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 White Star Line promptly offered their mother a complimentary passage to New York on the Oceanic, leaving Cherbourg on May 8. Only a matter of weeks later, Marcelle Navratil arrived in New York. A taxi took her to the Children’s Aid Society, which had been besieged by photographers and reporters. According to a New York Times account, “The windows of the building opposite were lined with interested groups of shopworkers who had got wind of what was happening across the way and who were craning their necks and gesticulating wildly toward a window on the fifth floor where the children were believed to be.” The young mother was allowed to greet her boys alone. She found Michel sitting in a corner of the room, in the window seat, turning the pages of an illustrated alphabet book. Edmond was on the floor, playing with the pieces of a puzzle.

When she entered, the boys looked anxious, but then, as they recognized their mother, a “growing wonder spread over the face of the bigger boy, while the smaller one stared in amazement at the figure in the doorway. He let out one long-drawn and lusty wail and ran blubbering into the outstretched arms of his mother. The mother was trembling with sobs and her eyes were dim with tears as she ran forward and seized both youngsters.”

Although he passed away on January 30, 2001, at the age of 92, the last male survivor of the Titanic disaster, Michel always said, “I died at 4. Since then I have been a fare-dodger of life. A gleaner of time.”

One of the most forthright and determined of the real Titanic voices belonged to Edith Russell, the then 32-year-old first-class passenger who had managed to get aboard one of the lifeboats, still clutching a possession she regarded as her lucky talisman—a toy musical pig that played the pop tune “La Maxixe.”

Edith, a fashion buyer, journalist and stylist, had contacted producer Charles Brackett when she had first learned that the Barbara Stanwyck film was going to be made, outlining her experiences and offering her services. The letter elicited no response, as Brackett had decided not to speak to any individual survivors. The filmmakers were more interested in constructing their own story, one that would meet all the criteria of melodrama without getting bogged down by the real-life experiences of people like Edith.

The production team did, however, invite her—and a number of other survivors—to a preview of Titanic in New York in April 1953. It was an emotional experience for many of them, not least third-class passengers Leah Aks, who had been 18 at the time of the disaster, and her son, Philip, who had been only 10 months old. Edith recalled how, in the panic, the baby Philip had been torn out of his mother’s arms and thrown into her lifeboat. Leah tried to push her way into this vessel, but was directed into the next lifeboat to leave the ship. Edith had done her best to comfort the baby during that long, cold night in the middle of the Atlantic—repeatedly playing the tune of “La Maxixe” by twisting the tail of her toy pig—before they were rescued.

The reunion brought all these memories back. “The baby, amongst other babies, for whom I played my little pig music box to the tune of ‘Maxixe’ was there,” said Edith of the screening. “He [Philip] is forty-one years old, is a rich steel magnate from Norfolk, Virginia.”

Edith enjoyed the event, she said, and had the opportunity of showing off the little musical pig, together with the dress she had worn on the night of the disaster. Edith congratulated Brackett on the film, yet, as a survivor, she said she had noticed some obvious errors. “There was a rather glaring inadequacy letting people take seats in the lifeboat as most of them had to get up on the rail and jump into the boat which swung clear of the side of the boat,” she said. “The boat also went down with the most awful rapidity. It fairly shot into the water whereas yours gracefully slid into the water.” Despite these points, she thought the film was “splendid”—she conceded he had done a “good job”—and, above all, it brought the night alive once more. “It gave me a heartache and I could still see the sailors changing the watches, crunching over the ice and going down to stoke those engines from where they never returned,” she said.

After the melodrama of the Titanic film—the movie won an Academy Award in 1953 for its screenplay—the public wanted to know more about the doomed liner. The demand was satisfied by Walter Lord, a bespectacled advertising copywriter who worked for J. Walter Thompson in New York. As a boy, Lord, the son of a Baltimore lawyer, had sailed on the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic. With an almost military precision—Lord had worked as both a code clerk in Washington and as an intelligence analyst in London during World War II—he amassed a mountain of material about the ship, and, most important, managed to locate, and interview, more than 60 survivors. The resulting book, A Night to Remember, is a masterpiece of restraint and concision, a work of narrative nonfiction that captures the full drama of the sinking. On its publication in the winter of 1955, the book was an immediate success—entering the New York Times best-seller list at Number 12 in the week of December 11—and since then has never been out of print. “In the creation of the Titanic myth there were two defining moments,” wrote one commentator, “1912, of course, and 1955.”

The publication of A Night to Remember—together with its serialization in the magazine Ladies’ Home Journal in November 1955—had an immediate effect on the remaining survivors, almost as if the Titanic had been raised from the murky depths of their collective consciousness.

Madeleine Mellenger wrote to Lord himself, telling him of her emotions when the Carpathia pulled into New York. “The noise, commotion and searchlights terrified me,” she said. “I stood on the deck directly under the rigging on which Captain Arthur Rostron climbed to yell orders thru’ a megaphone....I live it all over again and shall walk around in a daze for a few days.” Memories of the experience came back in flashes—the generosity of an American couple, honeymooners on board the Carpathia, who gave her mother, who was shoeless, a pair of beautiful French bedroom slippers, which were knitted and topped with big pink satin bows; and the horror of being forced to spend what seemed like an eternity in a cabin with a woman, Jane Laver Herman, who had lost her husband in the sinking.

Walter Lord became a receptacle into which survivors could spill their memories and fears. He, in turn, collected survivors’ tales, and memorabilia such as buttons, menus, tickets and silver spoons, with a near-obsessive passion, hoarding information about the Titanic’s passengers long after he had sent his book off to the publishers.


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