BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
Beginning where most other Titanic books end
, November 10, 2012
SHADOW OF THE TITANIC:
The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived
by Andrew Wilson
(London: Simon and Schuster UK)
Paperback: 400 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
Few people have ever heard of the 1914 maritime disaster involving the modest-sized ocean liner, the RMS Empress of Ireland, which collided in dense fog with a Norwegian collier in the Saint Lawrence River and swiftly sank. Of the 1,477 persons on board, 1,012 perished.
By contrast, everyone has heard of the 1912 disaster of the RMS Titanic. During its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, the supposedly “unsinkable” Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and, after two and a half hours, sank. Some 1,502 men, women and children perished in the freezing waters. Only 705 made it to lifeboats and survived.
Most books, articles and documentaries on the Titanic disaster focus mainly on the building of the ship, the euphoria surrounding its maiden voyage, its sinking and the immediate aftermath.
However, British journalist Andrew Wilson, to mark the centenary of this maritime tragedy, has written a book, Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived, in which he is chiefly concerned with the fates of a cross-section of those who survived the disaster.
Wilson reminds his readers that, during the inter-war period, public interest in the disaster waned. It was rekindled in 1953 with the release of the American film Titanic, starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck.
In 1955, American author Walter Lord produced his bestselling book, A Night to Remember, based on years of research into the testimony of Titanic survivors. Relying extensively on Lord’s work, the British in 1958 produced the classic drama film, A Night to Remember, starring Kenneth More, which is still widely regarded as “the definitive cinematic telling of the story”.
Since then, interest in the Titanic has never waned, and Lord’s book has never been out of print. However, until the publication of Wilson’s book, it was easy to assume that most of the survivors of the tragedy went on to live relatively uneventful and functional lives.
A disproportionate number of those surveyed in Wilson’s book were first-class passengers. This in itself is not surprising as some of them left written accounts; and a good number were prominent members of society whose subsequent careers are comparatively easy to research.
The significant discovery that Wilson’s study has unearthed is that most of the survivors he has written about suffered profoundly in the years following the sinking. It seems that many of them suffered from what would now be classified as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Ten of them committed suicide.
One of those who later took his own life was Jack Thayer, who, as a 17-year-old male first-class passenger on the Titanic, survived the sinking by climbing onto and balancing himself precariously on an upturned collapsible lifeboat. Twenty-one years later, during World War II, he learned that one of his two sons had been killed in combat. Jack fell into a deep depression, and in 1945 committed suicide.
The wealthiest passenger to die in the Titanic disaster was the millionaire divorcee John Jacob Astor IV. His new teenage bride, Madeleine, who survived him, was five months pregnant at the time. In 1916, she went on to marry her childhood sweetheart, the banker William Karl Dick, and in doing so lost a substantial portion of her inheritance from Astor’s estate. The couple divorced in 1933. Four months later, she married 26-year-old Italian prize-fighter Enzo Fiermonte, who drained her of her wealth and physically abused her. They divorced in 1938. Madeleine, prematurely aged, although only 46, died in 1940.
A number of other survivors, such as theatre manager Renee Harris, suffered business failure, largely due to her overspending, and was reduced to poverty. Two others, Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon and his famous dressmaker wife, came under a cloud, with allegations that that they had bribed crew members in their almost empty lifeboat not to row back and rescue other survivors.
However, the general public reserved its greatest vitriol for J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, the company which owned the Titanic. Deemed a “cad” for taking a place in the last lifeboat while there were people still aboard the stricken ocean liner, Ismay suffered social ostracism for the rest of his life.
The psychological strain of the disaster took an interesting twist with silent screen actress Dorothy Gibson. On arriving in New York, she hatched a plan with a film producer (whom she later married) to star in a movie, Saved from the Titanic, which was released a month after the sinking and went on to become a huge hit. During the filming, she chose to put on the very dress she had been wearing when rescued. Re-enacting the recent disaster proved too much for her, and she broke down on the set.
The latter chapters of the book explore the public’s ongoing fascination with the Titanic.
The final chapter explores the stories of the last living survivors. The very last of them, Millvina Dean, died in 2009 aged 97. At nine weeks old, she had been the youngest passenger aboard the Titanic. Although she had no recollection of the sinking, she was nevertheless feted by the media.
Shadow of the Titanic is an absorbing series of biographies of various survivors, although some of the details can be somewhat dry. It is a work that can perhaps be better enjoyed when read one chapter at a time rather than as a continuous work.