Mrs Straus’s Devotion

Jenny Diski

  • BuyLast Dinner on the ‘Titanic’: Menus and Recipes from the Great Liner by Rick Archbold and Dana McCauley
    Weidenfeld, 128 pp, £9.99, April 1997, ISBN 1 86448 250 8
  • The ‘Titanic’ Complex by John Wilson Foster
    Belcouver, 92 pp, £5.99, April 1997, ISBN 0 9699464 1 4
  • Down with the Old Canoe by Steven Biel
    Norton, 300 pp, £18.95, April 1997, ISBN 0 393 03965 X

We are moved but not overwrought at the fate of those who died at Pompeii, with the sinking of the Mary Rose, during the San Francisco earthquake and at the collapse of the Tay Bridge. We respond much more uneasily to the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise, the Estonia and the Marchioness. Lives cut short are less poignant once, to paraphrase Beckett, they would have died anyway. We are on the cusp of having the emotional load of the sinking of the Titanic lightened, but not quite there yet. As I write, there are at least two, and possibly seven, very elderly survivors of the disaster still alive, but late 20th-century impatience – with age, with taste, for trivia – has made us run a little ahead of ourselves. So it is with unconcealed regret that the authors of the Titanic cookbook point out that there is no way of knowing exactly what was on the menu at the super-first class A la Carte restaurant on the evening of 14 April 1912, because ‘unfortunately, none of the surviving passengers who ate there on the last evening tucked a copy of the menu into the pocket of a dinner-jacket, so we can only surmise what the bill of fare included.’ That would not be an insurmountable obstacle in itself: one of the less fortunate passengers might have provided the clue. A damaged but still partly legible menu from 12 April ‘recovered from the body of a third-class passenger’ is given a full-page reproduction (porridge, smoked herrings and jacket potatoes for breakfast), to prove the authenticity of the small steerage-class recipe section that follows.

The problem here is modern longevity. It is, after all, 85 years since the unsinkable liner sank; how long are we expected to wait before we can get down to building the Titanic theme park? Now, with this glossy volume, the Titanic experience can be yours – at least the dry part of it. Along with the recipes for the dishes served that night in first, second and steerage class, there are complete instructions for hosting a Titanic dinner party: ‘The more you can choreograph the evening to create a period atmosphere, the more you and your guests will feel as though you’ve travelled back in time to the evening of 14 April 1912.’ In order to get fully into the spirit of things, formal invitations and dress advice should be sent out weeks in advance on facsimiles of actual cabin tickets ‘filled out with their names, the number of servants accompanying them, and the number of cubic feet of luggage to be taken’. Apparently, the compilers of Last Dinner on the ‘Titanic’ are not anticipating that many readers will re-enact the last meal in steerage, though a perfectly edible supper of vegetable soup, roasted pork with sage and pearl onions and plum pudding with sweet sauce is included for the down-market fantasists among us. This is perhaps the first of a series of last suppers, to include recipes and suggestions for staging a Hiroshima sashimi evening, a Dresden barbecue, the Marchioness cocktail party, and God knows what they munched with the Marquis during the 120 days of Sodom, but I dare say they rustled up something on day 119 that we could re-create in our own dining-rooms.

Fantasy and cultural myth-making have been the main responses to the sinking of the Titanic almost from the moment the news was received in the wider world. Titanic has abounded in meaning, the actual event almost submerged by its multiple suitability as social metaphor. Analogy is irresistible when a vast floating city is scuppered in a glacially calm sea by the overlooked remnants of an off-the-beaten-track iceberg. The Titanic foundered because the sea was calm: no one expected trouble and the smoothness of the waves concealed the jagged lump of ice that would have been tossed and therefore made visible in a stormier ocean. The ship, hailed as the apotheosis of progress and modern engineering, sank so rapidly as a result of brittle fracture, the low-grade steel of the period breaking violently when chilled. The bald meteorological and technological facts are overwhelmed by the irony of calm waters and fragile steel scuttling the complacency of the very rich in first class, and the hopes of the dispossessed in steerage. The Titanic was a ship of fools. As John Wilson Foster tells us, the grand staircase came in William and Mary style, though the balustrade was Louis XIV; the first-class dining saloon and reception rooms were Jacobean, the restaurant Louis XVI, the lounge Louis XV (Versailles), the reading and writing-room late Georgian, the smoking-room early Georgian. The women’s clothes were newly purchased from Paris couture houses; and tucked into a pocket of whatever finely-cut suit the bibliophile Harry Widener was wearing (for all we know, along with that elusive A la Carte menu) was a 1598 edition – possibly the only copy – of Bacon’s essays. ‘If he was lost at sea,’ he had promised the London dealer, ‘the Bacon would go down clasped to his heart.’ In keeping with common ideas of the behaviour of the very rich, the Titanic cookbook explains that the A la Carte restaurant, whose food and service were superior even to the first-class dining-room, was not part of the White Star liner’s inclusive price. Passengers who took their meals there instead of the first-class saloon, paid at the time for what they ate, though they were entitled to apply for a rebate at the end of the voyage. After the sinking of the Titanic, several survivors put in their claims for a rebate, confirming, we are told by the cookbook’s authors, who know how to extrapolate what is important from such details, ‘that the restaurant had become an immediate hit’. One longs to know whether the applications were merely for their own extra expenditure on food, or if they included the bills of their lost loved ones’ gourmet feasts.

