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Authors: Walter Lord

The Night Lives On

BOOK: The Night Lives On
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The Night Lives On
Walter Lord


J. Frank Supplee IV


I. Unsinkable Subject

II. What’s in a Name?

III. Legendary from the Start

IV. Had Ships Gotten Too Big for Captain Smith?

V. “Our Coterie”

VI. “Everything Was Against Us”

VII. The Gash

VIII. “I Was Very Soft the Day I Signed That”

IX. What Happened to the Goodwins?

X. Shots in the Dark

XI. The Sound of Music

XII. “She’s Gone”

XIII. “The Electric Spark”

XIV. “A Certain Amount of Slackness”

XV. Second-guessing

XVI. Why Was Craganour Disqualified?

XVII. Unlocking the Ocean’s Secret

Gleanings from the Testimony

Acknowledgments and Selected Sources


Unsinkable Subject

of midnight, April 14, 1912, the great new White Star Liner
, making her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, had a rendezvous with ice in the calm, dark waters of the North Atlantic. She brushed the berg so gently that many on board didn’t notice it, but so lethally that she was instantly doomed.

By midnight Captain Edward J. Smith knew the worst, and ordered the lifeboats filled and lowered. There were distressingly few of these, enough for only a third of the ship’s company. The rule was, of course, “Women and children first.” At 12:15
sent her first distress call. At 12:45 she began firing rockets, for there was a light on the horizon, tantalizingly near. The light remained motionless.

On the
, the ship’s bellboys—lads of 14 or 15—brought up loaves of bread for the lifeboats, now dropping one after another into the sea. Far below, the engineers kept the lights burning; topside, the band played cheerful music on the Boat Deck. The ship was noticeably down at the bow.

At 1:10, as Boat 1 pulled away, the water lapped the
portholes just under the ship’s name. Thirty minutes later, as Collapsible C rowed off, the name had vanished into the sea, and the forward well deck was awash. The lights still burned, and the band still played.

By 2:05 the last boat had been launched, leaving 1,600 people stranded on the sloping decks. Richard N. Williams II, a 19-year-old First Class passenger, wandered into the main companionway on A Deck and idly watched the water creeping up the grand staircase. On the paneled wall nearby hung a handsomely framed chart, pins still in place, marking the
daily progress across the Atlantic. The lights still burned, now with a reddish glow. The band probably played on, but no one is sure.

At 2:17 the
slowly, almost majestically, stood on end. The lights blinked once and went out forever. Then came a thundering roar, as everything movable within the ship broke loose and plunged downward. The great hull itself sagged as though finally defeated. At 2:20 she settled back slightly and slipped beneath the sea. Over 1,500 people were lost in this, the greatest maritime disaster in history.

Understandably, the sinking of the
was a sensation at the time. The morning after the rescue ship
reached New York with her pitiful load of 705 survivors,
The New York Times
devoted its first 12 pages to the story. But a single letter in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress gives a more vivid picture of the universal shock and grief than any number of newspaper pages. The letter is from a young naval officer, Alexander Macomb, to his mother. It is dated April 16, 1912, and describes what happened as he emerged from a pleasant evening at the theater….

The terrible news about the
reached New York about 11 o’clock last night, and the scene on Broadway was awful. Crowds of people were coming out of the theaters, cafes were going full tilt, when the newsboys began to cry, “Extra! Extra!
sunk with 1800 aboard!” You can’t imagine the effect of those words on the crowd. Nobody could realize what had happened, and when they did begin to understand, the excitement was almost enough to cause a panic in the theaters. Women began to faint and weep, and scores of people in evening clothes jumped into cabs and taxis and rushed to the offices of the White Star Line, where they remained all night waiting for news.

Understandable then, but there have been massive changes in the world since 1912. We don’t even cross the ocean the same way now, and two great wars have numbed us to casualty lists. Compared to the implications of a nuclear confrontation, the figures of “souls lost” in a shipwreck—any shipwreck—seem almost quaint. Given the world today, one might suppose that people would no longer be gripped by the
Not so. She has never been more with us than now.

The discovery of her hulk in September 1985 created a wave of excitement that seemed in sharp contrast to the silent gray ghost resting so peacefully on the ocean floor. My own connection with the
is peripheral at best—and with the expedition that found her, it is nil—yet no less than 32 requests for interviews poured in from radio, television, and the press over the next ten days.

There seems no limit to the public’s fascination. In
America every survivor now rates an obituary in
The New York Times.
Typical was the case of 90-year-old Ethel Beane, who died in Rochester, New York, in 1983. She had lived a blameless but utterly uneventful life. She hadn’t even told her
experiences for 71 years. But she was nevertheless newsworthy—simply by being a survivor.

No story is too farfetched, as long as it bears the magic label “Titanic.” In London
The Times
recently reported that a Los Angeles businessman planned to build three replicas of the
for $1.5
Each would accommodate 600 passengers at $1,000 a day. Preposterous? Nevertheless,
The Times
featured the story on the front page. The editor knew that the
is always news.

