Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord

I usually do about five or so minutes of Internet research on the books I read before I sit down to write these posts. I never do it before I read the book, because I want to experience the book as unfiltered as possible. But after I’ve read the book, it’s sometimes helpful or interesting to take a peek at what the rest of the world thinks about the book I just read and if it jibes at all with my take.

When I did this for A Night to Remember, I got sucked into the bottomless pit of information on the Internet about the sinking of the Titanic, which, of course, is the subject of Walter Lord’s 1955 book. Did she break in half? Was there another ship on the horizon? Did someone plant a bomb on board? There’s no end to the questions--serious and ridiculous--that remain and occupy the attention of professionals and amateurs alike.

Why? Why was the sinking of this ship such a significant event in our history, and why are the details about it still debated to this day? My fondest hope in reading this book was that I would gain a deeper understanding--not of the minute-by-minute details of the incident and its aftermath (the part that’s endlessly debated), but of the event’s historical significance (the part that isn’t debated.)

Lord, I think, deals best with this question in Chapter 7, just after the ship has gone down. He pauses in what has been more of a narrative and enters into reflection. It begins...

As the sea closed over the Titanic, Lady Cosmo Duff Gordon in Boat 1 remarked to her secretary Miss Francatelli, “There is your beautiful nightdress gone.”

A lot more than Miss Francatelli’s nightgown vanished that April night. Even more than the largest liner in the world, her cargo, and the lives of 1,502 people.

Never again would men fling a ship into an ice field, heedless of warnings, putting their whole trust in a few thousand tons of steel and rivets. From then on Atlantic liners took ice messages seriously, steered clear, or slowed down. Nobody believed in the “unsinkable ship.”

Before proceeding any farther, let’s deal with that “unsinkable ship” idea. Here’s an excerpt from much earlier in the narrative.

Far above on A Deck, Second Class passenger Lawrence Beesley noticed a curious thing. As he started below to check his cabin, he felt certain the stairs “weren’t quite right.” They seemed level, and yet his feet didn’t fall where they should. Somehow they strayed forward off balance … as though the steps were tilted down toward the bow.

Major Peuchen noticed it too. As he stood with Mr. Hayes at the forward end of A Deck, looking down at the steerage passengers playing soccer with the loose ice, he senses a very slight tilt in the deck. “Why, she is listing!” he cried to Hayes. “She should not do that! The water is perfectly calm and the boat has stopped.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Mr. Hayes replied placidly, “you cannot sink this boat.”

Some of those Internet sources I found seemed to contest the idea that people thought the Titanic was unsinkable, but Lord seems to cite a lot of eyewitness testimony (on which his narrative is largely based) to the contrary. Lots of people on the Titanic seemed to think it was unsinkable.

Once the list is noticed by the crew, some quick calculations were done.

Put together, the facts showed a 300-foot gash, with the first five compartments hopelessly flooded.

What did this mean? [Titanic builder Thomas] Andrews quietly explained. The Titanic could float with any two of her 16 water-tight compartments flooded. She could float with any three of her first five compartments flooded. She could even float with all of her first four compartments gone. But no matter how they sliced it, she could not float with all of her first five compartments full.

The bulkhead between the fifth and sixth compartments went only as high as E Deck. If the first five compartments were flooded, the bow would sink so low that water in the fifth compartment must overflow into the sixth. When this was full, it would overflow into the seventh, and so on. It was a mathematical certainty, pure and simple. There was no way out.

And the reaction to this mathematical certainty by these experienced sailors?

But it was still a shock. After all, the Titanic was considered unsinkable. And not just in the travel brochures. The highly technical magazine Shipbuilder described her compartment system in a special edition in 1911, pointing out, “The Captain may, by simply moving an electric switch, instantly close the doors throughout and make the vessel practically unsinkable.”

Now all the switches were pulled, and Andrews said it made no difference.

It was hard to face, and especially hard for Captain Smith. Over 59 years old, he was retiring after this trip. Might even have done it sooner, but he traditionally took the White Star ships on their maiden voyages. Only six years before, when he brought over the brand-new Adriatic, he remarked:

“I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”

Now he stood on the bridge of a liner twice as big--twice as safe--and the builder told him it couldn’t float.

