Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic's First-Class Passengers and Their World

by Hugh Brewster

Published by Crown

352 pages, 2012


Buy it online


“In most other Titanic books, the liner is the protagonist, and the people aboard simply supporting players identified by labels such as ‘millionaire John Jacob Astor’ or ‘fashion designer Lady Duff Gordon.’ I wanted to move the characters into the foreground, but I also knew from my years in publishing that you have to use the haunting narrative of the sinking to make a book compelling. I decided to weave the back stories of the leading passengers into an account of the maiden voyage and to employ a relatively small selection of main characters to make it engaging.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One hundred years ago, the giant British luxury liner Titanic -- making its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City -- struck a glancing blow against an iceberg in the North Atlantic. That took place just before midnight on April 14, 1912. The collision left a gash, or perhaps a series of holes, below the waterline on the ship’s starboard side, opening five of her 16 watertight compartments. In just over two and a half hours, at 2:20 a.m. on April 15, the liner finally went down, bow first, causing the deaths of more than 1,500 passengers and crew (or two-thirds of the people on board). As historian and author Walter Lord once put it, the Titanic disaster is “the unsinkable subject.” Even a century later, that vessel and her shocking fate remain fertile topics of research, debate and public fascination.

I don’t remember how I first became enthralled by the Titanic tragedy. It was probably as a result of my seeing, as a boy, the 1958 film version of Lord’s classic work on the subject, A Night to Remember (1955). But ever since, I have been drawn to the heartbreaking story of that craft and her passengers.

Relatively little has been recorded about the ship’s hundreds of third-class, or steerage, travelers -- an ethnically diverse lot, the majority of whom were immigrating from Europe to America and Canada, and most of whom didn’t survive. The men and women occupying the Titanic’s first- and second-class accommodations, however, are better remembered (partly because a number of them later wrote about their Titanic experiences in books or newspaper articles). That 882-foot-long masterwork of the White Star Line carried a cross-section of Edwardian-era celebrities from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, including real-estate tycoon John Jacob Astor IV and his pregnant 18-year-old wife; tennis player and future Olympic gold medalist R. Norris Williams; Major Archibald Butt, the military aide to U.S. President William Howard Taft; Denver socialite and women’s rights champion Margaret Brown (immortalized, incorrectly, as “Molly” Brown); American mystery writer Jacques Futrelle, creator of “The Thinking Machine” (and the protagonist in a disaster novel published years ago); Boston streetcar magnate George Dunton Widener; silent-film actress Dorothy Gibson (who would go on to play herself in a short film, Saved from the Titanic, released a mere month after the ship sank); and J. Bruce Ismay, president of the company that owned the ill-fated Titanic.

Having once read about the dramas, large and small, that were acted out on the Titanic as she foundered and went to an inexorable, cold death 375 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, it’s impossible to blot them from one’s mind. Images rise up with the least provocation: white-bearded Captain Edward Smith telling his crew that their ship is lost, and that they must get the passengers into lifeboats with a minimum of panic; Thomas Andrews, the ship’s conscientious designer, stunned by the knowledge of his complicity in that evening’s calamity; Ida Straus, the elderly wife of Macy’s department store co-owner Isidor Straus, choosing to stay behind on the doomed craft rather than be separated from her husband of so many years; crewmen desperately launching one signal rocket after another into the moonless sky, hoping to draw the attention and aid of another ship (presumably the steamer Californian) that had been sighted 11 to 20 miles away; the Titanic’s two groups of onboard musicians, eight men in all, continuing to serenade passengers as the final lifeboats filled and were launched; and the last views of that “unsinkable” liner as her three massive propellers rose from, and then slowly disappeared beneath what had been such a calm sea.

Those scenes, and more, were brought back to me as I pored through a new non-fiction book called Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage, by history writer Hugh Brewster. Powerfully and, at times, poignantly composed, Gilded Lives contributes a depth of human character and humility to the Titanic story we all know. Brewster makes excellent use of first-hand accounts from the Titanic’s survivors to re-create what life was like aboard that White Star liner as she rushed toward America. He enlivens his narrative with intriguing asides that place the reader within the culture of that long-ago period, having to do with Edwardian fashion trends, the ship’s rococo accoutrements and even the 1906 murder of renowned Manhattan architect Stanford White. His reconstruction of the vessel’s ultimate, anxious moments and the subsequent rescue of its lifeboat- and boat-scrap-borne castaways is especially captivating. And in a postscript, Brewster tells what became of a some of the cabin-class travelers who lived through the ordeal of April 14-15, 1912 -- some of it good news, some quite the opposite.

