Sunday, March 30, 2014

Would You Rather: Titanic Edition

I just returned from the Titanic Dinner, an epic recreation of the first class meal served on the night the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and went down.  That 13 course dinner in-and-of-itself deserves a blog post, but I don't believe my palette is so well defined as to do it justice.  If I may sum up: I ate a lot, and had a great time.

Part of the fun is museum that accompanies the dinner.  The story of the Titanic resonates, even without Jack and Rose.  That ship epitomized an age of wealth and optimism.  It embodied the idea that man could control and shape their own destiny, that the old rules didn't apply.  Hence: the unsinkable ship.

Ultimately though, its a story of man's limitations and mortality, and a warning against hubris. (Spoilers ahead)   Of course, the Titanic did sink.  And while a million fascinating stories survive from that fateful night, the tale of Bruce Ismay fascinates me.

J. Bruce Ismay.jpeg
A man of impeccable mustache
Bruce was the managing director of the White Star Line.  He inherited his daddy's company, and by all accounts did quite well.  The Titanic was his dream child, a ship of unparallelled size and luxury that would dwarf the Lusitania and Mauretania of the rival Cunard Line to shame.  Indeed, many witnesses recount him urging the Titanic's captain to increase his speed, in hopes of notching a record trans-Atlantic crossing time.

When the Titanic hit that iceberg, Bruce encountered a difficult dilemma.  You're a rich gentleman in the prime of your life.  There aren't enough lifeboats for everybody.  What do you do?

Use your status and power to secure yourself a seat, knowing you'll forever be called a coward?

Or perish, sacrificing your life that women and children might live, and burnish your legacy for all eternity?

Some, like billionare Benjamin Guggenheim handled death with surprising grace.  Guggenheim put on his formal dinner attire to meet death like a gentleman, saying "No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward."

Same goes for Isidor Straus, of Macy's Department store fame.  When offered a seat on a lifeboat next to his wife, he firmly refused.  His wife then refused her seat saying "as we lived, so we will die, together."

John Jacob Astor, the richest man on board, asked for a seat and was refused.

And Bruce?  Bruce of the too-few-lifeboats and the full-speed-ahead-damn-the-icebergs?  Bruce got in.a lifeboat, the highest ranking White Star official to survive.  Some say he helped load women for an hour before taking a seat.  Some say he dressed like a woman to secure himself a seat.  The truth is likely in between.  What is for certain is this: Bruce Ismay became a villain in the American and British press.

They labelled him a coward.  They called him a brute.  His suffered cartoons and poetry, editorials and articles, all mocking his manhood.  And ridiculed and ashamed, he lived 25 years longer than all the other men I mentioned, dying finally in 1937.

So if I could ask any of those dead men anything, I'd ask, would you want to trade places with one another?  Would Ben Guggenheim trade places with Bruce Ismay?  Would Bruce trade places with Ben?

If we all must die, should one not cling to desperately to life and choose to die well?  If life is short and finite, does how people remember us after we're gone matter?  Would you pay for 25 years more of life with shame and ridicule worldwide?

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