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Titanic: Why It Still Matters

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The terribly ironic thing about Titanic, the great luxury liner that sank a century ago, is its endurance. The ship itself hardly endured in the temporal world: it was built in Belfast, picked up passengers in England, France and then back in Ireland -- and then it was gone. Yet it is still very much with us a century on.

The White Star Line was in competition with Cunard and others, and so Titanic and its sister ships had to be the biggest, the best, the most luxurious -- and of course, indestructible. White Star had made its bargain (gymnasiums, swimming pools, splendor beyond compare) and had trumpeted Titanic's arrival. All eyes were on it, and many a celebrity promenaded on its boat deck. But there's always that thing about boats and airplanes: They might sink or crash. Even before the ticket price is bartered, there must be some sort of implied guarantee. White Star implied it, and thus was set up the Grecian aspect of this grand tragedy, the hubris. Titanic was figured to be invincible, and yet it disappeared in a heartbeat. Had Titanic sunk on its third or fourth crossing of the Atlantic, the tale would -- as cruel as it sounds -- have lost much of its majesty.

Titanic was built at a juncture of the postindustrial age when something like this grandiose drama was absolutely bound to happen. In the early twentieth century, everything was rushing ahead: Cars were being built, "skyscrapers" were really scraping the skies, and ships were growing larger by the year. Regulators had not kept up. They only asked for certain number of lifeboats per ship. Some Titanic designers realized that more were needed, given the number of people aboard. But some White Star execs figured more lifeboats might disquiet the first-class passengers and also impede their view of the ocean, and so a smaller number were settled on. Were Homer himself setting up the story, he mightn't have done better.

And then the ship set sail from Southampton with a mixed bag of passengers and crew. In Cherbourg, it added many folk wearing fancy pants or frilly dresses, returning from the Grand Tour, such as the Astors, and the American philanthropist and activist Margaret (not actually called Molly) Brown. In Queenstown, Ireland, it ballasted its lower decks with immigrants.

Titanic had a thorough mix of humanity, traveling together toward whatever fate awaited. That fate, everyone figured, was a docking in New York and then continued life as financiers, artists, entrepreneurs, elevator operators, nannies, criminals or police who caught criminals. But an iceberg intervened.

Here is where the question "Why do we still care about Titanic?" gets more interesting still. Crucially, much of what you have heard about the sinking happens to be true. Titanic's end, thanks to the heroism of Carpathia and its Captain Rostron, was witnessed by hundreds of survivors. They landed in New York City, told their tales and confirmed one another's accounts. Mr. Astor did step back from the lifeboat and therefore died. Ben Guggenheim did indeed change into evening clothes and also died, along with his valet, declaring, "We've dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen." The Strausses were on deck chairs, holding hands when a wave swept them overboard. Officers of the ship did fire pistols to keep men from boarding lifeboats ahead of women and children.

The media's Titanic story has three chapters. When Carpathia docked in Manhattan, the press was 10 deep to get the first accounts of this almost biblical tale. Had the ship docked in Boston or Halifax, the initial hubbub might have been less. But in New York, already a news capital, the Titanic story was an instant media sensation, huge and irresistible. The official American and British inquiries dragged on, Watergate-style, throwing off heroes and villains on a daily basis. A young silent-screen star, Dorothy Gibson, had been onboard the ship, and the first of many Titanic film blockbusters hit the theaters within weeks. She was the star, of course, and on screen she was frocked in the same coat she had worn when she boarded the lifeboat.

Titanic didn't entirely fade from view in the next few decades, but its story was overshadowed by World Wars I and II, the Great Depression and other events. Then, in 1955, Walter Lord published his nonfiction book A Night to Remember. He had become obsessed with what Titanic seemed to mean and what its demise said about human aspiration, and he had poured himself into his effort, interviewing more than 60 survivors and creating a tick tock account that has informed all subsequent tellings. In his book and then in the 1958 film of the same name, Lord established the eternal heart of the Titanic story: that for all the class distinctions existing in 1912, rigidly symbolized and enforced by the segregated decks of the Titanic, when this mass of people stared death in the face it behaved, for the most part, with nobility.

Nearly 40 years after writing his book, Lord consulted on the production of James Cameron's film. The continuity is important. Titanic had from the first all the elements of an epic story. But for the whole of it to matter a century on, the elements needed to be consistent and believable. Without truth, there was no moral to the story. Titanic went down in a way and at a time in human development when someone -- God? -- might seem to be sending a message. Such stories are eternal. They endure in a way no manmade thing ever can or will.

Robert Sullivan is the Managing Editor of LIFE Books. Titanic: The Tragedy That Shook the World -- One Century Later is just being published.