The Iceberg Cometh

By Kaplan, David A.; Underwood, Anne | Newsweek, November 25, 1996 | Go to article overview

The Iceberg Cometh


Kaplan, David A., Underwood, Anne, Newsweek


The RMS Titanic sank 84 years ago, but there's a new wave of interest in the great ship. See the mini-series, hum the musical, buy the cookbook WHEN EDITH BROWN HAISMAN last saw her daddy nearly 85 ago, he was standing on deck smoking a cigar and smiling at his wife and daughter. "I'll see you in New York," he said confidently, as his family was bundled into Lifeboat No, 14. There had been no sense of urgency when the Titanic first struck an iceberg out there in the North Atlantic at 20 minutes before midnight. "Everyone kept saying, 'She's unsinkable'," recalls Haisman, now 100 and living in Southampton, England. She wondered why they were abandoning the most magnificent movable thing ever built, on its maiden voyage. Not until she was lowered into the 28-degree ocean did she see just how much of the 882-foot liner was underwater. Huddled together against the cold, saying almost nothing, Haisman and her mother watched as the band played a hymn, the lights flickered out and, in a thunderous roar, everything on the supership seemed to break loose. Grand pianos, brass beds, English china and the 29 immense boilers that fueled it lurched toward the submerged bow. The black hull tilted perpendicularly; its three great propellers reared against the heavens. And then it was gone, along with Mr. Brown and 1,522 other souls.

Walter Lord called it "A Night to Remember" in his classic 1955 best seller (now in. its 65th printing). For Haisman and the rest of the 704 survivors, it was, as she still shudders, "a night to forget." But the world has never let the night of April 14, 1912, pass into oblivion. Seventeen movies, 18 documentaries, at least 130 books and the "rivet counters"-hard-core fans so obsessed with every detail they can account for all 3 million screws-have proliferated from the moment the New York Evening Sun declared, ALL SAVED FROM TITANIC AFTER COLLISION. And why not? It remains an incredible story--a colossal confluence of bad luck, bad timing and bad navigation. "The three most written-about subjects of all-time," speculates historian Steven Biel in a new cultural history of the disaster, Down With the Old Canoe, may be "Jesus, the Civil War, and the Titanic." Christ and Gettysburg changed the world-but a boat and a berg?

Now comes the latest outbreak of Titanic fever. Sure, the sinking was a calamity, but some of the commemorations have all the solemnity of a carnival. This week, Titanic, a four-hour mini-series, is airing on CBS; it stars George C. Scott as the ill-fated Capt. Edward J. Smith, who looks like he's been steering from the dessert table but otherwise does a fine "glub ... glub ... glub." In April, Titanic, the $10 million musical-yes, the musical--opens on Broadway, in time for the anniversary of the sinking (giving your play this title takes guts, sort of like GM calling its new sedan "Lemon"). The biggest, most expensive show arrives this summer: Titanic, the $120 million movie, promises to be terrifying-think "Jaws" on ice-as well as tragic. The director is James Cameron (box), the fellow who gave us the terrifying "Terminator." Comeroh's titanic "Titanic" stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.

And that's only, well, the tip of the iceberg. The story inspired English novelist Beryl Bainbridge in her latest book, Every Man for Himself, short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize. Then there are two museum exhibitions of artifacts recovered from the deep by George Tulloch. He's the treasure-hunter who founded the publicly traded RMS Titanic, Inc., which owns exclusive salvage rights to the wreck. One exhibit opens Nov. 27 at the Nauticus National Maritime Center in Norfolk, Va., the other in April in Memphis, Tenn. (A similar show last year in Greenwich, England, brought in 700,000 visitors, including Tom Cruise, who rented out the place for an evening.)

The rivet counters will love two new interactive CD-ROMs, a Web site where for $25 you can purchase your very own chunk of Titanic coal and--this just in--the revolutionary Sonicare[R] toothbrushing system. …

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