In Their Own Words, Titanic


Titanic survivor Edith Russell, when she died in 1975 at the age of ninety-eight, was as amazed by the fact that she had lived to see astronauts walking between the mountains of the moon as by the fact that she had watched the Royal Mail Steamer Titanic tear itself apart over the mid-Atlantic Ridge. Born in 1877, she had been witness to the most promising and perilous ten decades Homo sapiens had ever known, or possibly ever would know. Her memories began when Doc. Holiday, Bat Masterson and Butch Cassidy were young, when cars, gas stoves, telephones, electric lights and motion pictures were only inventions on the horizon. During her first quarter century, she saw the conquest of air in flimsy, kite-like planes, including the experimental contraption that had almost taken the life of young Harold Candee ‘ which is how one of Miss Russell’s fellow travelers, Helen Churchill Candee, came to be with her aboard the Titanic. Helen was sailing home to America, to visit her recuperating son; and the fact that she actually knew someone who had piloted a plane was cause enough, in those days, for notoriety.

‘ Edith’s next seven decades saw the undoing of the sound barrier, the unlocking of the atom, the rise and fall of the Third Reich, the decline of the British Empire, the slow unraveling of a segregationist class system in America, and finally, amidst all the horrors and wonders, the bridging of interplanetary space.

She told historian Walter Lord that she felt both privileged and burdened to have lived in such vibrant times. She had managed to escape the ravages of Kaiser Wilhelm’s mustard gas bombs while becoming one of history’s first ‘in the trenches” war correspondents. In addition to surviving the Titanic, she walked away from two fatal car crashes, several fires, floods, tornadoes, and at least one more shipwreck. Flying in a plane, she decided, would be ‘daring God,” so she traveled the world only by ship or rail. Following a stint as mistress to Titanic owner J.Bruce Ismay (a fact confided by her to Walter Lord in later years, and the basis for Walter’s admonition that, in Her Name, Titanic, I had probably placed too much faith in Ms. Russell’s defense of Ismay), she evidently came to regard marriage as belonging to the same crazy camp as airplanes. Thus, at age ninety-eight, she wrote that she had experienced every disaster except a plane crash, bubonic plague, and a husband.

During the filming of A Night to Remember, in 1958, Edith visited the set with Producer Bill Macquitty, who as a child had watched the Titanic being built, and saw it sail off on its first and last voyage with Edith Russell upon it. In his book, Titanic Memories (National Maritime Museum, London, 2000), MacQuitty writes: ‘We walked past the workshops and finally turned a corner to see where a third of the ship rose from its concrete bed. Two funnels, thrust into the winter sky, dwarfed the four lifeboats on the boat deck. Edith stopped in her tracks. She stood still and silent for a long time, until she said, ‘I can’t believe it.’ Once on the boat deck, she took hold of a lifeboat lifeline. Her face was aged, but strong and determined. Straight eyebrows, set widely apart, enhanced the deep-set eyes. Edith was completely overcome, her thoughts still far away. Quietly the photographer took a shot to include the name Titanic on the boat. Edith never noticed. Slowly she walked along the deck. ‘It was here that I stood,’ she said.”

‘ In the chapters that follow, you will hear directly from Edith and her fellow survivors, along with accounts from the rescue ship Carpathia and the would-be rescue ship Californian. Not all of the viewpoints from the Edwardian Era (the period in which many of these letters and family memoirs were written) are pretty, for they sometimes reveal an attitude that the ‘lower classes,” amongst them people considered to represent ‘lower” races (particularly those to be of Mediterranean or Asian origin), really did not deserve space in the lifeboats. Such attitudes were, at that time, so socially acceptable that during hearings in New York and London, officers of the Californian tried to excuse their failure to respond by stating that they believed the ship out there in distress was ‘only a tramp steamer” (that is, a low class ship) and not a first class ship like the Titanic. Indeed, Mrs. Ryerson’s letters, memorializing the Marconigram Ismay had shown her, and his comments about it, reveal that the Titanic had itself, on that last day, refused to alter course and assist a lower class ship in distress. Ironically, if the men in charge had obeyed what we now know to be the law of the sea, and steered south-west to answer the Deutschland’s call for assistance, the Titanic would have missed the ice field altogether, never showing up for its own appointment with destiny.

