Commemorating the Titanic

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Unsinkable History

As the centennial of the tragic sinking approaches, Titanic aficionados around the world prepare to commemorate one of history’s most famous ships.

By Lois Elfman

At the time, the RMS Titanic was the largest ship in the world—a thousand tons more than her sister ship, Olympic, and capable of carrying an additional hundred passengers. She was also unmatched in terms of lavish style and craftsmanship.

Titanic left Southampton, England on April 10, 1912, and was due in New York on April 17. But at 11:50 p.m. on April 14, the seemingly unsinkable Titanic hit an iceberg and sank two hours and 40 minutes later. Of the 2,200 people on board, only 705 survived.

In the 100 years since, people have written books, made movies, assembled exhibits and studied every imaginable detail. A significant part of Titanic history involves the people who were on board, including John Jacob Astor IV, founder of The St. Regis New York, who went down with the ship.

Astor was one of many high profile, wealthy passengers aboard the ship; others included industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim and Isidor Straus, co-owner of Macy’s department store, who also perished.

 

A Tragedy in the Making

Passenger number 124 was identified by the initials “J.J.A.,” printed on the back of the collar of his shirt. At the time of his death, Astor was wearing a blue serge suit, complete with gold and diamond cufflinks, a gold watch, a diamond ring, cash in dollars, pounds and francs, as well as other personal effects.

Astor, nicknamed Jack, was the great-grandson and namesake of America’s first multimillionaire, John Jacob Astor, who made a fortune in fur trade and real estate. He was the only son of Lady Caroline Schermerhorn Astor (Mrs. Astor), the undisputed “queen” of New York society.

“She was the woman who, with her majordomo Ward McAllister, determined who was ‘in’ society and who wasn’t—the magic number being 400, or the number of persons who could fit into her ballroom,” says Valerie Paley, Ph.D., historian for special projects at the New York Historical Society. “With such pedigree, even if Jack Astor did not cut a terribly impressive figure personally, the press and public alike viewed him with awe.”

At the center of New York’s Gilded Age, Jack and Lady Astor developed a new standard of luxury hotels when they opened The St. Regis New York in 1904. It was Jack’s vision to create an environment where guests felt as comfortable as they did in their own homes; it was a time of gala parties, balls and suppers, and St. Regis was the social hub of it all.

Astor married Ava Lowle Willing in 1891 and they had two children, William Vincent Astor and Ava Alice Muriel Astor.

“Jack’s first wife played the role of Mrs. John Jacob Astor with some aplomb; the couple entertained in Astor style in their Fifth Avenue mansion, as well as at the Astor box at the Metropolitan Opera, where she held court with her mother-in-law. By October 1909, however, the couple was in divorce court,” Paley says.

Although the details of the divorce proceedings were kept confidential, the couple’s exalted position in society resulted in an air of scandal surrounding their split.

In the summer of 1910, Astor met Madeleine Talmage Force, only 17 and a recent finishing school graduate of Miss Spence’s School. She made her debut in society that December, and by February 1911, rumors circulated that the couple was planning to marry. They announced their engagement the following August, shortly after Madeleine’s 18th birthday.

“The disapproval was widespread, and clergymen in Rhode Island admonished the reverend that performed the marriage ceremony in September 1911, a terse and small affair shrouded in utmost secrecy, after which the couple departed on Astor’s steam yacht to an extended honeymoon in Europe and Egypt,” Paley says. “While away, Madeleine became pregnant, and wishing for the child to be born in the United States, the couple booked passage home on the maiden voyage of Titanic in April 1912.”

Lavish Style

The Astors and their staff—a manservant, maid and Madeleine’s private nurse, as well as a their pet Airedale—occupied cabins C-62-64, which, although first class, were rather ordinary staterooms compared to what was on the boat deck.

“By choosing a stateroom that wasn’t perhaps in the main run of the way, he was very wisely choosing to keep himself in a location where they could have some privacy on board,” says Gerry Lunn, curator of interpretation at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which has an extensive permanent Titanic exhibit. “Things like the divorce would carry onto the ship, and it would be a major topic of conversation.”

At the start of the 20th century, there were several ship lines vying for customers; two of the most prominent were Cunard Line and White Star Line.

