Entertainment Books

Tuesday 21 January 2020

Review: Titanic Lives: Migrants and Millionaires, Conmen and Crew by Richard Davenport-Hines

Roll-call of fate and fortune on doomed liner is fascinating, says Margaret Carragher
Harper Press €16.99

CLASS CLASH: The passengers were among the world's richest and poorest, as portrayed by
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in 'Titanic'
CLASS CLASH: The passengers were among the world's richest and poorest, as portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in 'Titanic'

Margaret Carragher

SINCE its doomed maiden voyage a century ago, the Titanic has inspired countless books, documentaries and movies.

What more can be said of it? Quite a lot, actually, if you give the voyagers, rather than the voyage, centre stage, as Richard Davenport-Hines does in his meticulous and fascinating account of the migrants and millionaires, conmen and crew aboard what was at the time the world's largest and most powerful ocean liner.

RMS Titanic's fate, and that of those who perished with it in the freezing North Atlantic, prompted comparisons between great modern liners and the society that built them. Lamenting the onboard demarcations dictated by money rather than notions of social justice, the German-American academic Edward Steiner wrote: "A matter of twenty dollars lifts a man into a cabin or condemns him to steerage; gives him the chance to be clean ... to sleep on spotless linen ... or to be pushed into a dark hold where soap and water are luxuries ... "

Certainly as the Titanic steamed out of Queenstown harbour at 1.30pm on Thursday, April 11, 1912, with her last, ill-fated voyagers on board, she was a veritable microcosm of society at the time, its passenger list a roll call of the world's most privileged and deprived.

The personal effects of two Titanic victims sublimely illustrate this inequity: when pulled from the ocean, the corpse of John Jacob Astor IV, the richest man on board, had $4,000 in sodden bank-notes in its pockets; while the jacket of Vassilios Katavelas, a 19-year-old Greek farm worker en route to a new life in Wisconsin yielded nothing more than a pocket mirror, a comb, a purse containing 10 cents and a train ticket to Milwaukee.

Davenport-Hines, an esteemed historian and biographer whose first book, Dudley Docker, was awarded the Wolfson Prize for History, recounts in remarkable and often poignant detail the life stories of those on board. Obviously, with a passenger and crew list of 2,235, it would be impossible to include everyone, but the author's meticulous pen portraiture fairly captures their essence.

In a particularly engaging chapter entitled American Millionaires he writes of a German butcher's boy who in 1783 booked a winter passage from England to Baltimore. Weather conditions were so harsh that his ship spent four months at sea and became trapped in the frozen waters of Chesapeake Bay. Eventually the boy disembarked and slithered across the ice to shore with a box of flutes which he proceeded to sell in New York. A year later, he returned with a larger consignment of musical instruments.

He soon realised he could make a fortune buying furs from Indian trappers and selling them in Europe. Every summer he travelled through swamps and forests up the Hudson valley, bargaining for pelts. In 1800, he organised a shipment of furs and textiles to Canton; a year later his ship returned with Chinese silks, satins, taffetas, Souchong teas and other rare commodities. He founded The American Fur Company, bought parcels of land near Bowery Lane and property in Manhattan until he became the biggest landlord in New York. Long before his death in 1848, he was America's richest man. His name was John Jacob Astor.

More than 60 years later, on RMS Titanic in the early hours of 14 April, 1912, Astor's great, great grandson John Jacob Astor IV, resplendent in evening dress, helped his 18-year-old pregnant wife Madeleine aboard a lifeboat. He then plonked a girl's hat on 11-year-old William Carter who had been refused permission to board with his mother, and lifted him into the lifeboat just as it was being lowered. Astor was last seen alive sauntering off to find his Airedale terrier.

The similarly insouciant Ben Guggenheim escorted his mistress and her maid to a lifeboat before swapping his lifejacket for evening dress and with his valet, repaired to the ship's deckchairs. "We've dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen," Guggenheim told a steward. "No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward."

But not all first-class passengers were so gallant. Having helped women and children aboard, the chairman and managing director of Titanic's White Star Line Bruce Ismay slipped quietly into a lifeboat just as it was being lowered, a move he would come to greatly regret given the public reaction to his apparent cowardice. The English baronet Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon was similarly reviled for escaping in a near-empty lifeboat and allegedly bribing the crew not to rescue people freezing to death in the surrounding waters lest they threaten his own safety.

As news of the Titanic tragedy broke, The White Star's New York offices were besieged by people seeking news of their loved ones, their shared trauma toppling previously insurmountable class barriers. A colour journalist wrote of, "Fashionably gowned women ... mingling with and confiding their grief to women in shawls and shabby bonnets".

But the unvarnished facts of a tragedy which committed 1,513 souls to a watery grave are often the most affecting. A century on, the description of a 19-month-old baby pulled from the water with his "brown serge frock, petticoat, pink woollen singlet, brown booties and stockings" still intact has lost none of its poignancy.

This marvellous book ends as it begins, with the great block of ice that crashed from the end of a Greenland glacier and drifted towards the North Atlantic shipping lanes.

Having sunk the 'unsinkable' Titanic -- which had been described along with its sister ship Olympic as representative of "the highest attainments in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering", its owners boasting that both liners "will rank high in the achievements of the 20th Century" --the killer berg continued southwards, dwindling all the way until it melted harmlessly into the waters of the blue Sargasso Sea.

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