News Column

100 Years Later, Titanic Disaster Still Captivates

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It will be a night to remember. To remember a night the world can't forget.

Dressed to the 1912s, ladies in elegant gowns with beading and lace -- constructed for the occasion by members of the Greater Bay Area Costumers Guild -- will mingle with gentlemen in black ties and tails, dancing beneath crystal chandeliers in Oakland's historic Bellevue Club on the shores of Lake Merritt. The aroma of Consomme Olga and poached salmon in mousseline sauce -- offerings derived from the original R.M.S. Titanic's first-class menus -- will add to the haze of nostalgia as the Pacific Coast Ragtime Orchestra plays along.

It's a landlubber's re-creation of the "Last Dinner on the Titanic," and while the atmosphere promises to be buoyant at this sold-out April 14 event, it all rides on a somber undercurrent: commemorating that night 100 years ago -- April 14, 1912 -- when the great "unsinkable" luxury liner sideswiped an iceberg on its maiden North Atlantic crossing from England to New York, quickly slipping beneath the waves and into eternal legend with 1,500 souls in tow.

As the fateful anniversary approaches, the deep fascination with the Titanic -- whether romantic, nautical, historical, commercial or merely morbid -- continues to swell in the world's collective consciousness as an epic tale that included issues of social class, the hubris of technology, the danger of the sea, the romance of treasure hunts decades later. And perhaps there are lessons

to be learned.

Our obsession is made clear by the sheer quantity of commemorative events scheduled during the month, here and around the world.

At the Fairmont in San Jose, executive chef Daniel Maurice will also re-create a "Last Dinner" 10-course meal from the Titanic's menu. In San Mateo, Period Events & Entertainments Re-Creation Society (PEERS), will hold a costume ball at the Masonic Lodge. And in San Francisco, the Vintage Days historical re-creation group will tour early 1900s buildings, hold a costumed dinner at the Hotel Whitcomb, lay wreaths out at Sutro Baths and read aloud the survivor's tale of San Francisco banker Washington Dodge.

But that's just -- dare we say -- the tip of the iceberg.

Going global

At least two weeklong memorial cruises to the site of the disaster are planned with price tags in the thousands. Artifacts recovered from the wreck will be up for auction in New York and the UK. In Halifax, Nova Scotia -- the closest major port to the disaster and the final resting place of many of the passengers -- there will be concerts, museum shows and special tours.

There are commemorative coins. A line of jewelry. New exhibits. New documentaries. A Titanic app is available with rare archive footage and survivor reports. And, of course, there's a Twitter account, @TitanicRealTime, offering "live" tweets as if coming from those aboard the ship.

Let's not forget the movies. The 1953 version of "Titanic" starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck will be released on Blu-ray this month. But the one that really put the disaster on the map of modern consciousness was James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster "Titanic" with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. It grossed $1.8 billion worldwide, left us humming Celine Dion's haunting "My Heart Will Go On" and inspired a resurgence of Edwardian styles for weddings everywhere.

The film will be rereleased Wednesday in an $18 million 3-D conversion. Cameron said in a recent TV interview that he realized a 3-D version is a marketing hook, but he would have shot the film in 3-D originally if the technology had been available.

"The Titanic disaster is an interesting phenomenon, said Lynn Cullivan of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. "There have been other major disasters, maritime and otherwise, more loss of life. But people really connect with this."

Cullivan suggests the intense interest involves the supposed unsinkability factor. "And there were famous people aboard," he said. "It's always a big deal when celebrities die."

But there's something more, he added. "Many family histories are directly related to ships, whether ancestors crossed the Atlantic or family members worked on boats, and our maritime heritage is deeply coded into American culture, whether we realize it or not."

Indeed, the great floating city had it all. The ultimate in opulence. The latest technological advances. Pride and prejudice, swallowed up by the sea. Famous passengers, such as American millionaires John Jacob Astor IV and Benjamin Guggenheim, and poor immigrants down in steerage. Conspiracy theories. Eternally unanswered questions. Could Captain Edward Smith have somehow saved the ship? Were there design flaws? Why so few lifeboats for such a large craft?

"It's a bad pun, but the Titanic disaster creates a "perfect storm" in popular American memory. There's something for almost everyone -- the drama, the glamour, the ego, the danger and perhaps lessons learned, and add to this the presence of a blockbuster movie, and ... " said professor Patricia Hill, head of the history department at San Jose State. "On perhaps a deeper level, the sinking of the Titanic appeals to a human tendency to caution against hubris. Wars 'to end all war,' ships that cannot be sunk and so on, serve as cultural reminders of human fallibility and are used as cautionary tales."

The disaster has been romanticized in more than 1,000 books, countless articles and documentaries, and at least 17 movies. And critics charge the continuing commercialism through popular films, sales of artifacts and pricey memorial cruises serve as mere exploitation of the tragedy. Even organizers of the Bay Area events have received complaints but point out they're not selling kitschy T-shirts. They're re-creating an era in a tasteful manner.

Parallels with today

"Organizing events around historic tragedies has been going on for many years in San Francisco, such as recognizing the great quake," said Jeanavive Janssen, of The Vintage Days. "It is important to have living history events to show where we have been and, of course, show how the past isn't so distant."

She says examining the story of Titanic even reveals parallels with today. "The class struggle, the rich people versus the poor. It echoes in the Occupy movement of today. And even with all our technology, we still have shipwrecks," she said, noting the January incident when the Costa Concordia cruise ship ran aground off the coast of Italy.

"We're commemorating one of the most romantic yet tragic things to have happened in the world's history," said Deborah Borlase, of Sunnyvale, president of the costumers guild, which is hosting the Bellevue ball. "It's a celebration of that luxury, the elegance of that era, that time gone by. And it's about the people -- the arrogance of the management, overconfidence about the ship's design. The wealthy and the poor alike who drowned. It's an astonishing story."

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