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A new look at the Titanic disaster

Created date

April 11th, 2014
Titanic book cover: Gilded Lives
Titanic book cover: Gilded Lives

The maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic should have been a celebratory event from start to finish.

In every way, she was a testament to human ingenuity.

Ten stories high and 882 feet long, she was the largest man-made object afloat, equipped with the latest technological marvels—electric lighting, elevators, wireless radio communications, emergency watertight compartments. Magazines and newspapers heralded her as a maritime wonder.

One person went so far as to proclaim that, “Not even God himself could sink this ship.” Yet, sink she did.

On the night of April 14, 1912, a collision with an iceberg sent Titanic and 1,523 of her passengers into the depths of the Atlantic. Despite her 20 lifeboats, which together were capable of holding over 1,200 people, a mere 705 made it off alive, most of them women and children who watched in horror as their husbands and fathers went down with the ship or froze to death in the icy water.

‘The unsinkable subject’

Writers and filmmakers have reproduced various renditions of this epic tragedy countless times and often with embellished romance. Today, Titanic’s story remains what Walter Lord, author of the 1955 classic A Night to Remember, once called “the unsinkable subject.”

There’s no shortage of books about the ill-fated ship; and writers who take a stab at any facet of this well-worn tale face fierce competition in producing something fresh and relevant. That’s just what you’ll find in Hugh Brewster’s Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic’s First-Class Passengers and Their World (Broadway, 2012).

A seasoned historian, Brewster has 25 years’ experience as an editor, publisher, and author of books about the ship. This latest volume is his finest work.

In numerous accounts, Titanic is the protagonist and the passengers supporting players reduced to empty labels like “millionaire John Jacob Astor.” Brewster’s book shifts the focus to the people themselves and provides a collection of fascinating sketches that are both compelling and memorable.

The ship’s first-class manifest reads like a who’s who list of the rich and famous—choice vestiges of the waning Edwardian era representing the money, art, and politics of the day.

There was Titanic’s wealthiest passenger John Jacob Astor IV and his pregnant wife Madeleine, elegant, demure, and, scandalously, twenty-nine years younger than her husband. Mingling with the couple was renowned artist Frank Millet, who was bound for the United States as a consultant on the design of Washington’s Lincoln Memorial.

Also sailing with them was the risqué fashion designer Lucile, Lady Duff Gordon, and President Taft’s affable military aide Archie Butt, who was returning home in preparation for the upcoming election.

Although a preponderance of the existing literature would have us believe otherwise, Brewster makes it clear that passage on the luxury liner was hardly a pleasure cruise for many in first class.

Margaret Brown, immortalized in popular culture as “the unsinkable Molly Brown,” had booked a stateroom after receiving news that her grandchild had fallen seriously ill. And Arthur and Emily Ryerson were heading home to Pennsylvania to arrange the funeral of their 21-year-old son, a Yale student killed in a car accident during the Easter weekend.

Such somber details rescue this tragedy from the realm of quixotic fantasy and transform it back to what it actually was, a painfully true story about real people. Of course, Brewster’s book is illuminating in less morose ways as well.

He offers highly visual descriptions of the furnishings, the amenities, and the daily living schedules that these notable passengers kept while at sea. Thanks to Brewster’s seamless transitions and extensive knowledge of the ship’s layout, his audience glides about the promenade deck, the dining saloon, and the gentlemen’s smoking room witnessing life in first class and the last living hours of those enjoying it. 

In fact, Brewster’s recreation of the ship’s final moments is most significant. Few books rival it in the way of cinematic narrative and humanity, for his depiction reveals mankind at its best and worst.

Some first-class passengers understood the awful gravity of the situation—that more than half of those on board would die—but there were others who hopped into a lifeboat as if the whole thing were some kind of a lark.

So powerful is Brewster’s portrayal of this cold, starlit night that the reader cannot help but ask, “What would I have done?”