A Letter From New York, April 19, 2011

As it seems to me

Last Thursday night was April 14th.

I took the time to mark that April 14th/April 15th, 2011 was the 99th anniversary of the sinking of R.M.S. Titanic, the “Ship of Dreams” which, went it went down on its maiden voyage, spawned stories, legends, lore, parables, allegories and quite a number of movies, the first a silent film starring one of the survivors, Dorothy Gibson, who was a screen star returning on Titanic from a vacation in Italy. It was called SAVED FROM THE TITANIC and was a huge hit; presaging many other films about Titanic including A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, TITANIC [with Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb] and TITANIC [with Kate Winslet and Leonardo diCaprio], which was the highest grossing film of all time for a decade. There has been a Broadway musical, documentaries and another television mini-series on its way.

We have coined the phrase “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” referring to a hopeless reorganization of anything.

It is a story that has romance to it – the rich and famous, sailing with light hearts toward New York, aboard the most glamorous ship of the day, unaware or unworried that the ship sailed with lifeboats for only a fraction of the passengers aboard.

Then came the iceberg, the swift sinking of the ship and the stories. It was a sobering message to an age that thought technology could solve anything, that nothing was impossible. Titanic was never advertised as unsinkable but it gained that reputation. It rapidly demonstrated it wasn’t.

The event provided examples of great courage. I walk regularly by Straus Park on Broadway, dedicated to Isidore and Ida Straus. He owned Macy’s; she was twice offered a place in a lifeboat but would not leave her husband of 41 years. 6000 people attended their memorial service. The eight men who had been hired to play music on board have recently been immortalized in a book, THE BAND THAT PLAYED ON. They played until almost the very end. It was said their last piece was NEARER MY GOD TO THEE.

The disaster gave us “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” a wealthy, colorful Coloradan who took command of her lifeboat when she found the crew wanting.

Below decks, men worked to give the ship as much time as possible, perhaps extending the ship’s life by two hours, giving time for all the lifeboats to get away, and keeping the lights on until the very end, suspecting they were doomed, not unlike the “Nuclear Samurai” working in the Fukushima Nuclear Power Facility, laboring on to prevent a larger disaster, while knowing they are likely dooming themselves in the process.

Aboard Titanic was John Jacob Astor, the richest man in the world. All his wealth couldn’t save him; his body was recovered, appearing that one of the ship’s four smoke stakes had fallen on him. Mrs. Astor gave birth to a son, John Jacob V, who went on to marry a woman named Brooke, who gave away millions and millions to New York and whose son now faces jail time for having swindled his mother.

Legend has it that Titanic was the first ship to send out the distress call, SOS. One radio operator survived, the other did not.

The event presaged the end of an age. It shook the world to its core. That glittering world in which the rich were the celebrities of the time, where titles mattered dearly, and technology could overcome ended absolutely when the First World War tore it all apart.

It was a sobering moment. The Coast Guard began monitoring icebergs; ships were never again allowed to sail without sufficient lifeboats, rules changed. J. Bruce Ismay, head of Titanic’s owner, White Star Line, survived the night though his reputation did not and he lived his life out in scorned exile.

There are no longer living survivors of the night, the last, a baby then, passed away in 2009. Yet the sinking of Titanic lives on, a real event that became legend, large in life, larger in legend – a powerful allegory of pride that goes before the fall.

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