Shortly after midnight on April 15, 1912, the owner of the RMS Titanic leaped into one of the last lifeboats to be launched from the ship’s flooded deck. In saving his skin while women and children drowned, he left his reputation to sink with the stricken liner.
J. Bruce Ismay’s inglorious yet oddly enlightening story is told by Frances Wilson in “How to Survive the Titanic,” a quirkily persuasive meld of biography, reportage and literary criticism which examines the disaster afresh through the prism of his life.
Back on dry land, the 49-year-old Englishman became the first victim of a press hate campaign, vilified as a coward and blamed for the speed at which the ship hit history’s most famous iceberg. “His was now a posthumous existence,” Wilson writes.
Ismay was the oldest surviving child of the self-made creator of the White Star Line, one of the world’s most profitable shipping companies in its heyday. Unfortunately, Ismay Senior saw his son as a mother’s boy and resented him for the very privileges his own success had provided.
The child grew up to be “dogmatic and dictatorial,” with few social graces. Upon inheriting the company, his first act was to sell it to J. Pierpont Morgan for $35 million, staying on as managing director and chairman. He was planning his retirement in 1912, and the Titanic’s maiden voyage was to have been his last in a professional capacity.
The bald facts of that iconic vessel remain striking even with the disaster’s centennial looming. Tall as an 11-story building and constructed from 46,000 tons of steel, it was the largest moving object on earth.
Turning His Back
While the other survivors watched the eerie spectacle of the ship sinking in rapt horror, Ismay turned his back on the wreck. Later, when others told their stories to reporters, at inquiries and in memoirs, he would say almost nothing. The press described his terse utterances as a “luminous fog.”
Wilson musters two sources to help penetrate it. Thanks to Ismay’s granddaughter, she gained access to a cache of hitherto unknown love letters between Ismay and the glamorous American Marian Thayer, a first-class passenger widowed in the disaster.
In these transatlantic missives, written after the ship sank, Ismay comes across as whiny and self-absorbed, his confidante’s own loss striking him only occasionally, as an afterthought. Though he alludes tantalizingly to the things he would say were Mrs. Thayer only there, he never elaborates.
More illuminating is a second source: Joseph Conrad’s novel “Lord Jim.” In the Titanic’s mailbags, coincidentally, was a manuscript of a story that Conrad had agreed to sell to an American collector, John Quinn. “Karain: A Memory” was the precursor to “Lord Jim,” whose plot Wilson sums up in a sentence: “Jim jumps from a sinking ship and then faces a life without honor.”
The novel was based on the 1880 case of the SS Jeddah, which was carrying 950 pilgrims to Mecca when it sprang a leak. Wrongly believing it would sink, its crew, including the British chief mate who inspired Conrad’s protagonist, jumped ship. In Wilson’s analysis, Jim emerges as Ismay’s fictional twin.
“When we see him through Conrad’s hooded eyes he has something of the tragic hero,” she writes. “He was an ordinary man caught in extraordinary circumstances, who behaved in a way which only confirmed his ordinariness.”
This unorthodox approach meshes with the overall strangeness of the Titanic’s story, one filled with bizarre twists of fate and incongruous juxtapositions.
J.P. Morgan canceled his berth at the last minute because of work pressures, for instance. At the U.K. inquiry, “fashionably dressed dames” turned up to watch Ismay through their opera glasses. Insurance claims listed a set of bagpipes, a marmalade machine and a signed photograph of Garibaldi.
World in Flux
As she ruminates on fate, character and crisis mismanagement, Wilson reminds us that the Titanic, though overused as a metaphor, also serves as a punctuation point in history. The iceberg struck as the world was in flux. It’s a story, Wilson notes, that “buzzes with new technology.” In particular, the wireless messaging system invented by Guglielmo Marconi, which allowed ships to communicate with one another without flares and flags, “had turned the solidity of the word into a fluttering, flying, melting thing.”
Ultimately, her portrait -- empathetic rather than sympathetic -- depicts Ismay as an Everyman troublingly suited to our own uncertain times. As she puts it, “Ismay is that figure we all fear we might be. He is one of us.”
“How to Survive the Titanic: Or, The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay” is published by Harper in the U.S. and Bloomsbury in the U.K. (328 pages, $26.99, 18.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)