Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember was a landmark work that recounted the harrowing events of April 14, 1912, when the British ocean liner RMS Titanic went down in the North Atlantic Ocean, a book that inspired a classic movie of the same name. In The Night Lives On, Lord takes the exploration further, revealing information about the ship’s last hours that emerged in the decades that followed, and separating myths from facts.
Was the ship really christened before setting sail on its maiden voyage? What song did the band play as water spilled over the bow? How did the ship’s wireless operators fail so badly, and why did the nearby Californian, just ten miles away when the Titanic struck the iceberg, not come to the rescue? Lord answers these questions and more, in a gripping investigation of the night when approximately 1,500 victims were lost to the sea.
About the Author
Walter Lord (1917–2002) was an acclaimed and bestselling author of literary nonfiction best known for his gripping and meticulously researched accounts of watershed historical events. His first book was The Fremantle Diary (1954), a volume of Civil War diaries that became a surprising success. But it was Lord’s next book, A Night to Remember (1955), that made him famous. Lord went on to use the book’s interview-heavy format as a template for most of his following works, which included detailed reconstructions of the Pearl Harbor attack in Day of Infamy (1957), the battle of Midway in Incredible Victory (1967), and the integration of the University of Mississippi in The Past That Would Not Die (1965).
Read an Excerpt
The Night Lives On
By Walter Lord
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Walter Lord
All rights reserved.
JUST 20 MINUTES SHORT of midnight, April 14, 1912, the great new White Star Liner Titanic, making her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, had a rendezvous with ice in the calm, dark waters of the North Atlantic. She brushed the berg so gently that many on board didn't notice it, but so lethally that she was instantly doomed.
By midnight Captain Edward J. Smith knew the worst, and ordered the lifeboats filled and lowered. There were distressingly few of these, enough for only a third of the ship's company. The rule was, of course, "Women and children first." At 12:15 A.M. the Titanic sent her first distress call. At 12:45 she began firing rockets, for there was a light on the horizon, tantalizingly near. The light remained motionless.
On the Titanic, the ship's bellboys—lads of 14 or 15—brought up loaves of bread for the lifeboats, now dropping one after another into the sea. Far below, the engineers kept the lights burning; topside, the band played cheerful music on the Boat Deck. The ship was noticeably down at the bow.
At 1:10, as Boat 1 pulled away, the water lapped the portholes just under the ship's name. Thirty minutes later, as Collapsible C rowed off, the name had vanished into the sea, and the forward well deck was awash. The lights still burned, and the band still played.
By 2:05 the last boat had been launched, leaving 1,600 people stranded on the sloping decks. Richard N. Williams II, a 19-year-old First Class passenger, wandered into the main companionway on A Deck and idly watched the water creeping up the grand staircase. On the paneled wall nearby hung a handsomely framed chart, pins still in place, marking the Titanic's daily progress across the Atlantic. The lights still burned, now with a reddish glow. The band probably played on, but no one is sure.
At 2:17 the Titanic slowly, almost majestically, stood on end. The lights blinked once and went out forever. Then came a thundering roar, as everything movable within the ship broke loose and plunged downward. The great hull itself sagged as though finally defeated. At 2:20 she settled back slightly and slipped beneath the sea. Over 1,500 people were lost in this, the greatest maritime disaster in history.
Understandably, the sinking of the Titanic was a sensation at the time. The morning after the rescue ship Carpathia reached New York with her pitiful load of 705 survivors, The New York Times devoted its first 12 pages to the story. But a single letter in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress gives a more vivid picture of the universal shock and grief than any number of newspaper pages. The letter is from a young naval officer, Alexander Macomb, to his mother. It is dated April 16, 1912, and describes what happened as he emerged from a pleasant evening at the theater....
The terrible news about the Titanic reached New York about 11 o'clock last night, and the scene on Broadway was awful. Crowds of people were coming out of the theaters, cafes were going full tilt, when the newsboys began to cry, "Extra! Extra! Titanic sunk with 1800 aboard!" You can't imagine the effect of those words on the crowd. Nobody could realize what had happened, and when they did begin to understand, the excitement was almost enough to cause a panic in the theaters. Women began to faint and weep, and scores of people in evening clothes jumped into cabs and taxis and rushed to the offices of the White Star Line, where they remained all night waiting for news.
