Voyage of the Damned

By Schama, Simon | Newsweek, April 9, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Voyage of the Damned

Schama, Simon, Newsweek

Byline: Simon Schama

All walks of life teemed aboard the RMS Titanic--from dollar dukes to striving immigrants. Little did they know how they would be betrayed.

The broken halves of RMS Titanic had barely settled on the ocean floor, 12,600 feet below the surface of the Atlantic, when the craving to see it at the movies began.

The one-reeler Saved From the Titanic, made by Eclair American Co. at its super-modern, glass-covered Fort Lee studio in New Jersey, was released 29 days after the liner sank and took 1,517 lives with it. In one respect at least, the 10--minute movie will never be bettered for authenticity, since its main attraction, the heavy--lidded, cushion-lipped, 22-year-old Dorothy Gibson--star of Revenge of the Silk Masks and It Pays to Be Kind, and cover girl of countless magazines--was a survivor from Lifeboat 7. Starting work a few days after landing back in New York off the rescue ship RMS Carpathia, Dorothy had only to play herself, which she apparently did with frightening aplomb. But then Gibson was one tough cookie. Before she died in 1946, she had killed someone while driving the car of her married lover (the studio financier Jules Brulatour), turned enthusiast of fascism, switched to the resistance in time to be arrested and incarcerated by the Gestapo in Milan, from where she finally escaped as a heroine. And you thought Kate Winslet was interesting? Silly you.

Precisely a century since the calamity of the four-funneled Titanic, the ship still holds us and our shared culture in its icy grip. The spectacle of luxury punished for its own vanity, the delusions of the unsinkable power brokers, the chill hand of extinction catching the arrogant in the midst of their own sumptuous festivities--all of it reminds us of the biblical destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah or the writing on the wall appearing to Belshazzar's party people. Fifteenth-century Europe, chastened by unpredictable visitations of the plague, invented, in sculpture and painting, the genre of the Dance of Death, in which the grinning skeleton sweeps up with his scythe all manner of men and women: kings and bishops, knights and damsels, merchants and peasants. Somewhere inside that iceberg rising 50 feet above the Atlantic on the night of April 14, 1912, stood Death with a trident.

Very quickly, press reports and the Senate subcommittee hearings that began in New York a week after the disaster took on the tone of an ancient morality tale played out in modern dress. A cast of the living and the dead, in all the available human types and conditions, passed before the public gaze as if still in their evening glamour or steerage caps and skirts. There were scoundrels (if not fall guys): above all, J. Bruce Ismay, the director of the White Star Line, who unlike Capt. Edward Smith and the ship's guilt-stricken designer, Thomas Andrews (who was the first to realize that Titanic was doomed), got himself into a lifeboat with the women and children and never lived down the obloquy. Among the plutocracy there were stylish stoics--most notably Benjamin Guggenheim, traveling with his valet, chauffeur, and (clandestinely) his mistress, the singer Leontine Aubert, and her maid. Guggenheim saw the women into a lifeboat and then returned to his cabin to don his tuxedo. "We have dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen," he reportedly said, adding, "if anything happens, tell my wife I have done my best in doing my duty" (not mentioning that he did it by Leontine).

As if to compensate, there were paragons of endearing marital loyalty: the 63-year-old Ida Straus, who refused to leave her husband, Isidor, the magnate of Macy's ("We have lived together many years; where you go, I go"), and who were last seen settling down in deck chairs to await the final wave. There were stories of unbearable heartbreak, like that of Bess Allison (wife of the Winnipeg property tycoon Hud Allison), who got separated from her infant, Trevor, in the chaos.

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