Oh they built the ship Titanic to sail the ocean blue And they thought they had a ship that the water would never go through It was on her maiden trip that the iceberg struck the ship It was sad when that great ship went down (chorus) Oh it was sad, it was sad, It was sad when that great ship went down to the bottom of the sea
Husbands and wives, little children lost their lives It was sad when that great ship went down
For 70 years, the R.M.S. Titanic has been sought after, fought over, argued about, mythologized and rumored to pieces. When it struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m on April 14, 1912, the ship suffered a 300-foot gash below the water line and sank 2 hours and 40 minutes later, carrying 1,522 passengers and crew members to a dark and watery grave 13,000 feet deep, the Titanic, the biggest passenger ship ever built, becamea legend.
As the "most intoxicatingly romantic of all maritime disasters," the great ship inspired hundreds of films, books, songs and plays. There's even a modern opera in which the audience is transformed into the ship's passengers and becomes part of the show; at the end of the performance, everybody abandons the theater.
One of the largest maritime disasters in history, it contributed to all facets of popular culture and gave currency to phrases like "tip of the iceberg," "unsinkable" and, of course, "titanic."
There have been more than 500 songs written about the Titanic disaster, far more than about any American disaster. The best known is probably Pop Stoneman's 1920s country hit, "'It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down." Folklorist W.T. Wilgus of UCLA has been collecting Titanic songs in the folk tradition for more than 12 years. "I started out to look for a few and it turned out to be the tip of the iceberg," he says.
Of the more than 100 copyrighted songs, most came out soon after the Titanic went down (Harry Chapin's "Dance Band on the Titanic" was the most recent offering), and 40 percent of those were copyrighted by Dudgale Music, a now defunct publishing company that had its offices at 14th and U streets NW. "My feeling is that they had a contest that was announced in some of the small farm and home papers," Wilgus says. "The pattern of responses from around the country suggested that people submitted lyrics and Dugdale furnished the music--most of the music was written by one or two people associated with Dugdale."
Interestingly, no Titanic songs came out of England, though some came from Ireland and Scandinavia (there were many immigrants on the ship). Despite its long broadside tradition, England imported all its Titanic songs from America. most of the Irish songs praised the ship's captain and crew while the American songs tended to lambast the same. "Those songs were most critical of the attitudes of the rich to the poor," Wilgus adds. "The Titanic was a precursor of the smashing up of Edwardian society in World War I, but it also represents the discovery by Americans of the class system on the ship--that the poor were in steerage and that many were prevented from getting to first class, which was the lifeboat deck."
Almost all of the Titanic songs mention the tradition of the ship's band playing "Nearer My God to Thee" and then going down. Wilgus points out that the tradition was present in sea disaster songs before the Titanic and research has shown that the band in fact was playing an Episcopal hymn called "Autumn" ("and it might really have been another Episcopal hymn called "Aughton," Wilgus adds. "It has some of the same words, including 'God of mercy and compassion.' People probably picked that up because it sounded romantic.")
The earliest of more than 100 Titanic books also romanticized aspects of the disaster. Lawrence Beasley's "The Loss of the Titanic: It's Story and It's Lessons" (sic) was the first to hit the stand, a mere three months after its author was plucked out of the sea; he could have used an editor.
The Titanic's 711 survivors have provided Rashomon-like tales of exactly what happened, depending on which class they were traveling. At the time, major criticism revolved around the ship's concern with luxury and status at the expense of safety. There were many accusations that the wealthy passengers were given priority in evacuating the sinking ship.
The Titanic has become a combination Holy Grail and Loch Ness Monster. Texas millionaire Jack Grimm, having already hunted Noah's Ark, Bigfoot and Nessie, has spent $2 million trying to pinpoint the Titanic's titanic remains: it measured 882 1/2 feet and displaced almost 47,000 tons of water.
Like Custer's Last Stand, the Titanic has provided political cartoonists with a potent, symbol--such as the ship of state foundering in uncertain waters while the Captain reassures his passengers that "it's just a little ice." Every time an administration tries to avoid disaster by shuffling programs or personnel, people talk about "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."
This weekend, the Titanic Historical Society, an international organization with 2,500 members, will convene and install its archives at the Philadelphia Maritime Museum; five of the Titanic's 30 living survivors will be in attendance. Dedicated to "preserving the history and memory of the Royal Mail Ship Titanic," THS started in 1963 when four enthusiasts were drawn together by a spectacular model appearing in Mechanics Illustrated; its first two-page newsletter was known as "The Titanic Marconigram"; now it's issued quarterly as The Titanic Communicator. The newsletter contains unpublished photographs and deck plans as well as up-to-date news about the survivors.
The Model Shipwreck
When it was built as the the world's largest ship in the years 1909 to 1912, the Titanic cost $10 million. Two years ago, Sir Lew Grade decided to film Clive Cussler's thriller, "Raise the Titanic!" Grade spent over $5 million building a 55-foot model, and ended with a final budget over $40 million. The film bombed and essentially sank Grade's film empire. "It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic than to raise the Titanic," he's reported to have said when he stepped down from the chairmanship. The Titanic model is in Malta, locked in a grain storage barn; the doors have been welded shut.
