Tuesday 24 April 2018

Review: Biography: How to Survive the Titanic: The sinking of J Bruce Ismay by Frances Wilson

Bloomsbury, £12.99

At 1.45am on April 15, 1912, an hour and a half after the Titanic hit the iceberg, J Bruce Ismay, president of the company that built the ship, jumped into one of the last lifeboats to leave on the starboard side. At 6ft 4in, Ismay towered over the other survivors sitting on the boards, most of them women and children, none of whom had any idea who he was.

Author Frances Wilson on

J Bruce Ismay, the man who

built the doomed liner, then lived

in shame after jumping into

a lifeboat when she sank

Thirty minutes later, those few who had been allocated places in the half-empty boats now rowing away from the sinking ship watched, mesmerised, as she turned on her nose and made her final plunge, taking with her 1,500 people.

"I know it must have been the most extraordinary sight I shall ever be called upon to witness," one survivor recalled. Ismay, however, with his back to the scene, kept his eyes fixed on the distance. "I did not wish to see her go down," he later confessed.

He said he had been helping with the rowing, but this seems unlikely: not only was he facing the wrong way, but he was in no state to do anything physical. When he left the sinking ship, Ismay stepped into a bottomless well. His hair apparently turned white overnight, and those on the rescue ship, the Carpathia, said that his body in the lifeboat was as stiff and lifeless as a marble statue.

On board the Carpathia, while other survivors slept on dining room tables, Ismay insisted on a private cabin. Here, he spent the next four days under an opiate. Meanwhile, stories about his conduct began to circulate among the widows on board. Some said he had left in the first boat, others that he had demanded his own crew to row him away; while the ship's barber, August Weikman, swore that Ismay had been ordered into a boat by the chief officer.

Ismay himself would always deny Weikman's account -- a version of his survival that would have rebuffed any accusation of cowardice. In his public testimony, Ismay said that he jumped from the Titanic of his own volition, leaving behind him an empty ship.

The mystery of his actions intensified when Emily Ryerson, a first-class passenger -- returning to New York for the funeral of her son and now also burying her husband -- revealed that she and her friend, Marian Thayer, had met Ismay on deck on the fatal day and been shown, by him, an ice warning.

"Will you be slowing down?" Mrs Ryerson inquired. "Certainly not," Ismay replied. Ismay's concern, Mrs Ryerson said, was with crossing the Atlantic in record time.

The news of an ice warning came as a shock.

"It was not then the unavoidable accident we had hitherto supposed," one survivor later wrote, "the sudden plunging into a region crowded with icebergs which no seamen, however skilled, could have avoided. It is no exaggeration to say that men who went through all the experiences of the collision and the rescue . . . with hardly a tremor, were quite overcome by the knowledge and turned away, unable to speak."

The only person to stand up for Ismay was Mrs Thayer, whose husband had also died that night. It seems that Ismay, who had met Mrs Thayer during the voyage, had fallen in love with her.

By the end of the week, when the Titanic survivors were ashore, everyone knew who J Bruce Ismay was: he had become, as a headline in the Daily Mirror put it, "The most talked-of man in all the world".

"Mr Ismay cares for nobody but himself," declared one American paper. "He passes through the most stupendous tragedy untouched and unmoved. He leaves his ship to sink with its powerless cargo of lives and does not care to lift his eyes. He crawls through unspeakable disgrace to his own safety."

It was revealed by the Titanic's chief designer that it had been Ismay's decision to limit the number of lifeboats; the davits, fitted to hold 48 boats, instead carried 16 -- which was still in excess of the British Board of Trade's requirements. Why litter the deck, Ismay is said to have argued, when the ship is herself a lifeboat?

Within hours of landing in New York, Ismay was called as the first witness at the hastily convened US Senate inquiry into the tragedy. Barely able to speak -- Ismay had never made a public statement in his life -- he described himself as a passenger and not a member of the crew, and thus justified in saving his own life. Ismay's right to live depended on his status on the ship: the problem was that he slipped through all the categories. He knew, he said, nothing about navigation, but witness after witness described how he had behaved on board with the authority of a captain.

Returning to England following the US inquiry, Ismay was a broken man. His was now, he realised, a posthumous existence; their lives, his wife Florence said, were "ruined". His nightmares woke the house, he received hate mail, an old friend turned him away from the front door. Florence decided that the only way forward was to forbid all mention of the Titanic in Ismay's presence; he was thus pushed into an even deeper silence.

Other survivors published accounts of the night or told their stories to journalists. Putting together a narrative made some sense of it all, but apart from insisting that he had jumped from an empty ship, Ismay said nothing, in public or in private, about his experience. The horror and chaos remained unarticulated.

Instead, he wrote to Mrs Thayer, the only woman who "understood" him. These letters, and the Sanatogen his sister recommended, provided Ismay's post-traumatic therapy. "Any ambitions I had are entirely gone, and my life's work is ruined," he confided. "I never want to see a ship again, and I loved them so much. What an ending to my life. Perhaps I was too proud of my ships and this is my punishment."

Later, mulling over his feelings for her, he tells her that "not a single day goes by without my thinking of you. I often think of where our friendship would have taken us if that awful disaster had not taken place, how well I remember our conversations when everything looked so bright. You had a very peculiar attraction to me and I loved talking to you and hearing you talk ... " It was at this point that Mrs Thayer, who would never remarry, stopped replying to Ismay's letters.

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