Baltimore-born author dies, wrote classic Titanic book

Lord, 84, credited with renewing interest in liner

May 21, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

John Walter Lord Jr., the Baltimore-born author whose book A Night to Remember is credited with starting the world's enduring obsession with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, died Sunday at his New York City apartment. He was 84 and had suffered in recent years from Parkinson's disease.

"Walter was a giant, there is no other way to describe him. He single-handedly revived interest in the Titanic after it went underground, so to speak, with A Night to Remember, which was an electrifying book," said John Maxtone-Graham, a noted New York maritime historian and author.

"I was in high school when I read A Night to Remember, and it was absolutely gripping and un-put-downable," said David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of biographies of Presidents Harry S. Truman and John Adams, and a longtime friend.

Mr. Lord's fascination with the disaster that plunged the huge White Star steamship to the bottom of the Atlantic on April 15, 1912, with a loss of 1,500 souls, began in his youth in Baltimore.

He was the son of a Baltimore attorney who died when Mr. Lord was 3, and he was raised on Roland Avenue.

Mr. Lord's first knowledge of the disaster came in 1926, when he and his mother sailed aboard the RMS Olympic, one of the Titanic's sister ships, from New York for a European vacation.

A year later, while spending a rainy summer afternoon exploring the library of an aunt on her farm near Towson, he noticed a thin, black volume. It was The Loss of the S.S. Titanic, an eyewitness account by second-class passenger Lawrence Beesley.

"I was hooked. That was the book that caused all the trouble," he told The Sun in a 1998 interview.

As a student at Gilman School, Mr. Lord drew pictures of the sinking, and for his senior speech in 1935 gave a detailed and vivid account of the Titanic's end that had parents calling the school to complain that he gave their children nightmares.

He earned a bachelor's degree in 1939 from Princeton, where he majored in American and modern European history. He attended law school at Yale until the United States entered World War II, when he joined the Army and went to work for the Office of Strategic Services.

After the war, he returned to Yale, earned a law degree and moved to New York, where he abandoned thoughts of a legal career for the life of an advertising copywriter at the J. Walter Thompson agency.

Pursuing his interest

A literary friend suggested he pursue his lifelong interest in the Titanic disaster - an event that had been overshadowed by two world wars and the Depression, and largely forgotten.

Mr. Lord began his research by tracking down 63 living survivors and became increasingly hooked by the drama of the liner's sinking.

"It's a story that has it all," he said in the 1998 interview. "It's classic Greek tragedy. It's about overconfidence. The loss of the Titanic instantly became the allegory for the end of an era."

His working title was A Cold Night in April, but one day while walking along 38th Street in Manhattan, an alternative, A Night to Remember, came to him. "It was the perfect title for the most exciting news story that ever happened" and for those who survived, he said.

Published in 1955, the book has never been out of print, and is one of his 13 bestsellers, which include The Dawn's Early Light, Day of Infamy and Incredible Victory.

A Night to Remember was twice made into a full-length motion picture and has spawned endless documentaries, books, TV specials, and scientific explorations to find and explore the wreck.

"He was one of the most generous and kind-hearted men I've ever known, and when I had stars in my eyes and wanted to become a writer, he was a great help. I'll always be indebted to him," said Mr. McCullough of West Tisbury, Mass.

Lasting influence

In working on his first book, about the Johnstown Flood, Mr. McCullough said yesterday, he was influenced by A Night to Remember. "I studied it and took it apart trying to get to the architecture of it."

Mr. Maxtone-Graham credits Mr. Lord with establishing a literary genre, the "you are there" story. "He originated and developed that minute-by-minute recreation and reportage that is now commonly used in books recalling historical events."

Despite dependence on a wheelchair in recent years, Mr. Lord maintained a lively interest in the Titanic and entertained in his home those who shared that passion.

His spacious Upper East Side apartment was a mini-museum of one-of-a-kind Titanic memorabilia, including the framed ticker tape, now yellowed, that clattered into the newsroom of the New York Times announcing the loss of the vessel, and the emergency whistle blown by a ship's officer to keep the lifeboats together in the darkness of the North Atlantic.

Although his life was spent in New York City, Mr. Lord never lost his affection for Baltimore, the Orioles and Gilman School, where he was a trustee for many years. Gilman's middle school library is named for him.

"He was always willing to talk about Baltimore and got very animated when he heard about Gilman classmates and other friends. His connection to Gilman remained very close," said Jon C. McGill, the school's headmaster.

Mr. Lord, a lifelong bachelor, has no immediate survivors.

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