How to Survive the Titanic: The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay
Harper Perennial, 2012
384 pp., $15.99
How to Survive the "Titanic"
This year marks one hundred since 1,502 people died at sea when the RMS Titanic sank on her maiden voyage. This costly night has its remembered heroes. The story of the brave musicians who played "Nearer, My God, to Thee" as the ship was taking them down to their unmarked graves has been told splendidly in Steve Turner's recent book, The Band That Played On.
It has not, however, been one hundred years since the death of J. Bruce Ismay. The chairman of the White Star Line and the president of its parent company, the International Mercantile Marine, outlived his unsinkable ship by a quarter of a century. Hence he is the antithesis of the bandsmen: not the hero that died but the scoundrel who lived. A popular song of the mid-20th century counseled people to do what they pleased without worrying about public censure because it will all be forgotten "A Hundred Years from Today." Defying such reassurance, Ismay's ignoble conduct has been perpetually retold and despised for a century now.
In this centennial year, a number of accounts of the disaster have appeared, but one of the best appeared a year earlier and is now available in paperback: a beautifully written, reflective book by Frances Wilson, How to Survive the Titanic: The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay. If Ismay's case undercuts the advice of "A Hundred Years from Today," Wilson's book-length account of it also calls into question Sebastian's dictum in Brideshead Revisited: "To understand all is to forgive all."
Although Wilson does not speak in these terms, the evidence she offers lends itself to the interpretation that Ismay was a textbook example of narcissistic personality disorder. She does testify that "other people held no reality for Ismay." He was the kind of husband and father who is the family dictator. Intolerant of their very presence, he banished his children to what was, in effect, an adjoining house. He took sadistic pleasure in picking on his well-behaved wife in public, and when a son contracted polio he became an additional favorite target.
Overseeing the whole project as the grand culmination of his glorious career, Ismay had personally decided that the Titanic should not have sufficient lifeboats because the space could be better used for additional leisure opportunities for the first-class passengers. To what degree the captain was following his orders—possibly even to increase speed—was never established, but Ismay was informed that they had received iceberg warnings.
The chairman of the White Star Line was also one of only four people who knew before the lifeboats had been loaded that the ship really was going to go down—and in just a matter of hours. Wilson unsparingly lists all the people with whom Ismay should have had a bond of affection that he did not bother to warn, including his personal servant of many years, Richard Fry. No man is a hero to his own valet indeed.
Instead, Ismay hung around a lifeboat, ostensibly helping with the evacuation of the women and children. Looking down at an unnaturally calm sea, Narcissus must have seen his own reflection and realized he was in love. As the boat was being lowered, he jumped in.
He was not the only man to behave badly. Some went so far as to disguise themselves as women. It was alleged that Lord Duff Gordon bribed the crew of his woefully under-filled lifeboat not to go back and attempt to rescue anyone. The Philadelphia-set millionaire William E. Carter hopped into the very same boat as Ismay. Carter's wife later successfully sued for divorce, claiming that he had abandoned her and their children to their fate in their cabin and just ran off to save himself—surely in its own way an apposite case for divorce on the grounds of desertion.
And still it is Ismay who is especially loathed. This has traditionally been attributed to the facts that, first, his own decisions contributed to the tragedy; and, second, that as president and chairman—as a kind of "super captain" for whom Captain Smith worked—it was his duty to give priority to his passengers and not to himself. Ismay's response to this way of seeing the matter was to claim that he was not a part of the crew (neither, incidentally, were the musicians) but rather just a passenger like all the others. He affected to have no idea why the captain had informed him and not anyone else beside crewmembers that there were reports of ice. When he stuck doggedly to the line that he was "simply an ordinary passenger," the British inquiry finally asked him if they were meant to understand that he had bought a ticket for the voyage, his truculent "no" reducing the room to hearty laughter.
Reading all the details presented in Wilson's narrative, what makes it so hard to sympathize with Ismay is how unchastened he was by the disaster. When the survivors were rescued by the Carpathia, he reportedly came aboard shouting, "I'm Ismay! I'm Ismay! Get me a stateroom!" Great man that he was, he duly secured a fine room to himself on the overcrowded ship, leaving women who had just watched their husbands and sons die to huddle together day and night in the smoking room. As they proceeded to New York, Ismay failed to respond to his company's own urgent requests for information about the tragedy and to his wife's message of concern, instead sending a flurry of Marconigrams entirely confined to arranging how he could get away as quickly and comfortably as possible: "Please send outfit of clothes, including shoes, for me to Cedric."