Saturday, October 15, 2011

'How To Survive The Titanic,' And Sink Your Name

White Star Line heir J. Bruce Ismay was one of 325 men to survive the sinking of the Titanic.
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White Star Line heir J. Bruce Ismay was one of 325 men to survive the sinking of the Titanic.

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October 15, 2011

J. Bruce Ismay probably shouldn't be mentioned in the same breath as any of the true criminals of the 20th century, but for many years he may have been the most universally despised man in the Western world.

Ismay, heir to the prominent British White Star Line shipping company, owned the Titanic, and he's the one who said it would be fine to put just 20 lifeboats on a ship that could hold 2,800 people. Why clutter the decks, he argued, when the ship itself is a lifeboat?

On the night of April 14, 1912, when the Titanic hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic, Ismay discovered just how wrong he had been. He jumped into one of the last lifeboats to leave the crippled ship — and he survived.

But by the time the Titanic's survivors reached New York, Ismay was one of the most reviled men on Earth. In How to Survive the Titanic: The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay, Frances Wilson, a fellow at London's Royal Society of Literature, tries to explain the man so many grew to hate.

Ismay's 'Empty Ship'

Wilson tells NPR's Scott Simon that there were many different accounts of just how Ismay survived.

"Some people describe Ismay as getting into the first lifeboat," she says. "Other people describe Ismay as being ordered into a lifeboat by the captain."

Ismay told yet another story. He said he helped load eight lifeboats on the starboard side of the ship and when it looked like the deck was clear and there was no one else left, he jumped into an open spot in one of the last boats to leave.

"Ismay describes leaving behind him an empty ship," Wilson says. "Obviously we knew there were 1,500 people on that ship so it was by no means empty."

Crew Or Passenger?

Needless to say, after the ship sank, there were investigations. New York, Washington and London all conducted inquiries during which passengers were asked to account for their own survival, then account for Ismay's.

The inquiries established that Ismay didn't push anyone out of their spot on the lifeboat, but there were debates as to whether or not he actually had a claim to the empty seat he took.

"What Ismay himself said, and what he stressed again and again and again, was that his status on the Titanic entitled him to a place in the lifeboat because, he said, he was a regular passenger on the ship," Wilson explains. "He wasn't a member of the crew. The crew, like the captain, [was] expected to go down with the ship, and this is really what the inquiries focused on: How could he have been a passenger when he didn't pay for his ticket?"

Villains Of The Titanic

The tragedy and the investigations that followed destroyed Ismay's reputation. Wilson says she didn't quite grasp what the Titanic did to Ismay's name until she started reading newspapers from the time.

"He was absolutely loathed in America," she says. "What seemed to happen with Ismay is that the fantastically complicated story of the Titanic was simplified into a kind of pantomime of one villain and a lot of heroes."

But Ismay wasn't the only villain. The British Board of Trade had originally said the Titanic could carry even fewer lifeboats than it had onboard.

"When Ismay said, 'OK, let's not have 48 lifeboats, let's go to sea with 20 lifeboats,' the British Board of Trade requirement was 16 lifeboats," Wilson says. "So Ismay was in excess of those. And so, in a sense, the British Board of Trade [was] the bigger [villain]."

Frances Wilson is also the author of The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth, winner of the British Academy Rose Mary Crawshay Prize.
Jonathan Ring

Frances Wilson is also the author of The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth,winner of the British Academy Rose Mary Crawshay Prize.

The 'Difference Between Surviving And Living'

How to Survive the Titanic started out as a book about the parallels between writer Joseph Conrad and the great ship. According to Wilson, those parallels include the fact that the original manuscript of Conrad's short story "Karain" went down with the Titanic, and that Conrad had written a detailed account of Ismay's fall 12 years before it even happened in the novel Lord Jim, about an Englishman who jumps from a sinking ship into a lifeboat.

"He's a member of the crew on this ship and is then seen as this scapegoat for that scandalous experience," Wilson says, "and Lord Jim tries to find a way of living with the acute consciousness of lost honor."

So, too, does Ismay — though not very successfully. Wilson says that while other survivors could eventually find a way to move on from the tragedy, Ismay and his family simply couldn't. His wife went so far as to ban any conversation about the Titanic from taking place in Ismay's presence, but Ismay still had a lot to say about it. So instead of confiding in his family, he turned to another survivor, Marian Thayer, an American who had lost her husband when the ship went down.

