THE UNSINKABLE flagship of Harvard University’s vast library system, the Widener Library, is named after Harry Elkins Widener, class of 1907, who drowned on a ship once thought unsinkable, the Titanic, 100 years ago this month.
There is what amounts to a shrine for Widener, up the broad staircase when you enter the building. There is his private book collection, and his portrait over the mantelpiece. And just outside in a glass case, aging copies of The Boston Globe are on display: “Titanic Sinks 1500 Die.’’
Widener embodied the noblest legend surrounding what was arguably history’s most famous shipwreck. Standing next to his father - presumably dressed in a dinner jacket - he put his mother with other women and children safely in a lifeboat, and then stepped back to manfully meet his fate on that long-ago April night.
Widener’s widowed mother donated his books to his college, with enough money to build a library as handsome and imposing in its way as the Titanic itself.
Not everybody behaved well that fateful night. There were some ugly scenes. Bruce Ismay, head of the White Star Line that owned Titanic, ignominiously scuttled into a lifeboat early on, earning him shame and opprobrium ever after. But the spirit of noblesse oblige held sway in those days, and Widener was not alone among the many rich and powerful who stepped back from the boats so that the gentler and fairer sex could board first.
The Titanic’s master and commander, Captain Edward Smith, was last seen standing on his bridge going down with his ship.
How different it is today. The latest big passenger ship to founder was the Costa Concordia off an Italian isle, not quite 100 days short of Titanic’s 100 year anniversary. The captain, Francesco Schettino, did not remain on the bridge. He claims to have fallen into a life boat, a claim that has earned him scorn and derision. The world heard recordings of the Italian Coast Guard demanding he return to his post, but to no avail.
There seem to have been few Harry Widener-like scenes of stoicism, discipline, and sacrifice. A Costa Condordia passenger, Irina Florea, told the Financial Times that “nobody was letting children go first, so I was pushing people around to let the kids get on.’’
Once in the life boat, according to Florea, no one in the crew knew how to start the engine. “People had fainted in the lifeboat. It was hell with people yelling.’’ A crewman told the Financial Times that “not all officers were in the position they were supposed to be.’’ That there were comparatively few people lost on the Costa Concordia is due only to the fact that the ship capsized but did not sink completely.
There is a ghostly connection between Titanic and Costa Concordia. The White Star Line merged with Cunard, now owner of Miami-based Carnival Corporation, which in turn owns Costa Concordia.
Tradition may no longer demand that captains go down with their ships, only that they stay on board to keep order. But it wouldn’t appear the fairer sex got the same consideration on Costa Concordia as they did on Titanic.
In this age when women serve as soldiers in combat and as sailors on ships, what if the next ship to founder is captained by a woman? Clearly she would not be expected to get on the first lifeboat.
The question was raised a hundred years ago when suffragettes, demonstrating for voting rights, were bringing women’s rights to the fore. The Titanic sinking raised a “votes or boats’’ controversy, questioning whether chivalry on sinking ships was just another form of male chauvinism.
The tradition of women and children going first was to ensure that the weak were not shoved aside by the strong. Today, when cruise ships are so popular with senior citizens, and when women are no longer considered weak and delicate, should age and infirmity be the criteria, not gender?
Should the new rule of the sea be “oldsters and children first?’’ Or have all the old courtesies of the sea vanished along with Harry Widener and the last survivors of the Titanic?
H.D.S. Greenway’s column appears regularly in the Globe.