Author Q&A: John Maxtone-Graham

  • April 30, 2012

John Maxtone-Graham devotes his considerable knowledge and impeccable prose to a discussion of salient, provocative and rarely investigated components of the sinking of the Titanic.

“This is a book unlike any other. Rather than offering simply a detailed retelling of the Titanic sinking on her maiden voyage, John Maxtone-Graham devotes his considerable knowledge and impeccable prose to a discussion of salient, provocative and rarely investigated components of the story, including dramatic survivors’ accounts of the events of the fateful night, the role of newly invented wireless telecommunication in the disaster, the construction and its ramifications at the famous Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, and the dawn rendezvous with the rescue ship Carpathia. Richly written and vividly detailed, this is the book Titanic buffs have been waiting for.”

John Maxtone-Graham: Titanic Tragedy: A New Look at the Lost Liner

Ashleigh Rich’s Q&A with John Maxtone-Graham

You have written about the Titanic more than once over the years. What keeps drawing you back, personally, and 100 years on?  What do you think fuels the ongoing public fascination with this shipwreck above others? What changes have you observed in the scholarship on the Titanic over time — do new facts emerge, emphases shift to different parts of the story, etc?

The Titanic disaster encompasses the most gripping passenger saga that exists. All the world, it seems, is also drawn to the subject. The fact that 1,517 lives were lost has a great deal to do with it. The Lusitania, for example, was lost during the war, but the Titanic succumbed in peacetime. She was also the world’s largest vessel, said to be unsinkable, and was crossing the Atlantic for the first time. There was a lot of hype; moreover, she was even more splendid than the prototype, the Olympic, which had sailed a year earlier. On the bridge was Commodore Edward J. Smith, the company’s most senior captain, destined to retire shortly after the maiden voyage. Sailing on board were a collection of archetypal American plutocrats, including Colonel Astor and his new young bride, as well as Wideners, Thayers and a Guggenheim. Also aboard was Bruce Ismay, son of the founder, Thomas Ismay, managing director of the line.

One thing that I have always realized was that the loss of the Titanic began the gradual but steady erosion of the company’s fortunes. By 1932, when the company would be forced to join with Cunard as a result of the Depression, there were only two White Star ships in service. And the company tried desperately to put the tragedy behind them. Commodore Sir Bertram Hayes wrote his memoirs, Hulldown, in 1923; only 13 years after the tragedy and in his pages, there is not one mention of the Titanic. I feel it quite obvious that he was ordered by the company to say nothing about it.

Recently, there was a sudden mania to discuss the matter of the Titanic’s steel and rivets. Neither was said to have been adequate for the job, and the hull was said to have broken up by brittle fracture. The only problem is that the Olympic, built with the same steel and rivets, sailed successfully for 25 years. Another new theory, that the Titanic was actually the Olympic in disguise, is a piece of nonsense that Weidenfeld & Nicholson, the esteemed British publishers, should have been ashamed to put before the public. Then, perhaps the first of the centenary deluge of new books, a descendent of Officer Herbert Lightoller, one of the heroes of the wreck, suggested that the helmsman, as they were approaching the iceberg, turned the wheel the wrong way, to starboard rather than port. What the young lady author apparently did not know was that, until 1930, all North Atlantic liners habitually used tiller commands, the very opposite of what seemed the case. Tiller commands emerge from someone at the helm of a small sailing vessel: When the skipper wished to turn to port, he pushed the tiller to starboard; conversely, when he wished to turn to port, he pulled the tiller to starboard. In his film, James Cameron was determined to be accurate so he used the command “Hard astarboard!” to turn the Titanic to port, thereby hopelessly confusing billions of viewers around the world.

In some ways, Titanic Tragedy pays homage to Walter Lord. He seems to have been a great source of inspiration for you. How did he influence you and the direction of your work?  For readers who don’t know who he is, can you share some background on Lord and why his book A Night to Remember was important?

