A biographer joins others writers swimming in the centennial vortex of the Titanic, which sank on Apr. 14, 1912.
Wilson (Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sex, 2007, etc.) begins with the screams of the dying and ends with the sigh of the last survivor, Millvina Dean (just three months old on the night to remember), who died at 97 in 2009. In between he tells the stories of some of the 705 survivors—from the well known (like White Star Line managing director Bruce Ismay) to those unknown, except to Titanic scholars. Ismay’s controversial story, told more fully in Frances Wilson’s How to Survive the Titanic (2011), sits in the middle of the text, surrounded by those who, for the most part, survived in more conventional, socially acceptable ways: They were women, children, necessary crew members—or just plain lucky. Among the latter: teenager Jack Thayer, who leaped from the sinking vessel and somehow found a rescue craft, went on to write a memoir but took his own life in 1945. Wilson tells some other survivors’ stories in considerable detail, including that of Madeleine Force Astor, whose wealthy husband died that night; of some honeymooners; of Lady Duff Gordon, whose co-survivors in a virtually empty lifeboat declined the chance to pick up others in the icy water; of silent-film star Dorothy Gibson, featured in the first movie based on the disaster, Saved from the Titanic, which appeared just four weeks afterward. The author has kind words for Walter Lord, whose 1955 A Night to Remember started a second wave of interest. Wilson’s storytelling skills are up to the task, but his psychological ones sometimes send him off into the land of stretched analogies—as when he observes that Lady Duff’s stained kimono represents her stained character.
Disasters change people. Wilson counts the ways, often effectively and affectingly.