I was six years old the first time I ever heard of the Titanic. We were watching a movie on TV called, appropriately enough, Titanic, starring Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Wagner. It was a fairly standard soap opera involving family drama aboard a luxury ocean liner*, and I was following along about as well as a six-year-old can, far more interested in the ship (which seemed to be getting a lot of attention) than the suds, when someone mentioned that there soon would be an accident involving the ship. I became frightened, being a timid kid at the time, envisioning something dark and disastrous, with explosions or crashes or things equally terrifying, and so I fled the movie and the living room, staying in a bedroom until the terror was over. This was, frankly, an embarrassing thing to do – I’m embarrassed right now, over 40 years later, just recalling it – and I must have been at least abashed about it at the time, because from that point on I sought to make up for it by learning as much as I could about the Titanic.
*Webb and Stanwick played an unhappily married couple, with Wagner as their son. In real life, during the course of the filming Stanwyck and the much younger Wagner began a torrid affair, creating an off-screen soap opera much juicier than that on the big screen.
This interest started with the conclusion of the movie, to which I’d returned once my mother told me it was safe to come back out. Once again, I was caught up in the drama of the event – the Titanic going down at the head, the terrified passengers and their inability to find a way off the ship, the crew struggling to do their duty in the midst of the chaos, and over all of this a stunned sense that none of this could, or should, have been happening. I must have wanted to know more right away, because my mother pulled out a volume of an old encyclopedia that had an article about the Titanic, including a drawing showing (inaccurately, we now know, with the benefit of much technology) how the iceberg had caused a ragged gash in the side of the ship. I learned that the Titanic was the biggest ship ever built, that it was thought to be unsinkable, and that it had sunk on its maiden voyage, killing most of its passengers because there weren’t enough lifeboats to save them all.
Well, this was heady stuff – the stuff of high adventure, which I was just learning to embrace through my timidity, and of Greek-like tragedy, which I must have instinctively understood even though I wouldn’t have intellectually appreciated it at the time. There was the nobility of the father and son (Webb and Wagner), reconciled at last*, standing together at the rail of the ship with the other men onboard, facing imminent death while singing “Nearer My God to Thee” as the great ship prepared for its final plunge. It was all so odd, so – well, tragic- that I was immediately hooked.
*Webb was exceedingly proud of his son until, during a particularly nasty argument, Stanwyck revealed that Wagner was not Webb’s son, which caused Webb to shun the boy until the end. By choosing to remain on ship, rather than climbing into a lifeboat with the women and children, Wagner showed not only that he’d become a man, but that regardless of the bloodlines he was his father’s son after all. Probably better that as a six-year-old I didn’t get that part of the story.
I started by going to the neighborhood library to see if they had any books on the Titanic. They did – it was called A Night to Remember, written by Walter Lord, and that book ensured I’d always be fascinated by the Titanic. It was brilliantly written, accessible to even a six-year-old, with great pictures of the ship itself and her crew (although, disappointingly, none of the ship actually sinking), all told in a way that made that cold and dark night come alive for me. There were other books that mentioned the Titanic, books about famous ships and famous shipwrecks, but nothing else even came close. That year, for my birthday, my grandmother gave me a paperback copy of the book, with an inscription promising that one day she’d get a copy of the hardcover, which had all the pictures. (Interestingly, to this day, of all the Titanic books I’ve since bought and read I’ve never bought the hardcover version of A Night to Remember, although I’ve probably got most all of those pictures in my other books.) I became interested in other ship disasters, the Lusitania and the Morro Castle and the Andrea Doria, but they were all a distant second behind the Titanic.*
*Overcoming my six-year-old squeamishness about such things, I also read all I could about other disasters – the Chicago Fire, airplane crashes, spectacular accidents at auto races. The Hindenburg was a particular favorite of mine. Even today, though, when I’m watching a movie or documentary involving some kind of accident I still get a little unsettled if I know what’s coming.
There was always more. At the public library in downtown Minneapolis I spent hours going over microfilm of the New York Times, reading their accounts of the sinking; it was particularly interesting even after the sinking to see ads running for the Titanic, it being too late to pull them. In the forward to A Night to Remember Lord references a novel written a few years prior to the Titanic, written by Morgan Robertson and called Futility, about an unsinkable ocean liner, the largest ever built, which hits an iceberg and sinks on her maiden voyage. It was a stunning coincidence, made all the more so because Robertson had named his ship the Titan. This book was so obscure that the library had to order it, but they did. And it was a terrible book – Robertson was no stylist – but I read it, and that book did wind up in my bookcase.
In 1968 CBS broadcast the movie adaptation of A Night to Remember, a faithful, almost documentary-like version of the book, and it was a terrific movie.* It aired either the same night or a week or so after the initial episode of the sci-fi series The Time Tunnel, in which our two time travelling heroes found themselves onboard the Titanic trying to convince the captain of what was to happen. Guess what – nobody believed them. It wasn’t nearly as good as the movie, even to an eight-year-old’s low standards, but I enjoyed it just the same.
*I watched this movie again a few years ago – it’s still terrific, but horrifying in a way that has nothing to do with the actual accident. It mostly has to do with families being separated as wives are forced by their husbands or crew members to board lifeboats, or choosing to remain onboard and face death together. The scenes are harrowing, and overwhelmingly sad – it reminds me of Erik Fosnes Hansen’s fictional account of the ship’s band, Psalm at Journey’s End, a profoundly sad book. I suppose it has something to do with being older and married myself, and the thought of finding myself in that position. My wife refuses to watch it.
And over the years more books came out about the disaster, and documentaries, and Cameron’s Titanic, which I wouldn’t see because of the stupid storyline, although I understand the part about the sinking itself is sensational. Even before the 100th anniversary, it wasn’t hard to go into a bookstore and find a new book on the Titanic, which makes it all the more surprising to find out that interest in the ship had waned considerably prior to the publication of Lord’s book in 1954, which revived the public’s fascination to a level that remains to this day.
The story of the Titanic is an epic one, and its role in my life has been equally epic. I don’t know if I can say that it caused my subsequent interest in history, or my fascination with singular historical events such as the Kennedy assassination, although it undoubtedly caused my interest in disasters. I do know that what little interest I’ve ever had in ships stems from the Titanic, and that it’s why I always tried to sink my ships in the bathtub. It’s why nearly an entire bookshelf in our library is filled with Titanic books, and it’s why I spent a couple of years building a model of the Titanic, and why I’m probably going to spend a couple of hundred dollars buying a better, prebuilt version of it. Walter Lord was right: the night of April 14 and the early morning of April 15, 1912, was a night to remember, and it’s a story that I’ll never forget.
Which is a long way of leading up to today’s topic. Lost amidst all that we know about the Titanic is the very first adaption of A Night to Remember, which was broadcast live, if you can believe it, on Kraft Television Theater in 1956. Stephen Bowie covers the fascinating story of this massive broadcast far better and in much more detail than I can, so I simply defer to him. But if you’re intrigued, as I am, you can see that broadcast right here. And who knows – perhaps this will set some other youngster off on a world of discovery and history, learning about a real-life epic that outdoes any fictional story that Hollywood could ever dream up.