My book is dedicated to Walter, who was an old friend and colleague. He was kind enough to let me use his library for research, and then wrote a marvelous foreword to my first book, The Only Way to Cross, which cemented a lifelong friendship. Carlo Hurd, a young reporter who was traveling aboard the Carpathia as a passenger, wrote a 5,000-word scoop for The New York World, America’s largest newspaper, which was delivered ashore and printed at the same time as the Carpathia was being moored at Cunard’s Pier 54. One result was that he became known as “Mr Titanic.” But to my mind, “Mr. Titanic” was undoubtedly Walter. His second book, published in 1955, was A Night to Remember, and with it he re-awakened worldwide interest in the doomed vessel. It triggered enormous interest among people of all ages and professions and involved a new kind of reportage about history in the making. He would write many books about history and warfare ― on Pearl Harbor, the Alamo, the battle of Midway, Dunkirk and the Pacific coast watchers.

Many people may be surprised to learn that the story of all the men on the Titanic going down with the ship to save women and children is, if not a myth exactly, substantially more complex than the popular culture version would have us believe. As you point out, the number of male and female survivors was nearly equal, and survivor accounts indicate that the crew was “curiously selective” about sometimes letting men into boats, and other times sending them away.

You are quite right, women and children were not generally first. And all the crew had their own and sometimes contradictory feelings about permitting men to board the lifeboats, starting with Commodore Smith himself. The young and pregnant wife of a rich man from West Virginia asked the master if her husband could be permitted to join her in the lifeboat and Smith had responded: “Women and children only!,” the habitual Edwardian formula. But later, when a woman asked Commodore Smith if her husband could join her in the lifeboat, he agreed that he could. A curious ambivalence. Lawrence Beesley, the science master from Dulwich School, had heard from some up on the boat deck that passengers stood a better chance of gaining admittance to a lifeboat on the starboard side. Sure enough, Boat No. 13 was only half full and the officer charged with loading it called out for any more ladies. He asked Beesley directly: “Any more ladies on your deck, sir?” Beesley responded in the negative and was told: “Then you’d better jump.” Although all the engineering officers lost their lives, many subordinates ― stokers, wipers and oilers― embarked into the lifeboats en masse. There were crewmen ― not officers but regular crew ― supposedly guarding the way into the boats, but they often acquiesced in favor of their fellows. When two women entered one lifeboat, both of them tripped over a dozen stokers lying in the bilges.

If you could expose just one popular “myth” about the Titanic, what would it be?

I am convinced that amongst all her superlatives–her size, prestige, grandeur and notoriety–there was one missing: fastest. She was not as fast as either Mauretania or Lusitania, the two record-breaking Cunard flyers that were described as ‘five-day ships;’ The Olympic-class vessels were, by the same token, ‘six day ships.’ White Star built only one fast ship, Teutonic. The rest were all slower, dispatch replaced by deluxe.

White Star ships were notoriously comfortable while hard-riding ‘five-day’ Cunarders involved a rough and strenuous crossing with little of the frippery found aboard White Star vessels such as extra-tariff restaurants, gymnasia and pools. She was not intent on, not even able to contemplate, breaking the speed record to New York. Yet my guess would be that most of the people who are besotted with the vessel feel that this was her mission that first westbound and, ultimately, truncated maiden voyage of April 1912.

Don’t forget, Ismay was his boss and there was talk both on board and ashore that the managing director was urging Smith on when prudence dictated that he slow down. But, in fact, Smith seemed not a prudent man at all. Even with six radioed warnings about ice in his path, he continued on a ruinous speed because “The night was clear.” He posted extra lookouts but when the iceberg was spotted too late, to my mind, she could not avoid it. Was Ismay merely a passenger or was he calling the shots? How did Smith evaluate Ismay’s presence on board? Did he, Ismay, call the shots or did Smith? It’s a delicate situation but the truth was that the master should be the master, no matter who is aboard as a passenger. Ismay’s subsequent entry into a lifeboat was an act of cowardice that would disgrace him for the remainder of his life.

I think my favorite part of the book is the story of Violet Jessop. Violet was a stewardess who was on board the Olympic when it was struck by the HMS Hawke, then survived the Titanic’s sinking, and then the sinking of the Britannic during World War I. She had remarkable stories and seemingly an endearing personality, yet she was a complete unknown until you tracked her down shortly before her death.

