Ms. Kalstrom, 61, plays Ms. Brown in period dress in a new Titanic exhibit at the here in Denver, where the Browns once lived. In April, Ms. Kalstrom will embark from Southampton, England, on a re-enactment of the Titanic’s fatal cruise, planning to lead fireside chats as Molly — formally known as Margaret — and blogging along the way.
Howard Owens, an accountant near Riverside, Calif., who also admits to a Titanic fascination since childhood, is taking the plunge, too. He will be with Ms. Kalstrom and more than 1,300 other passengers, guest lecturers and authors.
On the evening of April 14, the Balmoral cruise ship will arrive at the spot where the Titanic sank 100 years ago. A memorial service will be held there at 2:20 a.m. on April 15, when the Titanic went down. Mr. Owens, 56, and his wife, Terry, spent close to $11,000 each for the 12-night crossing, which will also require him to shut down his office at the worst possible time.
“A client of mine said, ‘Why would you close at the middle of the tax season?’ I said, ‘I didn’t pick the day the Titanic sank,’ ” Mr. Owens said. “I have to be there. I just have to.”
A Titanic wave of myth, memory and moneymaking is about to wash and slosh over the planet. There may be no escape.
In some places, the frenzy has already begun. At “,” in Orlando, Fla., a “Jack and Rose look-alike contest” was held this month — in honor, or promotion, of the characters in the 1997 hit movie, which is in time for the anniversary.
At in Missouri, which also hosts weddings and “Titanic Princess Tea Parties,” an actress playing a shipboard maid is reading one story a day of a survivor or victim, in a 100-day webcast countdown to the anniversary. New museums have sprouted — in , where the ship was built, and , from which it sailed — and exhibits have settled into place from Las Vegas to Bangkok.
“I go to another city, and it’s, ‘Oh my God, the Titanic exhibit is still there,’ “ said Kevin Sandler, an associate professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University who has written about the Titanic and culture. “They go on for years.”
But the Titanic’s lasting imprint is not just the story that never gets old for many people, with its historical resonance of hubris and technology — the supposedly perfect ship that sank after hitting an iceberg on its first outing — or the sense of doom that haunts the retelling.
Some disaster experts say the Titanic’s tale has now in many ways insinuated itself into how real disasters are perceived, and even how they unfold. Through a combination of cultural forces in the information age, they say — the movies, the hundreds of books on the subject — the Titanic’s loss and how people responded to it have become a filter for seeing disasters in general.
On Sept. 11, 2001, for example, when thousands of people were being evacuated across the Hudson River to New Jersey after the attacks on the World Trade Center, some ferry boat captains actually used the phrase that perhaps more than any other became associated with the Titanic as passengers and crew rushed for lifeboats:
“Women and children first!”
“We saw that on a video clip,” said James M. Kendra, the director of the at the University of Delaware, which has just completed a study of the Hudson River evacuations. The Titanic, Professor Kendra said, has become “a cultural meme,” a free-floating mix of reality and fantasy in the media age.
But the resurgence of everything Titanic is also fueled by questions of class and privilege — a major theme of the Titanic’s reality back then, reinforced and reshaped now, Titanic buffs and scholars say, by the Occupy Wall Street movement and the accompanying discussion of the 99 percent and the 1 percent. Among first-class , more than 6 in 10 survived, including 97 percent of the women. Among third-class passengers, only one in four survived.
That focus on class is again elevating the profile of , a socialite and suffragist who became a heroine after the disaster in part by willfully violating the class-conscious boundaries of her day.
Ms. Brown, who was 44, organized a survivors’ committee on the rescue ship, the Carpathia, as it sailed for New York, and included everyone regardless of what class ticket a passenger had bought. (A facility with languages — some biographies say she was conversant in French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish — helped her task on a ship with many immigrants.)
Growing fame after the disaster then augmented her clout in working for causes she had long espoused, from women’s rights to organized labor, that were not always popular in the moneyed world she was part of.
“She ends up being one of the few unassailable heroes of the sinking,” said Gaylyn Studlar, a professor of humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. And in America — and perhaps most notably here in Denver, where the Browns were a symbol of rising Western wealth, theirs made through gold mining — the story of Ms. Brown’s life-after-disaster also resonated as a kind of morality tale, something good coming from something bad.
“Americans like the idea of a woman who defied class structures,” Professor Studlar said.
But while Ms. Kalstrom will be shipboard celebrating all things Molly for the anniversary, Ms. Brown’s great-granddaughter Helen Benziger will be on dry land, thank you very much.
Ms. Benziger, who has spoken around the world about the Titanic and her famous great-grandmother, consented to two appearances for the anniversary — at museums in Missouri and in Tennessee. In addition to Molly Brown, Ms. Benziger said in a telephone interview from the cabin in Wyoming where she lives, another relative was a survivor of the Andrea Doria, the ocean liner that sank off the coast of Massachusetts in 1956.
“I’ve taken one voyage myself,” she said. That was a few years ago, when she was invited to speak aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2, sailing from England to New York.
“Thirty-foot seas the whole way,” she said. “No thanks.”