The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Titanic’s heroic men — and the people who still honor them 107 years later

Members of the Men's Titanic Society gather at Southwest Waterfront Park in the early morning of April 15. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

At 1 a.m. Monday, 17 men in tuxedos gathered around a monument in Washington’s Southwest Waterfront Park to honor a 107-year-old sacrifice. They are members of the Men’s Titanic Society, a private club of mostly retired broadcast newsmen who meet every year to pay tribute to the heroes who let women and children board the Titanic’s lifeboats first.

Inscribed on the memorial are the words: “To the brave men who perished in the Titanic, April 15, 1912. They gave their lives that women and children might be saved.”

Society members in their formalwear had eaten a dinner of filet mignon and potatoes — same as the last meal served in first class of the ship — before surrounding the memorial for cigars and champagne toasts. They were joined by about 50 onlookers, mostly from boys private schools in the area. They rang a bell, laid a wreath, and in their toasts “to these brave men,” several mentioned the “secluded,” “forgotten” spot where the memorial now sits.

It is such an odd location that a Washington resident, Jeff Comer, recently wrote to Ask The Post, “What is the story behind the Titanic memorial? How did it get to be there, and can’t we find a better spot for it?”

At one time, there actually was a better spot for it. Until 1966, it was prominently displayed on the Potomac at New Hampshire Avenue; it was moved to its current location to make way for the Kennedy Center.

Fundraising for the memorial statue began soon after more than 1,500 were killed when the famous ship hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank a few hours later. Women across the country donated to the Women’s Titanic Memorial Association. The statue was designed by heiress Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and sculpted from granite by John Horrigan, with a base from Henry Bacon, designer of the Lincoln Memorial.

(Whitney’s outstretched-arms design predates the “Titanic” movie’s famous “I’m flying, Jack!” scene by many decades, but director James Cameron has never said if he was inspired by it.)

It was finished by 1918 but remained in storage for more than a decade before it was installed at its original location. President Herbert Hoover and first lady Lou Hoover attended the unveiling ceremony in 1931.

The memorial’s heartfelt tribute to the men who sacrificed their lives isn’t hyperbole. In 2012, Swedish researchers found that the concept of “women and children first” hasn’t been adhered to at all in maritime disasters — with the glaring exception of the Titanic. Of the passengers on board, 70 percent of women, but only 20 percent of the men, survived.

Why you've never heard of the six Chinese men who survived the Titanic

Five D.C. residents, all of them wealthy, were aboard the doomed vessel. Two survived — feminist and interior decorator Helen Churchill Candee and writer and historian Archibald Gracie.

As The Post’s Michael E. Ruane reported in 2012, Gracie initially went down with the ship, then swam to the surface, where he climbed onto an overturned lifeboat until being rescued. But he found the ordeal hard to move past, both physically and emotionally, and died less than eight months later, probably from diabetes complications brought on by the hypothermia he endured on that fateful night.

Jim Silman, who founded the Men’s Titanic Society, still marvels at those who went down with the ship. At 91, he would have been a boy when the statue was first unveiled farther up the Potomac, but he doesn’t want it to be forgotten.

“Tell your friends about the memorial,” he told the crowd Monday morning. “Come out and spend a nice, quiet moment here thinking about these men.”

Read more Retropolis:

Fact-checking QAnon conspiracy theories: Did J.P. Morgan sink the Titanic?

A ship full of refugees fleeing the Nazis once begged the U.S. for entry. They were turned back.

A museum relegated an ‘empty’ coffin to a side room for decades. Inside was a 2,500-year-old mummy.

Nor’easter winds reveal a surprising beach discovery: The remains of a Revolutionary War-era ship