Over the years the ship has become an enduring favorite on stage and screen. She has been the locale for five major motion pictures and played an important part in many others. In 1976 she was the subject of an opera jointly produced by the Berlin Opera and the UCLA Fine Arts Productions. In 1983 she was “raised” from the Thames in an extravaganza at the London International Festival of Theatre.

Meanwhile on television she played a crucial role in
Upstairs, Downstairs,
the memorable series about the Bellamy family. Going down with the ship, “Lady Marjorie Bellamy” joined “Edward” and “Edith” of Noel Coward’s
as probably the most famous of all the fictional victims of the disaster.

Gradually the
has ceased to be merely a shipwreck; she has become a symbol. In Hitler’s Germany, Joseph Goebbels used her to portray English decadence and cowardice. In postwar Germany, the message was
different, but the
was still a symbol. This time the producers were drawing a parallel between the disaster and the decision to deploy Pershing missiles on German soil. Both were seen as examples of technology out of control. A single miscalculation—a momentary lapse in judgment—could bring appalling destruction.

Not surprisingly, the
has also become a great favorite with political cartoonists. She is completely nonpartisan: since 1976 she has been used to depict the troubles of Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan. In British cartoons both the ship and the iceberg have represented Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The lost liner, poised for her final plunge, even graced the cover of
in April 1975 as “England’s Glory.”

This continuing fascination has seen a boom in the price of
memorabilia. Contemporary books and pamphlets costing less than a dollar in the 1950’s now routinely go for $45-$50. Recently a 1912 printed list of the
passengers—with handwritten notations on where they lived and what happened to them—was sold at auction for $5,000, although no one seemed to know who drew up the list or why.

With the supply of original items running low, a lively industry has sprung up turning out new artifacts. Novelty stores do a brisk business selling
belt buckles, key chains, and T-shirts. A prominent New York charity has been using replicas of the ship’s stationery as a direct-mail eye-catcher. There are even
bumper stickers, put out by the
Historical Society, which does a far greater service by reprinting rare publications that are of immense value to the serious student.

What is the hold of this long-lost liner? Why are
people still so fascinated by her? First of all, the
must surely be the greatest news story of modern times: the biggest ship in the world, proclaimed unsinkable, hits an iceberg on her maiden voyage and goes down, taking with her many of the best-known celebrities of the day.

Add to that glamour all those “if only’s”—if only she had paid more attention to the warnings she received…if only the last warning had even reached the bridge…if only the wireless operator hadn’t cut off one final attempt to reach her…if only she had sighted the ice a few seconds sooner, or a few seconds later…if only there had been enough lifeboats…if only the watertight bulkheads had gone one deck higher…if only that ship on the horizon had come…if only, if only.

The story has something for everyone. For nautical enthusiasts, it is the ultimate shipwreck. For moralists, there are all those sermons on overconfidence and self-sacrifice. For mystics, the omens are irresistible, from Morgan Robertson’s prophetic novel
of 1898 to presidential aide Archie Butt’s strangely foreboding letter assuring his sister-in-law, “If the old ship goes down, you’ll find my affairs in shipshape condition.”

is also a trivia lover’s dream. What was the name of John Jacob Astor’s dog? (Kitty) Who led the band? (Wallace Hartley) Which smokestack was the dummy? (The fourth)

Above all, the
entrances the social historian. She is such an exquisite microcosm of the Edwardian world, illuminating so perfectly the class distinctions that prevailed at the time. These distinctions remained sacred even as the ship was going down. One prominent passenger later complained that more First Class men might have been saved, if only steerage passengers
hadn’t taken up so much room in what he called “the First Class boats.” It never occurred to him that the lifeboats, wherever located, might have been for everyone.

There were all too few boats anyhow, leading to a clash between two basic Edwardian rules of conduct. Should normal Class Precedence prevail, or the rule of “Women and children first”? The latter won out officially, but there were cases of both that night.

After the disaster there was a good deal of pondering about all this. Finally, the prestigious
Nautical Magazine
came up with the daring proposition that there should be boats for all, whatever their class. The same applied to wireless, even on ships engaged in the emigrant and coolie trades. “Even coolies are human,” the editors explained, “and as such are burdened with souls, also family ties, etc.”

also gives a fascinating picture of post-Edwardian life at its more rarefied level. The damage claim filed by Mrs. Charlotte Cardeza of Philadelphia lists 14 trunks, 4 suitcases, 3 crates, and a medicine chest. Among other things, they contained 70 dresses, 10 fur coats, 38 large feather pieces, 22 hatpins to keep them in place, 91 pairs of gloves, and innumerable trifles to amuse her, like a Swiss music box in the shape of a bird.

The gentleman traveler was similarly burdened. Billy Carter, another fashionable Philadelphian, lost not only his 35-hp Renault motorcar, but 60 shirts, 15 pairs of shoes, two sets of tails, and 24 polo sticks. Even men of moderate means had a surfeit of luggage. Archie Butt, President Taft’s military aide, was on a trip of less than six weeks, yet he still needed seven trunks to carry his wardrobe.

BOOK: The Night Lives On
12.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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