April, according to the poet, is the cruelest month, and it got crueler 106 years ago when the Titanic hit the iceberg—and Hollywood the jackpot, after the sinking. Being a shipowner’s son—tankers and dry cargoes, not passenger ships—I sympathized with the owners, White Star Line, pushing the envelope to set a record, but still. Going full out in a minefield of icebergs known to lurk nine-tenths beneath the water’s surface is like defending Harvey Weinstein nowadays—one’s bound to end up in the you-know-what.
The great ship went down on April 15, 1912, with the loss of 1,517 lives, and a new exhibition at England’s National Maritime Museum gathers many of the real-life stories that took place on that fateful night. It has very little to do with what we’ve seen on the screen up till now, and even less to do with the myths about the tragic sinking.
Unsurprisingly, the British press played up the British stiff upper lip to the hilt. Children and women first became the order of the night, while first-class swells stoically continued their bridge rubbers and downed their final whiskeys. According to reports, the only ones missing were Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. In reality, Captain Smith was never seen after the crunch, although he did go down with the ship. Bewildered officers went about their business trying to load the eighteen—yes, only eighteen—lifeboats, wondering where the good captain was.
Hollywood also had the small band of five men playing “Nearer My God to Thee” as the water swallowed them up. None of the survivors remembered anything like that, and I certainly wouldn’t blame the poor musicians for leaving their posts. But it makes for a good story, and when was the last time the press or Hollywood could resist a weepie? Of the 109 children on board, 52 died, all of them from third class. The spoiled little monsters from first class survived to the last diaper. According to the exhibition, the #MeToos in the lifeboats behaved with less gallantry than the men. The women, however, did go first, as did the children, and it is pointed out that back in 1912 the big fight in Britain was that women were demanding equality, but on board the Titanic they demanded priority. (Incidentally, women and children first is a nautical myth, most likely invented by the tabloid press.)
Feminism took a blow as the Titanic slowly broke up and went under the black ocean. The press and radio—mercifully there was no internet back then to further muddy the waters—made a big thing of traditional values, men standing shoulder to shoulder, stoically watching the women pile into the lifeboats. The reality was slightly different. There was panic and mayhem on deck, with third-class passengers storming the lifeboats, forcing officers to shoot in the air. The newspapers at the time ignored the mayhem because the big danger back then was the suffragette movement, so they came up with the “Votes or Boats?” slogan to deter the feminist voices demanding equality. (I wonder what Rose McGowan would have done had she encountered Harvey ensconced in a lifeboat; would she have climbed on board?)
Immediately following the disaster, the spin machine went into overtime. The British newspapers described the men who managed to get on a lifeboat and save themselves as Italians. In a Hungarian postcard of the time, British officers were depicted as drunk and debauched. The first film I saw about the Titanic was a German-made movie, which my German nanny took me to see when I was 7. It was released in 1943, and in it the only people who remained calm and behaved with restraint were the German passengers and officers. I remember it well, and my beloved but stern fräulein confirmed the film’s veracity. Actually the Titanic’s passengers included Chinese, Russians, Australians, as well as English, Irish, and Americans. I don’t know why the poor Italians got so much stick, there were hardly any on board.