Soon after I finished reading Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage, I tracked down author Brewster to ask him about the source of his interest in the Titanic, what he’d learned from composing this account, and some of the mysteries that, even a century later, surround what National Geographic calls “the mother of all shipwrecks.”

J. Kingston Pierce: When did you first become interested in the Titanic, and why?

Hugh Brewster: When I was 6 my family emigrated to Canada from Scotland and crossing the Atlantic aboard the Canadian Pacific liner, Empress of Britain, was a big event in my young life. Then, when I was about 12 I was gripped by the movie A Night to Remember and can recall debating with my two brothers what we would have done to escape from the sinking Titanic. In 1984, as the editorial director for Madison Press Books, a Toronto book producer, I met [oceanographer] Robert Ballard, who said that he was going to find the Titanic, which he did the next year. I then edited and compiled his book The Discovery of the Titanic, which came out in 1987. It was an international bestseller and Walter Lord, who had begun my Titanic fascination with A Night to Remember years before, provided the introduction.

Twenty more books followed, and in compiling them I did a great deal of research and met a number of survivors and also many relatives of survivors. And I was always struck by what a remarkable convergence of lives came together on that fateful maiden voyage, which led me to write Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage.

JKP: There are so many new books about that 1912 tragedy and its aftermath. What makes Gilded Lives stand out from the pack?

HB: In most other Titanic books, the liner is the protagonist, and the people aboard simply supporting players identified by labels such as “millionaire John Jacob Astor” or “fashion designer Lady Duff Gordon.” I wanted to move the characters into the foreground, but I also knew from my years in publishing that you have to use the haunting narrative of the sinking to make a book compelling. I decided to weave the back stories of the leading passengers into an account of the maiden voyage and to employ a relatively small selection of main characters to make it engaging. (To stuff my steamer trunk with too many potted bios, I knew, would simply overwhelm the reader.) I also wanted to use new research, rather than the familiar stories repeated in so many books. My goal was to create the most intimate picture yet of what it was like to sail on that ship. And I’m gratified that the early reviews say this is one of the freshest books in the current crop.

JKP: So what did you learn while researching Gilded Lives that you hadn’t already known about the Titanic and its passengers?

HB: So very much! That’s one of the pleasures of the Titanic: there’s always more to learn. Even since releasing Gilded Lives for publication I’ve discovered a few things I wished I’d included.

“A small world bent on pleasure” is how Lucile, Lady Duff Gordon described the Titanic and I was struck by what a small interconnected world Anglo-American society was a century ago. London couturiere Lucile Duff Gordon, for example, had designed the costumes for passenger [and Broadway producer/theater owner] Henry Harris’ New York production of The Quaker Girl. The Harrises found themselves just across the hall from mystery writer Jacques Futrelle and his wife, whom they had known for years. Millionaire Ben Guggenheim had relatives in common with Macy’s owner Isidor Straus and his wife, Ida. And the rich Philadelphians all knew each other, and most of their wives ended up in the same lifeboat.

I also wanted to write about the gay people on the Titanic. Gay history requires some reading between the lines since homosexuality was then an imprisonable offence, but we have letters revealing that the artist Frank Millet, for example, had a gay past. And ironically, W.T. Stead, the British journalist who had (quite unintentionally) helped put Oscar Wilde in prison, was also on board. His newspaper campaign against underage prostitution in 1885 had led to the passage of a bill in Parliament to which a clause was appended that criminalized homosexuality in Britain until 1957.

JKP: It always sounds like hyperbole to hear that the Titanic’s sinking marked the “end of an era.” But do you think that statement is true?

HB: Assigning fixed beginnings and endings to historical eras is always arbitrary. But it is generally agreed that World War I ushered in the modern world and brought an end to what is often called the Edwardian era in England and the Gilded Age in America. The Titanic is frequently seen as a symbolic warning bell for a complacent, stratified society steaming towards disaster in the trenches of the Western Front.

JKP: Early on in Gilded Lives, you mention that the Titanic lookouts were short of binoculars, that they’d lost them. The suggestion is that those binoculars stood between the ship’s survival and its destruction. Is the story as simple as that?

