The Titanic Historical Society
Reflections of

A Night to Remember

Walter Lord signed pictureThe title has become a cliché but the book is a classic to Titanic aficionados; A Night to Remember inspired countless to read about the ship forming a greater appreciation for history. Walter Lord tracked down survivors, searched files and archives to produce a moment by moment, "you are there" account presenting an existential situation with all its drama, suspense and terror. As his taut narrative unfolded, the reader was drawn by the combination of contrasting bits of fact and emotion conveying a very real impression into the lives of the passengers on a glamorous new ship that meets disaster. Inside one's imagination­­onboard, literally traveling on that four day passage­­from the anticipated embarkation at Southampton, Cherbourg or Queenstown to a fate that awaited in the cold stillness on the icy North Atlantic. The mark of a good teacher is a person who motivates their pupils by opening the doors of their minds creating a thirst to learn. A Night to Remember accomplished that in spades.

While making conversation with his "extended family" as we were called who attended his memorial service at the New York Historical Society on June 10, 2002, there wasn't anyone Ed and I met who hadn't been touched in some way by his work. Of course, at such an occasion one would expect that to be the case but in my years with the THS, this has been a typical response from the majority of people.

What Jim Bishop did for Lincoln's assassination, The Day Lincoln Was Shot was let the story of a great dramatic moment literally tell itself by skillfully reassembling infinitely detailed facts of which the moment is composed. Lord followed suit relying on personality, on history as seen through the eyes of people who confronted crises while they were happening. He did not use a tape recorder or take notes when interviewing his subjects so as not to make them self-conscious. He briefed himself thoroughly beforehand, memorized his questions, the conversation might veer in other directions but his questions provided the skeleton of the interview. Afterwards, as soon as he could find a place of privacy, he made detailed notes including direct quotations while they were still fresh in his memory. This procedure using a personal perspective upon extraordinary moments, the effect of fiction is created and changes the actual events. Lord¹s method of writing at first was not widely accepted in the literary community, he was accused of overdoing or popularizing history, however his technique won him a huge following.

Contemporary journalists and the mass media were also highlighting drama notably through Edward R. Murrow's See It Now television series and radio broadcasts from London during the Second World War and also CBS's You Are There. Lord combined historical research with the system of current reporting to reconstruct vividness and immediacy of a historical event.

Walter Lord Inteviewed by Kellyn BeekAn interview (left) by Kellyn Beek in 1981: Walter Lord wrote A Night to Remember in his spare time twenty-seven years ago. Today, Lord's chronicle of the sinking remains the biggest seller of his eleven books to date. First published in 1955 A Night to Remember was Lord's second book, written while he worked as a copy writer for a New York advertising agency. With his limited resources, Lord had to devise a scheme to find the survivors of the Titanic. He couldn't afford classified ads, so he wrote letters-to-the-editor asking to hear from those who survived the 1912 sinking. Several newspapers printed his pleas. "Deeds of charity by the editors," said Lord.

The royalties from the book allowed the young author to devote full time to "these intriguing subjects that I enjoy investigating." There was Pearl Harbor (Day of Infamy), the War of 1812 (The Dawn's Early Light), coast watchers in the Second World War (Lonely Vigil) and others. Walter Lord is now a respected historian, spending two or three years on a single book. He tries to dig up material on his subject that has never been published shedding new light on historical events like the battle of Dunkirk, the subject of his twelfth book. He's still researching, and he finds it intriguing. "The world is full of armies saving people," Lord says, "but here for the first time, the people had to come over and save their army."

On the 69th anniversary of the Titanic sinking, Lord gave a lecture about the ship at the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Virginia. This is an interview he gave beforehand.

Q:How do you choose the subjects of your books?
A: I look for something that is highly unusual, involving ordinary people caught in extraordinary situations. Someone once told me the one thread that runs through them all is a premium on personal courage­­not intellectual courage, but just plain physical courage.