Understandable then, but there have been massive changes in the world since 1912. We don't even cross the ocean the same way now, and two great wars have numbed us to casualty lists. Compared to the implications of a nuclear confrontation, the figures of "souls lost" in a shipwreck—any shipwreck—seem almost quaint. Given the world today, one might suppose that people would no longer be gripped by the Titanic. Not so. She has never been more with us than now.
The discovery of her hulk in September 1985 created a wave of excitement that seemed in sharp contrast to the silent gray ghost resting so peacefully on the ocean floor. My own connection with the Titanic is peripheral at best—and with the expedition that found her, it is nil—yet no less than 32 requests for interviews poured in from radio, television, and the press over the next ten days.
There seems no limit to the public's fascination. In America every survivor now rates an obituary in The New York Times. Typical was the case of 90-year-old Ethel Beane, who died in Rochester, New York, in 1983. She had lived a blameless but utterly uneventful life. She hadn't even told her Titanic experiences for 71 years. But she was nevertheless newsworthy—simply by being a survivor.
No story is too farfetched, as long as it bears the magic label "Titanic." In London The Times recently reported that a Los Angeles businessman planned to build three replicas of the Titanic for $1.5 billion. Each would accommodate 600 passengers at $1,000 a day. Preposterous? Nevertheless, The Times featured the story on the front page. The editor knew that the Titanic is always news.
Over the years the ship has become an enduring favorite on stage and screen. She has been the locale for five major motion pictures and played an important part in many others. In 1976 she was the subject of an opera jointly produced by the Berlin Opera and the UCLA Fine Arts Productions. In 1983 she was "raised" from the Thames in an extravaganza at the London International Festival of Theatre.
Meanwhile on television she played a crucial role in Upstairs, Downstairs, the memorable series about the Bellamy family. Going down with the ship, "Lady Marjorie Bellamy" joined "Edward" and "Edith" of Noel Coward's Cavalcade as probably the most famous of all the fictional victims of the disaster.
Gradually the Titanic has ceased to be merely a shipwreck; she has become a symbol. In Hitler's Germany, Joseph Goebbels used her to portray English decadence and cowardice. In postwar Germany, the message was different, but the Titanic was still a symbol. This time the producers were drawing a parallel between the disaster and the decision to deploy Pershing missiles on German soil. Both were seen as examples of technology out of control. A single miscalculation—a momentary lapse in judgment—could bring appalling destruction.
Not surprisingly, the Titanic has also become a great favorite with political cartoonists. She is completely nonpartisan: since 1976 she has been used to depict the troubles of Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan. In British cartoons both the ship and the iceberg have represented Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The lost liner, poised for her final plunge, even graced the cover of Punch in April 1975 as "England's Glory."
This continuing fascination has seen a boom in the price of Titanic memorabilia. Contemporary books and pamphlets costing less than a dollar in the 1950's now routinely go for $45-$50. Recently a 1912 printed list of the Titanic's passengers—with handwritten notations on where they lived and what happened to them—was sold at auction for $5,000, although no one seemed to know who drew up the list or why.
With the supply of original items running low, a lively industry has sprung up turning out new artifacts. Novelty stores do a brisk business selling "Titanic" belt buckles, key chains, and T-shirts. A prominent New York charity has been using replicas of the ship's stationery as a direct-mail eye-catcher. There are even "Titanic" bumper stickers, put out by the Titanic Historical Society, which does a far greater service by reprinting rare publications that are of immense value to the serious student.
What is the hold of this long-lost liner? Why are people still so fascinated by her? First of all, the Titanic must surely be the greatest news story of modern times: the biggest ship in the world, proclaimed unsinkable, hits an iceberg on her maiden voyage and goes down, taking with her many of the best-known celebrities of the day.
Add to that glamour all those "if only's"—if only she had paid more attention to the warnings she received ... if only the last warning had even reached the bridge ... if only the wireless operator hadn't cut off one final attempt to reach her ... if only she had sighted the ice a few seconds sooner, or a few seconds later ... if only there had been enough lifeboats ...if only the watertight bulkheads had gone one deck higher ...if only that ship on the horizon had come ...if only, if only.
