Editor’s Note: Former Palm Beach Post writer Scott Eyman once met a survivor of the Titanic. Here are his memories of her, which he originally wrote about in 2012, on the 100th anniversary of the luxury liner striking an iceberg on April 14, 1912 and sinking the next day.
When some people think of the Titanic, they think of James Cameron, or an anorexic singer shrieking a title song, or the fake headline from The Onion (“World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Iceberg!”).
Some people even think of a definitive clash of cymbals marking the end of the Belle Epoque. After all, Archduke Ferdinand hadn’t yet been assassinated at Sarajevo, and an entire generation of English gentlemen hadn’t as yet been converted into compost at Verdun.
But when I think of the Titanic, I think of Mrs. Marjorie Robb.
In 1981, I traveled to Massachusetts to interview her. Mrs. Robb had been 23 years old and traveling on the Titanic when the ship went down. Her memories were all the more vivid because she had never spoken of them. It was too terrible, too traumatic, and it had taken her more than 70 years to process the pain.
The house was well-tended, as was Mrs. Robb. There were lace doilies on the tables. Mrs. Robb’s maiden name was Newell, and her father, A.W. Newell, was chairman of the board of the Fourth National Bank of Lexington.
She and her sister were in their cabin when they heard a grinding noise, a terrible vibration. Soon after the noise, there was a knock at the door. It was her father.
“Put on warm clothing and come quickly to the upper deck,” he said.
“We obeyed,” she said. “We always obeyed Father.”
Several minutes later, the Newell sisters arrived on deck. There was no moon that night, but through the thickish fog that surrounded the ship, it could be seen that the sky was full of stars. She remembered that the water was perfectly clear, perfectly smooth.
On the starboard well deck, near the foremast, lay several tons of ice that had been shaved off the iceberg by the collision.
“When we arrived on the top, there were really very few passengers about; I believe we were among the first. And it was quiet; everybody was so stunned and frightened that hardly anybody was speaking at all.”
She returned to that eerie silence several times as we spoke — she remembered very little yelling and screaming.
Her father placed her and her sister in lifeboat No. 6. “I believe we were in the second boat to be lowered. The ship was listing rather badly and we were at a great height. The boat we were on had only one boatman. There were no supplies and everything was ill-prepared. My father said, ‘It seems more dangerous for you to get in that boat than to stay here,’ but he hustled us into the boat anyway. Father stood there just as stately and calm as if he were in his living room.
“We were lowered. Most of the people in the boat were women and they were very frightened; nobody was saying anything. I thought to myself, ‘You have to help where you can,’ so I took hold of an oar and rowed and rowed. I was young then and strong.
“We got a distance away and we could see the ship was listing very badly; people were in the water, gasping and yelling for help; one rocket after another was going up.
“I can remember, to this day, the noise the ship made as it went under,” said Mrs. Robb, trying hard to maintain her composure. “You could actually feel the noise, the vibrations, and the screams of the people, and the sounds of the ship.
“I don’t really know what happened on board after we left. People have asked me if the ship’s orchestra was playing Nearer My God to Thee as the legend has it, but I don’t think so. I know I didn’t hear it, but that may be because we were far away by that time, as far away as we could get.”
What I particularly remember about Mrs. Robb was how the disaster had, in some primary way, blighted her life. She married, had four children, taught school.
But what happened on board the ship after she got in the lifeboat was lost to Mrs. Robb and to history, because her father went down on that ship, and Mrs. Robb had spent her life mourning his loss. As far as she was concerned, the loss of her father was far more important than any metaphor.
The sinking of the Titanic was the equivalent of a war, a 24/7 story, headline news for months, years, and it has kept going within each succeeding generation, as the unsinkable ship that sank on its maiden voyage became a representation of the general theory that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.
It was a containable disaster, with a clear cause and an even clearer effect, and it seamlessly embodied the entire known cultural universe: Americans and English, socialites and steamfitters, hubris and humiliation, all thrown together on a ship of fools and heroes, drifting in the frigid North Atlantic in an insufficient number of lifeboats.
Today, we expect things to go wrong and are pleasantly surprised when they don’t. We distrust institutions, and we distrust each other. In 1912, the world was shocked and stunned at the sinking of the Titanic; if the same thing happened today, the reaction would be outrage, but not shock. Our expectations are lower, as is our belief.
Why has the tragedy of the Titanic been kept alive?
Since 1912, there have been, by actual count, 650 books published about the disaster — an awful lot of print spilled over a single shipwreck. Ninety eight books have been published in the past year alone. There was even a song, with the memorable refrain, “Setting out to win her fame, Titanic was her name/Many passengers and her crew/ went down with that Old Canoe.”
But books reach a comparatively small audience; for the masses, what you want are movies, and each generation has had a pretty good movie made about it, the most recent being James Cameron’s Titanic. Cameron writes reliably terrible dialogue, but there have been only a couple of directors with an equivalent epic sensibility; his Titanic has a grandeur that only the movies can deliver, and then only fitfully.
The legend of the Titanic spread all over the world in a cultural diaspora, just as its survivors did. Palm Beach had its own survivor in John Ryerson, who lived on Seabreeze Avenue and died in 1986. Ryerson was 13 years old that night, and his father was a retired lawyer. The family was returning from Southampton because his brother had been killed in a car accident in England and the family had gone over to see to the burial.
1912 was a very bad year for the Ryersons.
That night, the family was in their cabin when a steward knocked on the door about 1 a.m. “We all got dressed and went on deck where there was a lot of noise and confusion,” he told a reporter for The Palm Beach Post. “We were on one of the last lifeboats to be lowered. Distress rockets were being set off which lit up the skies.”
Arthur Ryerson helped put women and children in the lifeboats, then went down with the ship.
As with Mrs. Robb, the experience clearly lacked nostalgia for Ryerson. Neither of them was prone to assigning great historical significance to the event, which is what society invariably does as a distancing mechanism, so as to convert something wrenching and violent to something meaningful, hence worthwhile.
As far as Mrs. Robb and Mr. Ryerson were concerned, the Titanic cost them their fathers, which cost them their security.
Two weeks after the Titanic sank, the body of A.W. Newell washed up on a beach in Newfoundland. He was identified by a ring he wore.
“The irony of it all is so striking,” said his daughter. “The unsinkable ship, all the money that those men had that was of no use to them at all.”
Two thousand two hundred and twenty-three people set sail on the Titanic. Only about 700 survived.
Marjorie Newell Robb died in her sleep at the age of 103.
Today, I will be thinking of Mrs. Robb, for all sorts of reasons, foremost among them this: The ring that her father wore, the ring that identified his body, carried a carving of Neptune, King of the Sea.