USA TODAY US Edition
New titles capture the storied lives of Titanic
Shovel with the stokers; rub elbows with the rich
Two new books about the legendary sinking of Titanic cover a similar topic: who was onboard that fateful night.
But while one deals only with those living the high life in first class, the other covers everyone aboard, right down to the cobblers and tailors far below, their only wish to find a better life in America. Let’s start there and work our way up.
Davenport-hines’ Voyagers of the Titanic is impressive in both its writing and reporting, beginning with what was known as the “black gang”: the stokers and trimmers, men who stoked the ship’s furnaces to make steam — and who drank up a storm right before the ship’s departure, then didn’t make it back in time, thus saving their own lives.
From there it’s a romp, from the valets — there were 31 personal maids or valets onboard — to the dressmaker Lady Duff Gordon (“a pioneer of sexy underwear”) to Joseph Laroche, the only black man on board and husband of a Frenchwoman, mother of his two daughters. He was fleeing to Haiti from the bigotry of France.
And so it goes. That’s what’s so fun about this book. You don’t know who will be strolling down the deck next. The ship holds a million stories.
Davenport-hines even covers the politics involved in the building of the ship with Titanic’s owner, J.P. Morgan, and Lord Pirrie, the ship’s builder, butting egos that evidently were as large as Titanic itself.
Brewster’s Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage rarely ventures below. He stays in first class, with its Champagne flutes, fur coats and well-appointed cabins.
Among the top of the heap are millionaires John Jacob Astor IV, the richest man onboard; Benjamin Guggenheim (art collector Peggy Guggenheim’s father); and the no-nonsense Countess of Rothes, who was put at the tiller of lifeboat No. 8 because of her “take-charge manner.”
There’s even a chapter dedicated to who might have been gay among these elite passengers.
And then there was then-famed movie actress Dorothy Gibson, who continued to wear the white silk evening dress she had donned for dinner on that fateful Sunday night. She also wore a large diamond, an engagement ring given to her by Jules Brulatour, the head of Eastman Kodak who was planning to marry her once he got rid of his wife.
The book is filled with such detail, including what President Taft did once he learned that his trusted adviser, Archie Butt, had drowned in the disaster. He broke down giving his eulogy.
A bonus is the 20-page Postscript section, filled with mini-biographies of some of the 712 survivors. Five of them lived to be 100 or more, and a dozen lived into their 90s. At least seven killed themselves.