The story has something for everyone. For nautical enthusiasts, it is the ultimate shipwreck. For moralists, there are all those sermons on overconfidence and self-sacrifice. For mystics, the omens are irresistible, from Morgan Robertson's prophetic novel Futility of 1898 to presidential aide Archie Butt's strangely foreboding letter assuring his sister-in-law, "If the old ship goes down, you'll find my affairs in shipshape condition."
The Titanic is also a trivia lover's dream. What was the name of John Jacob Astor's dog? (Kitty) Who led the band? (Wallace Hartley) Which smokestack was the dummy? (The fourth)
Above all, the Titanic entrances the social historian. She is such an exquisite microcosm of the Edwardian world, illuminating so perfectly the class distinctions that prevailed at the time. These distinctions remained sacred even as the ship was going down. One prominent passenger later complained that more First Class men might have been saved, if only steerage passengers hadn't taken up so much room in what he called "the First Class boats." It never occurred to him that the lifeboats, wherever located, might have been for everyone.
There were all too few boats anyhow, leading to a clash between two basic Edwardian rules of conduct. Should normal Class Precedence prevail, or the rule of "Women and children first"? The latter won out officially, but there were cases of both that night.
After the disaster there was a good deal of pondering about all this. Finally, the prestigious Nautical Magazine came up with the daring proposition that there should be boats for all, whatever their class. The same applied to wireless, even on ships engaged in the emigrant and coolie trades. "Even coolies are human," the editors explained, "and as such are burdened with souls, also family ties, etc."
The Titanic also gives a fascinating picture of post-Edwardian life at its more rarefied level. The damage claim filed by Mrs. Charlotte Cardeza of Philadelphia lists 14 trunks, 4 suitcases, 3 crates, and a medicine chest. Among other things, they contained 70 dresses, 10 fur coats, 38 large feather pieces, 22 hatpins to keep them in place, 91 pairs of gloves, and innumerable trifles to amuse her, like a Swiss music box in the shape of a bird.
The gentleman traveler was similarly burdened. Billy Carter, another fashionable Philadelphian, lost not only his 35-hp Renault motorcar, but 60 shirts, 15 pairs of shoes, two sets of tails, and 24 polo sticks. Even men of moderate means had a surfeit of luggage. Archie Butt, President Taft's military aide, was on a trip of less than six weeks, yet he still needed seven trunks to carry his wardrobe.
Yet none of this is enough to explain the Titanic's current grip on the public. Her unique attractions were always present in the story, but for over 40 years after the disaster, the ship lay more or less in limbo. From 1913 to 1955, not a single book was published on the subject. Then A Night to Remember appeared—it awakened some curiosity, but certainly not enough to account for the Titanic's continuing appeal, which actually seems to be on the rise.
Partly, perhaps, the Titanic is the beneficiary of a new interest in all ocean liners. Now that they are gone, people have discovered them. A leisurely voyage seems so much more civilized than being sealed in a tube and shot across the sea.
But more important is the fact that America is currently on a "nostalgia binge." The Titanic has come to stand for a world of tranquility and civility that we have somehow lost. Today life is hectic, prices are climbing, quality is falling, violence is everywhere. In contrast, 1912 looks awfully good—a happier world, where a shoulder of lamb cost 16 cents a pound.
In some ways we're kidding ourselves. The shirt that cost only 23 cents in 1912 was often made by a child who got only $3.54 a week. Harold Bride, the Second Wireless Operator on the Titanic, made $20 a month. It would have taken all his pay for 18 years to cross the ocean in style.
And those days were violent, too. As we busily build barricades around the White House, it's easy to forget that in 1912 former President Theodore Roosevelt was shot and wounded while running for a third term. TR was perhaps the most popular man in America, yet it didn't save him from a would-be assassin.
There was social injustice then, too. To dramatize the struggle for women's suffrage, Emily Davison died by throwing herself in front of the King's horse during the 1913 running of the Derby.