HB: Oh no, it’s not that simple. The missing binoculars for the lookouts is just one of the many coincidences that contributed to the disaster -- along with the moonless night which made the iceberg harder to see, and the calm seas which meant no waves were breaking against it. (Not to mention the disregarded ice warnings and the ship’s high speed.) The lookout testified that with binoculars they might have seen the iceberg sooner. But a recent article on the website Encyclopedia Titanica claims that given the conditions on this particular night, binoculars would have made little difference.

JKP: One of the things I find most interesting about the Titanic story is that, had it not been for a couple of people with cameras who rode the ship only as far as Ireland, and disembarked there, we would now have no photographs of the Titanic under sail during her maiden voyage. Do you know if there were many other people on board with cameras, taking shots that went down with the ship?

HB: Cinematographer William H. Harbeck was on board with his movie cameras and it has been reported that he was hired by the White Star Line to film the maiden voyage. Harbeck went down with the ship and his wife filed a large claim with White Star for his two lost motion-picture cameras and other equipment. There were undoubtedly many other passengers with box cameras on board.

JKP: Among the many Titanic passengers you write about in this book, do you have a favorite, or maybe two? People you found most interesting to research?

HB: Lucile, Lady Duff Gordon is an amazing character. She grew up in my hometown of Guelph, Ontario, when it was a backwoods village, made it to England, married a baronet and became the most successful female fashion designer of her day -- the woman who created the fashion show and made it respectable for “nice” women to wear sexy underwear. She and her husband, Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, escaped in a lifeboat with only 12 people when it could have held 45. This caused a huge uproar in England and Sir Cosmo was vilified as a coward for not going back to rescue those in the water. It ruined his life. Lucy survived the scandal and World War I, but went bankrupt in 1923 because she wouldn’t design for the new flapper look.

Major Archibald “Archie” Butt is another favorite, because he left us such a revealing self-portrait in the letters he wrote to his sister-in-law as an epistolary diary. A dandified 47-year-old bachelor, Archie was White House military aide to both Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft and became close to both men. In 1912, Roosevelt was challenging Taft for the Republican nomination, which left Archie with divided loyalties.

I write that it is easy to picture Archie as a Ragtime-era gay man hiding in plain sight. But whether a more intimate relationship existed between Archie and his traveling companion, Frank Millet, is unknown.

JKP: For the most part, I understand, the Titanic crew were trying to get women and children -- at least cabin-class women and children -- off the ship as fast as they could, and comparatively few men survived the wreck. Yet J. Bruce Ismay, president of the company that owned the Titanic, did escape in a lifeboat -- and, like Sir Cosmo, was later excoriated in the press for having abandoned the ship when so many others didn’t. How should we understand Ismay’s act -- was it spinelessness, or something else?

HB: Lord Mersey, chairman of the British Titanic Inquiry, put in his report that if Ismay had not got into a lifeboat he would have “merely added one more life, namely, his own, to the number of those lost.” Ismay was certainly scapegoated in the aftermath of the disaster, yet his own behavior and manner did not help his case. There is certainly evidence that he meddled with the navigation of the ship and was keen to have the Titanic’s maiden crossing record exceed that of the sister ship, Olympic. Today Ismay has his defenders, but I find him a hard man to like.

JKP: There are so many mysteries surrounding the Titanic’s quick and deadly foundering. If you could travel back in time and board the ship (with the expectation, of course, of surviving), what’s the one thing you would like to find out for yourself about that shipwreck?

HB: So many things, but here are a few: What was Captain Smith thinking when he restarted the engines and moved the ship forward at half speed after the collision? And for how long did he do this? How many passengers never left their staterooms? And what did the band play besides Ragtime tunes? Did they really play “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” and if so which tune, the English one or the American one?

JKP: Speaking of mysteries from that fatal night, I am reminded of something Walter Lord said in his 1986 book, The Night Lives On, the sequel to A Night to Remember. He wrote: “Sometimes I wish that some magical time machine could transport me back and let me spend an hour any place I wanted on the night of April 14-15, 1912. I’d spend it on the bridge of the Californian ...” The Californian, of course, was the cargo steamer that reportedly sat within viewing distance of the Titanic, surrounded by ice and ignoring distress rockets fired into the night sky, while the White Star liner sank. The Californian’s captain, Stanley Lord, later defended himself from charges that he and his crew had been negligent in not coming to the Titanic’s rescue. From your research, how do you interpret the actions of Captain Lord and his crew?

