`Titanic' writer's appeal never sank

Walter Lord dies, but his '55 classic `Night to Remember' will forever endure


May 26, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

In his preface to the 1976 edition of A Night to Remember, Walter Lord wrote: "In a way the Titanic has proved even more unsinkable than the White Star Line claimed. Sixty-four years have now passed since the `Convergence of the Twain,' as Thomas Hardy called it, yet interest remains unabated in the great ship that went down in the night."

In 1998, amid the latest Titanic frenzy caused by the release of James Cameron's film and a Broadway musical of the same name, Lord leaned across the desk in his apartment on New York's Upper East Side and cheerfully told a visitor, "I've succumbed to it."

With A Night to Remember, first published in 1955, Lord was credited with single-handedly reviving the story of the Titanic, in his view the "greatest news story of modern times." Until his death last week in New York at age 84, Lord was still contemplating new angles to the story and encouraging those who had fallen under the spell of the giant ship that struck an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912, killing 1,500 passengers and crew.

Lord, a native of Baltimore, "was a master storyteller," the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said last week. He and Lord became acquainted in 1944 when both worked in the Office of Strategic Services and shared a cabin aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth bound for England through U-boat-infested waters. "It was a month after D-Day, and we were in a cabin that was designed for two and packed with nine others. There were about 20,000 other troops onboard, and we were out of convoy because she was faster than the other ships," said Schlesinger.

"Walter was disconcertingly interested in the Titanic, and the last thing we wanted to hear about was a shipwreck," he said, laughing.

"But what he did when he wrote A Night to Remember was apply the techniques of investigative journalism to an historical episode and incorporate the human dimension. It was history through storytelling. It really was a breakthrough, and its compelling narrative still makes it the best book ever written about the Titanic," Schlesinger said.

Lord's graceful writing and sense of pacing put the reader into the center of whatever action was taking place.

Consider his portrayal of the climactic moment when the Titanic reared skyward like some huge finger pointing to the heavens:

Seen and unseen, the great and the unknown tumbled together in a writhing heap as the bow plunged deeper and the stern rose higher. The strains of `Autumn' were buried in a jumble of falling musicians and instruments. The lights went out, flashed on again, went out for good. A single kerosene lantern still flickered high in the mast.

The muffled thuds and tinkle of breaking glass grew louder. A steady roar thundered across the water as everything movable broke loose.

It was 2:20 a.m. when the Titanic finally slipped from view. It was the last anyone would see of the ship until 1985, when its grave was discovered by explorer Robert D. Ballard. But from the mid-1950s on, the story of the Titanic was very much alive, thanks to Lord's book, which has never been out of print.

"The Titanic sinking would have been consigned to the dustbin of history had it not been for Walter Lord," said Charles A. Haas, an educator in Randolph, N.J., and co-author of books on the sinking.

Haas requires that his students read A Night to Remember. "Its construction is like a mosaic, and the book's action is cemented together through individual anecdotes, which gives a stirring picture of what happened that night," he said.

The `Titanic wall'

People interested in the Titanic made their way to New York to meet Lord and talk with him about their own Titanic projects.

They were met by a man who, because of Parkinson's disease in old age, moved about his home in a wheelchair. He'd be comfortably dressed, and the visitor was met with a firm handshake and wide smile.

Those who came also wanted to see his "Titanic wall," featuring various framed drawings and paintings of the ship's final plunge and other artifacts. A glass case in his study contains a diorama of the ship about to sink beneath the waves.

Groaning bookcases contained photographs, the entire bound transcript of the British Board of Trade investigation into the disaster, and every book ever published on the subject.

In his sitting room was a prop from the movie A Night to Remember, a copy of the original painting showing the ship's arrival in New York.

One of the most moving artifacts was the tin "Scout" whistle that Second Officer Charles Lightoller blew that fateful night to keep the lifeboats together and summon help. Edith Russell's musical pig, which she carried into Lifeboat 11, and the evening slippers she was wearing were willed to Lord after her death in 1975.

"Please don't portray me as a nut," Lord said to a visitor from The Sun in 1998.

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