Why the Titanic Still Fascinates Us

One hundred years after the ocean liner struck an iceberg and sank, the tragedy still looms large in the popular psyche

The sinking of the world's most famous ship on April 15, 1912 generated waves of Titanic mania. (Robert G. Lloyd, Marine Artist, England 2011, www.robertllyod.co.uk — Courtesy of Frank Trumbour)
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The shadow she feared would destroy her dream life was World War II. In May 1940, Dorothy was in Florence to collect her mother and bring her back to France when Germany invaded Holland and Belgium. It would still have been possible for the two women to return to America. The reason they didn’t? Certainly their experience on the Titanic was a factor. “I must say I never wanted to make the Ocean trip to America at this time,” said Dorothy later in an affidavit, “as my mother and I were most timid on the ocean—we had been in a shipwreck—but I also never wanted to stay in Italy, but we just waited in Italy always hoping things would be better to travel.”

Trying to make sense of Dorothy’s life from this point onward is a difficult task. In the spring of 1944, while still in Florence with her mother, she was informed by the questura, the Italian police, that she would be taken to the German-controlled Fossoli internment center. She tried to escape, but on April 16 was arrested and taken to a Nazi concentration camp. After being moved around various camps, she was imprisoned at San Vittore, which she described as a “living death.” It’s most likely that Gibson would have died in this camp had it not been for the machinations of a double agent, Ugo Luca Osteria, known as Dr. Ugo, who wanted to infiltrate Allied intelligence in Switzerland (something he subsequently failed to do). Gibson was smuggled out of the camp under the pretense that she was a Nazi sympathizer and spy. Although the plan worked—she did escape and crossed into Switzerland—the experience left her understandably drained. After interrogation in Zurich, where she gave an affidavit to James G. Bell, vice consul of the American consulate general, she was judged too stupid to have been a genuine spy. In Bell’s words, Dorothy “hardly seems bright enough to be useful in such capacity.”

Dorothy tried to resume a normal life after this episode, but the trauma of her survival—first the Titanic, then a concentration camp—took its toll. After the war ended in 1945, she returned to Paris and enjoyed a few months at the Ritz, where, on February 17, 1946, she died in her suite, probably from a heart attack, at age 56.

The sinking of the world’s most famous ship generated three waves of Titanic mania. The first, as we have seen, hit popular consciousness immediately after the disaster, resulting in Brulatour’s newsreel, Dorothy Gibson’s film Saved from the Titanic, a clutch of books written by survivors, poems like Edwin Drew’s “The Chief Incidents of the Titanic Wreck” (published in May 1912) and Thomas Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain” (June 1912), and a flurry of songs (112 different pieces of music inspired by the loss of the Titanic were copyrighted in America in 1912 alone).

The First World War, and then the Second quieted the Titanic storm; the loss of hundreds of thousands of men on the battlefields of Europe, the whole-scale destruction of cities and communities around the world, and Hitler’s single-minded plan to wipe out an entire race of people, together with other “undesirables,” placed the sinking of the ship, with its death toll of 1,500, toward the bottom end of the league of global tragedies.

The mid-1950s is generally considered to represent the second wave of Titanic fever. In the midst of the cold war—when there was a perceived threat that, at any moment, the world could end in nuclear Armageddon—the Titanic represented a containable, understandable tragedy. A mist of nostalgia hung over the disaster—nostalgia for a society that maintained fixed roles, in which each man and woman knew his or her place; for a certain gentility, or at least an imagined gentility, by which people behaved according to a strict set of rules; for a tragedy that gave its participants time to consider their fates.

The first full-scale movie representation of the disaster in the ’50s was a melodrama called simply Titanic, starring one of the ruling queens of the “woman’s picture,” Barbara Stanwyck. She plays Julia Sturges, a woman in the midst of an emotional crisis. Trapped in an unhappy marriage to a cold but wealthy husband, Richard (Clifton Webb), she boards the Titanic with the intention of stealing their two children away from him.

The film, directed by Jean Negulesco, was not so much about the loss of the liner as the loss, and subsequent rekindling, of love. If the scenario—a broken marriage, a devious plan to separate children from their father, a revelation surrounding true parenthood—wasn’t melodramatic enough, the charged emotional setting of the Titanic was used to heighten the sentiment.

It would be easy to assume that the plotline of the abducted children in producer and screenwriter Charles Brackett’s Titanic was nothing more than the product of a Hollywood screenwriter’s overheated imagination. Yet the story had its roots in real life. Immediately after the Carpathia docked in New York, it came to light that on board the liner were two young French boys—Lolo (Michel) and Momon (Edmond)—who had been kidnapped by their father (traveling on the Titanic under the assumed name Louis Hoffman). Fellow second-class passenger Madeleine Mellenger, who was 13 at the time, remembered the two dark-haired boys, one aged nearly 4, the other 2. “They sat at our table . . . and we wondered where their mamma was,” she said. “It turned out that he [the father] was taking them away from ‘mamma’ to America.” In an interview later in his life, Michel recalled the majesty of the Titanic. “A magnificent ship!” he said. “I remember looking down the length of the hull—the ship looked splendid. My brother and I played on the forward deck and were thrilled to be there. One morning, my father, my brother, and I were eating eggs in the second-class dining room. The sea was stunning. My feeling was one of total and utter well-being.” On the night of the sinking, he remembered his father entering their cabin and gently awakening the two boys. “He dressed me very warmly and took me in his arms,” he said. “A stranger did the same for my brother. When I think of it now, I am very moved. They knew they were going to die.”

Despite this, the man calling himself Louis Hoffman—real name Michel Navratil—did everything in his power to help fellow passengers safely into the boats. “The last kindness . . . [he] did was to put my new shoes on and tie them for me,” recalled Madeleine. She escaped to safety with her mother in Lifeboat 14, leaving the sinking ship at 1:30 a.m., but Michel Navratil had to wait until 2:05 a.m. to place his sons in Collapsible D, the last boat to be lowered. Witnesses recall seeing the man they knew as Hoffman crouching on his knees, ensuring that each of his boys was wrapped up warmly.

As he handed his elder son over to Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller, who was responsible for loading the boat, Michel stepped back, raised his hand in a salute and disappeared into the crowd on the port side of the ship. His son Michel later recalled the feel of the lifeboat hitting the water. “I remember the sound of the splash, and the sensation of shock, as the little boat shivered in its attempt to right itself after its irregular descent,” he said.

After the Carpathia docked in New York, the two boys became instantly famous. Journalists dubbed the boys the “Orphans of the Deep” or the “Waifs of the Titanic” and within days their pictures were featured in every newspaper in America. Back in Nice, Marcelle Navratil, desperate to know about the fate of her children, appealed to the British and French consulates. She showed the envoys a photograph of Michel, and when it was learned that Thomas Cook and Sons in Monte Carlo had sold a second-class ticket to a Louis Hoffman—a name Navratil had borrowed from one of their neighbors in Nice—she began to understand what her estranged husband had done.


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