The Canadian Hugh Brewster joined the committed ranks of Titanic-philes in the mid-1980s, when he spent a year creating a book from images and data of Robert Ballard’s discovery of the wreck. In Brewster’s new book, “Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage,” he revisits the ill-fated trans-Atlantic crossing as experienced by the “rare gathering” of famous and affluent among the approximately 1,500 who died and the 705 who survived.
Brewster’s nuanced account introduces us to a plutocracy frolicking in the sunset of England’s Edwardian era and America’s Gilded Age. He pushes past stereotypes to vividly describe the elite realm on deck, a place where the American politico Archie Butt, a right-hand man to Presidents Roosevelt and Taft, might have shared pleasantries with Capt. Edward J. Smith or chatted with John Jacob Astor IV as he exercised his Airedale, Kitty. A bugler’s call signaled passengers to rise from their gilt-edged loungers in the Turkish bath, or to put down their stogies in the opulent public room designed to emulate Versailles, and descend the grand staircase in white tie and splendid gowns for a lusty meal including “Oysters à la Russe,” “Chocolate Painted Éclairs” and, of course, Champagne (more than 22,000 bottles of wine, beer and spirits were onboard). The women would have had to go light on the 11-course meal, as most were still squeezed into corsets. The inconceivable distance between this twinkling reality and death in the dark, icy waters was but a few hours.
The haunting moans and pleas of those pitched into the sea — and even worse, the silence that followed — are what plague the subjects in “Shadow of the Titanic,” by the British journalist and biographer Andrew Wilson. Many survivors suppressed memories of the event, but nearly all reported that the “awful, nightmarish cries” of those dying in the water were never forgotten.
Not belaboring the oft-told details of the disaster itself, Wilson profiles those who ended up in the lifeboats and explores their methods of “psychological survival.” Lady Duff Gordon, a designer of exquisite gowns who had a rags-to-riches biography, certainly cuts a memorable figure in a silk kimono as she and her husband, Cosmo, are paddled away from the ship with seven crew members and only five passengers (all first class) in a boat that could have held 40. But the meat of Wilson’s story lies in the years that followed. Cosmo never recovered from accusations of cowardice, the likes of which shamed many first-class male survivors (some deservedly, some not). His wife reported that “to the end of his life he grieved at the slur which had been cast on his honor.” Lady Duff Gordon, Wilson explains, responded with a hefty ego and traded on her Titanic notoriety to extend her dress empire.
And what of J. Bruce Ismay — chairman of the White Star Line, which owned the Titanic — who on the fated night of April 14 let an iceberg warning languish in his pocket for several hours? He escaped the sinking, but his life was “ruined by his survival,” Wilson writes. Ismay, an insecure rich kid and a “masochist at heart,” had the perfect psychological profile to become a willing “whipping boy.” He saw his suffering as a small price to pay for the loss of life he had caused and “wallowed” over the catastrophe for 25 years. His granddaughter described him as a “corpse.”
Holly Morris is a presenter on the PBS series “Globe Trekker” and the author of “Adventure Divas: Searching the Globe for a New Kind of Heroine.”