Book Review: Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic’s First-Class Passengers and Their World by Hugh Brewster

The Titanic’s First-Class Passengers and Their World by Hugh Brewster

Book Review by Bud Gundy

I was 11 years old when I saw Walter Lord’s classic book about the Titanic, A Night to Remember on the library stacks.  I’d seen glimpses of the black and white movie of the same name and I had enough experience as a reader to know that I would learn a lot more in a book than by watching a film.  I was curious about a tragedy that I knew very little about, but that was apparently so profound that was still a part of popular culture decades later.

I was enraptured by the book, swept up in a story filled to bursting with so much pathos and irony.  I’ve read many other books about the Titanic over the years and seen nearly every dramatic version of the story.  I’ve even come to cherish the lesser-known Titanic dramas, like the subplot in the television classic, “Upstairs, Downstairs,” when Lady Marjorie becomes one of the few First Class women to go down with the ship. I’ve also come to loathe the garish, sloppy retellings such as the wretched excesses in the 1979 movie that even Cloris Leachman as Molly Brown couldn’t salvage.

So it was with mixed feelings that I recently began, Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic’s First-Class Passengers and Their World by Hugh Brewster.  While everyone knows the classic Titanic stories – The band playing until nearly the end, Ida Strauss giving up her seat in a lifeboat to die with her husband Isador and the profound irony of the world’s most famous new ship sinking on her first ocean crossing – I wondered if I hadn’t heard these tales too many times to find anything new.   I’m happy to say I was wrong.

Brewster’s book illustrated the story with a very intimate, frank and 21st century perspective on the people who were onboard when the Titanic went down 100 years ago.

The most interesting example (for me) was Archibald Butt, a top presidential aide first to Teddy Roosevelt and then President Taft, who was sailing home from visiting his sister in England to gear up for the coming election.  He was a Washington power broker, a famous man-about-town covered regularly in the media and so highly regarded that after the sinking all of DC waited anxiously for news of his fate.

Butt – whose name would be the subject of much glee on The Daily Show and the Colbert Report today – was also a famous bachelor.  It’s impossible to read his story and not instantly spot a closeted gay man, and much to my relief Brewster does not indulge in the easy, discreet silence that an earlier generation of historians would have used.  Butt was clearly a gay man who was traveling with a friend whose surviving letters make clear that he had a long-standing love affair with a dashing European man.

There was also a trio of men known to High Society as “The Three Amigos,” wealthy bachelors who were well known for always traveling together and never, oddly *cough*cough* with female companions.

Brewster’s ease with the obvious truths about these men gave the Titanic story a refreshingly contemporary perspective.  It’s an unblinking style that gives new insight to many of the Titanic legends.  While the lifeboat order of “women and children first” has been used even recently to bemoan lost chivalry, a surviving woman testified just days after the sinking that in her opinion these actions were largely misunderstood.  At the time the lifeboats were being filled, she said, the men had no idea that the ship would actually sink, and she wondered how the story would have played out if everyone had understood what was about to happen.  As it was, it was only after most of the lifeboats had been launched that many of those remaining on deck realized that they would not be rescued.

The image of selfless men silently accepting their deaths to allow weak, hysterical women to survive was also irresistible to certain editorial writers of the day, who used the emotionally-laden heroism to rail against the suffragette movement.  Women who wanted to vote, they argued, didn’t understand the natural order of the universe and that men had only the protection of women uppermost in their minds.  Insights like this give us a glimpse into the durability of the reactionary mind, but knowing that they failed is also a source of inspiration.

Also on this topic – I knew the famous stories of how the wealthy male survivors - Lord Cosmo Duff Gordon and the White Star Line’s president J. Bruce Ismay chief among them – were forever stained as cowards.  But I knew nothing of the Japanese passenger who went down with the ship but was rescued by a lifeboat off a floating door.  Given the hatred and vitriol showered on him by his countrymen afterwards, you wonder if he wouldn’t have done better to perish in the open ocean.  Many of the male survivors suffered similar fates.

Brewster’s account of the sinking and the hours the survivors spent in the lifeboats was also comprehensive and wrenching, worth the read all by themselves.  He also illustrated the actions of Molly Brown in greater detail than I’ve read before, and I was moved by the way she raised funds for the surviving Third Class passengers even as the Carpathia steamed for New York, and remained on the rescue ship after it docked and the other First Class passengers had fled to fancy hotels.  She stayed behind, sleeping on a bench, until every surviving Third Class passenger’s information had been collected so that they could receive payments through the Titanic Survivors Relief Fund that she organized.

Brewster ends his book with brief accounts of how many of the survivors lived out the rest of their lives.  It’s a shock to read of those who died only months later in car accidents or from disease, and I was startled to see how many of those in the lifeboats were still alive when I was born in 1963. 

The Titanic has become an all-purpose morality tale for anyone of any philosophical outlook.  It’s also an easy way for storytellers to instantly add intense drama to their tales.  I recently saw James Cameron’s 3D version of “Titanic” at the theater, and while the special effects added nothing new to the movie, I was surprised at my reaction this time.  The first time around, I thought it was an unbearably saccharine love story enlivened by a brilliant visual record of the sinking.  Fourteen years later, the love story resonated with more force and the sinking was just as powerful.  Brewster’s book also provoked a powerful emotional reaction, enriched by a fresh perspective glossed with contemporary sensibilities.

The Titanic captured the imaginations of millions of people in 1912 as she steamed into the open ocean heading for New York.  A century later, her voyage still hasn’t ended.