It’s a slender volume, but Lord took years to research and write it. In the 1950s the Titanic was all but forgotten. Lord thought only nautical buffs and a few of his mother’s friends would buy his book.
He thought wrong. When published in 1955, A Night to Remember shot up the bestseller list. Wrote The New York Times: “Stunning…one of the most exciting books of this or any year.” To this day A Night to Remember has never gone out of print.
Lord began his book with this foreward:
In 1898 a struggling author named Morgan Robertson concocted a novel about a fabulous Atlantic liner, far larger than any that had ever been built. Robertson loaded his ship with rich and complacent people and then wrecked it one cold April night on an iceberg. This somehow showed the futility of everything, and in fact, the book was called Futility when it appeared that year, published by the firm of M.F. Mansfield.
Fourteen years later a British shipping company named the White Star Line built a steamer remarkably like the one in Robertson’s novel. The new liner was 66,000 tons displacement; Robertson’s was 70,000 tons. The real ship was 882.5 feet long; the fictional one was 800 feet. Both vessels were triple screw and could make 24–25 knots. Both could carry about 3,000 people, and both had enough lifeboats for only a fraction of this number. But, then, this didn’t seem to matter because both were labeled “unsinkable.”
On April 10, 1912, the real ship left Southampton on her maiden voyage to New York. Her cargo included a priceless copy of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám and a list of passengers collectively worth $250 million dollars. On her way over she too struck an iceberg and went down on a cold April night.
Robertson called his ship the Titan; the White Star Line called its ship the Titanic. This is the story of her last night.
On April 14, 1912, the Titanic hit an iceberg just before midnight (time-line). The ship went down two and a half hours later, at 2:20 a.m.
More than two-thirds of the people on board died. One survivor said she would never forget the terrible sounds — hundreds of people screaming, crying and saying “I love you” over and over.
Sites devoted to the Titanic, such as this one, abound. But Walter Lord was so skilled a historian and storyteller that even with the reams of new information gathered in the last six decades, A Night to Remember is still the best place to begin.
Lord’s chapter titles alone paint a picture:
There’s Talk of an Iceberg, Ma’am
God Himself Could Not Sink This Ship
You Go and I’ll Stay a While
I Believe She’s Gone, Hardy
That’s the Way of It at This Kind of Time
There Is Your Beautiful Nightdress Gone
It Reminds Me of a Bloomin’ Picnic
We’re Going North Like Hell
Go Away – We Have Just Seen Our Husbands Drown
Every April 14, I reread and remember the ironies, tragedies and heroes of that night. One of my first published poems was inspired by first-class passenger Edith Evans.
To Miss Candace Mayes,
Lost on the Titanic
by Donna Trussell
You’d be gone by now anyway.
You would have married,
buried a husband in Boston,
knitted and traveled
until your children buried you.
Instead, you clung to a winch
until the deck grew steep.
The water, icy and dark
touched your feet. You took a deep
breath. All beings have an end,
you thought. This is mine.
For seventeen years
Mrs. David Wilkins lit a candle
for you, remembering your words:
“You go first. You have children
waiting at home.” The last boat,
Collapsible D, lowered away.
Mrs. Wilkins later divorced
and entered an asylum.
She tried everything —
painting, charity work, a pilot’s license.
Her hands would climb the trellis.
Her feet were never still.