At 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912, the elegant passenger liner RMS Titanic—then “the largest moving object on earth”—struck a fast, glancing blow against an iceberg 375 miles off the Newfoundland coast. The ship was only four days into her maiden journey from Southampton, England, to New York City. On board were an extraordinary number of Edwardian-era celebrities from both sides of the Atlantic, plus hundreds of poorer, steerage passengers. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough lifeboats to save everyone, and most of them cast off into the frigid, starry night only partly filled. When the Titanic finally vanished beneath the waves on April 15—only two hours and 40 minutes after the collision—she left two-thirds of her more than 2,200 passengers and crew dead.
The classic non-fiction account of this disaster is Walter Lord’s 1955 A Night to Remember (the basis for a 1958 film of that same name). However, readers looking for an equally dramatic but newer, more personality-rich recap of the vessel’s foundering would do well to pick up a copy of Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage—released just in time for this tragedy’s 100th anniversary.
As its subtitle title suggests, the focus here is on those fortunate folk able to book the most luxurious accommodations for the Titanic’s crossing. Lily May Futrelle, the wife of American mystery writer Jacques Futrelle (who perished in the sinking), described her first-class shipmates as “a rare gathering of beautiful women and splendid men.” Included in their number were real-estate magnate John Jacob Astor IV and his pregnant 18-year-old wife; tennis player and future Olympic gold medalist R. Norris Williams; Denver socialite and women’s rights champion Margaret Brown (immortalized, incorrectly, as “Molly” Brown); Major Archibald Butt, the military aide to U.S. President William Howard Taft; and silent-film actress Dorothy Gibson. (Financier J.P. Morgan had planned to sail on the Titanic as well, but instead stayed behind with his mistress in France.)
Although this work relies often on speculation about the shipboard activities of people who were lost with the Titanic, author Brewster balances that with a splendid employment of first-hand accounts from the survivors—the greatest percentage of whom were cabin-class passengers. He further enlivens his narrative with asides having to do with Edwardian fashion trends, the ship’s rococo accoutrements, and even the 1906 murder of Manhattan architect Stanford White. Brewster’s re-creation of the ship’s last, desperate hours and the rescue of its lifeboat- and boat-scrap-borne survivors is particularly captivating.
All in all, Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage is a book to remember. ~ Jeff Pierce