Tuesday, April 14, 2015
"Shadow of the Titanic" by Andrew Wilson (2011)
I have always wondered why they made that film about the Titanic with Leonardo DiCaprio in it. I did finally see it; about 10 years after its release. It was pretty good, too. But I still wonder about the need to fictionalize something which was so dramatic to begin with.
Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is a perfect example of what can be done with the reality of great events, without the need of adding fictitious characters and events. If you do that, then you get stuff like “Gone with the Wind”, which is a great movie; but the burning of Atlanta was even more intense in terms of real life stories and drama. And, quite frankly, Scarlett annoys the hell out of me.
Andrew Wilson has done something with this book; released in 2011; which I had thought impossible. He has written a book about the Titanic from a new perspective. While most films and books dealing with the Titanic end when the good ship Carpathia docks in New York; this one is just finding its land legs.
Rather than just mining the memories of the survivors about the sinking itself, he has gone into the area of how the sinking of the great liner affected their lives after. The answer is a surprising mix of good and bad; as are most things.
My own love affair with the Titanic began when I was about 4 years old and saw the British film version of Walter Lord’s iconic book “A Night to Remember.” The scene where the sea is swirling up the ladder from the engine room is etched forever in my mind. The story of how they staged that movie; using a ship which was about to be cut into scrap; is a great little bit of information. Because the scrapping of that ship had already begun on one side, they used mirrors and backwards letters on the lifeboats to film the scenes of the passengers boarding them.
After a brief recap of events; along with some stories the reader may not have heard before; the book heads straight into the lives of the survivors after the dust of the affair had settled and the waters of emotions were calmer. Well, at least on the surface.
Renee Harris was one of the First Class passengers who lost her husband, but went on to become America’s first theater manager and producer; only to lose everything through over indulgence and stock market losses, relegating her to a life of poverty.
John Jacob Astor; one of the wealthiest men in the world at the time; was on a cruise home from his honeymoon with his 19 year bride, who was 5 months pregnant. He was 54 and went down with the ship. Her life afterwards was marred by a will which forbade her to remarry. Predictably, she lost the inheritance and her home when she fell in love with a man whom she had known as a child. When that marriage failed she tried again with an Italian boxer who used her for practice.
Robert Williams Daniel survived the sinking and married another passenger, Eloise Hughes, whose husband went down with the ship.
But the most intriguing story of all is the one of Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, who allegedly bribed the crew of his lifeboat into not going back to pick up people in the water. He even had his photo taken on the deck of the Carpathia handing 5 pound checks to the crew who had rowed the boat he was in.
The whole incident was probably blown way out of proportion. Sir Cosmo had overheard the crew talking to his wife, who was lamenting the loss of some personal items. One of the crew remarked that it was okay for her, she was rich. But the crew’s pay stopped the moment the ship sank and there would be no money to compensate the crew for their lost possessions. This prompted Sir Cosmo to offer 5 pounds to each of them to help them get started over.
When the newspapers heard the story at the inquiry it was trumped up and ruined Sir Cosmo life and reputation forever. His wife, the irrepressible Lady Duff Gordon, went on to use the events of that night to further her own career as a fashion designer.
J. Bruce Ismay, one of the owners of the White Star Line, was unhappily married at the time of the sinking. His own conduct also came under question for having survived. He was labeled a coward and spent the rest of his life living as a virtual ghost. His hair turned white overnight after being rescued; from the shock of the sinking. He could never crawl out from under the fact that he was the one who decided on having fewer lifeboats than necessary. Although he was following the law at the time, he had been advised not to decrease the number of boats, which he did anyway. In his behalf, it should be noted that he had been engaged in loading the boats on the starboard side, and only boarded after he saw no more women and children aboard.
One of the strangest stories involves a stewardess named Annie Robinson. She had been on a ship that struck an iceberg once before. She then survived the Titanic disaster only to throw herself into the sea one foggy night from a ship that was about to dock in Boston. The fog horns were a reminder of pulling into New York on the Carpathia and drove her mad.
Silent film star Dorothy Gibson was another passenger who survived the Titanic, only to have her life become a series of missteps and mistakes. She spent time as an American citizen in a German concentration camp, only to survive that ordeal and die in a Paris hotel in 1946.
There were 2 children aboard that night. They were being kidnapped by their father, who died in the sinking. The boys were returned to their mother, making the father’s death all the more useless.
The book follows the last survivors through the original “A Night to Remember” activity in the 1950’s; and the through the craze engendered by the location of the ship in the 1980’s, as well as the Leonardo DiCaprio film of the 1990’s. At that time there were only 3 women left alive who were aboard the ship the night it sank. They were all little children at the time, with almost no memory of the event. The last survivor was Millvina Dean, who died in 2009 at the age of 97.
No matter how much you think you know about the Titanic, this book will surprise you. The approach taken by the author; to trace the lives of the survivors after the disaster; lends a whole new perspective to the events of that night so long ago, when the sea swallowed up the unsinkable Titanic.