Remembering the Titanic

Today is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of R.M.S. Titanic.

Like the Countess, I was very much appalled to see online where several young people “had no idea” that the Titanic disaster was a real event — they thought it was just a movie made up by James Cameron. One of the ironies of our miraculous age is that more information of all kinds is available to more people (and for free) then ever before. We are experiencing a veritable explosion of accessible knowledge. And yet we seem to be breeding a race of mental invalids. When I think of young people’s minds, I picture a bunch of beached salmon, flopping around in the sand after the tide has gone out. All they need to do is flop to the left and aaaahhhhhh, they are in the life-giving ocean. Some of them will do this. (My own two rascals are looking things up all day long). Most, however, I fear are doomed to be dumb as hammers, lost in a fog, “writhing,” as T.H. White memorably described Morgan Le Fay, “in a bed of lard.”

And here’s where I get all crotchety and Mr. Yesterday. (“Get?” some will ask). Ever since I was a kid, when I am super bored…so bored, that is, that no television show or video will divert me, I resort to re-reading certain well-thumbed books, books that experience has taught me will keep my heart thumping and make the hours pass quickly. (I haven’t needed to avail myself of this tactic for a couple of years now by the way since a certain Irish-Albanian keeps my heart thumping just fine).

Anyway, one of these sure-fire books is Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember. (“A Night to Remember?” I ask myself, “Those kids sure f–kin’ forgot!”). Mr. Lord had been a former trustee of the New-York Historical Society; it was my privilege to write a memorial to him when he passed way in 2002 when I was public relations director for that organization. I considered it a thrill because I had loved his most famous book since childhood.

A Night to Remember is brief and to the point…one can read it in less time than it took for the disaster to unfold, which is part of its appeal. And it laid the foundation. All subsequent versions, including two major films and the Broadway musical, must all confront it in some way. Lord (who’d actually made a crossing on the Titanic’s sister ship the Olympic at the age of 9) wrote the book in 1955. His experience on the nearly identical vessel gives his writing a vividness — you are truly there. He also ingested every firsthand account he could his hands on. There’s a certain quality of omniscence to it. You are everywhere at once.

Films, of necessity, must take a different tack. I havent’t seen the 1958 British adaptation of Lord’s book (update: no longer the case, I have seen it twice since this was posted in 2012) but certainly the 1953 film Titanic, which I also loved as a kid and which precedes the Lord book by two years, makes a job of fictionalizing a finite cast of characters (and what an all star cast! Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwyck, Thelma Ritter, Robert Wagner, Richard Basehart). And Cameron sort of has a foot in both camps, surrounding his fictional star-crossed lovers with actual historical people: Captain Smith, Molly Brown, White Star Line director Bruce Ismay. I happen to love Cameron’s film, by the way. While the dialogue is fairly cringe-inducing, nearly every other aspect is brilliant. For someone in the know, Cameron’s legendary research is unmistakably on the screen…and not just the design of the ship, and how it sank, and so forth. He has the details accurate down to the level of WHO is standing WHERE at any given time. Oh, that’s young Jack Thayer in his pajamas. Yes, Second Officer Lightoller was the guy who organized the survivors on Collapsible B. That drunken chef with Jack and Rose on the stern just before she slips under? He was really there, even if Jack and Rose weren’t. So rest assured, I’m not picking on Cameron. I love his movie and fully intend to go check out the 3-D version. And I am very excited about the new Julian Fellowes tv mini-series. I’m just bummed kids don’t know their history, even pop history.

It’s easy to become obssessed with the event. The reason why is precisely because it is not abstraction. It is not just a story. Because of a certain chain of events hundreds of people died. That is why it was A Night to Remember. And why it’s pretty nauseating that there might be a large percentage of American schoolchildren who have no idea this thing was real, despite the Herculean efforts of people like Walter Lord and James Cameron specifically designed to keep the memory alive.  I hope no one ever takes a poll on how many don’t know it’s real; I can’t bear to to hear the truth!



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