The myth that won't sink: fake news on a Titanic scale
After the liner went down, the transition from tragedy to massive commercial enterprise was instantaneous
Eight days after the Titanic sank on April 15 1912, with the loss of 1,517 lives, the first postcards commemorating the wreck appeared.
Twenty-nine days after, the first movie came out, Saved from the Titanic, starring 22-year-old actress Dorothy Gibson, who had been on board. She was able to play herself in the very dress she had worn on the night.
The first book, by the Irish journalist Filson Young, appeared after 37 days, and the first survivor’s account, by Lawrence Beesley, was completed in six weeks.
Beesley’s description of the ship’s last moments, seen from a lifeboat, make the blood rise. He watched, “in absolute silence”, as the Titanic “tilted slowly”, revolved, and then “attained a vertically upright position; and there she remained — motionless! As she swung up, her lights ... went out suddenly, came on again for a single flash, then went out altogether.”The sinking of the White Star liner has become our favourite sea story, etched into the public imagination thanks in no small part to big-screen renactments such as 1958’s A Night to Remember and James Cameron’s eponymous 1997 weepie. A new exhibition at London’s National Maritime Museum gathers many of the real-life stories from that fateful night. But its real focus is the enduring myth of the Titanic, and way the disaster was exploited by the media.
As contemporary news cuttings show, the British press turned the panic and mayhem on deck — as passengers tried to get into just 18 lifeboats — into a tale of law and order.The Titanic showed the best of British values, said the papers: the women and children went first while men of all classes stood shoulder to shoulder as they went to their deaths. The whole performance apparently even had a Church of England soundtrack, in the form of a string ensemble playing Nearer My God to Thee as the ship sank.
Meanwhile, Captain Smith, who dutifully went down with his ship, was reportedly last seen in the frozen wastes with a baby. The image of the captain handing the infant to its mother in her lifeboat was captured on one of those postcards.
It was all fake news, of course.The music was probably the popular waltz, Songe d’Automne, and no one knows what really happened to Captain Smith, who disappeared soon after the collision, leaving bewildered officers to load the lifeboats. There had been no drill because, as one officer said, “not even God could sink this ship”.
Of the 109 children on board, 52 died, all of them from third class.
The women in the lifeboats often behaved with less gallantry than the men. Lifeboat five, with room for 70, carried only 35 people, who prevented the officer in charge from returning to the wreckage. This chilling story is told alongside the handkerchief waved throughout the night by Eleanor Cassebeer, a survivor in lifeboat five.
At the time, stevengraphs (woven silk pictures) were being produced on an industrial scale: one here shows the disaster spun as a commemoration of traditional values where men give up their lives for women and children — values thought to be under threat from the Suffragette movement.The Titanic sank at a crucial moment for feminism: “Votes or Boats?” ran the headline of one newspaper. On a sinking ship, women expected to have priority but on land they were demanding equality.
If the Titanic was a story of speed, then so too was its aftermath. The transition from tragedy to myth, and from myth to massive commercial enterprise, was instantaneous. There were few photos of the ship herself, so many of the images used were actually of the Olympic, the Mauretania, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse or the Kronprizessin Cecilie.
The Titanic was the world in microcosm, an Edwardian Noah’s Ark. The passengers include Chinese, Syrian, Russian, Australian, Portuguese, Swedish and Turkish, as well as English, Irish and American. And every country had its own spin. While any man seen saving himself was described by the English as Italian, the Hungarians, in their own memorial postcard, pictured a scene of drunk and debauched English officers.
That first Titanic movie, Saved from the Titanic, is now lost, but the exhibition does show two dresses (and a hat) worn by Kate Winslet in Cameron’s blockbuster. It also has clips from the German Titanic film, In Nacht und Eis, released in August 1912.And, most thrillingly, we can at last get a glimpse The Nazi Titanic, commissioned by Joseph Goebbels and released in 1943. In this version, the chairman of the White Star Line bribes the captain to speed through the ice region; after the collision a Jewish passenger starts a riot, and the only people to behave with restraint are the German passengers and officers.
According to Beelsey’s eyewitness report, presented here as an audio recording read by an actor, when the lights went out, the ship “slid slowly forwards” before diving “slantingly” down. Even here there are discrepancies over what really happened — according to Beesley, the Titanic did not break in two; other witnesses disagreed.
But what she left behind “we would willingly forget forever — the cries of many hundreds of our fellow-passengers struggling in the ice-cold water”.
A world might have disappeared that night, but the myth of the Titanic has proved itself unsinkable.
The Daily Telegraph