Q: What have you learned about human nature in the process?
A: It is totally unpredictable. It would be nice to say the rich people, the fancy people, all behaved like bastards and the poor slobs all came through like heroes. But as a matter of fact, sometimes the poor slobs behave like slobs and the great, noble, privileged characters come off very well, indeed.

Q: How long did you spend researching A Night to Remember?
A: In one way, not too long, because I knew a lot about it already, and a lot of research is finding material, rather than using it after you've found it. Just finding it, and as far as that went, I spent a good part of my life enjoying the study of the ship, ever since I was a little kid. I was sort of dragged with my family abroad in those years, in the summertime, and the only good part about the whole business was the trip. I loved those ships, and I think the only thing that was more exciting than being on an ocean liner was a sinking ocean liner. So that was the way I think I got introduced to it. By the time I was nine or ten, I was collecting clippings. I've still got them. In a sense, I spent thirty years researching it; but on the other hand, doing the book was only a year and a half.

Q: Now, twenty-five years later, what sticks out in your mind about the book?
A: I suppose the thing that I remember most was my first survivor. Finally, after all that time being fascinated by the subject, after all that reading, all those years in the college library when I should have been doing something else but was reading the hearings, finally, I saw a survivor. Getting my first survivor. I think, probably was the most interesting, exciting thing to me. His name was Walter Belford, and he was the men's room attendant in the Tiptoe Bar at Broadway and 72nd Street in New York.

Q: As you found other survivors, were they all willing to talk about the sinking?
A: Yes, on the whole. There were exceptions, a couple of families that just plain didn't want to even think about it, although forty years had passed but mostly the people were very interested in talking about it. They hadn't been questioned about it for years and years. It's a funny thing, but today the Titanic is probably much more -- that is people are much more aware of it than they were in 1954, when I was doing my research. Here it is twenty-five years later now and what has happened in the meantime? Unanswered riddles, and that sort of thing.

Q: What is the most intriguing riddle that remains?
A: Why on earth did the ship hit the iceberg when it had received four warnings during the day, five warnings really, although the last one might not have gotten to the captain? I've looked at The New York Times for that Sunday when she hit the iceberg, and there are stories about ice all over the paper. Why on earth did this great ocean liner plunge into the midst of all these bergs without slowing down? The ship couldn't possibly set a speed record if there had been nothing in the way. It couldn't go that fast. The fastest ships in the world at that time were the Mauretania and Lusitania. The Titanic wasn't made to go that fast. They weren't trying to break the record.

Q: Why do you think the speed record story took hold?
A: I don't know. It's like other legends that are connected with the ship like the last hymn played was Nearer My God to Thee. I've never found anybody who was around at the time, and on board the ship to the end, who recalled any orchestra playing Nearer My God to Thee.

I once did a book on the Alamo, and an old Texan told me, "You must always remember that legends are often truer than fact, and they always last longer." As long as people are around to talk about the Titanic, they will say she was trying to break the record, and they will say that the band played Nearer God to Thee.

Perspectives on Lord and A Night to Remember by John Seabrook of The New Yorker in an interview at his apartment in New York at the time Cameron's TITANIC was playing everywhere: People have long marveled at the seamlessness of Lord's work and his rare ability to project the reader virtually into the scene. The author is clearly present in the story but he speaks only through the intelligence of whatever witnesses are onstage at that time. He is able to present facts and dialogue and minutiae like a journalist but at the same time, hover above with a kind of novelistic omniscience. The sense of romantic fatalism, for example, that pervades Cameron's film walks directly off of Lord's pages. Just as Cameron seems fated to have made his film, so was Lord to write his book, it was his second but it established his reputation. Lord also showed me [amongst his collection] photographs of some of the relics salvaged from the Titanic since its rediscovery in 1985, now said to number more than 3,000 items. The pictures seemed oddly jarring. For me, part of the Titanic's mythic power had been that few physical objects from that night remained; there really had been only memories, stories and writing like Lord's. The most potent object he showed me is not a pair of slippers nor a toy pig [both were from Edith Russell]; it is a copy of the 1912 Summer Social Register ­­ beside all too many names, there is this memento mori, "Died at sea, April 15, 1912." Now, however, we seem to be moving into a new phase of Titanic-mania­­the idolatry of objects. It reaches something of a comical nadir in the J. Peterman catalogue selling items and costumes from the film as if they were in some way authentic.