HB: I deliberately chose to say as little as possible about Lord and the Californian in Gilded Lives. No matter what you say, the Lordites will be down your throat about it. And there’s been so much written that I would have had to devote a lot of space to it to say anything new. And my story was about the passengers and what they were experiencing. For them the Californian was just a mysterious mast light they could see in the distance, and then (for the survivors) the ship that showed up after the Carpathia had picked up survivors. So I chose not to wade into the Californian controversy in the book and I’m not going to do so now.

JKP: One of the things that’s always puzzled me is that, when loading the Titanic’s 16 lifeboats, that vessel’s crew had to understand there weren’t enough such craft to carry everybody, and that it was the height of irresponsibility to send boats away half-filled. Yet, that’s exactly what they did. Do you see this as a consequence of fear and desperation on the crew’s part -- they simply wanted to get as many people off as quickly as possible, and weren’t thinking about ensuring that passenger capacity was reached? Or, like many of the folks aboard the Titanic, did the crew believe their ship wouldn’t really sink, so they weren’t terribly worried about filling the lifeboats?

HB: I don’t think the officers and crew did understand, when lifeboat loading began, that there weren’t enough lifeboats for all on board. They just wanted to follow orders and get the boats loaded and lowered. That is why so many of the early boats left half empty, And I don’t think they thought they would have to evacuate the whole ship. Like most men on board they thought the ship would stay afloat till morning, by which time help was sure to arrive.

Captain Smith told the crewmen in several boats to row over to the ship they could see in the distance, unload the passengers and return for more. Third Officer [Herbert] Pitman, helping to load the starboard boats, didn’t believe the ship was sinking imminently and thought that offloading the women and children was just a precaution. Second Officer [Charles] Lightoller, on the port side, was afraid the boats might buckle if fully filled. He thought more passengers could be loaded from the aft gangway doors once the boats were in the water, and sent two men down to open them. (They never returned.) Lightoller was also sure the mystery ship would come to their aid and kept telling passengers that this would soon happen. Thomas Andrews was aware of the seriousness of the situation and kept urging women to get into the boats. He had earlier told the captain that the ship had only an hour to an hour and half left. But he didn’t want to cause panic by telling everyone this. And Bruce Ismay kept urging on the lifeboat loading in his odd and erratic way. But the severe shortage of boats did not become apparent to everyone until the last boats were being loaded.

JKP: You mentioned before that, prior to Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage, you helped launch Dr. Robert Ballard’s The Discovery the Titanic, which brought widespread public attention to his exploration of the ship’s wreck. Can you tell us how that book came into being? And how important was its release?

HB: I first met Robert Ballard in 1984 through a Toronto lawyer who was representing him. I was struck by his charisma and star quality and also by his scientific professionalism. We were very fortunate to be able to create his book, which is illustrated with hundreds of photos and then-and-now illustrations and Ken Marchall’s amazing paintings of the wreck. We coordinated a highly complicated co-edition where 12 publishers provided translations so that we could run all the editions at one time and have a simultaneous international release. The book has sold over 1.5 million copies to date.

JKP: And please tell us a bit more about the other Titanic-related books you’ve worked on in the past.

HB: Another 20 nautical books followed The Discovery of the Titanic for Madison Press for which I was either editor, writer or publisher. Bob Ballard went on to explore other lost ships, such as the Bismarck and the Lusitania, which we chronicled in book form, and we also produced a coffee-table book featuring the art of Ken Marschall, entitled Titanic: An Illustrated History [1995]. [Director-producer] James Cameron was very taken with this book and also with Marschall’s art, which proved useful in the making of his epic [1997] film. I also wrote and oversaw the creation of a number of children’s books, including the perennially popular 882½ Amazing Answers to Your Questions About the Titanic [1998] and even the cookbook, Last Dinner on the Titanic [1997].

JKP: Do you think you’ll come back to the Titanic in some future book?

HB: I’ll give it a break for a while, but never say never. | April 2012

 

J. Kingston Pierce is the senior editor of January Magazine, the editor of The Rap Sheet and the lead crime-fiction blogger for Kirkus Reviews. He lives in Seattle.