This month, much of the world will observe the centennial of the sinking of the great White Star ocean liner, the Titanic. So much has been written about this dreadful event, most notably Walter Lord’s “A Night to Remember” (1955), that it is difficult to imagine there is much more to be said, yet John Maxtone-Graham says it. He is an octogenarian who has been sailing ocean liners for ages and writing about them for four decades in about two dozen books, the first of which, “The Only Way to Cross” (1972), remains his best known and is still in print, proof that nostalgia for these great ships remains powerful. “Titanic Tragedy” may join it in popularity, not merely because the public’s thirst for anything about the Titanic seems to be unslaked but because Maxtone-Graham puts some interesting twists on a much-told story.
For me, as for millions of others, that story has lost little if any of its visceral appeal. It is an oddity of human nature that while we are somehow able to come to grips with calamities of almost incomprehensible dimensions (the millions murdered by Stalin and Mao, for example), comparatively minuscule ones (the 1,500 who died when the Titanic went down, the 3,000 killed on 9/11) leave us almost numb with grief. Perhaps it is because in them we can see individual humans (the musicians playing on the sinking Titanic, the people leaping to their deaths from the twin towers) rather than an indistinguishable mass. Whatever the explanation, the Titanic catastrophe continues to haunt us.
In “Titanic Tragedy,” Maxtone-Graham explores several aspects of the case to which perhaps insufficient attention has been paid: the role of wireless telegraphy in enabling a Cunard liner, the Carpathia, to rescue 703 people from the Titanic’s lifeboats; the class distinctions that persisted during and after the sinking, bringing rescue and in some cases glory to the privileged but neglect or death to those from the lower orders; the questionable behavior of the ship’s allegedly heroic captain, Commodore Edward John Smith, and the decidedly unheroic behavior of Stanley Lord, captain of a ship in the vicinity, the Californian, who did nothing even though men aboard his ship had spotted rockets fired by the Titanic in hopes of attracting attention; and the stories of little-known individuals that shed light on various aspects of the tale.
The “wireless miracle” of Guglielmo Marconi was only a few years old when the Titanic set sail in April 1912, but by then “almost every North Atlantic steamer had been equipped with wireless and Marconi operators were stationed aboard nearly a thousand of them.” The telegraphers aboard the Titanic were 25-year-old Jack Phillips and his 22-year-old deputy, Harold Bride. Both men were intelligent and dedicated, and the equipment on the Titanic and its sister ship, the Olympic, “was state of the art, the world’s most powerful.” The chief shortcoming was that, though Phillips and Bride had “a telephone line connected to the ship’s switchboard, there was, curiously, no direct communication with the bridge.”
How much difference this meant to the events that unfolded after the ship’s collision with the fatal iceberg is open to question, because Smith’s management of the voyage was dilatory at best, irresponsible at worst. Though he was “sanctified as posthumous hero” for going down with his ship, Smith ignored “no less than six radioed ice warnings” and “pressed on at a ruinous 22½ knots,” far too fast in ice-clogged seas. “Many have felt,” Maxtone-Graham writes, “that Commodore Smith’s two most egregious errors that night were, first, maintaining speed despite multiple radioed ice warnings and, second, dismissing his two Marconi operators but neglecting to do the same for his engineers.” One of the Marconi men (Bride) survived, but all of the ship’s officers died, including the ship’s invaluable naval architect, Thomas Andrews.
There was on the day of the accident “a crippling shutdown of Titanic’s wireless for much of the afternoon and early evening,” a shutdown fixed only because of patient repair work by Phillips and Bride: “Had they not succeeded, had Titanic’s wireless capability been compromised during the hours that followed, transatlantic history would have been unbearably altered.” Among the nearly one-third of those aboard the ship who survived, “none . . . ever forgot that Phillips’s [SOS] had ensured their salvation from almost certain death.”
Those survivors “endured differing ordeals, but of annoyance, discomfort, selfishness, heroism, ingenuity, and, always, bone-chilling cold there was full measure.” Just getting into the lifeboats was “traumatic,” for it meant “leaving their well-ordered haven, forsaking possessions and exchanging legendary comfort for punishing exposure.” For many it was infinitely worse: “As those at the oars rowed away, they saw the ship rear up and then heard two explosions. Next came that awful, drawn-out noise that [one passenger] never forgot, fifteen hundred of his fellow souls crying out desperately for help. . . . ‘Then arose,’ remembered first-class passenger Hugh Woolner, ‘the most fearful and bloodcurdling wail.’ George Rheims described it as ‘horrifying, mysterious, supernatural.’ From atop an overturned [lifeboat], Jack Thayer compared the sound to ‘locusts buzzing on a summer night, in the woods of Pennsylvania.’ Although he did not know it at the time, one of those ‘buzzing locusts’ was undoubtedly his father.”
The legend is that women and children were given priority as the lifeboats boarded; the truth is that the process was disorderly and became ever more so as the Titanic’s fate became indisputably clear. Few stories were stranger than that of Violet Jessop, a young stewardess who found herself in a lifeboat into which a woman, “hysterical with grief,” lowered her baby, which an officer handed to Jessop, who “clutched the infant tightly throughout the remainder of that bitter night.” Hours later, aboard the Carpathia, the mother suddenly materialized and “seized her baby” away from Jessop. “Never once in the days that followed did she attempt . . . to thank the stewardess who had saved her child’s life.” Decades later, as an old woman living in England, Jessop received a middle-of-the-night telephone call from a woman who asked, “Is this the Violet Jessop who saved a baby that night” aboard the Titanic? When Jessop said that indeed she was, “The caller laughed and said, ‘I was that baby,’ and then hung up.”
Jessop was one of the comparatively few crew members who survived. The class distinctions reflected in the different decks aboard ship persisted not only during the terrible night but in the years that followed, as monuments were erected to those who died. Thus, for example, at the Engineers Memorialin Southampton, the famous port from which the Titanic sailed, the names of all the officers who died are engraved, but “there is no acknowledgment of the scores of stokers, trimmers, and greasers who also lost their lives.” There as elsewhere, the “humbler participants” too often are ignored, a reflection of the prevailing Edwardian ethos of the day but scarcely a pretty one.
No doubt one reason the Titanic story remains vivid to this day is its capacity to catch so many people by surprise in intimate ways. Thus I was startled to read that aboard the Carpathia was a “crated Packard” automobile that “belonged to the three Fowler sisters, Baltimoreans who planned a postcruise continental motor tour.” Surely one of these was Louisa M. Fowler, a wealthy and formidable woman who in the 1920s became an intimate friend of my father’s family outside Baltimore in Catonsville and who later was known, to my siblings and me, as “Aunt Loulie.” The Packard “was a terrible nuisance” as the Carpathia’s crew unloaded the lifeboats. Presumably, though, it eventually got the Fowler ladies to Italy and ferried them throughout the continent, an obligatory event for privileged Americans of their day.
A New Look at the Lost Liner
By John Maxtone-Graham
Norton. 235 pp. $24.95