* A cheaper, but equally authentic plastic model was put out by Entex several years ago. It had 500 pieces and retailed then for $24.95. More than 25,000 models have been sold. The cost recently went to $50.00, but the Entex model had the seal of approval from the Titanic Historical Society, which supervised the design and inspected the parts as they rolled off the assembly line. For the less ambitious, there is "Build Your Own Titanic" by Alan Rose) a $8.95 cut-and-assemble paperback that requires only "an Exacto knife, glue and perseverance."
* Titanic memorials dot the globe. Washington has two statues and one fountain. The Women's Titanic Memorial was erected in 1931 on the banks of the Potomac on land approved by Congress; it was built after a national subscription campaign brought in $40,000 from 25,000 American women. The tall figure with outstretched arms was sculpted by Mrs. Henry Payne Whitney of New York. It was unveiled by Mrs. William Howard Taft, first lady at the time of the disaster, in a ceremony attended by President and Mrs. Herbert Hoover and various members of the Cabinet.
When Congress approved the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1966 on the same grounds, the memorial was unceremoniously uprooted and dumped in cold storage in Ft. Washington, Md., while a new site was scouted. The Fine Arts Commission rejected a move to Hains Point (the statue wasn't considered "significant enough"); there was some sentiment for placing it near the Anacostia River ("there aren't many statues there"). It finally found a home at Fourth and P streets SW., where it stands today.
* That met better fate than the statue dedicated to Col. Archibald Gracie, which now rests in a basement of the Smithsonian Institution. Gracie had gone on the trip for health reasons; he survived the sinking, but the experience affected his health, and he died seven months later. The Titanic Historical Society would like to see the statue moved to Gracie Mansion in New York.
* Frank Millet was a well-known Washington artist who didn't survive; he was remembered with a fountain at St. Thomas Church on 18th Street above Dupont Circle. The church burned down in 1970.
That sinking feeling: a weary figure, the "Sole Survivor," struggles in a lifeboat marked "Titanic." He is rescued and taken aboard . . . by the Lusitania . . . which sinks . . . he is rescued again . . . by the Andrea Doria . . . which sinks . . . It is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man . . . It is the Twilight Zone.
Rod Serling wasn't the only televisionary to use the drama of the Titanic. In 1956, Kraft Television Theatre did a "live" event about the sinking using a cast of 107. Another live program, "The Alcoa Hour" countered with "The Night of April 14th." The first episode of a 1966 series called "Time Tunnel," about a top-secret government project gone awry, dumped scientists James Darren and Robert Colbert on the deck of the Titanic just before impact; needless to say, even though they knew the outcome in advance, they couldn't alter it.
The Titanic has also lent itself to a Cousteau documentary, episodes of the series "In Search of . . .," "When Havoc Struck" and "You Are There"; and the TV-movie "S.O.S. Titanic" (though the actual signal was C.Q.D. for Come Quickly Disaster). And when Lady Marjorie Bellamy was written out of "Upstairs, Downstairs," the BBC didn't resort to daytime soap's mindless violence; it sent her off on the Titanic.
The ship has also appeared in supporting roles. The 1933 film "Cavalcade," inspired by Noel Coward's play of the same name, ended with two young lovers talking about how wonderful tomorrow would be. Welton Smith of THS remembers the scene: "They walk away and there's a life ring sitting there and it says R.M.S. Titanic. It raises the hair on the back of your neck." More recently, the "Time Bandits" ended up on the Titanic's deck after one particularly vagabondish adventure; it sank again.
Titanic also makes a brief appearance in "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," the play-turned-movie inspired by the lifeboat heroism of Miss Brown. "She was a miner's wife whose husband had struck it rich and she was very uncouth and unsophisticated," Smith explains. "She was shunned by Denver society because she was such a rough, tough broad. But there was so much confusion in her lifeboat that she finally took charge and told the men exactly what to do."
Besides Grade's ill-fated "Raise the Titanic!," the liner also starred in "A Night to Remember" (1958) and the 1953 "Titanic" with Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwick and Robert Wagner. Less well known are the 1929 "Atlantic Night" and "Titanic," a stunning 1944 German propaganda film that recently has been put back into circulation. And of course there were dozens of Nickelodeon, Movietone and Edison Co. newsreels at the time of the disaster. Oh they threw the lifeboats out o'er the dark and stormy sea The band struck up with "Nearer My God to Thee" Children wept and cried as the water rushed through the side It was sad when that great ship went down When they left England, they were headed for the shore The rich declared they would not ride with the poor So they set the poor below, they were the first that had to go It was sad when that great ship went down
Last rights and wrongs:
Millionaire John Jacob Astor, who stepped back on the ship after kissing his 19-year-old bride farewell in a lifeboat, did not quip "I ordered ice, but this is ridiculous."
The Mummy's Curse, to which this disaster is often attributed, did not apply; there was no mummy on board, despite many post-disaster memoirs insisting there was.
There probably was not $300 million in diamonds on the Titanic (though in today's dollars that is enough to inspire any search party).
And despite the popular Leadbelly song, black boxer Jack Johnson was not denied passage on the Titanic; he never bought a ticket.
Seventy-five percent of the women on board were rescued, along with 52 percent of the children and 20 percent of the men, proving that women and children generally did get off first. The breakdown by class was less heroic: 62.5 percent of first class was saved, 41.5 percent of second class, 25.2 percent of third class and 24 percent of the crew. The final total: 32.3 percent of those on board the Titanic were rescued.
It was sad when the great ship went down.
(All lyrics from "It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down," by Pop Stoneman.)