Last year, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic and the loss of more than 1,500 lives, produced television specials, the re-release of James Cameron’s epic movie Titanic in 3D, new museum exhibits and at least half a dozen new books, each searching for some new angle to explore.
Two of the best new books were How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay, by Frances Wilson, and Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those who Survived, by Andrew Wilson.
The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay explores the shame and largely self-imposed isolation in which Ismay lived the rest of his life after he boarded one of the last lifeboats rather than go down with the ship he, as chairman of the White Star Line, was responsible for building and equipping with far too few lifeboats.
Shadow of the Titanic also addresses the remainder of Ismay’s life but includes the fascinating stories of a number of the other 710 survivors. What you’ll find is that to a very large degree they dealt, sometimes poorly, with survivor’s guilt.
At least 10 committed suicide, including Frederick Fleet, who had been stationed in the crow’s nest and was the first person to spot the iceberg that sank the Titanic. He hanged himself in 1965.
Many others dealt with mental illness. Others, especially some of the male survivors, lived out their lives in social isolation, considered cowards by some for not going down with the ship.
Renee Harris gathered herself after the death of her husband in the sinking, revived his business and became American’s first female theater manager and producer in New York City. But she lost everything after the stock market crash in 1929 and spent the rest of her life in poverty.
John Jacob Astor, the richest man on board, died, but his pregnant, teenage wife, Madeline, survived. Although his will left her a $5 million trust fund, it was on condition she never remarriy. She played the part of the devoted widow for several years until she decided it wasn’t worth it and remarried. But that marriage ended in divorce, and she met and took up with an Italian boxer on another oceanic cruise. They married too, but soon the much younger boxer tired of Madeline and began using her as a punching bag. That marriage also ended in divorce.
Shadow of the Titanic is fascinating, but if you have time to read only one book about the Titanic, find a copy of Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember. The book has never gone out of print since first published in 1955, and there’s a reason for that – it’s a thrilling page turner.
Lord interviewed dozens or survivors and gathered the stories of others from their descendants, diaries, memoirs and correspondence about the night the Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic. Then he wove it all together into a minute-by-minute account of the Titanic’s doomed voyage.
Nowadays, when we have to have a name for everything, we call it narrative writing. But by whatever name, it’s a spellbinding story and the best telling of the disaster.