Of all the emblematic themes that surrounded the sinking of the Titanic, the apparent obedience to the principle of ‘women and children first’ was the most engaging. It confirmed not just the idea of the difference between the sexes, but also the innate nobility of the upper classes, for a world on the brink of the Great War. The survivor statistics offered by Steven Biel tell something of the gender story: 94 per cent of first-cabin women and children survived compared to 31 per cent of first-cabin men; 81 per cent of second-cabin and 47 per cent of steerage women survived against 10 per cent and 14 per cent respectively of men in those two classes. As a story of social class rather than gender, the overall figures show that 60 per cent of first-cabin passengers, 44 per cent of second-cabin and 25 per cent of steerage passengers survived.

‘Does not the heart of every true American woman go out in tender loyalty to those brave men of the Titanic who yielded their valuable lives that the weak and helpless might live?’ asked a letter-writer in the New York Times. There is more here than a mere paean to old-world chivalry and one in the eye for the army of suffragists demanding equal rights: there is a note of regret that such financial and industrial eminences as John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim, Isidor Straus and Harry Widener should have given up their lives not just to their own women, but to impoverished foreigners – the Guggenheims and Strauses apparently being accorded an honorary Aryanness for the occasion. The San Francisco Examiner eulogised the heroes whose place in the lifeboats and in the world was taken ‘by some sabot-shod, shawl-enshrouded, illiterate and penniless woman of Europe’. The essential nobility of the rich and famous, indeed the natural rightness of their wealth and fame, was confirmed by the public image of these men standing on the deck in tuxedos, smoking elegant cigarettes while the Titanic slipped ineluctably under the water. For the virulently anti-suffragist and those especially alarmed by suffragist demands for more liberal divorce laws, Ida Straus, the wife of the Macy’s executive, became a feminine icon as she refused her place in the lifeboat, choosing instead to stay and die with her husband. ‘In this day of frequent and scandalous divorces,’ declaimed one editorial, ‘when the marriage tie once held so sacred to all is too lightly regarded, the wifely devotion and love of Mrs Straus for her partner of a lifetime stand out in noble contrast.’

The Titanic was known to be unsinkable, however. The slowness to react of everyone from the crew to the passengers testifies to the lack of alarm. It is entirely possible that the men who waited on the deck with such aplomb did not believe their lives to be in imminent danger. The ship sank astonishingly fast after what seemed a minor collision with a small iceberg. The visible evidence of damage was minimal. As Biel points out, ‘the attitude of the first-cabin male passengers might just as well have been complacency as heroic calm.’ One surviving passenger remembered that at the time he left the Titanic there was difficulty in filling all the lifeboats, as the danger had not yet been fully realised by the passengers. It might well have seemed that a place in the lifeboat was no more than an extra safety precaution and further, Biel suggests, the chances of the women surviving in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic in an open lifeboat were considerably less than those of the men waiting on deck for the crisis to blow over. If we aren’t happy at the suggestion that the heroes of the Titanic might have been doing little more than paying lip-service to chivalry, and were in fact in what they thought, until it was too late, was the optimum situation, then perhaps our times are less transgressive than they seem. But perhaps this interpretation makes a dismal modern sense of apparently altruistic behaviour. Moreover, the Strauses’ example of marital fidelity was balanced by several clandestine liaisons. The two sons of a wealthy Frenchman from Nice were saved. Their father had run off with their governess and, changing his name to Hoffman, sailed from Cherbourg on the Titanic. Kate Phillips was 19 and pregnant by her wealthy employer, Henry Morley. He, too, had abandoned his wife and sailed with his lover under the name of Mr and Mrs Marshall. He died, she was saved, and the surviving daughter is campaigning to have Henry Morley legally identified as her father. The playboy, John Jacob Astor, reinstated as a hero after the sinking, had been in poor public favour in the States, having ditched his wife for a much younger woman, with whom he had fled to France to avoid the scandal. He was ‘the world’s greatest monument to unearned income’; Harry Widener, whose accumulation of priceless antiquarian books kept him occupied and sailing the oceans in search of further acquisitions, came a close second.

