Walter Lord was into the Titanic before he was born.

His grandfather, a Baltimore business baron with steel, railroad and shipping interests, was a personal friend of the ship's captain, Edward J. Smith, and sent Lord's mother to sea once under Smith's care to make up her mind about a marriage proposal.

"I don't remember whether it was my father's proposal or somebody else's," Lord mused not long ago, the summer sun heliographing off his eyeglasses like an SOS. "But she made her decision, whatever it was, the first night out."

Her story was a staple of family lore, he remembers, as were tales, both cautionary and heroic, of the icy, starry night in 1912 when Smith and his great ship went down. Lord made his first Atlantic crossing 14 years later, at age 7, on the White Star liner Olympic -- quite conscious even then, he recalls, that the Olympic was the Titanic's sister ship. At 8 he started a scrapbook about the Titanic and, in a way, he has been sailing with her ever since.

He exhumed old newspaper clippings on the Titanic in the Princeton library as an undergraduate and read transcripts of the U.S. investigation into the sinking during law school at Yale. Finally, in 1953 -- while he was working as an advertising copywriter on the Aqua Velva account at J. Walter Thompson -- an editor friend advised him, since he was always talking about the Titanic, to write a book about it.

The result, a year later, was "A Night to Remember," the first and still the best telling of the Titanic's history. Thirty-three years, 54 printings (nine in hard back) and millions of copies later, "Night" is still selling well, refueled (if refueling were needed) by discovery of the liner's shattered hull two years ago.

The book has never been out of print. It has been made into a movie (in 1958, starring Kenneth More). And last year, after three decades of correspondence with Titanic survivors and buffs, rethinking some old theories and unearthing new facts, Lord came out with a sequel, "The Night Continues," updating the Titanic story. That book's gone through six printings, sold 60,000 hard-back copies and is coming out in paperback next month. He's also written the forward to Dr. Robert Ballard's book about the Titanic's discovery, due out next month as well.

The Titanic, it seems, won't let Lord go -- after a lifetime with his subject, he finds the legendary ship "intriguing still." Despite the weight of 68 years and the debilitating effects of Parkinson's disease, he took to the phone this summer with the enthusiasm of a teen-ager, pressing for the latest details of the current French expedition to the wreck.

He was against salvaging artifacts "as a matter of propriety," he said. "It's a question of taste, and like Justice Potter Stewart with obscenity, I know it when I see it. Excavating Pompeii is one thing, this is another. It's just too soon. I don't know where the line is, but this isn't it."

Nevertheless, he remains captivated by the expedition, puzzling over the satchel of jewels recovered, volunteering pictures from his own collection or, best of all, images from the magic lantern of his mind.

"Actually, I just heard a wonderful new story that's not in either book," he says. "There was a Mr. and Mrs. Walter Clark among the first-class passengers. He was in the smoking room playing cards that night. She was in their cabin. When the Titanic hit the iceberg, he didn't give it much notice. Kept on playing cards. But she felt it was serious. Came out of the cabin and learned the ship was sinking. She went to the smoking room to warn him but she wouldn't go in! The smoking room was a male refuge -- inviolate. It was unthinkable for a woman to enter. Even with the ship sinking! She stood outside waving until she caught his attention through the door."

He pauses, marveling at the deadly quaintness of that vanished age. "Think what that says about them ... all they went through ..."

Lord lives and breathes those images of history; he's an almost Victorian bachelor who can recoil gently at the "pretty rough language" in modern novels while simultaneously enthusing about the "wonderful turbulence" of Manhattan.

He lives alone in a file-filled apartment at 68th and Lexington, shunning the electronic seductions of the word processor to scribble his books in pencil on yellow legal pads from 9:45 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. His schedule would send most younger, able-bodied writers into therapy, but Lord laughs off any suggestion that his daily efforts are in any way remarkable. "I enjoy it," he says, and anyway it only amounts to about 10 hours. "I find I'm cheating and starting closer to 10 these days ... and I take a good break and go out for lunch and dinner, preferably with somebody."

There've been 13 books now, most of them both critically and commercially well received, and the only time Lord sounds impatient with the Titanic is when people seem to think that's all he's done. He's written about everything from the civil rights movement ("A Time to Stand") to Arctic exploration ("Peary to the Pole"), including three major books on World War II ("Day of Infamy," "Incredible Victory" and "Miracle at Dunkirk") and the definitive book -- "The Dawn's Early Light" -- about the burning of Washington during the War of 1812.

He remains perpetually bemused by Americans' ignorance of that sacking of their capital by a foreign power and by their apparent indifference to its lessons.

"If you want to see the world's least observed battlefield, go to Bladensburg, Maryland. I have never even seen a plaque there. And yet that was the defeat that opened the gates of Washington to the British army. It was a disaster. It was also the only time the president of the United States ever exercised his power as commander in chief on a field of battle. President Madison out there commanding the defense while Dolley packed up the White House. The last president in the world you'd ever expect on a battlefield ... scholarly little fellow ... a constitutional expert, not a warrior. And, of course, he blew the battle."

Meanwhile, the British fleet was torching the towns of the Chesapeake Bay like a flotilla of Viking longships, with a fury the country has seen only in Gen. William Sherman's Civil War march through Georgia.

