Votes or Boats: Reflecting on Hollywood and the Titanic


April, according to the poet, is the cruelest month, and it got crueler 106 years ago when the Titanic hit the iceberg, and Hollywood the jackpot after the sinking. Being a shipowner’s son—tankers and dry cargoes, not passenger ships—I sympathized with the owners, White Star Line, pushing to set a record crossing, but still. Going full out in a minefield of icebergs known to lurk nine-tenths beneath the water’s surface is like defending Harvey Weinstein nowadays—one’s bound to end up in the you-know-what.

The great ship went down on April 15, 1912, with the loss of 1,517 lives, and a new exhibition in London’s National Maritime Museum gathers many of the real-life stories that took place on that fateful night. It has very little to do with what we’ve seen on the screen until now. The reality of the disaster is shown to have had even less to do with the myths about the tragic sinking.

Unsurprisingly, the British press played up the British stiff upper lip to the hilt. Children and women first became the order of the night, while first-class swells stoically continued their bridge rubbers and downed their final whiskeys. According to their reports, the only ones missing were Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. In reality, Captain Smith was never seen after the crunch, although he did go down with the ship. Bewildered officers went about their business trying to load the 18 (yes, only 18) lifeboats—wondering where the good captain was.Hollywood also had the small band of five men playing “Nearer, My God, to Thee” as the water swallowed them up. None of the survivors remembered anything like that, and I certainly don’t blame the poor musicians for leaving their posts. But it makes for a good story, and when was the last time the press or Hollywood could resist a weepie? Of the 109 children on board, 52 died—all of them from third class. According to the exhibition, the women in the lifeboats behaved with less gallantry than the men. The women did go first, as well as the children, and it is pointed out that back in 1912 the big fight in Britain was that women were demanding equality, but on board the Titanic they demanded priority. (Incidentally, women and children first is a nautical myth, most likely invented by the tabloid press.)

Feminism took a blow as the Titanic slowly broke up and went under the black ocean. The press and radio (mercifully there was no Internet back then to further murky the waters) made a big thing of traditional values, men standing shoulder to shoulder stoically watching the women pile into the lifeboats. The reality was slightly different. There was panic and mayhem on deck, with third-class passengers storming the lifeboats, forcing officers to shoot in the air. The newspapers at the time ignored the mayhem because the big danger back then was the suffrage movement, so they came up with “Votes or Boats?” slogans to deter the feminist voices demanding equality. Immediately following the disaster, the spin machine went on overtime. The British newspapers described those men who managed to get on a lifeboat and save themselves as Italians. In a Hungarian postcard of the time, British officers were depicted as drunk and debauched. The first film I saw about the Titanic was a German-made movie that my German nanny took me to see when I was seven. It was released in 1943, and in it the only people who remained calm and behaved with restraint were the German passengers and officers. I remember it well, and my beloved but stern Fräulein confirmed the film’s veracity. Actually the Titanic’s passengers included Chinese, Russians, Australians, as well as English, Irish, and Americans. I don’t know why the poor Italians got so much stick—there were hardly any on board.

Hollywood has done very well out of the tragedy. The 1958 A Night To Remember starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck is my favorite, and the Winslet Titanic is also good but total bullshit. Even eyewitnesses watching the great ship go down differed in their accounts. Some said it groaned and split in half, others saw the lights go out as it slid silently under. Myth-making and fake news were the orders of the day. There was money to be made and all sorts of wild rumors became news and absolute eyewitness truths. Today I think the New York Times would have blamed Donald Trump for the sinking, as would the Washington Post. Not to mention CNN. But please don’t ask me how. I write for respectable publications.

The reality of the disaster was quickly erased by myths invented by those who could profit from the fake news they were spreading. Replace November 2016 with April 1912 and you get the picture. White Star reported that Captain Smith was last seen handing a baby to its mother in her lifeboat. The exhibition runs until January 2019. All I can say is had I been on board, I don’t know what I would have done.