10 years in planning and manufacture, four city blocks long and 11 stories high, carrying 2,200 of rich and poor alike on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York when it struck an iceberg 400 miles east of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and sank four hours later on a mirrorlike, starlit sea.
There were only 16 lifeboats. Three hundred sixteen women were saved, with 57 children. More than 1,300 men -- passengers and crew -- went down with the ship after a relatively orderly evacuation of "women and children first."
"Let us remember what they faced and what they gave in those last hours," Asman concluded.
After a brief prayer, the society members boarded limousines for the trip to Fourth and P streets SW, to the graceful, 18-foot granite figure that stands with its arms outstretched, the work of sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Originally erected on Rock Creek Parkway, it was moved in 1966 to accommodate construction of the Kennedy Center.
They were met at the memorial by Roland Desonier, a waiter from the Childe Harold, carrying a silver tray with more champagne. Desonier has catered the observance for the past 10 years.
After some brief picture-taking, they lined up in front of the memorial with their glasses and their wreath of red carnations and raised their individual toasts.
"To their dignity, grace and style, but most of all tonight we toast their courage. . . . To those brave men."
"To the stewards, the men who stoked the boilers, the crew who shared that bravery as much as any man in a tuxedo. . . . To those brave men."
"To the young and old, the rich and the poor, the ignorant and the learned, all who gave their lives nobly to save women and children. To those brave men."
"In these days of air disasters, death is sudden. . . . They had time to think and choose. . . . To those brave men."
Finally, Max Schindler of NBC raised his glass. "We'd like to apologize for the women who have forgotten," he said.
Then the floodlights were turned off, the limousines departed, and there was only the night, the monument and the Washington Channel lighted with stars.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company
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