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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There was a rush to transfer Lord’s book to the screen, first in an American TV drama made by Kraft Television Theatre, which had an audience of 28 million when it aired in March 1956, and then in a big-budget British movie, which would be released in 1958. The rights to the book were bought by William MacQuitty, an Irish-born producer who, like Walter Lord, had been fascinated by the Titanic since he was a boy. As a child, growing up in Belfast, he remembered teams of 20 draft horses pulling the liner’s enormous anchors through the cobbled streets of the city, from the foundry to the Harland and Wolff shipyard.

MacQuitty chose Roy Baker as director, Eric Ambler as scriptwriter and Walter Lord as a consultant on the project. The overall effect MacQuitty wanted to achieve was one of near-documentary realism. Art director Alex Vetchinsky employed his obsessive eye for detail to recreate the Titanic itself. Working from original blueprints of the ship, Vetchinsky built the center third of the liner, including two funnels and four lifeboats, an undertaking that required 4,000 tons of steel. This was constructed above a concrete platform, which had to be strong enough to support the “ship” and the surging mass of hundreds of passengers who were shown clinging to the rails to the very last.

Survivor Edith Russell still felt possessive of the Titanic story—she believed it was hers alone to tell—and she wanted to exploit it for all it was worth. She and Lord met in March 1957 at a lunch given by MacQuitty at a Hungarian restaurant in London. The gentleman writer and the grand lady of fashion hit it off immediately, drawn together by a shared passion for the Titanic and a sense of nostalgia, a longing for an era that had died somewhere between the sinking of the majestic liner and the beginning of World War I. Driven by an equally obsessive interest in the subject, Lord fueled Edith’s compulsion, and over the course of the next few years he sent her a regular supply of information, articles and gossip regarding the ship and its passengers.

Edith made regular visits to Pinewood, the film studio near London, to check on the production’s progress. Even though Edith was not employed on the project, MacQuitty was wise enough to realize there was little point in making an enemy of her.

As Edith aged, she became even more eccentric. When she died, on April 4, 1975, she was 96 years old. The woman who defined herself by the very fact that she had escaped the Titanic left behind a substantial inheritance and a slew of Titanic stories. To Walter Lord she pledged her famous musical pig. When Lord died in May 2002, he in turn left it to the National Maritime Museum, which also holds Edith’s unpublished manuscript, “A Pig and a Prayer Saved Me from the Titanic.”

In the years after A Night to Remember, the storm that had gathered around the Titanic seemed to abate, despite the best efforts of the Titanic Enthusiasts of America, the organization formed in 1963 with the purpose of “investigating and perpetuating the history and memory of the White Star liners, Olympic, Titanic, and Britannic.” The group, which later renamed itself the Titanic Historical Society, produced a quarterly newsletter, the Titanic Commutator, which over the years was transformed into a glossy journal. Yet, at this time, the membership comprised a relatively small group of specialists, maritime history buffs and a clutch of survivors. By September 1973, when the group held its tenth anniversary meeting, the society had a membership of only 250. The celebration, held in Greenwich, Connecticut, was attended by 88-year-old Edwina Mackenzie, who had sailed on the Titanic as 27-year-old second-class passenger Edwina Troutt. After more than 60 years she still remembered seeing the liner sink, “one row of lighted portholes after another, gently like a lady,” she said.

Many people assumed that, after 50 years, the liner, and the myths surrounding it, would finally be allowed to rest in peace. But in the early hours of September 1, 1985, oceanographer and underwater archaeologist Robert Ballard from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution—together with French explorer Jean-Louis Michel from the French organization Ifremer—discovered the wreck of the Titanic lying at a depth of roughly two and half miles, and around 370 miles southeast of Mistaken Point, Newfoundland. “The Titanic lies now in 13,000 feet of water on a gently sloping Alpine-looking countryside overlooking a small canyon below,” said Ballard, on returning to America a number of days later. “Its bow faces north. The ship sits upright on its bottom with its mighty stacks pointed upward. There is no light at this great depth and little life can be found. It is a quiet and peaceful place—and a fitting place for the remains of this greatest of sea tragedies to rest. Forever may it remain that way. And may God bless these now-found souls.”

The world went Titanic-crazy once more, a frenzy that was even more intense than the previous bouts of fever. There was something almost supernatural about the resulting pictures and films, as if a photographer had managed to capture images of a ghost for the first time.

Within a couple of years of Ballard’s discovery, wealthy tourists could pay thousands of dollars to descend to the site of the wreck and see the Titanic for themselves, an experience that many likened to stepping into another world. Journalist William F. Buckley Jr. was one of the first observers outside the French and American exploratory teams to witness the ship at close quarters. “We descend slowly to what looks like a yellow-white sandy beach, sprinkled with black rocklike objects,” he wrote in the New York Times. “These, it transpires, are pieces of coal. There must be 100,000 of them in the area we survey, between the bow of the ship and the stern, a half-mile back. On my left is a man’s outdoor shoe. Left shoe. Made, I would say, of suede of some sort. I cannot quite tell whether it is laced up. And then, just off to the right a few feet, a snow-white teacup. Just sitting there...on the sand. I liken the sheer neatness of the tableau to a display that might have been prepared for a painting by Salvador Dali.”

Over the course of the next few years, around 6,000 artifacts were recovered from the wreck, sent to a specialist laboratory in France and subsequently exhibited. The shows—the first of which was held at the National Maritime Museum in London in 1994— proved to be enormous crowd-pleasers. Touring exhibitions such as “Titanic Honour and Glory” and “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” have been seen by millions of people all around the world. Items on display include a silver pocket watch, its hands stopped at 2:28 a.m., the time the Titanic was sinking into the ice-cold waters of the Atlantic; the Steiff teddy bear belonging to senior engineer William Moyes, who went down with the ship; the perfume vials belonging to Adolphe Saalfeld, a Manchester perfumer, who survived the disaster and who would have been astonished to learn that it was still possible to smell the scent of orange blossom and lavender nearly 100 years later. There were cut-crystal decanters etched with the swallowtail flag of the White Star Line; the white jacket of Athol Broome, a 30-year-old steward who did not survive; children’s marbles scooped up from the seafloor; brass buttons bearing the White Star insignia; a selection of silver serving plates and gratin dishes; a pair of spectacles; and a gentleman’s shaving kit. These objects of everyday life brought the great ship—and its passengers—back to life as never before.

Millvina Dean first became a Titanic celebrity at the age of 3 months when she, together with her mother, Georgette Eva, and her brother, Bertram, known as Vere, traveled back after the disaster to England on board the Adriatic. Passengers were so curious to see, hold and have their photographs taken with the baby girl that stewards had to impose a queuing system. “She was the pet of the liner during the voyage,” reported the Daily Mirror at the time, “and so keen was the rivalry between women to nurse this lovable mite of humanity that one of the officers decreed that first- and second-class passengers might hold her in turn for no more than ten minutes.”

After returning to Britain, Millvina grew up to lead what, at first sight, seems to be an uneventful life. Then, Ballard made his discovery. “Nobody knew about me and the Titanic, to be honest, nobody took any interest, so I took no interest either,” she said. “But then they found the wreck, and after they found the wreck, they found me.”


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