But in one respect this period really was different. People might argue over how to right the world's wrongs, but they were still sure the wrongs could be righted. In 1912 people had confidence. Now nobody is sure of anything, and the more uncertain we become, the more we long for a happier era when we felt we knew the answers. The Titanic symbolizes that era, or more poignantly, the end of it. The worse things get today, the more we think of her, and all that went down with her.
Whatever the explanation, there seems no limit to the thirst for fresh information—or to the number of eager researchers who stand ready to supply it. Many have carved out for themselves special niches in the story. A man in Wisconsin thinks that the Titanic was "under-ruddered," meaning that the area of her rudder was too small. He has interesting comparison figures with the Mauretania and other liners. A retired editor in Toronto has become an expert on the ship's watertight and pumping arrangements. He points out that by far the best pumps were in the two engine rooms, where they were never needed—one more ironic twist to the story. A boy in North Carolina is painstakingly putting the passengers in their proper staterooms. A Dutch researcher is fascinated by Fifth Officer Lowe and has been a real Sherlock Holmes in tracking down Lowe's family.
The personalities on the Titanic offer an especially fertile field for investigation. A recent biography explores the life of Second Officer Lightoller, whose adventurous career included four shipwrecks and a heroic role at Dunkirk in 1940. A privately published labor of love traces the story of Lolo and Momon Navratil, the so-called "Titanic waifs." Their father had kidnapped them from their mother, and was taking them to America under an assumed name to start a new life. He put them in the last lifeboat, stepped back, and went down with the ship. The children were too young to know who they were, and their identity remained a mystery for days.
The subjects range from premonitions before the disaster to the discovery of the Titanic's grave 73 years later. Nothing is overlooked. One recent book even examines the catastrophe from the iceberg's point of view.
One might think that would wind up the subject. Not at all. Scores of riddles remain; these pages explore a few of the most intriguing....CHAPTER 2
What's in a Name?
"I NAME THIS SHIP 'Titanic.' May God bless her ... and all who sail in her." The words are uttered by a regal-looking lady, who then breaks a bottle of champagne against the bow of the great ship standing on the stocks. Slowly the vessel slides down the ways and into the sea, hailed by thousands of cheering spectators.
It is the opening scene of the film A Night to Remember, and it all seems so natural that one does not question its authenticity. We scarcely realize that the lady is never identified. Yet even the script is vague, referring to her merely as "A Lady."
Who was this lady? Who did christen the Titanic? The answer is: no one. Amazingly enough, the White Star Line did not go in for the fancy christening ceremony that usually accompanies the launching of a great liner. "They just builds 'er and shoves 'er in," explained a shipyard worker to an inquiring visitor at the time.
Excerpted from The Night Lives On by Walter Lord. Copyright © 1987 Walter Lord. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- I. Unsinkable Subject
- II. What's in a Name?
- III. Legendary from the Start
- IV. Had Ships Gotten Too Big for Captain Smith?
- V. "Our Coterie"
- VI. "Everything Was Against Us"
- VII. The Gash
- VIII. "I Was Very Soft the Day I Signed That"
- IX. What Happened to the Goodwins?
- X. Shots in the Dark
- XI. The Sound of Music
- XII. "She's Gone"
- XIII. "The Electric Spark"
- XIV. "A Certain Amount of Slackness"
- XV. Second-guessing
- XVI. Why Was Craganour Disqualified?
- XVII. Unlocking the Ocean's Secret
- Gleanings from the Testimony
- Acknowledgments and Selected Sources
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Years ago I read Mr. Lord's A Night to Remember which was the best of the material then available. Based on that I chose this latest offering. Unfortunately, I don' t think it offered enough new to recommend to others & did not have the detail of the previous work. My advice is to spend your money on the earlier book which was superbly researched & written. For more up to date info I'll be looking for something else.
My favorite books about the Titanic are both written by Walter Lord – This is one of them! The two when put together are the most informative and thrilling accounts of the Titanic that I know of. "The Night Lives On" has so many details packed into its pages that it is hard to believe that one author could write it all. The story of the ship, her passengers, the survivors... everything you wish to know about the Titanic is in here! Walter Lord's thoughts and information are so helpful during an intense research project. Read it!