“The ocean liner companies on the Atlantic were the center of one of the most incredible periods of marine competition and building,” says Richard MacMichael, coordinator of visitor services and interpretive programming at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. “Titanic was built at the height of this competition.

“White Star was determined to knock Cunard off its perch as the number one British company. In 1906-07, Cunard built these two magnificent ocean liners, Mauretania and Lusitania. Mauretania was the fastest ship in the world for a record 22 years.”

After building the Olympic, White Star’s engineers realized they couldn’t compete on speed with Cunard.

“This was an era when you had three really important contributing factors on the success of a ship: size, speed and luxury,” MacMichael explains. White Star went with size and luxury.

“That’s what sets Titanic apart,” he continues. “The name congers up images of this unparalleled age of luxury and style. Olympic started the tradition. Titanic, with its subtle differences, was going to be the ship that was the one to beat.”

MacMichael says Titanic drew on the grandeur of the British Empire. The woods used for paneling were oak, teak and mahogany, not just from England, but also from the corners of the British Empire, such as India and Africa. Cabins were decorated in styles reflective of the elaborate homes of the first-class passengers. There were also more modest second and third class accommodations, which were distinctly separate.

“For Olympic and Titanic, artisans from all over the United Kingdom had access to building materials from around the Empire and from around the world to ensure that people were traveling in style,” MacMichael says.

Although some first-class passengers also had private yachts as Astor did, they preferred traveling by ocean liner because of the social interaction, most of which took place in the fine dining environment. Hours before the ship sank, guests dined on delicacies like oysters, consommé Olga and filet mignon Lili. One of the bodies found was of a ship steward, who had on him a list of the passengers whose cabins he’d be serving, with notes about their individual tastes and needs.

 

The Unsinkable Ship Goes Down

Although Titanic wasn’t advertised as unsinkable, people considered it to be because of its size. This confidence was conveyed by the insufficient number of lifeboats, which were too few for the number of people on board.

On the night of April 14, Titanic traveled at full speed into a lethal field of killer icebergs, striking one at 11:50 p.m. In the early morning hours of April 15, it sank.

The lifeboats had room for 1,500 passengers, but only 705 survived. In boats built for 60, some rescued as few as five passengers. The saying “women and children first” proved disastrous.

“They should have saved 1,500 people; they saved only half that amount because the people just didn’t want to get in,” says Edward Kamuda, founder of the Titanic Historical Society in Springfield, Mass. “Women did not want to get into the boats without their husbands.”

Astor asked if he could accompany his wife because she was pregnant and was told “no.”

“He helped his young wife onto a lifeboat and did not balk when he was told that he could not accompany her, for women and children were to be saved first,” Paley says. “He then proceeded to help to calm and reassure others on the deck, and waved goodbye to his bride as her lifeboat, which, by her recollection, had room for several more, was lowered.” He was last seen smoking a cigar on the deck.

Madeleine gave birth to John Jacob Astor VI on Aug. 14, 1912.

The ship industry saw many changes after the sinking of Titanic. There must be lifeboat space for every passenger on board. The International Ice Patrol, an organization operated by the United States Coast Guard that monitors icebergs in the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans and reports movement for safety purposes, was also established to help prevent such tragedies.

 

Commemorating the Cable Ships

The first ship to reach the wreckage was the Cunard ocean liner Carpathia, which picked up the survivors and transported them to New York.

Cable ships were dispatched from Halifax to retrieve as many bodies as possible. The Mackay-Bennett found 306 bodies, considerably more than expected. The Minia found another 17 bodies. In total, 328 bodies were found. Nearly 1,200 were never recovered, some possibly trapped in the Titanic wreckage and others carried away by currents. Many of the recovered bodies were taken back to Halifax. Astor was one of the bodies that were claimed and taken home for burial.

From April 12 to the end of October 2012, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic (museum.gov.ns.ca/mmanew) will hold a special cable ship exhibit, “Cable Ships: Connecting Halifax to Titanic and the World,” part of which focuses on the ships that retrieved bodies from the Titanic wreckage. The exhibit will run concurrent with the museum’s permanent Titanic exhibit, which opened in 1997.

