It started with a Scholastic book on the Titanic that my seven-year-old, Grace, brought home late last fall. I can’t opine on whether books about history’s premier shipwreck are proper fare for her age group. She seemed neither upset by nor unaware of the ramifications: more than 1,500 men, women, and children drowned or froze in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912. Even now, the event is familiar to millions, and not just because of the 1997 blockbuster film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Threads of the saga weave through our cultural memory: the Titanic had too few lifeboats for all its passengers; it received multiple ice warnings before hitting an iceberg; many more could have been saved had the SS Californian, about an hour away, responded to distress signals.
What got Grace’s attention were the personal narratives. No surprise there, as these accounts have fascinated readers for 100 years: people like Edith Rosenbaum, a fashion buyer who made it into a lifeboat clutching a musical toy pig, with which she entertained crying children during the long hours when survivors awaited rescue; Noëlle, the Countess of Rothes, who became one of the few women to take the oars of a lifeboat; and Harold Bride, a wireless operator who avoided drowning by hauling himself onto an overturned collapsible.
Above all, Grace was drawn to the figure of J. Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line, the builder of the Titanic. It was Ismay who decided that 20 lifeboats—more than the legal requirement at the time—were enough. In the aftermath, his decision drew scorn, as did his mere presence: for Ismay, unlike the captain and most of the crew, had not gone down with the Titanic but climbed into one of the last lifeboats. To some extent, every man who came ashore had to explain why he, and not some woman or child, had done so, but for Ismay, the question shadowed the rest of his life. He insisted that he had saved himself only when he saw no more women or children on deck. Official inquiries cleared him of wrongdoing, but the press demonized him, and his public reputation was destroyed. Myths sprouted up: Ismay had urged Captain Edward Smith to go faster, through the Atlantic’s ice fields, in the hopes of getting some press attention; he had disguised himself as a woman to escape the doomed vessel. In its heroes and villains section, the Scholastic book lists Ismay with the bad guys.
Grace wanted to do her own writing about the Titanic, so I settled at the keyboard as her amanuensis. Soon these tales grew into a series. In each one, a character called “Ismay” vies against heroes like the Countess of Rothes or Harold Bride. Grace’s Ismay commits petty and grand larceny, false entry, and child abduction, and—in one memorable episode, using the ship’s wireless system—he arranges for a seaborne delivery of skunks. He is a tireless rascal, but his treachery generally comes to naught, since Noëlle and her children thwart him at every turn. The beleaguered Ismay must also contend with Edith’s toy pig, which fills him with dread. Ismay’s is a lonely lot, in history’s hands and in Grace’s.
Though I enjoyed working on these adventures, I began to feel protective of Ismay and cautioned Grace that he didn’t deserve such a notorious reputation. More than one rescued passenger testified that Ismay had helped many women and children to safety before the end. However he may have performed in the final moments, he probably had done more than most other men who didn’t perish. But his identification with the ship and the public need for a scapegoat tainted him forever. No wonder Frances Wilson, in her recent book, compared him with Conrad’s Lord Jim: the man who, after an instinctive act, faces the twin punishments of survival and memory.
The days and weeks pass. The Titanic remains top of mind for Grace, and I ponder making another defense of Ismay. But she’s so keen, her eyes bright with creation. Her Ismay has taken on a life of his own; maybe in some sequel, he can find redemption yet. I’ll say nothing more. Grace has stories to tell.
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