'How To Survive The Titanic,' And Sink Your Reputation In 1912, J. Bruce Ismay was one of the most hated men in America: He owned the Titanic; gave the ship just 20 lifeboats; and — unlike so many — lived through its maiden voyage. Frances Wilson tracks the scandal of Ismay's survival in How to Survive the Titanic.
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'How To Survive The Titanic,' And Sink Your Name

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

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

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This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

I suppose that J. Bruce Ismay shouldn't be mentioned in the same breath as any of the true criminals and mass murderers of the 20th century. For many years, he might've been the most universally despised man in the Western world.

J. Bruce Ismay was the proud owner of the Titanic. He's been portrayed in numerous books and movies.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as J. Bruce Ismay) We have here the largest, most beautiful and technically perfect ship in the history of mankind. We're not going to need lifeboats.

SIMON: But they were and J. Bruce Ismay jumped into one of the last lifeboats to leave and lived. By the time the Titanic survivors reached New York, he was probably the most reviled man on Earth. Frances Wilson, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, has written a book that tries to explain the man reviled by so many, "How to Survive the Titanic or The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay." She joins us from London.

Thanks for being with us.

FRANCES WILSON: My pleasure.

SIMON: How did, in fact, he wind up in a boat with survivors?

WILSON: Well, there are many different versions of Ismay's leaving the Titanic. What Ismay himself said was that he helped to load eight lifeboats on the starboard side of the ship. And then when the deck was clear, when he could see nobody else, and the second to last lifeboat - he called it the last, but it was actually the second to last - was leaving the starboard side of the ship, there was an empty place in it and he jumped in.

Everyone who survived who was then called as a witness to the subsequent inquires into Titanic in New York and Washington and in London was asked firstly to account for their own survival and secondly to account for Ismay's survival. They were all asked, Did you see Mr. Ismay, what was he doing? How was he behaving?

SIMON: Nobody testified that he pushed anyone out. We should understand that, right?

WILSON: No. That's right. Nobody testified that he pushed anyone out. 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 a lifeboat because, he said, he was a regular passenger on the ship. He wasn't a member of the crew.

The crew, like the captain, were expected to go down with the ship. And is really what the inquiries focused on. How could he have been a passenger when he didn't pay for his ticket?

SIMON: Even in this day of instant vilification and media channels, can we understand how intensely unpopular J. Bruce Ismay was?

WILSON: You know, it's a difficult one. I hadn't quite got the measure of how unpopular he was when I started this book. And I was interested in writing about him because I was interested in how you lived with that kind of conscience. And then I sort of started to read the newspaper reports and he was absolutely loathed in America.

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. And so...

SIMON: The guy who said, yeah, you don't need that many lifeboats. And how do you pick up a life after that?

WILSON: Well, you can't. I mean, there's a difference between surviving and living. And Ismay was a survivor. And he never picked his life up again. I mean, I think other survivors could start again at some point. I don't think very easily. Ismay certainly couldn't. And his family certainly couldn't.

His wife made the fatal error - she thought it was a reasonable thing to suggest that the word Titanic was never mentioned ever in their family again. Never mentioned in his presence.

What Ismay did do was to confide in another survivor. And this is an American woman called Marian Thayer, whose husband, who'd been the vice president of the Philadelphia Railroad, had gone down on the ship. And she wrote to him gentle, forgiving letters. And Ismay just poured his heart out to her.

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 and sending these letters to her in Philadelphia. And so what's really interesting about these letters is that on the one hand they're love letters, and on the other hand they're pathetic and infantile kind of self-absorbed letters.

And at one point, he says to her: Gosh, can you imagine what would've happened to us had the ship not gone and hit the iceberg?

SIMON: I don't want to give away your last beautifully crafted chapter, but you observed toward the end of it, Ismay is the figure we all fear we might be.

WILSON: I felt that we'd seen Ismay before. There was something very, very familiar about him. The story of Ismay and the Titanic's a bit Noah's Ark, you know. There's a man who built a ship and just wants to save himself and no one else. Or it's the story of Frankenstein, of the doctor creating the monster who in the end destroys him.

We've all had our personal Titanics. We've all had those moments where we really have not shone. And we've had to live through and block it out and try to face some kind of future knowing that we've missed an opportunity to be bigger and better than we were. And in that sense, I think, you know, Ismay is everyman. Ismay is one of us.

SIMON: Frances Wilson in London. Her new book, "How to Survive the Titanic: Or the Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay." Thanks very much for being with us.

WILSON: Thank you very much.

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