The captain is supposed to go down with the ship, and that's exactly what happened after the Titanic hit an iceberg on an April night in 1912. But what is the president of the company that built the ship supposed to do?
Good question. Judging by the reaction of the American public, J. Bruce Ismay picked absolutely the wrong answer. He found his way to a lifeboat as the great boat floundered – there's still debate over exactly how he did so – and landed himself in infamy by managing to avoid death in the frigid North Atlantic.
In her new book How to Survive the Titanic, or The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay, writer Frances Wilson chronicles the life of a man who, perhaps unfairly, became an immortal emblem of oblivious arrogance. It's a fascinating read, full of gripping detail about the sinking and the evolving morals of the age.
In an interview this week, I asked Wilson about Ismay's actions, how the people of his time judged him, and why the women-and-children-first edict became a political weapon. We also talked about a pair of Christian Scientists who lived through the sinking and became two of its most well-known survivors.
Q: What drew you to Ismay's story?
A: I'm drawn as a writer to complicated people and to trauma, and what struck me about Ismay was the extraordinary strangeness of his behavior, that he behaved in the exact opposite of the way that other men of his background were expected to behave.
I wondered what it was like it for him, why he made that snap decision to save his own life.
Q: What did he do when the ship sank?
A: His version of events is rather different from other people's versions. Ismay says he helped to load eight lifeboats on the starboard side of the ship, filling the last lifeboats with women and children. When the deck was completely empty, he jumped in.
What some other people say is that he fought his way in, had to battle his way in. People say he got into first lifeboat and didn't help fill any lifeboats. And some people say he was ordered into a lifeboat.
What interested me was not judging him. He was very judged at the time. I was trying to understand how he judged himself, in the story he told himself about whether he justified his actions
Q: What was the American public's reaction to his survival?
A: The American reaction was absolute horror that the owner of the line could have survived and continued to show his face. The headline in the New York Times said "Titanic Sinks, 1,500 Drown, Ismay Survives." His survival was seen as big a part of the sorry as the loss of 1,500 souls.
Q: What does this story tell us about that time in history, almost a century ago?
A: It tells us an awful lot about maleness and masculinity and about insensitivity. He was a man who totally lacked understanding of other people.
A man like him would not be allowed to head up a company now. He was someone who had no capacity to empathize with anyone else who had lost. He saw the Titanic as his loss, and he felt that he was suffering more than anyone else.
It also tells us about that age's insane notion of duty. What he's contesting is that it was his duty to die. Why shouldn't he carry on? Yet all his education in the English public school system was precisely about raising young men to be chivalrous and go down with the ship.
Q: The Titanic's sinking, which emphasized the law of the seas of women-and-children-first, played out during the era of the women's suffrage movement. How did critics of women's right to vote use this to their advantage?
A: Women were seen as hypocritical because they accepted the chivalry of the men on board. On land, they didn't want privileges, they wanted equality. But at sea, they were happy to accept privileges.
On the date that it sank, thousands of women were marching in London and New York for women's right to equality. Headlines said, "What do women want, votes or boats?"
Q: Two of the survivors, both major players in your book, were Christian Scientists who ended up writing their own books. Considering that many of our readers are too, tell us about them.
A: Lawrence Beesley, a second-class British passenger, was in this early 30s. He was a widower and had a son. He'd been converted to Christian Science, and was going to a Christian Science conference.
He said it was absolutely his belief that enabled him to have the courage to leave the ship and to believe that he was going to see the next chapter of his life.
The other was the bravest man of the night, second officer Charles Herbert Lightoller. He went down with the Titanic, and he thought he was going to die. He found himself swimming in the water and then clinging on to an overturned lifeboat, a capsized lifeboat.
He said he never lost his sense that he was given the chance to live, that this was a God-given chance. He managed to stay astride that upturned lifeboat with 30 men behind him. He kept them on there all night.
It's absolutely incredible. He just got them balanced: one leg on either side of the boat, lean to the left, lean to the right.
Q: These two men, among many other survivors, wrote and talked about what happened. How good were the memories of the survivors?
A: The whole of the Titanic became a myth the minute it hit the iceberg. It's difficult to disentangle the myth from reality.
When Walter Lord was writing "A Night to Remember," in the 1950s, he asked all of the survivors of the Titanic for the accounts of that night. All of them swore to the truth of their stories, and not one of them coincides with each other. It's interesting how no two people can agree on what happened that night.
Q: Why do you think that is?
A: Because of the chaos. The ship was a quarter of a mile long, and there were thousands of people screaming on deck. People only knew what was going on in their particular group.
Things were extremely complicated by the sublime beauty of the sinking. They were overwhelmed by its beauty. What they said again and again was that it was this almost perfect night: it was freezing cold and far below zero, the sky was this completely clear vault of stars with no moon at all, and the sea hadn't a ripple in it,
In the middle of this, this great ship with its lights ablaze is going down like a stricken animal. People in the lifeboats just gazed. They'd never seen anything like it.
It became a moment of high art. Immediately artists tried to recreate the incredible drama, this mixing of beauty with terror.
Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor’s books section.