A Great Book to Commemorate Titanic's 100th Anniversary


If you can't get  enough of the Titanic a century after it sunk, I have just the book for you: "Voyagers of the Titanic---Passengers, Sailors, Shipbuilders, Aristocrats, and the Worlds They Came From" by Richard Davenport-Hines. 1517 people perished in this monumental  maritime disaster.  723 survived.  Indelibly scarred,   physically, emotionally, psychologically   .  Davenport-Hines fleshes out  the personal and  human stories behind the statistics.

The tragedy spared no class of passengers.  Although a greater percentage of the women---and men---in first class survived (201 out of 324, or around 61%).  Compare that with roughly 42% of second-class(118 out of 277), and about 25% of third-class (181 out of 708).   Like the latter, 25% of the crew (212 out of  885) lived to give testimony before the various investigative committees here and in Great Britain.

Many of us might have  absorbed the story of the Titanic from James Cameron's epic movie.  His narrative  has the patina of verisimilitude. It skillfully blends fact and fiction. And orchestrates all the elements of film-making into a powerful re-creation of the event.

Davenport-Hines does not invent an overarching ill-fated romance to deliver the impact of the  tragedy. He does it by cumulatively   recounting   vignettes about a fascinating array of  individuals from every social class and ethnic background. We learn about Harry "Kid" Homer, "a professional gambler...a first-class passenger... a gaunt, hard-faced rogue ...with all the facial charm of a prison guard."  And  Ben Guggenheim, a galivanting lecherous New York millionaire, who didn't let marriage discourage him from openly cavorting with his mistress, a chanteuse from Paris.   And John Jacob Astor, the wealthiest on board, whose recovered corpse had "$4000 in sodden notes."  What a contrast to the effects left with another deceased, a 19-year-old Greek farmworker, Vassilios Katavelas: a pocket mirror, a comb, a purse with 10 cents, and a train ticket to Milwaukee.

Most of us know about the lack of  lifeboat foresight. About Captain Edward Smith's decision not to reduce speed in a field of icebergs. About the heroism of the  men, whatever their  station in life,  to defer  to the women and children. There were exceptions of course, like Bruce Ismay, the managing director of the White Star Line, who ignominiously scrambled on to  one of the lifeboats.

Davenport-Hines devotes one chapter to recapitulating the fates of many of the survivors.  Of these, there's one story I found especially noteworthy. "Winnie Troutt became an apricot picker in California. There in 1918 she married a man with whom she ran a bakery in Beverly Hills. She married for a third time at the age of seventy-nine and retired to Hermosa Beach, California. Two months before his resignation as president of the United States, in 1974, Richard Nixon sent her a congratulatory letter on her ninetieth birthday. She crossed the Atlantic ten times---the last in her ninety-ninth year. She was a cherished figure at Titanic conventions until her late nineties, and died in Redondo Beach after celebrating her century. The disaster proved, for her, life-enhancing and life-prolonging." 

Was Winnie the inspiration for Rose in Cameron's Titanic?  I'd like to think that she was. She deserved first-class.

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