Wednesday, December 19, 2018

How to Survive the Titanic, or, The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay


Rating: 3 Stars

Ismay is wholly unlikable, no two ways around it. The decisions he made or didn't make aboard Titanic leading up to and on the last night of her existence are what he will be remembered for. Unfortunately we only have his word to go on, seeing as how Captain Smith did not survive to confirm or refute anything.

Whether it is the movie or real life accounts of what happened in those final hours, there is a scene that always sticks out for me, and that is the one where Benjamin Guggenheim and his valet are, "Dressed in our best and prepared to go down like gentlemen" as he says in the movie. His valet looks less than thrilled, but remains with his employer. The additional words he spoke to a survivor are recorded as, "I am willing to remain and play the man's game if there are not enough boats for more than the women and children" and "No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Benjamin Guggenheim was a coward."

Contrast that with Ismay, who rather quickly climbed aboard a lifeboat, though he attempts to explain why, and what he was doing beforehand that allowed him to be in a position to even get to a lifeboat. The author definitely is no fan of Ismay, but when one looks at the course of the night and what observations and documentation we do have, it paints a fairly awful picture. Now, who is to say any of us would not do the same when faced with a literal life or death situation? No one knows how they will react until they are forced to do so and I hope none of us ever are in that position. However, I agree with a fair amount of the author's conclusions in that Ismay certainly did not do all he could in the short time he knew Titanic had left above the waves. Even so, the author does make claims that we can not possibly know for sure are true or, as the men spoken of did not survive. The author must also consider the fact that even had these men tried to get the life boats, they most likely would have been denied when there were still woman and children to load.

"On the Titanic, Ismay was the only man, apart from the Captain, the ship's designer, Thomas Andrews, and the Chief Engineer, Joseph Bell, who know that the ship would be at the bottom of the sea within two hours and that the available lifeboats could carry less then half of those on board, but he did not warn, or even try to find, Dr O'Loughlin, who had been his dining companion that evening, or Charles M Hayes, who was travelling as his guest, or Richard Fry, his valet of ten years, or George Dodd, his family's former butler, now working as a steward in first-class, or Arthur Hayter, who had been his steward throughout the journey, or William Harrison, his secretary, all of whom were to die..." (9%).

Let's also just ignore the fact that what you just read is one sentence. Seriously, go back and look. I did not notice until I was typing. Yeesh, comma overload. But still, do we know for certain he did not warn anyone? He did not even attempt to locate Hays, his own guest? I am all for pointing out the things Ismay did wrong, but it is almost like just piling on at that point.

Ismay was probably in shock, just like everyone else. How many times had people repeated the idea that she could not sink. What an awful that must have been when in fact, she could - and did? I don't doubt for one moment that Ismay loved the ship dearly. Both his writing and that of his wife say as much, as shown here:

"Men like Lightoller assumed that the owner would see his ship as no more than a description of profit and loss. But Ismay was not typical; he loved the Titanic like 'a living thing', as his wife put it. Perhaps, he later wrote to Marian Thayer, he had loved the ship 'too much', had been 'too proud' and such was his punishment" (11%).

There are other incidents outlined that show not only did Ismay recognize how much trouble this was going to cause, but he sought every avenue he could to try and get back to England as quickly as possible. Of course there would be an investigation on both sides of the Atlantic, and he wanted no part in being detained for the US one. 