“Our permanent exhibit is unique because we have the world’s largest and finest collection of wooden objects from Titanic, all of which were recovered at the time of the sinking by vessels that participated in the recovery,” Lunn says.

Included among the items is a remnant of the ship’s grand staircase, a section of the newell post with little cherubs on it, as well as a fiberglass replica that people can touch.

“It gives people an amazing sense of how talented the artisans that worked on Titanic were,” Lunn says.

Cable ships laid underwater cable for communication—in effect the first worldwide web—and Halifax was a key port. The museum’s cable ship exhibit will also focus on the history of cable ships and how significant they were to cable communication between Europe and North America.

“Aboard the cable ships were crew serving a variety of roles; one of those roles was the ship’s carpenter,” Lunn says. “The sailors would retrieve a number of pieces of wood from the water. The Titanic deck chair that we have was one such piece as were the staircase pieces.

“The sailors would collect them and keep them in respectful remembrance of this fantastic ship of the time. The average person didn’t have a camera, so these were their souvenirs of the ship.

“They would often take these pieces to the ship’s carpenter. Aboard Minia was a carpenter by the name of William Parker, who would divide up these pieces and sometimes he’d make other things from it,” Lunn continues. “We have a wooden cribbage board as one of the objects in our permanent exhibit, which he created from a chunk of oak wood that was retrieved from the waters of the debris field.”

Items from each body retrieved, including Astor’s, were placed in a mortuary bag, a raw unbleached cotton canvas bag. The number on the bag matched the number of the body. The deputy registrar of deaths, Dr. John Henry Barnstead, wrote reports on each body.

Given Halifax’s place in Titanic history, over the years various items have been offered to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. Before anything is added to the exhibit, it is thoroughly vetted for authenticity.

One amazing part of the collection came from the daughter of the Marconi wireless operator in Newfoundland, who transcribed all the messages of distress that came from Titanic.

Last year, on the anniversary of the sinking of Titanic, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic had an initiative called Titanic on Twitter, in which those messages were tweeted in real time. They intend to repeat it this year.

A Century of Titanic

In 1985, the undersea wreckage of the Titanic was discovered, and major salvage expeditions ensued. Two years later, more than 1,500 items had been recovered from the debris field. In 1998, a large section of the hull was raised, despite protests from survivors and relatives of those who died, and considered the site a memorial. Many historians and most maritime museums oppose commercial salvage, but people fascinated by the history of Titanic flock in droves to see touring artifact exhibits.

Kamuda formed the Titanic Historical Society, which has nearly 4,000 members around the world, when he read that one of the survivors had died and all of his belongings were thrown on the city dump because no one claimed them. The collection is showcased in a mini-museum. The society started staging Titanic Heritage Tours in the early 1990s and has visited everyplace Titanic had been—from the shipyard where it was constructed in Belfast to the docks in Southampton.

“Everything has a story to it,” Kamuda says. “A lot of the material we have is from survivors because they wanted someone to save it.

“We have letters that survivors had written,” he adds. “We have Mrs. Astor’s life jacket. We have the buttons from a coat that one woman wore. Another woman gave us the combs she wore in her hair.”

On April 6, a revival of James Cameron’s epic 1997 film “Titanic” will hit movie screens in 3-D. The following week, on April 11—100 years to the day after Titanic departed on her fateful maiden voyage—RMS Titanic Inc., a division of Premier Exhibitions Inc., will auction off the complete collection of artifacts recovered from the Titanic wreck site. Those yearning to own a tea cup, a piece of jewelry or clothing will have to wait and see if there is a buyer and if that buyer decides to sell individual items. For now, the more than 5,000 artifacts, related intellectual property and intangibles, including archeological assets created by RMS Titanic,Inc. on its eight research and recovery missions, will be auctioned as one single collection at Guernsey’s Auction House (guernseys.com) in New York.

Part of the fascination with Titanic is simply with the enormous loss of life. Others want to see actual things from this incredible ship.

“Titanic is in a sense an Aesop fable,” MacMichael says. “Mankind becoming so full of himself that he thinks he’s conquered the seas and built ships that are unsinkable. Mankind learned an awful lot about its own frailties, pride and hubris in the aftermath of the sinking of the Titanic.”

As current events show, the Titanic spent less than four days at sea, but interest remains perpetually afloat.