Now that the archaeological investigations into the loss of the Titanic are well under way, the debris field has begun to yield up letters (and in one case even a diary) belonging to people who became principal players in the drama of April 14 ‘ 15, 1912. While it is true that inch-thick steel has been disappearing year by year before our eyes, scraps of food and even sheets of paper have turned up, as if by miracle, perfectly intact. We scientists have yet to adequately explain the preservation paradox. For whatever reason, letters written during the voyage are still readable after all these years. Combined with post-disaster survivors’ tales, the deep-ocean ruins and their contents represent a floating city from the Edwardian world, flash frozen, or suspended in time as surely as if it had been dipped in amber. As such, Titanic becomes a signpost for another emerging time probe, also involving writings preserved, miraculously, on perishable materials. I find myself now having to determine what outlook one might obtain from the similarly flash-frozen city of Herculaneum ‘ infinitely better preserved than its more famous sister city of Pompeii. At Herculaneum, much like the Titanic, we find the woodwork, the food, the books, the legal documents and letters of the people preserved right alongside the artifacts of daily life.

Can we learn, perhaps, ninety percent of what we need to know about everyday life in the Roman world of AD 79 from one flash-frozen city? I wonder. Can we apply that same question to the Edwardian world and the Titanic and derive a ‘Yes?” I have asked. Yes, I think we can. We can even learn about Chinese immigrants in Edwardian times, from letters still preserved in the Titanic’s mail room, whereas the world above the Titanic seems not to have preserved such records at all. Frozen cities, combined with survivors’ tales, provide some of the largest pieces we will ever obtain for the jigsaw puzzle of human history. Thus do letters from the debris field and the mailroom become the Edwardian analogue of Herculaneum’s Villa of the Papyri. And thus do the post-disaster memoirs and letters of people like Edith Russell and Helen Candee become comparable to Pliny the Younger’s account of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae’s final hours under the shadow of Vesuvius. They are the unfiltered first drafts of history.

Letters from the Titanic’s debris field will be reproduced in a separate (later) section of this volume.

As for post-disaster material, most of the letters, diary entries, and family memoirs reproduced here arrived unsolicited over many years and, in addition to interviews (also reproduced here), have formed the basis of four complete books: Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember (1955), The Night Lives On (1986), my Her Name, Titanic (1988) and Ghosts of the Titanic (2000). Needless to say, the Lord/Pellegrino COMMUNICATIONS File, as it continues to be posted, will grow into a lengthy book in its own right. Indeed, it promises to be the world’s longest collection of first-hand Titanic accounts outside of the British and American Inquiries. These accounts are, in the archaeological/historical/scientific sense, the undigested raw data behind four published (and one still in progress) syntheses of an historic event that, to one degree or another, prophesized much of what was to come during the twentieth century, and which emerged into the twenty-first century as both cultural icon and cautionary tale.

It has been suggested by some, along Publisher’s Row, that this ‘raw data” has a lucrative commercial future, if we ‘sequester” it until after I have mined it further, for the final installment in my Titanic trilogy (planned for 2012). All well and fine, in theory; but as a scientist I cannot let the file’s scarcity as multiple copies (only four now exist) be exposed too long to the possibility, no matter how improbable it may seem, of simultaneous accidental destruction on opposite coasts of the United States. Too much history is at risk of loss. Nor, on a gut level, do I believe that the gradual accumulation of so large and interesting a file is an accident by which I should profit. I have decided, therefore, that all proceeds from this project shall go to Parkinson’s Disease research. Toward this purpose, the Michael J. Fox organization has turned out to be most efficient, lacking ridiculous administrative salaries and other common forms of overhead, meaning that the money goes where it is meant to go ‘ directly into medical research, to find a cure.

Walter Lord, who has been both a teacher to me in the writing of history, and one of life’s truest friends, has been living with Parkinson’s for as long as I’ve known him. Over the years, Walter has taught me all that he can. That’s the most wonderful thing about knowledge. It’s like love. You can give it freely, and though you have given it away, you have it still. From that point on, it grows.

Charles Pellegrino
Long Beach, New York
February 5, 2001



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