"Ismay, meanwhile, was planning his return voyage. He could not face New York: the onslaught of information, the questions, the crowds, the grief, his wife's American family, the White Star Line executives, the insurers, the press, the publicity, the sharpening sense of the horror of it all. he would have to endure, he assumed, a rough few days - possibly even weeks - of media coverage before interest in the Titanic would fade away and he could get his life back" (14%). In trying to understand what made him tick, and how he ever imagined that he could go back to his normal life, I feel like he would be both proud and horrified to know how obsessed we still are with Titanic and her fate, 106 years later. I think he would be proud because Titanic was his crowning achievement, and he was so parentally (yes, it's a word) proud of her. On the other hand, he would probably also be heartbroken to know that the wreckage and the story keep us intrigued even when we think we know all that there is to know. While she was his great achievement, she was also his biggest blunder and there is no denying that. In fact, Ismay may have even contributed to Titanic's quick sinking. This has long been accepted as part of the story, though I suppose we may never now for sure. Officer Lightoller's granddaughter Louise Patten shared a story that was kept a 'family secret' for nearly 100 years in regards to that night. Supposedly it is something that her grandfather told her grandmother, and it is hard to see what purpose it would serve now if it were not true. This is not the only instance where it has been reported that the ship started up again after the collision. "Following the collision, when (Lightoller) had gone to the bridge to ask if the blow was serious, Ismay had told Captain Smith to continue moving 'Slow Ahead'. The ship, which had stopped following the collision, now started up again and continued at a speed of around 5 or 6 knots until 12:15 a.m., when the Captain sent down the order to once more stop the engines. In pushing her forward, Lightoller believed, Captain Smith had allowed water to pour through the damaged hull at hundreds of tons per minute and to burst through the six watertight compartments, one after another. Had the Titanic stood still, 'the whole ship would have assumed a fairly acute and mighty uncomfortable angle, yet, even so, she would, in all probability have floated - at least for some considerable time, perhaps all day. Certainly sufficient time for everyone to be rescued'" (40%). Patten also maintained that Ismay and Lightoller had spoken while still aboard the Carpathia, and that due to some insurance exceptions, if the White Star Line was found liable, it would all but put the company out of business and hundreds would lose their jobs. Seems an awfully hard thing to put on one man's shoulders, especially considering the fact then that Lightoller never received a command of his own, despite his unwavering loyalty to his employer.

Yet throughout the hearing, Ismay repeatedly deflected any questions regarding his role on the ship, and was merely a 'super passenger' who happened to be the chairman, who happened to know about iceberg warnings, who happened to know daily the speeds she was running at. When much was made of the fact that Captain Smith told him of the iceberg warnings, he again try to say there was no special reason that he was receiving them. As the author states, "As far as Ismay was concerned, the Captain had handed him the message for no reason, and it said nothing" (64%). It might has well have been exactly that, for all the good those ice warnings did. Not much longer later in his testimony, Ismay even went so far as to say that, "(Ismay) had insisted that he had not talked to the Captain at all during the voyage" (66%). So we are to believe that the chairman of the White Star Line ambled around the ship all day, with Captain Smith periodically handing him telegrams without either man uttering a word? That makes the kind of sense that doesn't.

There was also the fact that Ismay played this silly kind of word game that only later would we recognize as the same kind Bill Clinton played during his impeachment hearings. While maintaining the position that he held no authority on the boat, Ismay time and again passed the buck completely. He argued about whether or not he was 'giving directions' which is what those conducting the hearing tried to prove he was doing, in order to show he was not simply another passenger, but was in control from start to finish. "Calling for the women and children and then helping them in was the same thing, Ismay suggested, as giving directions" (66%). Really? I am pretty sure that if I saw and heard the chairman of the company calling for people to get into lifeboats, I would take that as him giving orders and directions. But this was a theme throughout, it feels like. He tries to muddle the situation, when it seems clear that he was more than a passenger.

Of course, anyone who knows the story knows that in the end no one was held responsible for the deaths of 1500 people who had no chance for survival due to the greed of man, the need for the rich to have more space, and the disregard for life of those who had no wealth. Through the ordeal Ismay continued to take no responsibility for anything, despite the fact that the White Star Line eventually settled and judge ordered them to pay over $500,000 for loss of life and property. This came out to roughly $30,000 per life. Sad, isn't it? Yet there was Ismay, writing to the object of his affection, Marian Thayer, who had lost her husband and eventually responded to Ismay that he misunderstood her intentions and she did not return his feelings. I find it rather insensitive that Ismay would write to her saying that the inquiry was "the most trying ordeal to go through. They had me on the stand for seven hours and I was not in a fit condition either mentally or physically to give evidence" (67%). Gee, I am sure she had tons of sympathy, seeing as how she had lost her husband that night.

