The iceberg hit by the Titanic 100 years ago this Saturday didn't only fracture the great ship’s hull and spell doom for two-thirds of those aboard, it also fractured the comfort of the Edwardian Era, which then was shattered completely just two years later by the start of the First World War.
Named for the king who succeeded Queen Victoria on the British throne, the Edwardian period is marked in the public imagination today as a time of leisure for the wealthy and rapid technological innovation. Both notions are accurate, but they leave out the plight of the poor, who mostly worked ungodly hours in conditions that would be illegal today, and had yet to benefit from most of the era’s inventions.
The Titanic, with its opulent first-class staterooms above and infamous third-class steerage accommodations below, reflected the divide perfectly. And when the ship was mortally wounded at 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912, class played a major role in who survived and who didn’t. More than 1,500 people died as the Titanic broke apart and sank two hours later, but as per the values of the day, 97 percent of women in first-class lived, while 87 percent of men in third-class did not.
But two weeks from now they will all be remembered, rich and poor, famous and unknown, in a unique event to be held in the heart of Queens — one that also will pay homage to the romantic Edwardian Era itself.
The setting will be an Edwardian high tea, given by the Richmond Hill Historical Society and sponsored by the Friends of Maple Grove Cemetery, in honor of the Titanic’s centenary. It will be held at the cemetery’s Celebration Hall.
Attendees will not only get to enjoy a nostalgic afternoon in their best Edwardian finery, they’ll also get to look at much memorabilia related to the tragedy, including books, actual props from the 1997 Oscar-winning film “Titanic,” autographed photos of the movie’s stars and an authorized reproduction of the fictional Heart of the Ocean, the great jewel that also played such a major role in director James Cameron’s masterpiece.
One unusual item that will be shown is an ushabti, a statuette believed to hold magical powers in ancient Egypt (King Tut was buried with 365 of them, one for every day of the year). An ushabti much like the one that will be displayed was carried during the Titanic’s only voyage by possibly its most famous survivor, the “unsinkable” Molly Brown.
A world-renowned musician, Cecilia Brauer of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, will perform the movie’s theme during the tea, as well as a hymn believed to be the last or second to last tune performed by the Titanic’s band as it famously played on while the ship foundered. She will play them on the glass armonica, a rare, historical instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin.
There will also be a couple of items making the admittedly tenuous link between the Titanic and Queens: an entry from a Richmond Hill woman’s diary in which she speaks of hearing about the tragedy, and photos of a wealthy area family whose lithography company lost valuable items that were in the ship’s hold.
[Two people who died aboard the Titanic are buried in Queens; see separate story in most editions, or at qchron.com.]
The one actual artifact from the disaster that will be on display is a piece of coal retrieved from the sea floor after the ship’s carcass was discovered in 1985.
None of what will be enjoyed during the event is to make light of what happened on that long ago Night to Remember, however. Carl Ballenas, president of the Friends of Maple Grove, says the event is designed more to honor the ancient Egyptian proverb carved on the wall of Celebration Hall.
“To say the name of the dead is to give them life again,” it reads.
“There were 2,000 people on that ship, and so for the brief time that we’re ‘saying their names,’ we’re honoring them,” said Ballenas, a history teacher who has always been fascinated by the Titanic and owns most of the items that will be displayed. “It’s a commemoration, not a celebration. We’re remembering what happened to all those people.”
Helen Day, the RHHS vice president, who organized the event, agreed.
“We thought it would be nice to highlight the fact that it’s the 100th anniversary of the Titanic, although it’s a horrible tragedy,” Day said. “It certainly was a horrific incident of the day, and to everyone who heard about it, whether they were connected to it or not, it was a great tragedy.”
As Richmond Hill resident Ella Flanders wrote in her diary on April 15, 1912: “Terrible news in the papers, the new White Star liner, The Titanic, the largest ship in the world, struck an iceberg off Newfoundland and badly injured in the night. Wireless news indefinite. Ships going to rescue, fear it might sink.”
The news, of course, only got worse from there, 100 years ago this week.
When: 2 to 4 p.m., Sunday, April 29
Where: The Center at Maple Grove, 127-15 Kew Gardens Road, Kew Gardens
Tickets: $25; $20 for Richmond Hill Historical Society members