"[Thayer] wrote to [Ismay] gentle, forgiving letters and Ismay just poured his heart out to her," Wilson says. "So as his marriage was crumbling in England in the year after the Titanic went down, he was becoming more and more and more emotionally dependent on Marian Thayer."

In his letters, Ismay admits to suicidal thoughts and a feeling of blamelessness with regard to tragedy. Wilson describes his correspondence as extremely self-pitying, as though he were trying to boil down the story of the Titanic to a tragedy of one man.

"On the one hand they're love letters, and on the other hand they're pathetic and infantile kind of self-absorbed letters," she says. "At one point, he says to her, 'Gosh, can you imagine what would have happened to us had the ship not gone and hit the iceberg?' "

Eventually, Thayer stopped replying to his letters and Ismay was, again, silenced. He died 24 years after the Titanic went down, at his house in London.

"He never picked up his life again," Wilson says. "There's a difference between surviving and living — and Ismay was a survivor."

About the most reviled man of his times in America by Titanic Nation.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

J. Bruce Ismay

John Bruce, Ismay has received a lot of criticism over the past decades. Why? Because he got into a lifeboat when there were still women and children aboard. But is there any just foundation for this serious criticism? We'll look at the two sides of the story, 1. reasons for staying aboard, 2. reasons for getting on a lifeboat! Now this will be rather hard for me, since I already have an opinion of Ismay, but I will try to not let that come through..... you decide for yourself what he should have done!

1. First we'll look at the reasons that J. B. Ismay should have stayed aboard the sinking Titanic!
After the Titanic collided with an iceberg at about 11:45, it did not take long for John E. Smith to figure out there was not enough places for all the men, women and children in the lifeboats. So he gave the well known order, "women and children first." Now, did the Captain mean that there was no men to be allowed in the lifeboats? NO! The lifeboats needed officers, and sailors to make sure they were operated safely, and correctly. It was the spirit of the order that counted, if you did not have a legitimate reason for getting in a lifeboat, you had no place in one. Some fantastic men of measure did get off in a lifeboat, such as Harold Bride the wireless operator, Lightoller the Titanic's Second Officer, Archibald Gracie, Jack Thayer, and the list could go on.
Whats noticeable about these men, is they did not receive the criticism that Bruce, Ismay did, why is that?
Did Ismay have a responsibility to stay with the Titanic till she sank beneath the waves, like the Captain did? Lets look at some things that took place years earlier..... When the Titanic was still on blueprints the planning of how many lifeboats the Titanic would carry came up. The Titanic's designer at the time Andrew, Carlyle was pushing for 48 lifeboats which would have been enough for everyone one on board in case of a disaster. But there was one man standing in his way, John B. Ismay! When the rubber met the road Ismay said no, for various reasons. But when you get to the night of April 14, 1912 its a different story. Because of his choice, it puts him under some obligation to stay aboard and take whatever comes.
Here's possibly another reason that he should have stayed aboard. J. B. Ismay owned the White Star Line, which means he owned the Titanic. If a person owns something that is used for the public, and if fails in some way, and death follows, or injury, it seems that whoever owns it should take whatever other had to take as well. He was responsible for the passengers as well!
I guess one more thing that should have binded him to the Titanic it time of trouble, is the fact that there were still women and children on board, and he owed them all the safety that was in his power as a man. By giving up a spot in a lifeboat, and doing the courteous thing, and not to mention the polite thing!

2. It wouldn't be fair to explain one side of the story, so we'll make an argument for the opposite side. In this kind of situation we have to be fair, because Ismay is no longer around to speak for himself!
J. B. Ismay claims that there were no women in sight, and there are witness to back up the fact. Since that being true why should he stay on a sinking ship and face certain death? And if there was no women sight was he really breaking a rule? I think that if your standing on the side of a sinking ship, and there's an empty spot on a lifeboat, there are no women and children about, would we have the fortitude to remain on the ship? There are a lot of questions that come into play here, and what it comes down to is, was he doing something really out of the ordinary?
Why should he stay on a sinking ship if he could get off, and go back to his family, we can't really say that he had motives of the baser sort. He was the managing director of the White Star Line, he had a lot of responsibly back on shore.
Was there really a need to end his short life, just to make a name for himself?
And after all, you can't blame the entire construction of the ship on him, Thomas, Andrews obviously didn't have a problem with 20 lifeboats!
Just because countless men stayed aboard, doesn't mean that Ismay did if a opportunity presented himself.
To call this man a coward just because he got off a sinking ship, doesn't seem right! What would you have done in his position?