What is it exactly that makes the Titanic so compelling? Lord says he doesn't even know why he was so interested in the Titanic much less everyone else. But he proceeds to divide interest into categories: There is the poet's Titanic­­the symbol of the end of a more innocent era.

There is the preachers' and philosophers' Titanic: the sinking of "the ship God himself couldn't sink" represents the vanity of man¹s puny efforts at perfection­­and the punishment of his stubborn hubris. There is the buff's Titanic: the pleasure of knowing that, among myriad examples, John Jacob Astor's airedale, which perished with him, was named "Kitty."

There is the "if only" Titanic: If only the ship had hit the berg head on instead of trying to turn, possibly crumpling its bow but not fatally puncturing its hull; if only the night hadn't been so calm muting the usual audible splash of waves around larger bergs, etc..

Gallantry is a theme in all of Lord's books. Again and again he has explored how people who know they are doomed behave in their final minutes. "It's a wonderfully gallant story," Lord says. "You know. The band played on. For me that says it all. Ten musicians, and none of them saved."

Walter Lord and his various works have been credited repeatedly in the Commutator from the very beginning; his numerous interests and contributions to the THS from time to time provided him with continuous visibility. In a letter to Ed Kamuda he wrote "I'll bet you are one of the rare Americans who read my verses to the Third Man theme." Most people don¹t know the Academy award-winning song had words let alone that Lord wrote them.

As mentioned in the previous issue, a Commutator was published in 1980 recognizing the 25th anniversary of A Night to Remember. When Lord's book was out of-print Ed contacted a publisher who agreed to have it reprinted making it available once again. In the THS's forty years, through stand alone articles­­two of which he wrote especially for this journal, credit in numerous articles, continuous visibility and availability of his book in text, video or audio by 7C's Press and/or the THS, Walter Lord, a name we'll remember, was automatically introduced to each new generation. Karen Kamuda

Walter Belford and the Founding of The Titanic Historical Society

Walter Belford was the catalyst in the founding of this organization. He was Titanic's night chief baker. On April 15, 1962 Belford was one of five survivors present at a 50th anniversary memorial service at the Seamen's Church Institute, 25 South Street with Mrs. Julia Smith White, 64 of 113 E 91st St who was 14 years of age formerly from Dublin, Ireland as was Mrs. Katherine Gilnaugh Manning, 66, of Astoria, Queens. The other two in attendance were Mrs Henry B. Harris of the Spencer Arms Hotel, Broadway and 69th St. and Washington Dodge of 417 Park Ave.

Belford said "We were working on the fifth deck amidships baking for the next day. There was a shudder all through the ship about 11:40 pm. The provisions came tumbling down and the oven doors came open. I escaped by going down the side of the ship from a rope just before she sank."

Belford said one of his most vivid recollections was the sight of Captain Smith standing resolutely on the bridge as the ship went down. He quoted Smith as he addressed a group of remaining crewmen after the last boats were gone, "Well boys, I've done the best I can for you. Now it's in your own hands. Do the best you can to save yourselves." Belford continued, "We went over to the side straight away, I jumped overboard from the well deck about thirty feet above the water." He was wearing his white baker's uniform and a lifejacket with a quart of whiskey stuck in his belt. Five hours later he was rescued from the bone-chilling water. "I kept taking a sip of whiskey from time to time to keep warm. There were a couple of shots left when I was rescued."

When he died on March 16, 1963, at the age of 92, Belford a widower who lived alone in a small flat at 230 W 99th St., with no family to leave his personal belongings, including his Titanic mementos, they simply were tossed out by his landlady. When the alarming news reached Ed Kamuda, he realized the lack of interest in preservation was a shame, important history was being discarded and somebody should do something! Rather than simply express a good intention, the somebody who did something was Ed Kamuda and the formation of the Titanic Historical Society began.