"I don't know why all that is so little known," Lord muses. "I suppose in part it's because the War of 1812 is so remote. It didn't really decide anything, as most of our other wars did. And people were still dressing in knee britches ... With the Civil War you had railroads and the telegraph. It was a modern war, in a sense. But the War of 1812 ... You know how they celebrated the Treaty of Ghent in Washington? They had a 'general illumination.' Everyone put a candle in the window at night. Doesn't sound like much of a celebration. Until you realize that was before gas lights or even kerosene. Think what candles must have meant to them! And how dark it was!"

By contrast, the sinking of the Titanic remains riveted in the world's consciousness, a poignant symbol of tragedy almost Shakespearean in its elements of pride and grandeur, but also touched with courage and grace. What vignette in history compares to that of millionaire Benjamin Guggenheim and his secretary, as the few lifeboats pulled away into the icy darkness and the great ship sank lower, changing into evening clothes in order to face death "like gentlemen?"

"Everyone thinks that was John Jacob Astor," Lord says. "He seems to get credit for everything on the Titanic. But it was Guggenheim ... Actually, I originally wrote that it was he and his valet. And years later I got an angry letter from the 'valet's' sister, written from Switzerland. How dare I call Guggenheim's private secretary his valet! Her brother was no valet! Why would a valet even have evening dress?

"I thought she had a good point. So I changed it in later editions."

Lord's fascination with the Titanic does not extend to romanticizing it. It may indeed have been "women and children first" in some cases that night, but as Lord was the first to point out, a significantly greater proportion of men among the first-class passengers were saved than were women and children in third class.

Still, he remains moved by the courage -- the ship's band, in uniform, playing to calm the passengers with hymns as the ship went down; honeymooner Dan Marvin handing his new bride into a lifeboat saying, "You go, I'll stay awhile"; the wealthy Mrs. Isidore Strauss, turning back from a lifeboat saying, "I have always stayed with my husband. Why should I leave him now?"

"The son of a friend of mine, writing an article for a journalism class, pointed out that all my books in one way or another are about human courage, or the lack of it," Lord said, looking into the distance. "Not so much the courage of standing for a principle, but raw physical courage -- facing physical peril and surmounting it or not surmounting it.

"I'd never really thought about it, but I suppose almost all my books have that element in them. I like to watch ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and see how they react. And of course the Titanic is such a grand stage for studying courage and the absence of it."

Thirty years of studying and writing, he says, have convinced him that it's not so much that history repeats itself, exactly, but that "human nature repeats itself." The human animal, he said, is prone to folly and pride and arrogance. "The tragedies of the {space shuttle} Challenger and the Titanic, for example, are very similar ... assumptions about technology ... pressures to keep on schedule ... safety taken for granted ... nothing could ever happen to it. And warning signals all around ... If the Challenger people had known the Titanic story better, they might not have set off in quite such cocksure fashion."

Yet there are less gloomy lessons as well, he says. For every coward on the Titanic ("Bruce Ismay, president of the White Star Line, didn't cover himself with glory") there was someone like the baker of the ship, "who had no obvious leadership qualities whatsoever ... showing enormous initiative ... lashing deck chairs together for people to float on and doing all sorts of things ..."

Researching his book "The Good Years" on the period from 1900 to 1914, Lord said, he found the same things happening in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake: "Some rich man's chauffeur organized the few automobiles in the city into a rescue squad" while many of the city's supposed leaders and prominent citizens "stood around wringing their hands" or "did what I would do -- just run to the safest-looking place in town."

Where some might find in such anomalies fuel for disillusionment or cynicism, Walter Lord finds cause for hope.

"When these crises come -- and they always do -- somebody comes to the fore," he says. "I'm a great optimist about people."

Some of the pleasures of history, he says, are almost physical.

"I love research, particularly with original materials. One of the pleasures of researching 'The Dawn's Early Light' was working with the original log books of the British fleet. In some cases candle wax from the light used to write the log had dripped on the page and the pages had stuck together. I was the first person to unseal them since they were written.

"I think everyone has a little Walter Mitty in him. When there is so little between you and the man you are studying, it puts you right in the cockpit yourself."

The Titanic material wears the initial allure of a particularly poignant era -- the twilight of an Edwardian world of manners and elegance, soon to vanish forever in the maelstrom of World War I.

"My friend Barbara Tuchman thinks it's impossible to draw general conclusions about that time," he says. "She points to labor unrest, poverty and all the rest. For every place where privilege held sway, you can find another where privilege was knocked out. And of course she's right, in large part ...

"But I feel there was, in addition, a kind of confidence in the air. Where things were in terrible shape, even if we didn't know how to make them better, at least we were sure they could be made better ... And where there's a nostalgia for that age, I think it's not so much for its elegance as for that sense of tranquillity. Pleasures were simpler ... You could be at a pretty modest economic level and still have a rather enjoyable life."

And people, as the Titanic story shows, could try very hard at times to face life, or whatever, with a certain grace.

Walter Lord may have studied that more than he realizes. He's written three books since contracting Parkinson's in 1973. "It's something you can live with," he says with a smile. "I'm not suffering at all." Titanic salvage expedition endsC14