I’m quoting this at length to stress how much of a shock this was. This idea that the Titanic could really be sunk. And it wasn’t just the experienced sailors that had trouble coming to grips with it.

All the [life] boats together could carry 1,178 people. On this Sunday night there were 2,207 people on board the Titanic.

This mathematical discrepancy was known by none of the passengers and few of the crew, but most of them wouldn’t have cared anyhow. The Titanic was unsinkable. Everybody said so. When Mrs. Albert Caldwell was watching the deck hands carry up luggage at Southampton, she asked one of the them, “Is this ship really unsinkable?”

“Yes, lady,” he answered, “God himself could not sink this ship.”

And, of course, God didn’t. As Lord’s short novel perfectly describes, overwhelmingly, it was the sense that the ship and the people on it were in no danger that was responsible for sending it to the bottom of the ocean that cold April night.

Let’s set the pivotal scene.

Now the watch was almost over, and still there was nothing unusual. Just the night, the stars, the biting cold, the wind that whistled through the rigging as the Titanic raced across the calm, black sea at 22½ knots. It was almost 11:40 P.M. on Sunday, the 14th of April, 1912.

Mark that. Racing across the calm, black sea at 22½ knots. As if nothing could possibly go wrong.

Suddenly [Lookout Frederick] Fleet saw something directly ahead, even darker than the darkness. At first it was small (about the size, he thought, of two tables put together), but every second it grew larger and closer. Quickly Fleet banged the crow’s-nest bell three times, the warning of danger ahead. At the same time he lifted the phone and rang the bridge.

“What did you see?” Asked a calm voice at the other end.

“Iceberg right ahead,” replied Fleet.

“Thank you,” acknowledged the voice with curiously detached courtesy. Nothing more was said.

They had received warnings about icebergs. They had been told to be on the lookout for them.

For the next 37 seconds, Fleet and [Lookout Reginald] Lee stood quietly side by side, watching the ice draw nearer. Now they were almost on top of it, and still the ship didn’t turn. The berg towered wet and glistening far above the forecastle deck, and both men braced themselves for a crash. Then, miraculously, the bow began to swing to port. At the last second the stem shot into the clear, and the ice glided swiftly by along the starboard side. It looked to Fleet like a very close shave.

But, of course, it wasn’t a close shave at all. The iceberg had ripped a hole in the side of the ship below the waterline, and less than three hours later it would be lying, perhaps in pieces, on the bottom of the Atlantic ocean.

Why did it take 37 seconds to make the turn? If it had happened more quickly, they might’ve missed that berg. But why were they racing through the iceberg-riddled North Atlantic in the first place? That’s what really caused the disaster, and that was, more than anything else, an effect of the complacency that comes when everyone believes there is simply no danger.

But that is frankly just a symptom of the disease. They thought they were in no danger. The larger and more important question is why? Why did they think that? And what about the sinking of the Titanic made people stop thinking that way? To begin to understand that question, we’ll need to return to Lord’s Chapter 7. Part of me would like to include it in its entirety, but it is 15 pages long, and I’m not sure I’m up to all that transcribing. But the points it makes, the points about the Titanic’s historical significance, and the changes that came as a result, are excellent.

First, there are the practical changes that were made in the restrictions and regulations that men could control.

Nor would icebergs any longer prowl the seas untended. After the Titanic sank, the American and British governments established the International Ice Patrol, and today Coast Guard cutters shepherd errant icebergs that drift toward the steamer lanes. The winter lane itself was shifted further south, as an extra precaution.

And there were no more liners with only part-time wireless. Henceforth every passenger ship had a 24-hour radio watch. Never again could the world fall apart while a Cyril Evans lay sleeping off-duty only ten miles away.

It was also the last time a liner put to sea without enough lifeboats. The 46,328-ton Titanic sailed under hopelessly outdated safety regulations. An absurd formula determined lifeboat requirements: all British vessels over 10,000 tons must carry 16 lifeboats with a capacity of 5,500 cubic feet, plus enough rafts and floats for 75 per cent of the capacity of the lifeboats.

For the Titanic this worked out at 9,625 cubic feet. This meant she had to carry boats for only 962 people. Actually, there were boats for 1,178--the White Star Line complained that nobody appreciated their thoughtfulness. Even so, this took care of only 52 per cent of the 2,207 people on board, and only 30 per cent of her total capacity. From then on the rules and formulas were simple indeed--lifeboats for everybody.

