A writer to remember

May 22, 2002

BEFORE THERE was James Cameron or Leo DiCaprio or Celine Dion warbling "My Heart Will Go On," there was Walter Lord.

The younger generation discovered the mystery, drama and romance of the great doomed passenger ship Titanic by way of a popular movie, but chances are good that their parents and grandparents became enthralled by the same story through the masterly prose of Mr. Lord, author of A Night to Remember, a phenomenally popular account of the maritime disaster published in 1955.

But Mr. Lord, who died Sunday at age 84, was not simply a lucky writer who happened on to the next big cultural obsession, a look-back fad that captured the nation's imagination. If anything, he created America's ongoing fascination with the Titanic tragedy, basing his account on impressive research and weaving into it the moving and human stories of lives lost, lives saved and the heartbreaking details that made the difference.

Mr. Lord, who was born and raised in Baltimore, was an amateur historian with the skills and talents of a professional. His gift to his readers was history itself, in readable, highly entertaining -- but never flighty -- form.

Though best known for A Night to Remember, which was a best seller in the 1950s and has never gone out of print, Mr. Lord penned a string of successful historical narratives, each one bringing drama, suspense and fundamental humanity to events that in lesser books might have seemed dry and uninteresting.

The Dawn's Early Light, his 1972 account of the compelling events of 1814 -- including the British invasion and the Battle for Baltimore -- doubtless sent many a local reader to Fort McHenry for a fresh, more enlightened look at that venerable spot. In A Time to Stand, Mr. Lord had the good sense and insight to include the Mexican perspective in his retelling of the siege of the Alamo, an innovation perhaps not so much appreciated in Texas as elsewhere. And many a baby boomer, instead of dozing over a textbook, learned about Pearl Harbor by reading Mr. Lord's gripping Day of Infamy.

In the course of his career, Mr. Lord wrote 13 best sellers and a host of Book of the Month Club selections; in 1994, he was awarded the Francis Parkman Prize for Special Achievement by the Society of American Historians.

But the best tribute to the man is the work he left behind -- still interesting, still powerful and, in at least one case, timely as well. Of Day of Infamy, Mr. Lord said he was attempting to reconstruct not just how the attack on Pearl Harbor came about but "how people could have been so unaware of what might happen and so slow to grasp it when it did."

In his last days on this earth, he must have been itching to take notes.

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