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Author Walter Lord Is Still Sailing the Titanic

September 17, 1987|KEN RINGLE | The Washington Post

Walter Lord was into the Titanic before he was born.

His grandfather, a Baltimore business baron with steel, railroad and shipping interests, was a friend of the ship's captain, Edward J. Smith, and sent Lord's mother to sea once under Smith's care to make up her mind about a marriage proposal.

"I don't remember whether it was my father's proposal or somebody else's," Lord mused not long ago, the summer sun heliographing off his eyeglasses like an SOS. "But she made her decision, whatever it was, the first night out."

An Early Fascination

Her story was a staple of family lore, he remembers, as were tales, both cautionary and heroic, of the icy, starry night in 1912 when Smith and his great ship went down. Lord made his first Atlantic crossing 14 years later, at age 7, on the White Star liner Olympic--quite conscious even then, he recalls, that the Olympic was the Titanic's sister ship. At 8 he started a scrapbook about the Titanic and, in a way, he has been sailing with it ever since.

He exhumed old newspaper clippings on the Titanic in the Princeton library as an undergraduate and read transcripts of the U.S. investigation into the sinking during law school at Yale. Finally, in 1953--while he was working as an advertising copywriter on the Aqua Velva account at J. Walter Thompson--an editor friend advised him, since he was always talking about the Titanic, to write a book about it.

The result, a year later, was "A Night to Remember," the first and still the best telling of the Titanic's history. Thirty-three years, 54 printings (nine in hard back) and millions of copies later, "Night" is still selling well, refueled (if refueling were needed) by discovery of the liner's shattered hull two years ago.

The Story Continues

The book has never been out of print. It has been made into a movie (in 1958, starring Kenneth More). And last year, after three decades of correspondence with Titanic survivors and buffs, rethinking some old theories and unearthing new facts, Lord came out with a sequel, "The Night Continues," updating the Titanic story. That book's gone through six printings, sold 60,000 hardback copies and is coming out in paperback next month. He's also written the forward to Dr. Robert Ballard's book about the Titanic's discovery, due out next month as well.

The Titanic, it seems, won't let Lord go--after a lifetime with his subject, he finds the legendary ship "intriguing still." Despite the weight of 68 years and the debilitating effects of Parkinson's disease, he took to the phone this summer with the enthusiasm of a teen-ager, pressing for the latest details of the current French expedition to the wreck.

He was against salvaging artifacts "as a matter of propriety," he said. "It's a question of taste, and like (Supreme Court) Justice Potter Stewart with obscenity, I know it when I see it. Excavating Pompeii is one thing, this is another. It's just too soon. I don't know where the line is, but this isn't it."

Still Captivated

Nevertheless, he remains captivated by the expedition, puzzling over the satchel of jewels recovered, volunteering pictures from his own collection or, best of all, images from the magic lantern of his mind.

"Actually, I just heard a wonderful new story that's not in either book," he says. "There was a Mr. and Mrs. Walter Clark among the first-class passengers. He was in the smoking room playing cards that night. She was in their cabin. When the Titanic hit the iceberg, he didn't give it much notice. Kept on playing cards. But she felt it was serious. Came out of the cabin and learned the ship was sinking. She went to the smoking room to warn him but she wouldn't go in! The smoking room was a male refuge--inviolate. It was unthinkable for a woman to enter. Even with the ship sinking! She stood outside waving until she caught his attention through the door."

He pauses, marveling at the deadly quaintness of that vanished age. "Think what that says about them. . . . all they went through. . . ."

Lord lives and breathes those images of history; he's an almost-Victorian bachelor who can recoil gently at the "pretty rough language" in modern novels while simultaneously enthusing about the "wonderful turbulence" of Manhattan.

He lives alone in a file-filled apartment at 68th Street and Lexington Avenue, shunning the electronic seductions of the word processor to scribble his books in pencil on yellow legal pads from 9:45 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. His schedule would send most younger, able-bodied writers into therapy, but Lord laughs off any suggestion that his daily efforts are in any way remarkable. "I enjoy it," he says, and anyway it only amounts to about 10 hours. "I find I'm cheating and starting closer to 10 these days . . . and I take a good break and go out for lunch and dinner, preferably with somebody."

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