"Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage" by Hugh Brewster
NONFICTION: How the other half survived - or didn't - the Titanic
- Article by: CHUCK LEDDY
- Special to the Star Tribune
- April 3, 2012 - 2:21 PM
Titanic fever struck the world in early April 1912, as the "unsinkable" luxury liner prepared for her maiden voyage. Titanic fever continues with the centennial of the famous ship's sinking on April 15. In "Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic, Her Passengers, and Their World" (Crown, 352 pages, $26), historian Hugh Brewster has written a brilliant account of the first-class passengers who went down with the ship, giving us a glimpse into a Gilded Age about to disappear forever.
Only 711 passengers -- fewer than a third -- survived the sinking. Brewster focuses his detailed and panoramic narrative on "the Gilded Age masters of the universe -- Astor, Widener, Thayer, Guggenheim, Douglas, Moore, Hays, and others -- who suddenly found themselves immersed in the freezing water," he writes. "This sort of thing didn't happen ... to people such as them."
Brewster's method is simple and highly entertaining. He'll give us a short, chatty biography about a doomed passenger -- someone like New York multimillionaire James Clinch Smith -- and then take us into their clubby social world aboard the ship. For example, Brewster tells us how Smith had witnessed the 1906 murder of his brother-in-law, legendary architect Stanford White, by Pittsburgh multimillionaire Harry Thaw. Brewster describes how White led a bohemian lifestyle, having love affairs with numerous showgirls, including Evelyn Nesbit, who would later marry Thaw. The murder became a global sensation: "Never before had wealth, sex, and celebrity come together in quite such a perfect storm."
Readers also hear the story of rescued passenger Lady Duff Gordon, a pioneer of English fashion who was traveling to New York to negotiate a new lease for her retail store. Brewster uses Duff to discuss the period's changing fashions, showing how an emerging celebrity culture helped spread trends much as they do today. The first half of Brewster's account is fueled by onboard romances and rivalries, but everything changes around midnight on April 14, 1912, when the Titanic collides with an iceberg.
Brewster recounts how the crew and passengers responded to the crisis. The minute-by-minute historical detail Brewster presents allows readers to feel they're observing the chaos from above as the women and children hustle into lifeboats.
Perhaps the continuing fascination of the Titanic story is because even the richest people of that era, aboard an "unsinkable" luxury liner built especially for them, found themselves victims of disaster, right alongside the poor folks in steerage and the working-class crew. Those with Titanic fever this centennial year will find a perfect antidote in Hugh Brewster's absorbing "Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage."
Chuck Leddy is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Boston.
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