November 23, 2011
Forget Jack and Rose, the fictional characters in James Cameron’s Titanic. The real passengers of RMS Titanic had more compelling stories to tell. Some of these anecdotes had gained legend status; others were little-known factoids about the people who lived through and died in one of the greatest tragedies in maritime history. Their stories had not gone down with the ship untold.
Daniel Danielsen Grønnestad, a 32-year-old Norwegian musician, emigrated to the US at the turn of the century with his brother, Bertil. They settled in North Dakota, hundreds of miles from the eastern seaboard. But despite the distance and their modest means, the brothers took regular homecoming trips to Norway, traversing half of the American continent and sailing across “the pond” – the Atlantic Ocean. They were about to make one such trans-Atlantic trip back to America in April 1912. Bertil, however, had an overwhelming sense of foreboding about the trip and decided to put it off. Daniel embarked on the Titanic at Cherbourg, France (a stop from Southampton, England before sailing for New York) without his brother but with other 2,223 souls on her fateful maiden voyage on April 1o, 1912. Close to a hundred years later, I would be clutching a replica of Daniel’s boarding pass at Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition.
The touring exhibition made its Southeast Asian debut in Singapore’s ArtScience Museum at the Marina Bay Sands. The museum building was an architectural feat in itself – an innovative marriage of art and science, true to the spirit of Titanic’s ambitious design and engineering. Designed as a blooming lotus flower, the avant-garde structure conveyed openness, its ten fingerlike extensions poised for a handshake, hence the “welcoming hand of Singapore” tag. Arguably, it also resembled an upturned bunch of bananas from afar. Night had fallen when my family and I got to the museum, dramatically illuminated by spotlights from its base by then.
At the entrance, each one of us received a boarding pass bearing the name of a particular passenger. So we walked in as the real passengers must have – wowed by the Titanic’s luxurious trappings that conjured up a first-class hotel rather than the usual steamer of its time. The exhibition filled several halls with replicas of her interior design and features: the grand staircase (a hammy photo op stop), spacious first class staterooms outfitted with Victorian furniture and fixtures, cramped third class cabins with mattresses on the bunk beds (other ships that time did not bother providing budget travelers with such creature comforts), and a narrow promenade deck dimly lit to highlight the constellations. It all set us back to the early 20th-century as if we were touring the steamer as she sailed. Daniel was not allowed the same luxury, however. As a third class passenger, he did not have access to many of the ship’s modern amenities. She was designed such that class distinctions were adhered to.
For a touch of the surreal, the exhibition included a wall of ice to allow visitors a close encounter with an iceberg, an endangered object in nature at this time of climate change. We touched the gigantic block of ice to better imagine hypothermia which claimed the lives of those who had leapt from the sinking ship. Her collision with an iceberg happened in the springtime and nighttime cold of the North Atlantic.
More than the faithful recreation of the ship’s interior and the iceberg, it was the collection of artifacts salvaged from the wreckage that detained our interest. The actual items – bits and pieces of reality that may have been lost in this oft-told tragic tale – had been dredged up from the deep, curated and documented. Some of the personal effects of passengers and contents of the ship surprisingly survived decades under 12,ooo feet of water. Pieces of jewelry, toiletries, cracked china with the White Star Line logo, and, gasp, a tattered steward’s jacket have become sobering reminders of people who once owned and used them. Most jaw-dropping were the otherwise fragile items, which I never thought would last a few seconds in water, let alone decades under the sea, such as perfume bottles that still exuded their scent despite their watery burial and some postcards that were largely preserved, save for minimal smudges. The leather satchels that contained them proved to have been impervious to water. One postcard expressed this Hallmark-cheesy sentiment:
If dreams could come true, how happy I’d be. I dreamed I loved you. I dreamed you loved me.
It reminded me of Jack and Rose.
Ultimately, the stories of the real victims and survivors written on panels on the walls were the most poignant part of the exhibition. My mother and I thoroughly read through each one. These human interest stories gripped our imagination more than the actual disaster. Some of the stories were tabloid-worthy and entertaining, e.g. rumors of young mistresses of tycoons listed under pseudonyms. Mostly though, the initial dismissal of the seriousness of the situation (mostly by the Titanic officers and some of the passengers who truly believed she was “unsinkable”) and the belated clamor for lifeboats (some of which had been released to the water unfilled to capacity) were appalling. Even the accounts of some survivors were not less disheartening. Because of the “women and children first” protocol, many women had to leave their husbands, fiancés, fathers, and sons on the ship to their doom. The guilt, the helplessness, and the dilemma that these women had to experience was utterly heartbreaking. One woman, 31-year-old Charlotte Collyer, famously said in an interview:
“Women and children first,” someone was shouting these last few words over and over again. They meant my own safety but they also meant the greatest loss I’d ever suffered, the life of my husband.
Charlotte reluctantly boarded a lifeboat along with her 8-year-old daughter, leaving her beloved husband she would never see again. Another wife, unencumbered by any dependent, steadfastly stood by her husband despite pleas for her to save her own life. Rosalie Ida Straus, the 63-year-old wife of Isador Straus, co-owner of Macy’s Department Store, refused to get on a lifeboat with this legendary declaration:
I will not be separated from my husband. As we have lived, so we will die together.
The couple was last seen sitting quietly on the deck chairs awaiting their fate. Only Mr. Straus’ body was recovered and identified.
My mother’s boarding pass belonged to Berthe Antonine Mayné. She was a Belgian cabaret singer, known more for her dalliances than her performances, who had fallen in love with a Canadian hockey player, Quigg Baxter. They embarked on a journey aboard the Titanic to start a new life together in Montreal. Billeted in separate first class staterooms, the couple had priority access to lifeboats, unlike Daniel and other third class passengers who were practically left to go down with the ship. Initially, Berthe balked at the idea of being on a lifeboat without Quigg and her jewelry, which she would have gone back for had she not been stopped by other lifeboat occupants.
My mother and I later learned about the fate of our passengers. Daniel could not have gotten on a lifeboat on two counts: he was a male adult and a third class passenger – a deadly combination. His body was never found. Berthe made it to Quebec but eventually went back to her old life in Europe. She never married.
Out of 2,224 people aboard the Titanic, only 710 survived.
The Titanic tragedy on the night of April 14, 1912 had been largely blamed on two management blunders – cutting down the number of lifeboats to bare minimum in order to create more deck space and disregarding warnings to decelerate in the iceberg-laden swathe of the North Atlantic. Luxury and speed proved to be the downfall of the greatest ship of her time.
RMS Titanic may have found its resting place more than 12,000 feet below sea level a hundred years ago, but its legend would remain in the collective imagination of many generations after its sinking. The exhibition put names and faces, true stories and real people to this tragedy by focusing on the human element of the disaster rather than its spectacle. The tragedy of the Titanic was the collateral damage of the unbridled ambition of the powerful – the untimely end of Daniel’s American dream and of Berthe’s chance for a new life.