The author mentions another book entitled The Ismay Line by Wilton Oldham and recounts a conversation that Ismay had with his sister-in-law, Constance, about the night he escaped with his life. "The reason, he revealed to her, that he had jumped was not because the boat was there and the deck was empty, but because he had been ordered to do so by Chief Officer Wilde, who said that Ismay's evidence would be needed at the subsequent inquiries. Ismay left the ship knowing that the purpose of his survival was to represent the Captain, the crew, and the company, to be the witness of the night, to contain, explain, and make sense of it all to the bewildered world. In exchange for his continued life, he must carry into the history books the story of the Titanic. Why did he keep this a secret?" (71%). certainly an interesting question, isn't it? I find some of this suspect, like why the chief officer would be ordering the chairman to do anything. To me it just felt like one more time Ismay was trying to absolve himself from something he would never actually be able to.

There are some issues I had with the book that made it less enjoyable than it could have been, because I typically love reading about Titanic. Throughout the book the author constantly alternated between Ismay's story and that of Joseph Conrad's character Charles Marlow. it was a constant comparison and completely slowed the book down. I completely skipped all of those parts because I felt it added nothing to the story. I started too, but quickly realized that it was not relevant, and Ismay's story was interesting enough without all of the comparison.

Another issue I had with the book is this kind of silly, flowery language used to describe this or that and it just did not fit the tone of the rest of the book. I would sometimes come across paragraphs like the one below, and wonder why oh why, what was the purpose? Here the author is describing the relationship with the Marconi device to send the telegrams and it is...silly.

"The message from the Baltic whispered to Ismay from a fork in the air, it had been hammered into solid form like the voice of a dead man being rapped out on a table-top. Marconi operators were spirit mediums and the words they transcribed were always already dissolving. The Marconigram was evidence of communication without presence; it proved the possibility of connecting with other worlds" (66%).

All throughout, the author really seemed to be biased against Ismay. Then, as the conclusion came, I read this line, "He was an ordinary man caught in extraordinary circumstances, who behaved in a way which only confirmed his ordinariness. Ismay is the figure we all fear we might be. He is one of us" (74%). So...does that mean we can/should excuse his actions that night? I am not insisting he should have gone down with the ship. But I am insisting that he should have been one of the last to leave. I think he tried to play those holding the inquiries as fools, with his constant denial of controlling anything or being in charge. OF COURSE the crew would defer to him on matters. what would you do if your boss suggested picking up the pace a bit? You would do it, because what choice did you have when you were captaining the grandest ship in the world on her maiden voyage.

Overall, I can recommend this one with some caution, if you don't mind the nonsense.


  1. I 'enjoyed' this. Ismay is an easy character to hate but I also felt kind of sorry for him. From his background I thought that his parents, particularly his father, broke him as a child and he never recovered from that. Ismay was also the lightening rod for all of the public anger at the sinking of a supposedly unsinkable ship - as well as a hate figure of anyone with an axe to grind against 'the Establishment' in an era when automatic deference to the rich was coming, finally, to an end. He most certainly 'broke the rules' by surviving and didn't make it any better with his subsequent behaviour but, at least in part, I think he was a victim too.

    1. I would definitely agree with that. His dad was not pleasant. More so than anything else, to me it was his actions afterward that made me view him in such a harsh light. He should have stayed with the ship, but he didn't. And in the grand scheme of things, considering how empty all the other lifeboats were, him taking one spot did not matter at all. But afterward, his complete refusal to accept any responsibility, that was the kicker for me.


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