Next, there were the old cultural norms that had already been losing traction, but which lost all their footing in the wake of the disaster. In discussing this, Lord begins at the very practical level of how people of different classes fared on the Titanic.

And it was the end of class distinction in filling the boats. The White Star Line always denied anything of the kind--and the investigators backed them up--yet there’s overwhelming evidence that the steerage took a beating: Daniel Buckley kept from going into First Class … Olaus Abelseth released from the poop deck as the last boat pulled away … Steward Hart convoying two little groups of women topside, while hundred were kept below … steerage passengers crawling along the crane from the well deck aft … others climbing vertical ladders to escape the well deck forward.

Then there were the people Colonel Gracie, Lightoller and others saw surging up from below, just before the end. Until this moment Gracie was sure the women were all off--they were so hard to find when the last boats were loading. Now, he was appalled to see dozens of them suddenly appear. The statistics suggest who they were--the Titanic’s casualty list included four of the 143 First Class women (three by choice) … 15 of 93 Second Class women … and 81 of 179 Third Class women.

Not to mentioned the children. Except for Lorraine Allison, all 29 First and Second Class children were saved, but only 23 out of 76 steerage children.

Lord points out that none of this loss of life was a result of White Star Line policy, but rather from no set policy at all. People acting in what they believed to be the best interests of all, given the cultural milieu in which they had all been raised and lived. And it wasn’t just the people on the boat.

In covering the Titanic, few reporters bothered to ask Third Class passengers anything. The New York Times was justly proud of the way it handled the disaster. Yet the famous issue covering the Carpathia’s arrival in New York contained only two interviews with Third Class passengers. This apparently was par for the course--of 43 survivor accounts in the New York Herald, two again were steerage experiences.

Certainly their experiences weren’t as good copy as Lady Cosmo Duff Gordon (one New York newspaper had her saying, “The last voice I heard was a man shouting, ‘My God, my God!’”). But there was indeed a story. The night was a magnificent confirmation of “women and children first,” yet somehow the loss rate was higher for Third Class children than First Class men. It was a contrast which would never get by the social consciousness (or news sense) of today’s press.


Nor did Congress care what happened to Third Class. Senator Smith’s Titanic investigation covered everything under the sun, including what an iceberg was made of (“Ice,” explained Fifth Officer Lowe), but the steerage received little attention. Only three of the witnesses were Third Class passengers. Two of these said they were kept from going to the Boat Deck, but the legislators didn’t follow up. Again, the testimony doesn’t suggest any deliberate hush-up--it was just that no one was interested.

But these were exactly the kinds of things that were changing. Despite the seeming ambivalence about the fate of Third Class, Lord beautifully describes how a cultural preoccupation with wealth quickly became a casualty of the Titanic disaster. To fully understand this, to understand the world as it now exists, it is often helpful to first understand the world as it used to be.

It was easier in the old days … for the Titanic was also the last stand of wealth and society in the center of public affection. In 1912 there were no movie, radio or television stars; sports figures were still beyond the pale; and cafe society was completely unknown. The public depended on socially prominent people for all the vicarious glamour that enriches drab lives.

This preoccupation was fully appreciated by the press. When the Titanic sailed, the New York Times listed the prominent passengers on the front page. After she sank, the New York American broke the news on April 16 with a lead devoted almost entirely to John Jacob Astor; at the end it mentioned that 1,800 others were also lost.

In the same mood, the April 18 New York Sun covered the insurance angle of the disaster. Most of the story concerned Mrs. Widener’s pearls.

Never again did established wealth occupy people’s minds so thoroughly. On the other hand, never again was wealth so spectacular. John Jacob Astor thought nothing of shelling out 800 dollars for a lace jacket some dealer displayed on deck when the Titanic stopped briefly at Queenstown. To the Ryersons there was nothing unusual about traveling with 16 trunks. The 190 families in First Class were attended by 23 handmaids, eight valets, and assorted nurses and governesses--entirely apart from hundreds of stewards and stewardesses. These personal servants had their own lounge on C Deck, so that no one need suffer the embarrassment of striking up a conversation with some handsome stranger, only to find he was Henry Sleeper Harper’s dragoman.