Why do you think Violet Jessop’s story eluded the public and Titanic experts for so long?  After her death, you edited and saw her previously unknown memoir published as the best seller Titanic Survivor. What was it like to play such an important role in bringing a completely new story to light?  What unique challenges did you face while editing a manuscript posthumously, without the benefit of being able to communicate with its author?

You are right, Violet was a relative unknown until, because my mother had remembered her as her stewardess aboard Majestic in 1926, I was able to write her and interview her. No-one ever had before because she and her fellow crew members had been instructed, when coming into New York aboard Carpathia, that they were not to talk to the press. So she didn’t. In the 1930s, she had written a memoir about her life and submitted it for a literary competition that she did not win. I talked with her at length–her first interview about Titanic ever–and although she appeared briefly in my first book The Only Way to Cross, she never saw herself in print because she died six months after our only meeting. Her manuscript, which was well written but needed work before publication, has become a standard work for Titanic buffs to read and collect. I sign hundreds of copies of the book each year to grateful passenger audiences and I always regret that Violet is not by my side. She has no idea of the success the book has enjoyed and it saddens me because, to my mind, it is the best crew memoir of the lot.

I was very cautious, to answer your follow up question, about editing, although I did want to remove certain small things from the book that the publisher and her nieces wanted to retain. But I restricted my editing to insertion of commentaries, in a different typeface, to make clear that those passages were my separate comments.

What initially drew you into the study of maritime history, and specifically North Atlantic liners?  How have your interests in the field evolved over the years?

I had Scottish-American parents so perhaps it is small wonder that I became intrigued by the ocean separating the two countries. And North Atlantic liners were always the benchmarks, the world’s largest and fastest and most luxurious, floating superlatives that make for rewarding study. What made them so large was the constant demand for immigrant berthing space. Consider the following: In 1911, the largest vessel on the North Atlantic was Olympic, displacing 45,000 tons; at the same time, the largest vessel sailing to the Far East for P&O was 12,000 tons. Whence the disparity? Quite simply, there were no immigrants clamoring to get to the Far East. That seemingly inexhaustible demand is why the vessels were so large. The immigrants in what was first called steerage and later third class made the most profitable passengers; they demanded little and got even less, sleeping in berthing compartments on a bed with a straw-filled mattress with a lifejacket for a pillow and nowhere to store anything; and these were people relocating for life. They were fed indifferently on tables at the foot of the berths and most of the food was thrown over the side unconsumed. It was the Germans of the Hamburg America Line that first abandoned steerage and turned it into third class, providing modest but private cabins where husbands and wives and children could all be together. The palest carbon copy of life in the first or second class but the start of a fair shake for the vessel’s humblest and most numerous passengers.

After the end of the first world war, Congress passed the Dillingham Immigration Restriction Act that cut off the unrestricted flow of immigrants. Having built huge ships designed for the passage of immigrants, the companies did some nimble footwork and beat the bushes on the opposite side of the ocean, attracting a new breed of mass passenger sailing in only very slightly improved immigrant berths. It was called Tourist Third Cabin and it was a huge success; they delighted in calling themselves “the White Collar Steerage.” Suddenly, in the early 1920s, the most numerous passengers were Americans, dollar crusaders sailing for inexpensive crossings to Europe and back.

What’s next for you?  Are there any ships you haven’t yet written about that you would like to study?  Will you be taking part in any Titanic 100th anniversary events?

More of the same. I am fortunate in being articulate about the subject that I love and that enthusiasm infects my lectures which are immensely popular among cruise ship passengers. Many of my audience have heard me before but they return in droves, delighted to hear my talks again and again. I am told often that my talks are the best entertainment on board. There are some ships on which I have not traveled but life aboard them is about the same as the ones on which I travel repeatedly. I will not be sailing over the Titanic site on this centenary but have done so dozens of times. On the actual day, the captain of this vessel, Grand Princess, will lead a memorial service in the theatre and afterwards, I shall deliver a special talk about Titanic in memoriam.

Ashleigh Andrews Rich is a writer living in Fairfax, Va.  She studied English at Cornell University with a focus on the history of the novel, and works for an environmental organization in Washington, D.C.

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