Biel is American and his admirable investigation of the cultural history of the Titanic has a transatlantic skew – not unreasonably since a large proportion of the passengers were either American or emigrants from Europe, heading for a new life there. The American-ness of his approach takes a bit of getting used to if, like me, all you had previously known about the Titanic had come from the 1958 film A Night to Remember. It’s years since I saw it, but the overwhelming impression I have of it is the immaculate Britishness of the event, all black and white, clipped accents, Kenneth More and the evening-suited band on the sinking deck playing ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ (they didn’t, it was actually something called ‘Song d’Automne’, just as elegiac but possibly not as catchy). The American film industry has only now appropriated the story with James Cameron’s as yet unreleased movie (a Broad-way musical version had to be postponed this spring when the stage Titanic refused to sink), but there are clear echoes of the Titanic in the very wonderful 1972 Poseidon Adventure, an upside-down version of nemesis at sea, and in the greatest disaster movie of them all, The Towering Inferno, which is clearly a vertical, dry-land trope for the engulfing of the Titanic. All the elements are there. Fire replaces water, but isolation and greed are the central themes: the design shortcuts of the skyscraper representing the lack of lifeboats, the idle rich at their unreachable penthouse party; death in fancy dress and with gourmet food, the sacrifice of male lives in favour of elegantly clad women and the occasional cad who gets his just desserts after attempting to save his own skin.

Although no blacks were on board, the Titanic has somehow managed to include racial tension among its meanings. The contemporary newspaper account of a white but grimy stoker attempting to steal the lifebelt of a radio operator who had heroically remained behind to continue calling for help, rapidly became a story of a murderous Negro stoker with a knife. But black Americans made their own contributions to Titanic mythology with bluesman Leadbelly composing a song that had the world heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, bidding a gleeful farewell to the doomed ship from the dock, having tried to board, and been told by Captain Smith: ‘I ain’t hauling no coal.’ Biel describes how the Titanic disaster became part of black urban folklore in the mythic person of ‘Shine’, the apocryphal stoker, who in numerous narrative poems is the only person on board capable of swimming to safety and refuses to help the whites who offer him all the treasures they have laid up on earth:

when all them white folks went to heaven,
Shine was in Sugar Ray’s bar drinking
Seagram’s Seven

The Titanic belonged to everyone. Bob Dylan uses it in ‘Desolation Row’, which depicts ‘a rock vision of contemporary apocalypse’:

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
Everybody’s shouting
Which side are you on?

It was, of course, a gift for those who saw disaster in modernity. The ship was supposed to be the slickest, fastest vessel ever. The maiden trip was an attempt to break the record for an Atlantic crossing, which is one reason so many notables were on board. Yet, as Biel points out, it was one of the last occasions when death on the move permitted a degree of gentility. For all the speed with which the ship sank, it still took two hours and 40 minutes to go down. It was precisely this time lapse that allowed decisions to be made about the manner of living and dying. Heroism, or even cowardice, is hardly possible under modern circumstances. The Times ended its review of A Night to Remember: ‘This air age, when death commonly comes too swiftly for heroism or with no survivors to record it, can still turn with wonder to an age before yesterday when a thousand deaths at sea seemed the very worst the world must suffer.’ By the late Fifties the nuclear age had begun and death in fancy dress looked like a luxury. And if the world hasn’t become classless in the ensuing decades, no one can feel reassured that the purchase of a first-class ticket on an airliner will give them a statistical survival advantage over economy passengers.

Still, none of this quite accounts for the fervour which the 85-year-old disaster still produces. Collectors of memorabilia, amateur historians, curators of private museums, writers of innumerable websites, regular visitors to conventions form a kind of religious cult for which the Titanic is the sacred text. There are passionate arguments about salvaging the wreckage, now possible with our own leading-edge technology. There are those who simply hanker after memorabilia, some who approve a memorial museum, yet others who regard the sunken hulk and its contents as lying in consecrated ground. There is even a schism: the Titanic Historical Society, with headquarters in landlocked Indian Orchard, Massachusetts, suffered a breakaway and the founding of Titanic International, whose supporters claimed that the election of THS officers was undemocratic and the leadership of Ed Kamuda despotic. The Titanic buffs are in the grip of an all-consuming, nostalgic, trainspotting passion for the past. ‘Today everything’s tourist class,’ moans Kamuda, who along with the evils of classlessness, also cites feminism as responsible for contemporary social turmoil and decline. The Titanic, he says, represents the loss of ‘a way of life which I and others long for’. Like believers in reincarnation who don’t doubt that in previous lives they were pharaohs and potentates rather than slaves and serfs, so the dreamers of Titanic days assume their places would have been in the first-class smoking room rather than the boiler-room. That’s what the past, if not history, is for. If, ultimately, we are all passengers on the Titanic (the cosmic implications of a ship lost in the void of an empty sea are not easily resisted), at least we can go down with our dreams of exquisitely adorned heroism intact. Or as the authors of the Titanic cookbook put it, contrasting a criticism by Charles Dickens of the poor first-class fare aboard Cunard’s Britannia in 1842, ‘no such complaints are recorded from any of the Titanic’s survivors.’