This was truly not just another time, but another world.

There was a wonderful intimacy about this little world of the Edwardian rich. There was no flicker of surprise when they bumped into each other, whether at the Pyramids (a great favorite), the Cowes Regatta, or the springs at Baden-Baden. They seemed to get the same ideas at the same time, and one of these ideas was to make the maiden voyage of the largest ship in the world.

It was a ship that uniquely belonged to them.

This group knew the crew almost as well as each other. It was the custom to cross with certain captains rather than on particular ships, and Captain Smith had a personal following which made him invaluable to the White Star Line. The Captain repaid the patronage with little favors and privileges which kept them coming. On the last night John Jacob Astor got the bad news direct from Captain Smith before the general alarm, and others learned too.

Both the ear of the captain and the hearts of the hired help.

The stewards and waiters were on equally close terms with the group. They had often looked after the same passengers. They knew just what they wanted and how they liked things done. Every evening Steward Cunningham would enter A-36 and lay out Thomas Andrews’ dress clothes just the way Mr. Andrews liked. Then at 6:45 Cunningham would enter and help Andrews dress. It happened all over the ship.

And when the Titanic was going down, it was with genuine affection that Steward Etches made Mr. Guggenheim wear his sweater … that Steward Crawford laced Mr. Stewart’s shoes … that Second Steward Dodd tipped off John B. Thayer that his wife was still on board, long after Thayer thought she had left. In the same spirit of devotion, Dining Room Steward Ray pushed Washington Dodge into Boat 13--he had persuaded the Dodges to take the Titanic and now he felt he had to see them through.

The group repaid this loyalty with an intimacy and affection they gave few of their less-known fellow passengers. In the Titanic’s last hours men like Ben Guggenheim and Martin Rothschild seemed to see more of their stewards than the other passengers.

The Titanic somehow lowered the curtain on this way of living. It never was the same again. First the war, then the income tax, made sure of that.

And with this lost world, Lord argues, went some of its prejudices. Anglo-Saxons, it turned out, were not universally brave, and the “swarthier” races, equally, were not universally cowards.The Titanic demonstrated examples and counter-examples on both sides of that outdated ledger. And as for the nobler instincts of this lost world…

Men would go on being brave, but never again would they be brave in quite the same way. These men on the Titanic had a touch--there was something about Ben Guggenheim changing to evening dress … about Howard Case flicking his cigarette as he waved to Mrs. Graham … or even about Colonel Gracie panting along the decks, gallantly if ineffectually searching for Mrs. Candee. Today nobody could carry off these little gestures of chivalry, but they did that night.

The true impact of the Titanic’s sinking, of course, extended far beyond this lost world of wealth and privilege. The world of the Astors and the Guggenheims would never the same again, but so would the lives of the people who would have found themselves in steerage had they sailed on that colossal ship.

Overriding everything else, the Titanic also marked the end of a general feeling of confidence. Until then men felt they had found the answer to a steady, orderly, civilized life. For 100 years the Western world had been at peace. For 100 years technology had steadily improved. For 100 years the benefits of peace and industry seemed to be filtering satisfactorily through society. In retrospect, there may seem less grounds for confidence, but at the time most articulate people felt life was all right.

The Titanic woke them up. Never again would they be quite so sure of themselves. In technology especially, the disaster was a terrible blow. Here was the “unsinkable ship”--perhaps man’s greatest engineering achievement--going down the first time it sailed.

But it went beyond that. If this supreme achievement was so terribly fragile, what about everything else? If wealth meant so little on this cold April night, did it mean so much the rest of the year? Scores of ministers preached that the Titanic was a heaven-sent lesson to awaken people from their complacency, to punish them for top-heavy faith in material progress. If it was a lesson, it worked--people have never been sure of anything since.

The unending sequence of disillusionment that has followed can’t be blamed on the Titanic, but she was the first jar. Before the Titanic, all was quiet. Afterward all was tumult. That is why, to anybody who lived at the time, the Titanic more than any other single event marks the end of the old days, and the beginning of a new, uneasy era.

Perhaps the comparison is too obvious, but the sinking of the Titanic was clearly the September 11th of its time. It was an event that marked the change between one way of living on this planet and another.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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